Visitors on their way to President Mikhail Saakashvilis 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.
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 Europes 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 Saakashvilis 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 Georgias 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 wont 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, well 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, Merkels statement in Tbilisi cast some doubt on the situation. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (of Merkels 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.
'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.
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 Merkels conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are also astonished over Merkels 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 Georgias 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 dont 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 Luxembourgs 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 Georgias 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 Hungarys 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 Georgias 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 Georgias 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 Georgias 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, Germanys 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.
Shevardnadzes 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 countrys 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.