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Newsweek: Sarko Tackles the Bear

Author: Tracy McNicoll
September 20, 2008


To little fanfare last week Russia kept its word. It dismantled checkpoints set up deep within Georgian territory during August's Russo-Georgian war, two days ahead of its Sept. 15 deadline. It was only the first in a schedule of promises made this month to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiating on behalf of the European Union. But it was another key step toward something resembling peace, however cold and tenuous, in the southern Caucasus. For Sarkozy, it was also something of a personal victory, something tangible to point to in the mediation effort he's led, which is now putting to rest his image as a lightweight head of state, prone to flashy policy that seemed designed deliberately, even primarily, to stand out.

In fact, during the recent crisis, French diplomats privately wondered how Georgia would have fared had someone else held the EU's rotating presidency when shots rang out in South Ossetia. Gallic pride? Perhaps, but if the war had begun two months earlier, it would have fallen into Slovenia's lap; five months later, the Czech Republic's. Leaders from either country may have rose to the occasion, but France's historic experience with great power politics and its extensive, well-oiled diplomatic machine undoubtedly lent Sarkozy that extra degree of credibility when negotiating with Moscow. More to the point, his oft-criticized style, personality and controversial, seemingly disjointed foreign-policy choices may have actually cohered into success on a broader scale.

His impulsive personality, for instance, once denigrated in consensus-happy Europe, is now seen by some of the top military and diplomatic experts in France and Europe as a plus in dealing with a fast-moving dangerous situation. Within three days of war breaking out, Sarkozy had dispatched Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to Tbilisi. Two days later, Sarkozy skirted EU convention by not consulting the whole Union and jetted between Moscow and Tbilisi to broker a six-point ceasefire.

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