Berlin angst about Georgia’s U.S.-backed leader
There was an awkward moment on Sunday, when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stood next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi and thanked her for having “initiated” plans to bring his country into NATO.
Anyone who followed NATO’s last summit in Bucharest back in April knows that it was Merkel who broke with Washington and spearheaded opposition to such a move.
Shifting uncomfortably, Merkel couldn’t help but interject: “Give credit where credit is due,” she said curtly, taken aback by Saakashvili’s strange distortion of her stance.
The moment was instructive, underlining one of the main reasons why Berlin remains opposed to giving Georgia a seat in the military alliance anytime soon.
Merkel continues to view Saakashvili and his U.S.-backed bid to join NATO with a good dose of scepticism — a view reinforced by the Georgian president’s actions and rhetorical eruptions since his violent showdown with Moscow began earlier this month.
Last week, the Georgian president drew parallels between Europe’s reaction to the conflict and its appeasement of Hitler in the run-up to World War Two — not the best way to win friends.
Merkel did offer Saakashvili some of her most encouraging language to date on his NATO aspirations, saying Georgia was on a “clear path” to membership. But it would be wrong to read too much into that.
One senior German official told me that Merkel warned President George W. Bush repeatedly last year about relying too heavily on Saakashvili.
“Don’t tell me you told me so,” Bush sheepishly told the German chancellor, this official recounted, after the Georgian leader declared a state of emergency in November and cracked down on opposition protesters.
That challenge to Saakashvili faded and he was reelected to a new term as president in January in a vote deemed broadly fair, but that did not allay German concerns about his fitness to lead. Some officials in Berlin and other capitals may be quietly hoping Georgians rise up against Saakashvili again in the wake of his brief but bloody war with Russia.
Perhaps NATO can avoid another embarassing public spat over Georgia’s bid when it meets in Brussels at the end of the year. By then, tensions in Georgia’s breakway provinces may have eased somewhat, along with Moscow’s readiness for confrontation.
More likely, NATO will struggle again to paper over its divisions on Georgia, particularly if Republican John McCain — a friend of Saakashvili and ardent supporter of his government — wins the U.S. election one month before the summit.