By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
While on tour in the South Caucasus last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was walking a tightrope, in an attempt to carefully balance geopolitical, economic and human rights concerns. Though some critical commentaries greeted her on return to Berlin, the overall evaluation of her trip was positive, and for good reason.
Accompanied by a delegation including parliamentarians as well as industrial representatives, Merkel visited Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from August 23-25. Her agenda featured relations with Germany and the European Union, migration, asylum, economic ties and energy deliveries. Underlying all these topics was the primary concern to find peaceful solutions to the geopolitical conflicts involving all three post-Soviet republics.
Russia or the EU?
On her first stop, in the Georgian capital Tiflis, she held talks with Prime Minister Mamuka Bachtadze and assured him of German help in trade, development projects and training programs for youth. Plans include German financial support of 193 million euros for construction of a gas storage facilities as well as water and waste water plants. Georgia has made considerable economic and political progress since its association and free trade agreement with the EU, for which the Chancellor praised her host. One issue raised relates to the considerable number of Georgians who have come to the EU and especially Germany, in search of better economic prospects. They include Georgians asking for political asylum. This trend, as Bachtadze noted, has been declining due to efforts on both sides. Merkel said in this respect that she supported the proposal to designate Georgia as a “safe country of origin,” thereby facilitating repatriation for persons whose asylum application is not accepted.
But the burning issues are geopolitical, as became evident during a session Merkel had with Georgian students. They wanted to know from “one of the leaders of the free world,” as one student addressed her, when they would be able to join the European Union (EU) and also the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Students also pressed her on the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; though she had characterized the situation of the Russian troop presence there as a “gross injustice,” they were not satisfied until she agreed to designate the regions as occupied. In her talks with Bachtadze she made clear that there was still a long way to go, from EU association and free trade to actual membership, not to mention becoming part of NATO.