Saakashvili emerged from a sideline summit of the conservative European People's Party (EPP) with an ebullient appraisal: rarely, if ever, had he felt such strong support for Georgia's ambitions to join the EU and NATO. Europe's conservative leaders, he added, are people who "care," and who treated him as "an equal."
Saakashvili was careful to note that he was not there to formally press for EU membership. Tbilisi's prospects are long-term at best; the Georgian president said he did not want to "irritate people" by lobbying for his country's right to join the European bloc.
Although their leaders support Georgia's western integration, Germany, France, and Belgium all feel NATO membership for Tbilisi would further inflame regional tensions and Europe's relationship with Russia.
Instead, he said he was focusing on a more realistic target: NATO membership. Tbilisi hopes to receive an invitation to join the military alliance's Membership Action Plan as early as the NATO summit in Bucharest in the spring of 2008. Saakashvili said he was using his time in Lisbon to argue his country's case, and described the summit as "an amazing opportunity for us to introduce our country and mobilize support for NATO accession at this first stage [of aiming] for a Membership Action Plan -- as well as for cooperation [with] the European Union." He added, "We are not talking of [EU] membership, as you know."
Saakashvili shared the limelight on the Lisbon sidelines with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his former, and possibly future, prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
All three Westward-leaning officials were the EPP's invited guests; former Belgian Prime Minister and current party head Wilfred Martens told his guests that European conservatives are united in believing Georgia and Ukraine can one day earn EU membership. Both countries "have a European vocation; we have to work on it," Martens said. "So we have accepted as a member party -- at the first stage, an observer member party -- the party of the president, " referring to Saakashvili's National Movement.
Such gestures, for Saakashvili, are overwhelmingly symbolic. Martens, for instance, is no longer active in Belgian politics. Europe's foremost conservative leaders -- among them Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jose Socrates, the prime minister of current EU president, Portugal -- may ideologically back Georgia's integration aims. But as leaders of their countries, they will not translate this support into policy decisions.
Martens said on October 18 that he is "more than convinced" of Georgia's NATO membership prospects. NATO diplomats have told RFE/RL, however, that the alliance remains split. The United States, backed by most new NATO member states, strongly supports offering Georgia a Membership Action Plan. In the words of one NATO official, such a step would be equivalent to "entry into a tunnel which can only emerge in membership."
Western European allies, however, are less enthusiastic. Despite the ideological affinity Merkel, Sarkozy, and Martens may feel for an integrationist Georgia, Germany, France, and Belgium all feel NATO membership for Tbilisi would further inflame regional tensions and Europe's relationship with Russia.
In one encouraging sign, however, diplomats say French policy in NATO has undergone a sea change since the start of the Sarkozy presidency. France has dramatically reversed its earlier policy of antagonizing the United States at every opportunity, and appears prepared to support measures previously considered too provocative with regard to Russia.
Seeking Support On Abkhazia
Saakashvili himself addressed one such sore subject -- that of the breakaway region of Abkhazia. In comments made to RFE/RL, he said the EU and the United States "must not hesitate" to take steps to support Georgia's territorial integrity should Abkhazia declare independence with Russian backing. Western officials say they do not discount the possibility of such a development if Kosovo decides formally to secede from Serbia.
Saakashvili also said he can envisage a normalization of relations with Russia if Moscow agrees to "observe rules." "I think we can just establish a new set of rules that would enable us to be much more predictable in relations. Not every country in the world is democratic, but there are many countries that have certain rules that they observe and abide by. Of course it's always nicer to be dealing with open societies," Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili went on to underscore Georgia's economic successes in the wake of what he called a "100 percent Russian economic blockade" -- a reference to last year's ban on agricultural products and communication lines. But he said "military provocation" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is not as easy for Georgia to withstand.