Ausgabe 35/2008

Berlin's Shifting Policy Has Merkel Changed her Tune on Georgia?

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Part 2: 'Are We Prepared to Escalate?'

Is a change in policy in the works here? According to an analysis by the German Foreign Ministry, Merkel may be moderate in her criticism of Russia, but she has balanced out her cautious approach on this front by very clearly siding with Georgia. The “master of ambiguity” in the Chancellery must be kept under close observation, say sources in the Foreign Ministry.

Russian troops beginning to withdraw from parts of Georgia last Friday.

Russian troops beginning to withdraw from parts of Georgia last Friday.

Steinmeier is extremely skeptical over speeding up the membership process, and he still hopes that Merkel has similar views on the issue. Leading members of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are also astonished over Merkel’s support for Georgia.

The deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Andreas Schockenhoff, strictly rejects awarding candidate status to Georgia, and gives three reasons for this: First, acceptance into MAP would now amount to “rewarding Georgia’s rather dubious behavior.” Second, it would be tantamount to “breaking with the enlargement strategy” of NATO, because this enlargement should not be directed against Russia. “In this situation, it would be interpreted as anti-Russian,” says Schockenhoff.

Schockenhoff sees the third argument as the most important: “What can and will NATO actually do if Russia launches another military campaign against Georgia as a calculated reaction to MAP?” He then asks a question that sends off warning bells: “Are we prepared to escalate?”

Niels Annen, an SPD member of parliament, is “currently totally opposed to accepting the country into NATO. This would make NATO the executive organ for American escalation policies. We don’t want to have to mobilize German soldiers to get Mr. Saakashvili out of his next adventure.”

Annen, who is a leading SPD expert on foreign policy, suspects that Merkel could eventually introduce a change of course. In any case, she is “making some unsettling changes in her approach to Georgia.” He finds it “inappropriate” that there was no criticism of Saakashvili and mockingly speculates: “Perhaps the conservatives (CDU/CSU) have succumbed to the longing for their old adversary, Russia, which they have apparently been missing.”

Everyone involved knows that the dispute over MAP could become a key issue in German foreign policy. Europe is “deeply divided” over the timetable for NATO accession, says Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. “Germany plays a key role in the effort to find a balance.” Up until now, Germany has “cleverly resisted the pressure from America” to speed up Georgia’s membership in NATO. He says that integrating Georgia into the membership plan would put NATO on course for an “open confrontation with Russia.”

Is that what NATO wants? Is there an alternative?

Currently, the entire world is sending its emissaries to the Caucasus, transforming Tbilisi into the global capital of international politics. Over the past two weeks, prices at the five-star hotels of Tbilisi have soared, and yet these luxury establishments are still nearly fully booked.

Negotiations are conducted round-the-clock behind closed doors to decide what will happen. At issue are an additional 100 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for South Ossetia and western Georgia, but also more ambitious solutions. “We need an international peacekeeping force, whether the Russians like it or not. It is unacceptable that the opponents in a crisis area also provide peacekeepers, as is currently the case,” said Hungary’s Mátyás Eörsi, a rapporteur in Georgia for the Council of Europe. Up until the escalation of the conflict, both Russian and Georgian troops had been stationed to monitor the ceasefire in South Ossetia.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was also in Tbilisi last week to visit Saakashvili. The next day, he stood five kilometers (three miles) east of the capital in a refugee camp near a closed dairy plant. Dozens of similar camps have been set up in Tbilisi. Displaced persons have taken shelter in old military barracks and schools; there is a lack of water, electrical power and beds. Approximately 160,000 people have fled the conflict region, and nearly all of them have headed for Tbilisi.

It is hot and stuffy in the tent. Miliband has taken off his jacket. He is speaking with a Georgian who -- on Aug. 7, the day when the fighting began -- fled his village, seven kilometers from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. “Was your life threatened? Were people shot?" asks Miliband. Everyone nods. Soldiers were everywhere in the village, says the frail man in a brown sweater. “We were threatened with weapons; they terrified us. Girls were chased, the shops were looted, our livestock were stolen.” He said that Russian troops and Cossack militias went from house to house.

Miliband does not want to talk in detail about the start of the war. He tells SPIEGEL that there is definitely “an unresolved fog” surrounding these events. Apparently, it was a “tit for tat situation.” In any case, he says that the Russian intervention was disproportionate, and now he is working to help end the conflict.

Did Saakashvili walk into a cleverly set Russian trap and the entire world now has to help pull him out again? “That is a question for historians to answer,” says Miliband.

Maintaining Dialogue with Moscow

Is there a solution to the conflict? Nobody has the answer. Nonetheless, a new Eastern policy appears to be taking shape in the chancellery in Berlin. Merkel wants -- in agreement with Foreign Minister Steinmeier -- to support Georgia, but without driving Russia into a corner.

Aides close to Merkel say that she did, in fact, criticize Saakashvili in Tbilisi for his rash attack. However, they add that she credits him with leading the country to a high degree of prosperity and stability.

Merkel has suggested to Sarkozy, who currently heads the EU Council Presidency, that the EU organize a “neighborhood conference.” Participants would include Georgia’s neighboring states, like Armenia and Azerbaijan, but not Russia. Merkel does not want to present this proposal herself. She would rather let Sarkozy decide if he wants to make the conference a topic of his Council Presidency.

Germany is to help Georgia rebuild and resolve the refugee problem, say aides to the chancellor. That will send a message to Moscow. Merkel wants to show that the German government stands at Georgia’s side. Likewise, she wants to endeavor within the EU and NATO to maintain an open dialogue with Russia.

As for the issue of the MAP -- the official line is that the Bucharest decision remains valid. But this position has its problems. The next council meeting of NATO foreign ministers is scheduled for December, and there is no doubt that the Baltic States, Poland the Czech Republic, and -- above all -- the US will push hard for Georgia to be allowed into the membership program.

It is unclear how the other NATO members will react. During the conflict over the Iraq War, the Germans were afraid of ending up totally isolated. This is an unacceptable position for Germany, which is why the chancellor is expected to take a cautious approach to the topic of NATO membership -- for tactical reasons. She needs France in order to stand her ground on this issue, and she does not know if France will stick to its guns to the end. The MAP question is being regarded very differently now compared to before the war in the Caucasus. This is Georgia’s big opportunity.

Meanwhile, Washington has been pouring on the pressure. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used postwar German history to support her arguments. Last week in Warsaw, she said that West Germany was allowed into NATO -- despite an unresolved territorial conflict with the former East Germany. “And we need to remember that history when we talk about territorial problems for Georgia.”

Should Georgia soon manage to enter NATO, Germany’s future will be linked to a certain extent to the impulsive Saakashvili. In this respect, his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, does not give much cause for hope.

Shevardnadze’s light green office still has a statesmanlike atmosphere. Hanging on the wall are photos of famous politicians, US President Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, who he met when he was the Soviet foreign minister and the Georgian head of state. Shevardnadze wrote Putin, who he knows well and respects, a long letter asking him to withdraw the Russian troops.

“Saakashvili did not think things through till the end,” he says quietly. “He never should have sent his troops in, or he should have at least done it right and blown up the Roki Tunnel, which the Russians used to enter the country -- a serious mistake.”

When he was the Georgian head of state, Shevardnadze also sought to enter NATO, an enormous provocation in the eyes of the country’s powerful neighbor. He also had the young Georgian army trained by Americans “because they had more money than the Russians.” Shevardnadze maintained relations to the South Ossetians by easing trade restrictions and allowing freedom of movement. Nevertheless, "the white fox," as he is called by the Georgians, never broke off ties with Russia. He met regularly with Putin, despite all the tensions.

Now the positions have become more entrenched than they have been in years and the chances of achieving peace in the region have been dashed “for at least a decade.” How could all of this happen? Everyone made mistakes, says the old man, adding in a refined tone that Saakashvili may be very talented, “but perhaps not exactly as president.”


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