Commentary: Sarkozy’s Visit to Armenia — A Message in Many Directions


By Edmond Y. Azadian

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy is a different kind of political animal, capable of any and every controversial political move. During his tenure as his country’s interior minister, his harsh treatment of France’s Muslim immigrant population was severely criticized, yet it helped to boost his popularity and catapult him to the office of president. Equally controversial was his policy of packing up the Roma people and shipping them to their countries of origin.

Less than a year ago, Mr. Sarkozy was offering warm accolades to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and today he is on the forefront of the NATO bombing raids trying to unseat his erstwhile friend. Last week he was on another mission to the Caucasus. He was on a whirlwind tour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. His longest stay in the region was in Armenia, perhaps thanks to the diplomatic skills of Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and Charles Aznavour, the latter accompanying him on the trip. That, in itself, was a message to the region.

We have to remember that following the war between Russia and Georgia, he was designated by the West to rush to Tbilisi in support of the Georgian position.

He also conducted shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Tbilisi to salvage whatever was possible in that relationship. Of course, Abkhazia and South Ossetia could not be reintegrated back into the Georgian territory, but the latter was solidly won for the West. Today, the West has a strong strategic position in the Caucasus thanks to Saakashvili.

Incidentally, Armenians have every reason to complain about the Georgian government’s policy with regard to the minorities, but the West has touted it as a showcase of economic recovery for the rest of the region to emulate if they wish prosperity. And contrary to all adverse publicity, Mikheil Saakashvili has apparently stemmed corruption overnight.

All these developments set the stage for the upcoming changes in the Caucasus. Vladimir Putin’s announced comeback in Russia, with its anticipated strong-handed tactics for tighter control of the region, make this spectacular visit to the region by a major world leader seem like a pre-emptive strike by the West in order to make inroads in the region.

The fact that Sarkozy spent more time in Armenia than in the other Caucasus countries was a message to half a million Armenian voters in France, who had been hurt more than once before by him. First, during his presidential campaign he had promised to appoint Patrick Devedjian the interior minister; instead, he named him the head of Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement Party, a rather powerless post. The other offense by Sarkozy was his direct intervention in order to stop in its tracks the Genocide Resolution, which was headed toward approval by the French Senate, after sailing through the parliament.

Now comes the bittersweet comeback when Sarkozy, standing in the heart of Yerevan, makes a spectacular statement about the Armenian Genocide, of course without any reference to his earlier position. Indeed a historic statement which is quoted below: “Collective negation is a more serious problem than an individual problem, unless Turkey follows the example of other great nations in recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Before year’s end, France will take serious steps, including the criminalization of Genocide denial.”

He also evoked the historic ties between Armenians and France, which had lent a helping hand to the survivors after the Genocide. Of course it was not the opportune moment to remind him that France directly contributed to the slaughter and expulsion of the Armenians when it abandoned Cilicia, after drafting Armenians into the Armenian Legion to be used as canon fodder during World War I.

Sarkozy also reiterated his position regarding Turkey’s plans to join the European Union: “My position has not changed in this case and will not change. Situated in Asia Minor, Turkey has a great role to play for France and for the world. Turkey is a bridge between Europe and Asia. It has a great role but that role is not in the European Union.”

He also made a reference to the intolerable policy of closed borders in the 21st century.

Ankara has been angered by Sarkozy’s statements and has decided to lodge a protest through a special delegate. There is no word of severed diplomatic relations or canceling arms contracts, which have proven to be empty threats in the past. Of course, more current issues on the table were lost in the media shuffle: the economic agreements, France’s interest in rehabbing the atomic energy plants, the Karabagh issue and several others.

President Sarkozy certainly had his uphill re-election bid at home on his mind when he planned this trip to the region, with rising discontent about his economic policies.

By the same token, he has taken center stage in Europe, in cooperation with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, trying to help the economies of failing European countries.

Besides the euphoria he created in Armenia, Mr. Sarkozy’s visit certainly helped President Sargisian’s election plans. A very uncertain future reigns in Armenia regarding next year’s parliamentary elections and 2014 presidential election.

Thus, President Sarkozy’s tour of the Caucasus, other than being self-serving, sent many messages in many directions, of which Armenia will be one of the beneficiaries.