How Sarkozy Saved Georgian President's Private Parts

We heard a little drama on France Inter's breakfast radio this morning. Mikhail Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, was making a passionate case against Russia when they read out to him the following exchange between Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy.

The scene was the Kremlin on August 12, when Sarkozy flew in to persuade Moscow to call off its invasion of Georgia.

Putin: "I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls."
Sarkozy: "Hang him?"
Putin: "Why not? The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein."
Sarkozy "Yes but do you want to end up like Bush?"
Putin, after a long pause: "Ah, you have scored a point there."

Saakashvili laughed nervously when he heard this today. "I knew about this scene, but not all the details. It's funny, all the same," he said. He went on to argue that Europe had capitulated to Russia over Georgia in the same way that it had surrendered to Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938 when it let Germany occupy Czechoslovakia. That's how Saakashvili talks. He is seeing Sarko at the Elysée today and tomorrow President Medvedev is meeting him in Nice for a Russian-European summit.

The Kremlin conversation was recounted by Jean-David Levitte, Sarkozy's chief of diplomacy, to le Nouvel Observateur magazine which printed it today. Last August, I was down the corridor in the Kremlin with other reporters during the Sarkozy-Putin chat. Sarko was tense and shaky when he came out, announcing the deal to stop the war. The price was letting Russia keep the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Assuming that it's accurate, the exchange tells you a few things. It confirms that Russia aimed to to depose the hot-headed Georgian president. It confirms that Putin, the Prime Minister, was calling the shots, not President Medvedev. It also shows how Sarko has ingratiated himself with the Russians. Using the familiar "tu" with Putin, Sarko allowed himself a cheap shot against President Bush.

Levitte recounted the conversation presumably to make Sarkozy look good and bolster the claim that he really did save Goergia. It also underlines the striking U-turn performed by Sarkozy since he ran for election last year promising to get tough with Moscow over human rights.

Sarkozy said in the campaign that he preferred "to shake the hand of Bush than Putin" and promised to end the cosy ties that President Chirac had enjoyed with the Kremlin. Yet as soon as he was elected, he rushed off to cultivate first-name friendship with Putin. Levitte and Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister, are close to their Russian counterparts. Sarkozy and his advisers say that the goal is to engage the Kremlin and treat Moscow with the respect which it is due as an old power. Paris wants to be Moscow's advocate in Europe.

Putin has not reciprocated the chumminess, but Moscow is pleased by the way that Sarkozy is pushing the European Union back to normal relations after the Georgian chill. "I want to pay tribute to President Sarkozy's efforts to reinforce relations between the EU and Russia in all areas," Medvedev told le Figaro today.


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