Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Small, Uneasy Georgia Praises the New France


By JOHN VINOCUR
International Herald Tribune
Published: June 18, 2007

PARIS

Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, was talking about Nicolas Sarkozy: "Things are so very different now in France," he said. "This optimism, this strong conviction. Everything is possible. Everything is open. There's something revolutionary here. It's the start of something grandiose."

For pure political rapture, not much in this register had been heard since North Korea recited anthems to Kim Il Sung, its old strongman.

Surely excessive, but certainly hopeful and sincere, Saakashvili's wild enthusiasm about Sarkozy's month-old presidency has at least a toehold in reality.

From the point of view of Georgia, a former Soviet republic of 4.6 million with both real concern for its security and ambitions to become a Western-type democracy, Sarkozy is already engineering French foreign policy away from the Chirac years' complaisant view of Russia's wanting a belt of limited-sovereignty countries at its borders.

In a conversation after he met here with Sarkozy last week, Saakashvili said that French officials once had a standard answer for almost any Georgian need or concern: "That's interesting." Now, when he asked about buying two frigates, a request previously turned down, the French response, Saakashvili said, was "Why not?"

By the standard of showing your convictions, this is not France saying "sure" to an order for patrol boats from Switzerland. Russian troops remain on Georgian territory, and Russia has banned all Georgian imports. Russia also supports independence movements in two regions Georgia regards as its own, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On top of that, the Russians hardly like the idea of Georgia's joining NATO, but Sarkozy gave the plan (which goes for Ukraine, too) a no-ifs-or-buts yes during the campaign. While Saakashvili was in Paris, approval was also granted for French assistance to the Georgian Army and police and to a plan to help Georgia in developing nuclear energy.

This, of course, is not a New French Foreign Policy, whole and articulated. That's to be determined as a vast or partial makeover of several months duration.

But in dealing with a small country that irritates Russia, the Sarkozy team turned away from approaching Georgia as if it were to be handled by tongs in a stealth operation. When he was asked by a reporter if there was any symbolism in this early-days, top-of-agenda Georgian visit, the government spokesman, David Martinon, said, unhesitatingly, "Yes."

The world was meant to notice. In Paris last week for a meeting on Kosovo, the U.S. State Department's third-ranking official, Under Secretary R. Nicholas Burns, described France these days as "breaking the mold" in positive terms on a number of issues.

Indeed, there was more. After seeing Saakashvili, Sarkozy traveled to Poland to try to ease it toward more suppleness this week at the European Union summit meeting about the EU constitution - a trip that would have been unthinkable for Chirac.

Since the failed attempt by Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, bolstered by Vladimir Putin, to align the EU in opposition to the United States at the outset of the war in Iraq, Poland (like Georgia, an eager ally of America) has been extremely wary of any changes in EU statutes that would limit its prerogatives.

Now, the tone of French policy under Sarkozy has changed so much as to make a French conciliation mission welcome. Le Monde explained that Poland's unbending stance in defending its European interests, particularly in relation to Germany, was "in part the consequence" of its earlier experience - a clear reference to the Chirac/Schröder/Putin triangle.

Sarkozy's move away from some of France's old reflexes also extends toward more existential issues involving Iran and Russia.

With other NATO countries, France joined in tacitly accepting last week the American missile shield (Ségolène Royal, for one, opposed it), whose deployment Russia regards as an intrusion into the sphere of influence it's seeking to reassert over former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.

During the election campaign, Sarkozy also made clear that he would consider additional sanctions against Iran to follow enactment of a third-round of UN Security Council measures scheduled for July. These supplemental sanctions would involve a group of countries willing to bypass the Security Council and Russia and China's potential blocking role there.

The new restrictions are described as hard enough to serve as an unmistakable warning to Iran against pursuing its nuclear drive.

With Paris presumably on board, Burns said publicly for the first time that work on these supplementary sanctions was moving forward among a group of unidentified countries.

Re-enter Saakashvili, who besides Sarkozy also saw the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, and Burns. With Georgia bordering on Russia and sharing common neighbors with Iran, Saakashvili talked about how these areas of concern run together.

Of Sarkozy and Putin, with whom he spoke two weekends ago in St. Petersburg, Saakashvili said, "They are from radically different worlds," while declining to compare them.

Instead, he focused on Sarkozy, saying, "Europe can't miss the chance to profit from his energy" and willingness to be bold.

There was a quiet admonition here. When Europe engaged in what Saakashvili said was convincing itself of its "pragmatism or realpolitik," or drifted along with "romantic and sentimental" ideas, it often wound up being weak. Showing strength and unity was its best card, he said.

This was "specially" and "particularly" true in relation to Russia, he said, adding, very reasonably, that Russia wanted and deserved the Europeans' "acceptance and respect."

On the other hand, Georgia has some immediate Russian worries. If Russia vetoes independence for Kosovo in the coming weeks or months, and the United States and the EU recognize Kosovo, Russia has threatened to recognize Abkhazia's independence.

This would violate Georgia's sovereignty and create an explosive situation. "It would be folly," said Saakashvili, this time using a phrase not so far from what U.S. officials have told the Russians.

"We have strong support from France and the United States on this," Saakashvili said. "I think the Russians have the sense of realism to deal with it. But you've got to be vigilant."

Sarkozy's France newly agrees on this, and for a small, worried country on the Black Sea, that's a real reason for satisfaction. Not to mention a fact that well explains some hagiographic language to describe the new French president.

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