U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had barely departed Tbilisi last week when speculation began that a "major representative of a major EU state" would be the next to join the wave of shuttle diplomacy to Georgia.
When the surprise was unveiled, the visitor was, indeed, major -- German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has embarked on a critical three-day trip that will take him to Georgia, Abkhazia, and Russia in an effort to defuse escalating tensions in breakaway Abkhazia.
"For a long time, Germany has been trying to foster a peaceful solution to the conflicts that exist in the region -- a solution that would be based upon the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity," said Steinmeier, who is acting as the coordinator for the five-member Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia, a group that includes the United States, Britain, France, and Russia.
Germany is a particularly important ally for Georgia. It is widely seen as the NATO member holding the key to Tbilisi's membership bid. (Kyiv, another NATO hopeful, hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel next week.)
Moreover, Germany's close relations with Russia make it an essential player in any resolution of the Abkhaz conflict. While the scolding tone of the U.S. secretary of state -- who last week said Russia should be part of the Abkhaz solution, not the problem -- may leave Moscow cold, it is hoped that Berlin might soft-talk its way to a workable resolution.
Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili praised Steinmeier's efforts, calling them "extremely significant" in moving the peace process forward.
From Tbilisi, Steinmeier is due to travel to the Black Sea city of Batumi for talks with the Georgian government and opposition figures. He is then scheduled to visit Abkhazia, where he will meet leaders of the separatist region. Steinmeier winds up his trip in Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, before returning to Berlin on July 19.
Part of Steinmeier's mission is to present a peace proposal drafted by the Friends grouping. The multistage proposal, whose full contents have yet to be made public, envisages the return of Georgians displaced by the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz war, a mutual agreement on banning use of force, and long-term pledges for reconstruction and a final status resolution for Abkhazia.
Steinmeier has pledged "strong support" for the peace process from the European Union and said he was hoping in return to receive "signals from all sides which will allow a continuation of the dialogue very soon in Berlin."
Tensions between Georgia and Russia, which staunchly opposes Tbilisi's NATO bid, have escalated markedly in recent months.
Georgia claims that recent explosions in and near Abkhazia are part of a Russian plan to annex the breakaway region. Separatist Abkhaz officials and Russia have countered that Georgia is preparing to take them by force.
So far, Steinmeier's plan -- the latest in a flood of proposals and counterproposals between the Georgian, Abkhaz, and foreign sides -- has met with wary curiosity.
David Bakradze, the speaker of Georgia's parliament, welcomed Steinmeier's visit, but said talk of implementing the plan was "premature."
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh as saying he could not even "consider the plan," adding that "we do not intend to discuss Abkhazia's political status with anyone."
Russia, meanwhile, is trying to get Georgia and Abkhazia to sign a pledge not to use force. But the Western powers insist that such a pledge be linked to the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia.
"Yesterday these efforts were blocked by the firm refusal of our Western partners to demand the immediate signing of a nonaggression agreement," Lavrov said at a Moscow press conference on July 17. "Our Western partners are trying to link this demand with the signing of documents on the return of refugees. This is totally unrealistic at this stage."
Georgia, for its part, says it is committed to not using force, but says signing such an agreement with Abkhazia could constitute a de facto recognition of the region's independence.
Georgia, with U.S. backing, is also trying to internationalize a Russian-dominated CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia and supplement it with an international police force. Georgia also wants Russia to halt plans to establish closer economic ties with Abkhazia.