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EDITORIAL - Russia, South Ossetia and CARICOM

Published:Monday | March 22, 2010 | 12:00 AM

European Union (EU) leaders are meeting today to fashion a response to Russia's military offensive in Georgia and Moscow's formal recognition of the independence of Georgia's two breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Caucasus may appear remote from us, but events in Georgia and their repercussions, including the posture of the EU, hold implications for Jamaica and the Caribbean. It is important, therefore, that Kingston and its partners in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) pay keen attention. For the chilling relations between Russia and the West, if not deftly managed, could descend into a prolonged freeze, perhaps even a permanent cold war. And we know the consequences of the last one of those.

More immediate for Jamaica, though, is what might happen to the price of oil if the Europeans decide to impose political and or economic sanctions against Russia, and the Kremlin retaliates with measures of its own, leading to global tensions. The likely first point of stress in such an event would be on the oil markets. Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to Western Europe. Moreover, major oil pipelines from the Caspian region traverse Georgian territory to Turkey.

High oil prices

It is remote that Moscow would ever turn off the oil but seething tension will serve to keep markets nervous and maintain oil prices high. If things deteriorate, prices would spike upwards.

Either way, it is bad news for Jamaica, which is facing an oil bill of around US$3 billion this year, even as it struggles with a worrisome currency account deficit and its impact on other macro-economic variables. Jamaica, therefore, would prefer to have lower oil prices. At current levels, the situation remains painful; an upward spiral would be debilitating.

These narrower considerations apart, it is important that the EU leaders proceed with caution and that all sides consider the legitimate concerns of the others in this conflict.

Clearly, when Mikheil Saakashvili sent his troops into South Ossetia three weeks ago, he was hoping to retake the province that broke away in the early 1990s and has been something of a Russian protectorate ever since. Russia sent its own forces, gave the Georgians a bloody nose, but went further in recognising the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russia, too, has maintained troops in some strategic areas of Georgia.

Legitimate concerns

Part of the problem, of course, is Russia's fears of encirclement by NATO, the Western military alliance, which the proposed membership by Georgia, a former Soviet republic, would bring right into its 'backyard'. It is bad enough, in the Kremlin's view, when NATO extended to former Soviet bloc states in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet republic in the Baltic. In the pragmatic world of geo-politics, these are clearly legitimate concerns, on which Saakashvili's rash action gave Moscow pretext to act.

Mr Sarkozy, the French president who now has the presidency of the EU, needs to steer today's meeting towards pragmatic ideas. Russia must be persuaded to withdraw from Georgian territory proper and its troops replaced by United Nations forces in the forward buffer zones it now occupies.

The EU created the precedence of Kosovo. We do not expect an immediate green light to independence, but it is the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia who, ultimately, have to decide. The integrity of the rest of Georgia must be guaranteed.

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