France, which currently holds the EU Presidency, has been very much involved in the Georgian conflict. President Nicolas Sarkozy sealed a cease-fire deal between Russia and Georgia with high-profile visits to Moscow and Tbilisi.
Following Russia's recognition of the independence of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua speaks with Philippe Moreau Defarges, researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) and co-director of the Ramses report in Paris, about France's position in the crisis.
RFE/RL: What feelings dominate in France about the Georgian crisis?
Philippe Moreau Defarges: The feeling that dominates in France is rather semi-indifference. The French people are worried about Russia's behavior, they are worried about what is happening in Georgia and in South Ossetia.
But for the French people it is very far, it is the Caucasus, it's a completely different world, the geopolitical context is pretty obscure for many Frenchmen. Finally, the French are coming back from vacations, so their main concerns are price hikes, start of school, work, unemployment, etc. Georgia comes very, very far down the list of the concerns of the French people.
RFE/RL: Despite the cease-fire agreement and repeated calls from the West, Russia has maintained troops deep inside Georgia and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Has Russia's intransigence weakened President Sarkozy's credibility?
Moreau Defarges: Really, all these are just details. The only real question is: What does Russia want? And it is true that Russia, after its latest positions and the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, renews the old imperial policy of the tsars, whether they are Orthodox or communist. It is true that it is very worrying.
So the problem is not only France's position, but first of all: What are Europe and the West going to do? Will Europe and the West be capable of getting a united and coherent position on this issue? We will see.
RFE/RL: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized the recognition of the two Georgian separatist regions as "regrettable," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel termed the decision "unacceptable." What is France's position in the face of Russia's latest moves?
Moreau Defarges: Like many European countries, France is torn between two concerns which are pretty contradictory. First concern: Not to accept Russia's actions in Georgia. It is clear that the Russian behavior in Georgia is scandalous, unacceptable, and clearly violates international law. There is no doubt about this, even though [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili did some silly things in his relations with Russia. Second concern: To keep contact with Russia, not to commit to a new Cold War."
RFE/RL: What factors do you think prevent the European Union from engaging in a new Cold War?
Moreau Defarges: First of all there is of course oil and gas, but this is certainly not the decisive factor, which is: Russia has laboriously been taken out of its isolation at the end of the USSR. If we put it back into this isolationist policy and this kind of nationalist and xenophobic fortress, we will never get through this.
So, the issue is not only the West's weakness, but what to do with the Russian bear and how to deal with the Russian bear, given that the only thing that is excluded for the West is a real policy of force. The West is not going to go to war for Georgia. So, the West can only have recourse to economic, financial sanctions.
RFE/RL: France has called a special summit of European leaders for September 1 to discuss what to do about Georgia. What can be expected from the meeting?
Moreau Defarges: France will seek a united European Union. The objective is not to have a tough policy, it is to have a united European Union. Second, this unity can only be reached through a compromise between, I would say, a certain condemnation of Russia for its behavior, notably the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but also the upholding of a certain dialogue with Russia.
So, probably the meeting of the European Council will result in a text that will take the position of sitting on the fence. Surprises are always possible but we can hardly imagine most European countries willing to quarrel with Russia, except maybe Eastern European countries and the United Kingdom. So we'll be in a unsolvable situation that is destined to last.
RFE/RL: Do you think Russia is prepared to engage in a new Cold War?
Moreau Defarges: I don't know, that is the question. One must be in the brain of [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev and [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin to answer that question. And it's not impossible that in the Caucasus issue, there is an arm-wrestling match between Putin and Medvedev. One can make a very Machiavellian analysis in which Medvedev would push Mr. Putin to the fault and where Medvedev would let Mr. Putin engage in a tough and Cold War policy against the West in the expectation that Putin goes too far and makes a mistake that would allow Medvedev to put Putin aside.
In principle, Russia should not engage in a Cold War policy. Russia has economic interests, the interests of the population go in the opposite direction but, as you know, power in Russia is fundamentally enigmatic.
RFE/RL: You said earlier that Russia was renewing its old imperial policy of the tsars. What do you think is the objective of such a policy?
Moreau Defarges: The objective is very simple, which is to say, "I am the strongest, I must be respected." It is the simplistic objective of an imperial policy that probably does not have the means of its ambitions and it is, roughly speaking, "Georgia attacked me, I am strong, and one should respect me." It reminds one very much of Hitler's policy in the years 1938-39, before World War II: "I protect my nationals, I must be respected, I must not be humiliated." It's of that level, it is not a real policy, it is a sort of dangerous childishness.