Ausgabe 35/2008

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

German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have changed her position on Georgia. Her intense skepticism of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has been replaced by a sense of solidarity, and she is speaking more positively about Tbilisi's desire to join NATO.

By , and

Visitors on their way to President Mikhail Saakashvili’s office pass through austere hallways and three security barriers. Most of the offices are empty. The president sits at a massive wooden desk with the Georgian and EU flags prominently displayed behind him. On his desk stands a statue of a man riding a rearing horse.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long been a skeptic of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, but is that now changing?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long been a skeptic of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, but is that now changing?

Saakashvili is wearing makeup from his last TV interview. He is constantly giving interviews on networks around the world in the hope of drumming up support for Georgia. Each of these TV appearances has an extremely dramatic touch. He portrays himself as the victim, the outraged defender of democracy, the man whom the “brutal cynic” -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- aims to destroy. At times he looks somewhat reckless, unshaven and disheveled, but now he is once again sporting a light-blue suit with a light-blue tie, like a younger Timothy Dalton back when he played the role of James Bond.

This man has recently received a flood of visitors. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was here and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “None of my international visitors criticized me,” says Saakashvili. “They asked about details. But they all perfectly understand the situation here.”

Is that true? Could it be that there is total agreement between Europe’s leading politicians and the Georgian president, despite the fact that Saakashvili shares a good deal of the blame for starting the war in the Caucasus and triggering a global crisis?

Last week NATO and Russia hit each other with minor sanctions, which already contained trace elements of a new Cold War. At the same time, questions arose about what stand Germany would take in this conflict. Would it be a close ally of Georgia? Or would it act as a partner to Russia that speaks its mind, making Germany an intermediary between the two camps?

Germany is in a key position because it remains virtually the last large country in the West to maintain somewhat close ties to Russia. Now is the time for skilled diplomacy because the conflict over small Georgia could roll back or even fully erase 20 years of rapprochement between Russia and the West. Suddenly, the thoughts and actions pursued by the German Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry have taken on a global political dimension -- one that could be potentially explosive.

Up until the outbreak of the war, Merkel was seen as one of the main skeptics on the issue of Georgia, but there are signs that she has softened her position. As always when it comes to diplomacy, it is difficult to find clear statements. However, there are clues in Berlin and Tbilisi.

This change of heart was prompted by the power of images. Merkel followed the war in the Caucasus as it unfolded on television. She watched CNN and the two German public television networks, ARD and ZDF. At first, she was appalled that Saakashvili had attacked South Ossetia. She did not enjoy a warm relationship with this man to begin with. During a meeting with the Georgian president, she found him too impulsive, too bold. And now a war. For a few days, she fumed over Saakashvili’s hotheadedness. Merkel said that he had attacked too rashly.

Warming to Saakashvili

Other images soon followed. The Russians had won the short war and were now rolling their tanks through the Georgian heartland. Merkel watched the TV with dismay as Russians looted and did everything they could to destabilize the country.

Her attitude changed. It was no longer dominated by annoyance over Saakashvili. Now she was enraged at the highhandedness of the Russians. It seemed to her that they wanted to oust the Georgian president from office. Merkel is extremely sensitive to the issue of regime change. She knows how long and difficult it was to bring democracy to Eastern Europe. Merkel sees Saakashvili, for all his faults, as a democratically elected, legitimate president. Georgia became for the chancellor a country that has to be helped.

Nevertheless, she remained skeptical when she flew to Tbilisi. She spoke with Saakashvili, and something must have happened during their two-hour meeting because, afterwards, Merkel gave a press conference that made headlines around the world. She stood next to the president and said, “I think that a clear political statement is once again very important in this situation: Georgia is a free and independent country, and every free and independent country can decide together with the members of NATO when and how it joins NATO. In December, there will be an initial assessment of the situation, and we are clearly on track for a NATO membership.”

Merkel had documents with her that listed the stringent conditions for Georgian accession as they were phrased at the last NATO summit in Bucharest. This states that the country first has to become a model of democracy and may not be involved in regional conflicts. But she did not mention these conditions. She raised Georgia’s hopes of soon becoming a member of NATO. Other passengers on the return flight said that Merkel spoke of Saakashvili in more glowing terms than on the flight to Tbilisi.

What happened? SPIEGEL asked Saakashvili this very question. He sat in his office behind his horseman statue and spoke at a breathtaking pace: “The Russians want to destroy Georgia, the infrastructure and the government. And now, since they have already violated all legal boundaries, they are seizing everything they can get their hands on. They simply won’t stop; why should they?”

He wants to join NATO; he needs their protection. The president was extremely angry when Germany and France moved at the NATO summit in Bucharest to thwart the membership ambitions of Georgia.

“But now it is precisely these two countries that have taken the initiative to pave the way for Georgia to enter NATO,” says Saakashvili with great satisfaction. He does not go into details, adding only that he is waiting for proposals. And he stresses time and again that Merkel is his great hope.

The main bone of contention is MAP, which stands for Membership Action Plan. This is a fast-track scheme for NATO membership candidates, and Georgia and Ukraine want to be accepted into the program.

Georgia hopes that the program will symbolically bring the Caucasus state and the West closer together -- and send a clear warning to the Russians. The Germans and other Europeans are afraid that giving MAP status to Georgia could send the wrong message to both sides: It could tell the Georgians that they can depend on NATO for military support against Moscow -- and it could tell the Russians that NATO is prepared to engage in aggressive anti-Russian posturing.

At the NATO summit in Bucharest, Merkel came under strong pressure from the Americans and Eastern Europeans. Tempers flared, they ranted and raved, laughed disdainfully, and Merkel stood at the center of the dispute. The French had indicated to the Germans: If you take a stand, we’ll stand at your side. This was echoed by a number of smaller European countries.

Merkel was under pressure -- and she acquiesced to a certain degree. In the run-up to the summit, she said: “Countries that are directly involved in regional conflicts cannot, in my opinion, become members of NATO.” At the summit, however, she assured the Georgians that they could become members of NATO -- but only when they satisfied the conditions for accession. In other words, not in the foreseeable future.

Both Georgia and Ukraine were denied entry into the MAP program. And that is how things remained during the first few days of the war. However, Merkel’s statement in Tbilisi cast some doubt on the situation. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (of Merkel’s left-leaning coalition partners, the Social Democrats, SPD) was also no longer certain.

He called Merkel and asked her what she had meant. Merkel responded that she had done nothing more than repeat the resolution that had been passed in Bucharest. Steinmeier had no choice but to take the chancellor at her word on the matter, but now he pays even more attention to every word issued by the chancellery. Keeping Georgia out of MAP was a joint effort by Steinmeier and Merkel.


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