The new push for trans-Atlantic cooperation did not mean, however, that Germany burned bridges with Russia. German-Russian economic relations are tight, especially in the energy sector. Domestically, Merkel relies on a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats, who traditionally have strong ties to the East and are more skeptical of the United States than the Christian Democrats. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Schroeder's former chief of staff, has since become foreign minister.
Merkel, however, managed her balancing act -- maintaining good relations with the United States and Russia while keeping her grand coalition together. While there were some conspicuous tensions, the chancellor skillfully and successfully mediated between both camps.
Until last month.
In early March, Merkel began publicly to oppose NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine. Only countries that don't suffer from internal conflicts should get on the membership track, she argued, citing Tbilisi's unresolved conflicts with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In recent interviews, Steinmeier has been more blunt, saying his reason for opposing the MAPs is Russia: The conflict with Russia over Kosovo has shown, he said, "that we have reached a limit in our relationship with Russia." Steinmeier also referred to the recent internal conflicts in Georgia, which he said indicated that the country "is still not on a secure democratic path."
For the Georgian government, the news that Berlin would oppose the MAP came as a shock. In Tbilisi, there was a lot of disappointment. Talk to senior government figures, and you get the feeling that something went terribly wrong.
Getting on track for NATO membership is, in Tbilisi's view, the only way to ensure that Georgia proceeds down the path of democratic stability. And only NATO might help solve disputes over the breakaway regions -- disputes in which Georgia's menacing neighbor, Russia, is deeply involved.
Tbilisi was confident it would get a MAP, a virtual guarantee of future membership. The country had Washington's strong support. And while even Tbilisi would concede that having Washington on board was not an absolute guarantee, the mood remained optimistic. The trans-Atlantic rift was over, they thought. Berlin, London, and Paris -- the key European players -- worked closely with Washington on every major issue. If there were doubts or concerns, U.S. President George W. Bush would address them and cut a deal.
It didn't happen that way -- or, at least, not exactly.
Berlin decided to confront Washington publicly. Merkel didn't change her mind -- Bush's attempts to convince her fell on deaf ears. So he went public, too -- expressing his strong support for Georgia's and Ukraine's membership bids.
So what went wrong for Tbilisi? The political crisis in November certainly didn't help. At the very least, it bolstered the arguments of those who resisted Georgian membership. President Mikheil Saakashivili's democratic credentials suffered a severe blow when he cracked down on demonstrators, declared a state of emergency, and shut down independent media -- including Imedi Television, which carried RFE/RL programs in Georgia. In a recent meeting with RFE/RL's president, Jeffrey Gedmin, Saakashvili affirmed the importance of free media for democratic development. The damage to Georgia's reputation, however, might well last.
Whether or not the political crisis in Georgia played a role, it is obvious that Tbilisi, in its desire to join the West, lacks strong support in key European capitals. Georgia's political campaign to move closer to NATO relied heavily on U.S. support. Senior Georgian officials also built ties with Brussels; Berlin, which has close ties with Russia, appeared to be of lesser concern. According to some observers, Georgia never really tried to get a foot in the door.
To conclude that Berlin has in effect given Russia a veto over its foreign policy would be over the top. But the Kremlin certainly still enjoys considerable influence in the German capital, especially among Social Democrats. And to Vladimir Putin's mind, Germany has always been pivotal -- ever since he worked as a young KGB agent in Dresden in the 1980s. He knows and understands Germans' hopes and fears.
Merkel, for her part, wants to keep the "grand coalition" together (and win the 2009 elections). While her own instincts and visions encourage her to lean westward, she nevertheless must balance her trans-Atlantic orientation with the political climate in Berlin -- that is, suspicion of the current U.S. president and a prevailing sense that the Kremlin's views should be accommodated.
Behind the conflict over the Georgian and Ukrainian bids to enter NATO lies the grand geopolitical game between Moscow, Berlin, and Washington. While it is not 2003 -- when Schroeder, Chirac, and Putin confronted Bush over Iraq -- there nevertheless are some similarities on a smaller scale. Germany again sides with Russia, and France against Washington. Europe is split, and trans-Atlantic harmony once again suffers. And Georgia and Ukraine are seen to pay the price.
But the game might not be over. Although their MAP bids have been denied for the moment, official reactions from Georgia and Ukraine sounded more cheerful than one might have anticipated. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer indeed announced that Georgia and Ukraine will, eventually, be NATO members -- and strongly hinted that the MAP denied now might come as soon as December.
If that is the deal, and if that deal turns out to be more than an empty promise, one might conclude that Merkel again exhibited masterful diplomacy -- appeasing her coalition partner and opening NATO's door for Georgia and Ukraine at the same time. It is unlikely, however, that Moscow will be more inclined to accept NATO membership for those two former Soviet republics in late 2008. Whether Berlin will be more inclined to challenge Russia on that point remains the key question.
Ulrich Speck is director of RFE/RL's central newsroom