Chancellor Merkel’s Caucasian Adventures

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One of prolific German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s most famous  allegorical plays is called “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which takes place in Georgia. In “The Caucasian Circle,” the main characters are a peasant girl working for the governor’s wife, Grusho, and Azdak, a judge, while the other two will try to rescue them from the magical chalk circle.

In the play, the child goes to the woman who cared for the child rather than his birth mother.

The above allegory is revived by the recent trip of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Caucasus, where Georgia is held tight by Russia, but an overwhelming arbiter offers that country to NATO. However, the chancellor admitted that possibility is not yet on the agenda, and the Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev warned that “horrible things may happen” should Georgia join the NATO structure.

It is in this kind of political atmosphere that the German chancellor visited the three countries in the Caucasus. Before that, in mid-August, she had met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany and later on in Sochi. Therefore, she was very well briefed on the red lines which Russia had drawn around what is considered Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Chancellor Merkel, true to her unshakable principles, did not budge on her policies but she navigated the choppy waters skillfully. In Georgia, for example, she reiterated her criticism of Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia but on the other hand, she cultivated her relations with Moscow on some vital issues that concern both countries. While President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan was expecting her to serve as the salesperson for the Azeri-Turkmenistan gas in Europe, she sharply rebuked that country by stating that there is no alternative to Russian gas. She went further, reminding the Azeri authorities that even during the Cold War Europe depended on gas from the Soviet Union.

The other issue of mutual interest with Russia is the united stand of the two countries against President Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. And finally, the two countries have a joint vested interest in the resettlement of Syrian war refugees. Russia is the guarantor of the survival of the Assad regime in Syria and the promoter of the reconstruction of that war-ravaged country.

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Ms. Merkel has been the advocate of an open-door policy for refugees to her own detriment. In addition to the three million Turks living in Germany, she further opened the floodgates to Syrian refugees. Welcoming the Muslim refugees almost cost her her job during the most recent elections. She barely survived with her coalition and came out weakened politically. Some refugees have been returning to Syria. Reconstruction in that country will further relieve Europe of its refugee problem.

Merkel’s visit to the three Caucasian republics was carried out on different levels and very different political atmospheres. She had a trade delegation with her to look for business opportunities in the region. In Georgia, she dealt with the issue of visa liberalization, which had encouraged many Georgians to seek asylum in Germany and in the rest of Europe. She determined that Georgia was a safe country and thus the asylum seekers could return.

While in Tbilisi, she not only criticized Russian military presence in the breakaway regions but also laid wreaths to the fallen soldiers defending Georgia’s border. This was Merkel’s second visit to Georgia, where she was asked when would that country join the European Union and NATO. Ms. Merkel replied that the issues are not yet on the agenda.

The warmest reception was accorded to her in Armenia, where she was received with full military honors. After the airport ceremony, she headed to the martyrs’ monument at Tsitsernakaberd, to lay a wreath, plant a fir tree and leave a note in the official register.

She characterized the killings as “heinous crimes against Armenians which cannot and must not be forgotten.”

She stopped short of calling those killings a genocide, although later on she revisited the issue by evoking the “spirit of the 2016 Bundestag resolution” recognizing the Armenian Genocide. She certainly had the row in the mind with Turkey when that resolution was adopted and that at this delicate time, when President Erdogan was mending fences with Germany, she avoided another flare-up.

Her stroll along Northern Avenue in Yerevan was remarkable. The Iron Lady was visibly relaxed and smiling. She was hugging and kissing not only the leaders in Armenia and their families, but also ordinary citizens. How much of that mutual good will can translate into political assets remains to be seen. She acknowledged that she was visiting a capital city that was 2,800 years old which had left its mark on human civilization. She also admitted that the freedom brought by the recent Velvet Revolution was palpable.

During the banquet honoring the guest and during the joint press conference, Prime Minister Pashinyan stated that Germany was Armenia’s third largest trading partner in the world and its first in Europe. He also offered foreign policy clarifications, saying that Armenia does not build its foreign policy with one country at the expense of another. He firmly stated that relations with Russia remain strong, while the country is deepening relations with the European Union.

Ms. Merkel further added that the policy pursued by Armenia may serve as a conduit for European firms to reach out to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Iranian markets. She also offered to help resolve the Karabakh conflict, in her capacity as a member of the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose Minsk Group is tasked with bringing peace to Karabakh. Although the chancellor adhered to an even-handed policy on the Karabakh issue, on August 21, the German government’s spokesman Steffan Seibert told reporters that the “position of Azerbaijan authorities does not contribute to the dialogue around Nagorno Karabakh.”

At the conclusion of the chancellor’s visit, it was agreed that Mr. Pashinyan would come up within six months with a way for Germany to help Armenia advance. One of the projects may be the development of the infrastructure of Armenia’s irrigation system. When the Bundestag resolution was adopted there was also admission of guilt for German participation — or at least collusion — in the Armenian Genocide.

There is blood on German hands from three genocides in the 20th century. The first was in Namibia in 1904 and 1908 when the Herero and Nama tribe members were exterminated. Today Namibia is suing the German government for compensation.

The second was the Armenian Genocide, which if not organized, was at least tolerated by Germany and the third, of course, is the Jewish Holocaust, for which Germany paid compensation to the new Republic of Israel at an astronomical rate.

There was talk that Germany can voluntarily assume to develop Armenia’s irrigation system and save Lake Sevan.

It was a miracle that a 30-kilometer underground canal was dug during the Soviet era to divert the waters of Arpa River into Lake Sevan. Ever since then, the irresponsible use of Sevan’s waters is leading to the dangerous diminishment of that water resource and a rescue plan is in order at this time.

Lake Sevan, with a water surface elevation of 6,234 feet is the second highest navigable water body after Lake Titicaca in the Andes between Peru and Bolivia, which is 12,507 feet high.

Chancellor Merkel’s Caucasian visit was concluded with a sour note in Azerbaijan, where she was greeted by a third-level government functionary, the deputy prime minister. Even before arriving in Baku, one of her delegation members, Albert Weiler, was labeled persona non grata and she gracefully replaced him with another member. But once in Baku, she did not mince her words in reminding President Aliyev about the corruption in the country, the abuse of human rights and the existence of political prisoners.

Ms. Merkel did not stay overnight in Baku, as she had done in Tbilisi and Yerevan.

That, in itself, was a statement.

At a moment when President Trump is bashing Germany, the strongest country in Europe is cautiously looking for alternative partners, at least in trade, if not in politics. With Germany’s help to lift up Armenia’s economy, maybe a window over Europe is opening at this time.