21 October 2011
During his recent visit to Armenia, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France made statements which sparked reaction in both Turkey and Azerbaijan. This was not just because they reflected a general tendency by France to accept Armenians’ historical claims against Turkey but also because they contained messages regarding Turkey. It is well-known that the Armenian diaspora has an established place in the French political system. During election campaigns French politicians endorse Armenia and Armenian claims of genocide in order to pick up Armenian votes. President Sarkozy’s remarks have to be viewed within the context of the presidential elections due in France in 2012. In addition it is striking that the French president’s visit to the countries of the southern Caucasus. Because of its petrol and natural gas resources, as well as its population size and income levels, Azerbaijan is usually considered to be the most important country of the southern Caucasus, but despite France’s energy interests in this country, Sarkozy gave priority to Armenian. Azerbaijan will no doubt closely review this fact.
France is also the co-chairman of the Minsk Group, set up by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to resolve the Nagorno Karabagh dispute. The Minsk Group has not only failed to find a solution and France in particular has not maintained an impartial stand. In March 2008 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution concerning occupied Azerbaijani territory. Both the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group voted against the resolution which stressed the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and called on Armenian forces to withdraw from the Azerbaijani territory that they are occupying. This shook Azerbaijani confidence in the Minsk Group. Inside the EU there was discussion about the possible removal of France from the joint chairmanship of the Minsk Group and the EU being represented there instead. France vehemently opposes this proposal.
France is trying to play a role in the Middle East and the Caucasus out of proportion to its strengths and its actions there suggest that it places its French identity about its EU identity. Turkey possesses more soft power than France does in the Middle East and Caucasus and its influence there is steadily growing. The transformation which we call the ‘Arab Spring’ is causing the emergence of a style of popularly-based government and in the future this factor will operate even more in favour of Turkey. This situation makes France uneasy. Sarkozy opposes Turkey’s accession to the EU and he regards the Armenian genocide claims as an instrument to deploy against the Turkish candidacy. The French head of state jumbles historical facts and cannot confront his own history, so naturally there is nothing whatsoever that he can say to Turkey.
Looking specifically at Sarkozy’s visit to the southern Caucasus, it was the messages relating to his own domestic politics delivered during the Armenian leg of the journey which attracted attention. During his visit to Azerbaijan, the essential stress was on cooperation between the two countries in the field of energy. Another noteworthy point was that Sarkozy’s called for talks on the Karabagh Problem to be reviewed within the framework of the Minsk Group and that he sounded excessively optimistic on the subject. During his visit to Armenian, Sarkozy remarked that the existing status of Nagorno Karabagh was not sustainable indefinitely and this was favourably received in Azerbaijan. But Sarkozy does not hold that the occupation of Azerbaijani territory there should end and that UN Resolutions on the issue should be enforced. The President’s visit to Georgia was taken up with discussions of events during the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008 and subsequently. As France was president of the EU at the time of the crisis, Sarkozy met President Medvedev then and a six point Declaration of Principles was agreed. This declaration made the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia a matter for international discussion but Russia has nonetheless recognized the independence of these two areas. Sarkozy stated that he had been able to obtain the maximum result by obtaining the withdrawal of Russian forces from all Georgian territory outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia and these remarks were criticised by some observers in Georgia. Alexander Rondeli, President of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, says that the situation being described as a ‘maximum result’ was not really a gain if it simply secured the withdrawal of Russian forces from territory occupied in August 2008 and not that occupied earlier.
In neither of its roles – whether in its efforts to find a solution for Nagorno Karabagh as joint chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group or in the quest for a settlement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008 and later – France has not been an effective player. What is more, these were issues where the EU could play an effective role by acting in unison, but by suppressing the EU role and giving priority to its own issues, France has impaired the influence of the EU.