The German Embassy vehicles in Tbilisi carry a 001 license plate for a good reason. Berlin was the first to open its diplomatic representation in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, scarred by civil war, in 1992. Since then the European political powerhouse has been Tbilisi’s staunch supporter in many areas, from infrastructural development to cultural exchange. Yet, many Georgians – politicians, experts and citizens – expected the visit of the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier with negative anticipation.
Kremlin’s European “understander”?
One, broader, reason is that Germany is seen in Tbilisi as one of the bastions of “Putin-understanders”. After all, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, serves on GazProm’s board and Berlin is often perceived to put its economic interests – as with Nord Stream 2 – above its concerns for Europe’s Eastern flank.
Then there is Mr. Steinmeier himself. In July 2008, then German Foreign Minister Steinmeier took the lead in proposing a so called “three staged plan” for stabilization on Abkhazia, which – it was reported – was to start with a year of confidence-building measures, including the signing of a treaty on the non-use of force and the beginning of the return of internally displaced persons. The second phase, the following year, had to see the beginning of reconstruction work, with Berlin organizing a donors’ fundraising conference, and the third – defining Abkhazia’s political status. The plan received lukewarm welcome in Tbilisi, but was rejected out of hand in Sukhumi, its stance backed by Moscow.
With the hindsight, this was the last ditch-effort to halt the escalation that ended by Russian military intervention in August 2008. Speaking about Steinmeier’s visit, President Mikheil Saakashvili said in 2013 he was the first Western official to openly warn Tbilisi about the impending war (Saakashvili reiterated this version of events in much more detail in his 2019 interview to IWPR).
Despite this positive role, Steinmeier’s was seen – as Saakashvili put it – as “less well-disposed towards us and more pro-Russian”, not least due to his opposition to Georgia starting NATO accession talks during Bucharest Summit in 2008 – his position on that topic remained unchanged in 2014.
After 2008, it was Steinmeier again who insisted on international probe into Russo-Georgian conflict. “Who bears responsibility for what part of the escalation to military confrontation will certainly play a role [in shaping ties],’ Steinmeier told the German newspaper Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung. After the probe, led by the Swiss Diplomat Heidi Tagliavini came out ambiguous in 2009, some representatives of the ruling United National Movement (UNM) pointed their finger at Germany. Some Georgian media even suggested Steinmeier was to take up a senior GazProm position himself – a speculation that the German Embassy in Tbilisi demanded to be withdrawn.
Bringing Russia back in from the cold?
If Mr. Steinmeier’s work related to Georgia is perceived as controversial, it is also tainting Georgians’ perception of the role he plays in Ukraine. Acceptance by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of a so called “Steinmeier Formula” – a sequence of steps including elections in Russia-occupied Donbass – is seen by many protesters in Kyiv as “capitulation” to Russia.
There is a perception in Tbilisi, that the European leaders, including the French President Emmanuel Macron who speaks of the need to “reinvent an architecture of security and trust” with Moscow, as well as President Steinmeier are seeking ways for bringing Putin’s Russia back to the international table, ending at least partially the sanctions that have been imposed due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its not-so-covert war in eastern Ukraine.
Acceptance of the “Steinmeier formula”, Potential de-escalation in Ukraine, and international discussions of the so called “comprehensive package” in Moldova are seen as elements in the Russo-European tango of “de-escalation”, which leaves the Kremlin with its key gains, while allowing the European capitals to “demonstrate tangible progress”, in diplomatic parlance. The Georgians were alerted by surprise high-profile encounter between the Georgian and Russian foreign ministers in New York at the margins of the UN General Assembly that some similar element was in the works for Georgia as well. The suspicions mount especially since the precise agenda of that meeting remains obscure.
Naturally, Tbilisi commentators and pundits reacted to the visit of President Steinmeier, with his baggage of controversy, with suspicion and apprehension. But is it warranted?
Missing the message?
Responding to a question regarding “Steinmeier formula” during his press conference with the Georgian counterpart, the German Federal President said “no such specific proposal of initiative” was put forward during his visit, while stressing that Ukraine formula was not his own doing, but based on a summit decision involving Ukrainian, Russian, French and German leaders.
Silvia Stöber, German journalist focusing on Georgia and Caucasus told Civil Georgia President Steinmeier’s visit was planned months in advance and had a business-related focus. She says bringing high level officials every year – Chancellor Angela Merkel visited in August 2018 – Germany signals that it pays attention to Georgia and to the wider region. She says by singling out Tbilisi, Berlin also points to the neighbors that Georgia attracts attention “because they are close to the EU, they try hard to come even closer [to the EU] and to fight corruption.”
Steinmeier’s visit “has a political meaning, but very little practical connotation,” argues Dionis Cenusa, researcher at the Institut für Politikwissenschaft, Justus-Liebig-University (Giessen, Germany). He says as the President, Steinmeier is “rather weak player in German decision-making”, but he could use the opportunity “to signal that Georgian government must stay truthful to the rule of law principles and that the democratic institutions, not informal ones, should prevail in state-crafting process.”
Bidzina Lebanidze, senior researcher at the Georgian Institute of Politics, a think tank, says frequent visits of high-profile politicians “make the point that…Europeans are still there, and won’t allow Russia to establish a[n exclusive] sphere of influence.” He thinks this may be a broad strategic message of Steinmeier’s visit.
A mixture of apprehension and suspicion that underscored Steinmeier’s arrival is symptomatic to a larger problem: Georgians find it hard to understand Berlin and its policies. For one, they are not simple. When it comes to Russia and eastern flank, Berlin is burdened by painful history as well bound by the feeling of gratitude towards latter-day Soviet leaders for re-unification. Security, especially military dilemmas is not something Berlin handles well, or communicates clearly about.
Secondly, information from Germany comes to Georgia filtered through English-language media and – often – through the US-education filter of the Georgian politicians and pundits. There, German commitments to the Euro-Atlantic security alliance has been hotly contested – not least by US President Donald Trump himself. This is slowly changing though, thanks to activities of several German foundations in working in Georgia, and as more Georgians that have studied in Germany come home.
It is also true, however, that German actors are traditionally shy to speak about many important initiatives they have been spearheading in Georgia – in fields of infrastructure, research, culture, business development, support to reforms, etc. Public outreach has not been the German representatives’ strong suit also on international level. The fact that Germany has been at the forefront of boosting NATO capabilities in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe has gone largely unnoticed in Georgia.
Successive Georgian governments – and civil society – have also failed to elicit German sympathies. There are very few fluent German-speakers in Georgian politics – former Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze being a notable exception. Georgian politics penchant for strongmen, accenting security agendas, often sidelining the rule-of-law considerations, over-ambitious foreign policy rhetoric do not go down well in Berlin. Georgian NGOs, which are rarely self-funded, rarely volunteer-based – also do not fit the German stereotype.
Activities of the Georgian criminals established in Germany, and Berlin’s reservations concerning EU visa-waiver for Georgia also spoil the atmosphere.
Yet, the two countries are linked by increasing tourism and more first-hand contacts in various fields. Perhaps, one day soon, the German official visits will trigger hope for closer ties, rather than suspicion in Tbilisi.