The major priorities of the West in the South Caucasus are a preservation of the relative stability in each state in the region, a prevention of the escalation of conflicts, an uninterrupted supply of energy resources, attempts to control migration and to improve the level of human rights and the rule of law implementation.
However, the visit this month of Nicolas Sarkozy in the South Caucasus has caused great excitement in all three capitals. The first visit of the President of France to the region was in August, 2008; it aimed to find an appropriate framework for a resolution of the overt confrontation between Russia and Georgia. It resulted in the “Medvedev – Sarkozy Plan.”
The enthusiasm and involvement of France in the developments in North Africa and the Middle East have given the impression that France is seeking to play a leading role in the formation of a common European foreign policy. The recent visit of President Sarkozy in the South Caucasus should be considered through this prism. Moreover, it can be evaluated also as an effort to take the initiative in this region away from Russia, or at least as an attempt, using the region’s developments, to confirm that France provides an independent “French” politics not always consistent with the EU and NATO approaches.
The calls for resolution of all existing inter-state problems in the region, against the backdrop of the positive example of the German-French relationship, should stress the necessity to resolve the tensions between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, and between Russia and Georgia. However, the situation of unresolved conflicts against the background of Russian-Georgian relations and the ineffectiveness of the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidential summits, has opened a window of opportunity for France in the South Caucasus.
In Armenia, President Sarkozy confirmed once again the French position in regard to the Armenian Genocide and the impossibility of Turkey’s membership in the European Union. He stressed that France was and is still a friend of Armenia, and expressed his support for the foreign policy conducted by the Armenian leadership. In regard to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the French President clearly stated that it cannot be resolved by force. It is very symptomatic that Sarkozy did not meet with representatives of the Armenian opposition and did not touch upon the issue of Armenian internal developments in his public speeches and statements.
There was a short tête-à-tête meeting of the Presidents of Azerbaijan and France in Azerbaijan. During a ceremony laying the cornerstone for a French lycée in Baku, Nikolas Sarkozy called for the implementation of Francophone values of tolerance, freedom, human rights and democracy. The Azerbaijani side expressed its disappointment at the French position on the resolution of Armenian-Turkish tensions. The short duration of the visit itself – about three hours – was discouraging to the Azerbaijani leadership and provoked speculation in the Mass media and among the analysts.
Finally, during the Georgian part of the trip the significance of Georgia for the European Union was stressed. Sarkozy confirmed the EU approach to the resolution of the “Georgian” conflicts. However, the French President voiced the unwillingness of his country to confront Russia and appealed to his Georgian counterpart to review his approach toward Russia, mentioning that “Russia should again become the partner and friend of Georgia.” In the meantime he cautiously supported the desire of Georgia to be integrated into the EU (“in future”), but not into NATO.
It is worth mentioning that the relationships of France with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were built on a parity basis until this October visit to the region. A comparative analysis of the statements in all three capitals as available in the Mass media indicates that the importance of Armenia slightly shifted: It became the focus of attention.
However, there is another interesting nuance to Sarkozy’s tour in the South Caucasus. The duration of his stay in Armenia, his several anti-Turkish statements, his generous gift – a statue by Auguste Rodin; a neutral tone of his statements and the omission of discussions on energy supplies in Azerbaijan, as well as his calm confirmation of Georgia’s territorial integrity and the lack of criticism of Russia, – this all leads to the conclusion: France shapes its own foreign policy and it does not necessarily reflect the interests of all EU member states. France is demonstrating to its partners in the Euro-Atlantic coalition its ability to take political decisions and to achieve certain results (as occurred in the case of NATO operations in Libya). From this viewpoint, the South Caucasus is “fertile soil,” for several reasons:
– A preservation of relative stability in the region directly bordering Turkey, Iran, and Russia is in the interest of all non-regional actors, directly or indirectly involved in developments in the South Caucasus;
– France is considered by all regional states as a friendly European country; and the European direction is viewed by the South Caucasus states mainly as allowing them to balance, to a certain degree, the U.S. and Russia;
– Russia, which still has enough serious tools to influence its regional partners and counter-partners, favors such activity by France, especially if the latter openly demonstrates its sympathy to Russia;
– Turkey finds itself now engaged in crucial internal and external problems; the South Caucasus is not a key region for its geopolitical activity.
Summing up, it is possible to argue that France is shaping its policy according to its own scale of priorities in regard to each state in the South Caucasus. The question whether the “Caucasian nuances” of French politics that came out during the visit of President Sarkozy will become the pan-European approach is still an open query.