Sarkozy Hits Campaign Trail in Georgia 3 Years After Russia War

French President Nicolas Sarkozy took his reelection drive to Georgia, seeking to enhance his reputation as a statesman in the Black Sea country where he brokered a ceasefire to end a 2008 war with Russia.

Sarkozy held talks with his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, and delivered a speech to several thousand people in the capital Tbilisi on Freedom Square, where former U.S. President George W. Bush spoke in 2005.

The French leader’s public-relations move may fall flat. While Sarkozy is credited with helping to end the five-day conflict in August 2008, he failed to force Russia to withdraw its troops from two separatist Georgian regions as required under an initial ceasefire agreement. Russia subsequently recognized the regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as sovereign countries and vowed to defend their borders.

“Sarkozy wants to remind us that he’s an influential leader in the EU,” said Ghia Nodia, director of the International School for Caucasus Studies at Georgia’s Ilia State University. “Georgia will remind the world that we’re here, we had this war and were occupied.”

Sarkozy hasn’t said if he’ll run in 2012. In a TNS-Sofres poll published on Sept. 27, 24 percent of respondents said they trust him to solve the country’s problems, the lowest such reading since he took office.

Swing Through the Caucasus

The French leader has recently accentuated his diplomatic record as his popularity flags. Last month, he stood next to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in Libya as European troops helped to oust Muammar Qaddafi. Five days later he pushed for the recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in New York. He arrived in Georgia at the end of a two-day swing through the South Caucasus, including visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In his speech, Sarkozy reaffirmed France’s support for Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity and defended its aspiration to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Without naming Russia, Sarkozy also said that “against all strategic logic, and against commitments that were made, sizeable military forces remain stationed and have been reinforced at your doors, on the other side of the separation lines.” He promised “to monitor the implementation of the accords signed” in 2008.

‘The Maximum We Could Get’

The ceasefire agreement that ended the war over South Ossetia stipulated that Russia had to remove its forces to their pre-conflict positions. Russia routed Georgia’s army, causing about $1 billion in damage to its economy. About 10,000 Russian troops were deployed in the fighting, according to state-run news service RIA Novosti.

Under a subsequent deal reached by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Sarkozy, Russia confined its troop pull-out to “Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Sarkozy said on Sept. 8, 2008. This was “the maximum we could get,” he said. European Union countries and the U.S. have repeatedly called on Russia to honor its obligations under the original ceasefire, while Russia insists that it has already done so.

Sarkozy also used his Tbilisi speech to call on Russia and Georgia to “resolutely engage” on the path to reconciliation. His words were met by silence from the assembled crowd.

“The speech didn’t reflect reality,” said Jemal Botsvadze, 50, a former miner who attended the speech. “We can’t be friends with Russia. Russia doesn’t want us. We need to find a common language with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

France’s Image Abroad

Sarkozy’s last state visit before next year’s election is unlikely to generate much interest among French voters, said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster at the Paris-based institute TNS- Sofres.

“French people aren’t indifferent to their country’s image abroad or Sarkozy’s actions, but the news in France is filled with corruption scandals, a crippled economy and the Socialist Party primary,” Riviere said. “It would take very important news to lift his popularity, and the Caucasus isn’t on French voters’ radar.”

From here on, the president will restrict his travel to domestic trips, visits to France’s overseas territories and working trips abroad, including meetings of European Union leaders, according to his press office.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Tornike Gordadze acknowledged that some questions would be raised during Sarkozy’s visit about the implementation of the ceasefire agreement.

‘Brutal Force’

“When people say, ‘How can he show his face in Georgia?’ it’s a delicate question,” said Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “When he said he achieved the maximum, he meant that he got Russian troops out of Georgian territory that had been invaded beyond what they’d already occupied before. He stopped the war.”

When dealing with the “brutal force” of Russia, negotiations don’t work, Rondeli said. “Sarkozy certainly mustn’t be ashamed of what happened. What could he do? Start a war?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Helene Fouquet in Tbilisi at hfouquet1@bloomberg.net; Helena Bedwell in Tbilisi at hbedwell@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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