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Sarkozy’s visit to the South Caucasus

Source : Amanda Paul | Today's Zaman | Ankara / 11 Oct 2011

Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the three states of the South Caucasus -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Since claiming independence 20 years ago, the region has been plagued by numerous problems, including protracted conflicts and border disputes, which have had a serious impact on the stability, security and development of the region. With the French presidential elections slated for next year, Sarkozy was hoping the visit would help his dismal ratings by reminding French voters of his global accomplishments.

Sarkozy’s first port of call was Armenia. With France’s vast 500,000 Armenian diaspora Sarkozy wanted to put on a good show and he certainly managed to do this, really playing to the crowd. First he underlined the great and longstanding friendship between the two nations and secondly he sent a strong message to Turkey. He warned Ankara that it may soon become illegal in France to deny that the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was genocide, calling on Turkey to make “a gesture of reconciliation” and recognize the killings as genocide. He then went on to say that if Turkey does not heed his advice, France may consider going further and amend its legislation to penalize this denial and that such measures could be adopted in a very short timeframe. And of course he reiterated his opposition to Turkish membership of the EU.

Not surprisingly, Ankara was angered by comments by Sarkozy, with Ahmet Davutoğlu suggesting that France should confront its colonial past before giving lessons to Turkey.

Next up was Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where he met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and opened a new French Lycée. In terms of importance to the EU, Azerbaijan could be considered the most important of the three states, not least because of its vast energy resources which are crucial to EU energy diversification plans. The recent new discovery of some 300 billion cubic meters of gas in the Absheron field, which the French firm TOTAL are involved in, has made the realization of the mammoth EU-backed Nabucco natural gas pipeline a more realistic prospect. France also has strong economic and trade ties with Azerbaijan totaling some $1.8 billion which Sarkozy hopes to boost further.

Sarkozy also urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve their dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani province which is currently under the control of Armenia, with Yerevan also occupying an additional eight Azerbaijan regions. The conflict killed over 30,000 people and displaced over 1 million leaving Azerbaijan with one of the world’s highest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Peace talks led by Russia, the US and France have been going on for almost two decades but success still remains out of reach. Armenia insists on independence for Karabakh, something Azerbaijan cannot accept. Violation of the cease-fire continues to be an everyday occurrence and just a few days ago two Azerbaijani soldiers and an Armenian were killed in a skirmish. As a result, high tension persists in a strategic corridor for Caspian Sea energy transit. While Sarkozy stated that “the time has come to take the risk of peace” it is more likely that the status quo will continue.

The last stop on his tour was Georgia where President Sarkozy claimed, “When I am in Tbilisi, I feel I am in Europe.” The role that Sarkozy played during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 has made him a star in Georgia and not surprisingly he was greeted by cheering crowds of some 30,000 people. He said all the right things by condemning Russia for not complying with the six-point cease-fire plan which Sarkozy himself was responsible for drawing up at that time. He accused Russia of flouting the truce he brokered by building up forces in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia instead of withdrawing to pre-conflict positions. Russia strengthened its control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia and recognized them as independent nations afterwards.

While he said that “France will not resign itself to a ‘fait accompli’,” it seems to me that this is exactly what France and much of the West have done. It is no secret that Sarkozy has particularly close relations with Russia’s leadership and has done very little since the war in terms of pushing them to comply because at the end of day bigger issues where the West needs the support of Russia have always taken priority. Therefore it was no surprise that during his address on Freedom Square, he told Georgians that France considers Russia a friend and a strategic partner who shares an interconnected destiny with his own country.

He also assured Tbilisi that the door to the EU would always remain open. This is quite a surprising comment given that at the Eastern Partnership Summit some two weeks ago his foreign minister said the opposite -- that the door remained closed.

Unfortunately for Sarkozy, it is unlikely that the visit will have very much impact on his already very low ratings, which are most dependent on issues closer to home, and in particular the French economy.