Is Sarkozy Serious about Chechnya?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 24

Foreign policy generally plays a secondary – perhaps even a tertiary – role in French electoral campaigns. The new head of state is determined by the competition between rival visions of the domestic social program. Thus, it was extremely unexpected to hear presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy repeatedly mention the issue of Chechnya over a very short period of time. His statements were so critical that officials in Moscow began speaking of a potential worsening of Russo-French relations if Sarkozy were to win. The fact that it took Moscow 48-hours to congratulate President Sarkozy after his victory speaks volumes about Russian attitudes following his criticism of Russian policy and well-known comments about the Chechen tragedy (Le Monde, May 10).

In the area of foreign affairs, the Sarkozy campaign started by specifically mentioning Chechnya, something that greatly surprised French society. “I’ll never accept what is happening in Chechnya, in Darfur. I won’t tolerate the continued existence of dissidents,” the candidate declared [1]. This harsh statement was intended to show that Sarkozy would not condone the position of Jacques Chirac and that he would be a firm supporter of enforcing the principles of human rights. It should be recalled that Nicholas Sarkozy has been familiar with the Chechen issue since his tenure as Interior Minister [2].

As the election day approached, Sarkozy decided to ruin the Kremlin’s mood one more time and explained his attitude toward the Chechen issue. “Either we defend human rights all across the world, and this is equally applied to Chechens and Frenchmen, or we don’t defend them at all,” he said in an interview given to radio station “Europe 1.” “I understand that the national feelings of the Russian people have been sorely tested in recent years…but nonetheless, Russian democracy must move forward” (AP, May 4).

Two days later, in a May 7 interview with the “National Interest” journal, the newly-elected president noted that “we can no longer claim ignorance – the facts of genocide forbid us to be silent.” According to Sarkozy, “200,000 slain and 400,000 refugees make silence impossible.” This was followed by a sharp stab at Russia – “I must say that Russia’s recent behavior makes me quite nervous.” It is notable that a foreign head of state used figures that are not cited in Russia even in private conversation.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian government has begun looking for explanations for this behavior by turning to Sarkozy’s circle of contacts. It is known that he is friends with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as well as André Glucksmann, and that one of his advisors is Pierre Lelush, a man never known for holding a particularly favorable view of the Russian leadership’s policies. In a recent interview with Itar-TASS, Lelush declared that “we will look for all possible opportunities for cooperating with a great state like Russia, but we reserve the right to disagree with her on certain questions” (Itar-TASS, May 14). Most French expects agree that Sarkozy’s presidency will correct certain imbalances in the Russo-French relationship.

French interests are expected to shift toward the West since the new president believes that it is imperative to revive a cordial relationship with the Unites States, especially after the low point reached during the presidency of Jacques Chirac. “If you want me to say whom I am closer to, the United States or Russia, a Russia that behaves as it does in Chechnya, then I have to say that I am closer to the United States,” Sarkozy told journalists. He also noted that France should be a “friend” of the United States. This means the United States has finally found a trustworthy European ally in Sarkozy, an ally it has long missed, since Tony Blair alone was never sufficient.

During his meeting with President Putin, Sarkozy did not avoid the Chechen issue, though he did, as people close to him noted, do everything he could not to offend the Russian president (AP, June 7). He was unable, however, to remember the name of Anna Politkovskaya and summed up the discussion as “we spoke about Chechnya and the journalist…,” indicating that his interest stems more from his advisors and less from his personal interest. For him, Anna Politkovskaya was simply a journalist, rather than a victim and a fighter for truth. The French president could not recall the journalist’s name, but he thought that he would be understood anyway, and this reveals a great deal about Nicholas Sarkozy. Then, of course, there are the video clips available on the internet that make Sarkozy look unpleasant, as if he had spent the night drinking with Putin. These, along with the standard expressions about Putin’s “honest eyes” make one wonder whether the current criticism will soon fade and be replaced by a desire to develop a close relationship with the Russian president [3]. Sarkozy’s uncertain state during a press conference, in which he himself said that he had made the maximum possible effort not to offend his Russian counterpart, is also revealing (Newsru.com, June 7).

The French president’s deliberate kindliness and instruction – the sort of tone that would be used with a child – was consciously utilized so that Sarkozy could say what he had promised to say, while not causing significant offense (Newsru.com, June 7). It is quite clear that Sarkozy is a “realpolitik” politician; it seems to be part of his character, was the basis of his electoral victory and will surely be the biggest problem for his foreign policy partners in future years [4].

It is apparent that the Chechen question is simply a bargaining chip for Sarkozy and is not a strategically important issue as Kosovo is. Chechnya will allow Sarkozy to bargain with Putin. The penetration of the French market by Gazprom, as well as the desire to improve business ties in aviation and other industries, all indicate that Nicholas Sarkozy has chosen Chechnya as a way of pressuring Vladimir Putin and hitting him where it hurts most. In order to avoid this topic, President Putin will likely agree to make insubstantial concessions to French businesses, since, unlike the Germans and the British, the French have made little headway in the petrochemicals industry.

Notes

1. www.news.mediaport.info/world/2007/38320.shtml.

2. This included the well-known case of the “Chechen terrorist network” “unmasked” near Leon. The organization included French Islamists who ostensibly collected money for sending volunteers to fight in Chechnya. It was called “Chechen” simply because one of the members had been to the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia in 2001, a fact deemed sufficient for labeling all of the participants as “Chechen terrorists.” This particular case had a distinct pro-Russian orientation and Jean-Louis Bruguiere [the leading French investigating magistrate in charge of counter-terrorism affairs], who seems to completely share the views of the Russian FSB, has never hidden his anti-Chechen views despite his high governmental post. In the end, the Paris courts could not prove the connection of any of the 27 men arrested to Chechnya. See www.newsru.com, 06/14/2006.

3. See http://youtube.com/watch?v=AfO7-PeRne0 and regarding Chechnya and “the journalist,” see http://youtube.com/watch?v=haFdXeEPBcU&mode=related&search.

4. See http://news.mediaport.info, 01/15/2007, where Sarkozy stated that “I don’t believe in so-called “realpolitik,” an approach where principles are sacrificed for profit…”