French President Nicholas Sarkozy received a rock star’s welcome October 7 in Tbilisi, drawing wild applause when he announced, “when I am in Georgia and I know I am in Europe.”
Appearing before a large crowd at Tbilisi’s central Freedom Square, Sarkozy pledged support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and took a thinly disguised jab at Russia, saying; “The Soviet Union is over and no sphere of influences policy can replace it.”
The Georgia visit marked Sarkozy’s last stop on a tour that took him around the Caucasus. In Yerevan, Sarkozy urged Armenians and Azerbaijanis to “take the risk of peace” and resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He also won Armenian hearts and minds by calling on Turkey to own up to the 1915 genocide of the Armenians.
Given that Azerbaijan is Turkey’s strategic ally, Sarkozy’s swipe at Ankara led to a somewhat subdued reception in Baku. A façade of politeness was maintained throughout his Azerbaijan visit, however, as a courteous tête à tête with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev preceded a succinct statement on a need to deepen cooperation. Sarkozy also made Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva an Officer of French Legion of Honor.
Some political experts in Tbilisi noted that the grand theatrics of the French president’s speech in Georgia reinforced an impression created by French media reports that the Caucasus tour marked the effective start of Sarkozy’s reelection campaign.
The build-up to Sarkozy’s appearance in Tbilisi lasted for a week. Promos aired on television called attention to the fact that Sarkozy played a central role in brokering a ceasefire during Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia that kept Russian tanks from rolling into the capital.
“Nickolas Sarkozy is again in Georgia,” a presenter announced in one promo, which included the flickering montage of 2008 war scenes and Sakrozy’s speeches. “Everyone who wants Georgia to emerge as modern European state … is expected [to turn out] on Freedom Square… to make our voice heard loudly around the world.”