PARIS — He's not know for his diplomatic graces, but blunt-talking French President Nicolas Sarkozy looks like Europe's best bet for making peace between Russia and Georgia.
Paris, unlike Washington, can claim to be an impartial mediator, and Sarkozy is bolstered by his current role as the chief of the 27-nation European Union, Russia's biggest trading partner.
But a cease-fire deal that Sarkozy crafted is spluttering. His diplomatic blitz to Moscow and Tbilisi on Monday may be his last chance to save it — and his credibility as a peacemaker.
Officially, Sarkozy, who will be joined by the European Commission president and the EU's foreign policy chief, is charged with ensuring that the terms of the accord are being honored.
Even for the most seasoned diplomat, that is no small feat. Russian forces have been digging in their heels, President Dmitry Medvedev has given no sign of backing down, and the historical and legal backdrop is complex.
Style overshadows message
Sarkozy made his reputation as a results-oriented, energetic and tough-talking interior minister, qualities in contrast with the stuffy, eloquent and high-minded French diplomats of yesteryear. At times Sarkozy's abrupt, unstatesmanlike style has overshadowed his message.
Several analysts said the primary goal of Sarkozy's mission Monday needs to be cooling tensions between Russia and Georgia, which are not as quantifiable as the hard results that he typically seeks.
Sarkozy will be carrying an EU mandate: Bloc leaders who met at an emergency summit on the crisis Sept. 1 scolded Moscow, insisting it was not holding up its side of the deal because Russian forces remain inside Georgia. Russia calls them peacekeepers and says they are allowed under the accord.
Sarkozy's priority No. 1 is to get Moscow to pull out hundreds of forces that crossed over from the breakaway zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and have taken positions deeper in Georgia, French diplomatic officials say.
The Sarkozy-led mission is also aiming for agreements that would allow more international observers to be deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to monitor the cease-fire, and set a timetable for talks about the security and stability of the breakaway republics, which Russia recognizes as independent.
Sarkozy's first shuttle mission in the first days after hostilities broke out Aug. 7 led to the cease-fire deal. His second trip to Moscow and Tbilisi in less than a month indicates the crisis is among the biggest that the EU has faced.
"It's very good that the French presidency reacted so quickly," said Sabine Fischer, an expert on Russia at the EU's Institute of Security Studies in Paris. But the cease-fire deal has problems, she added: "It gave the Russian side room for interpretation ... this is what Sarkozy has been criticized for."
Doggednes pays off
So far, in his 16 months in office, Sarkozy's doggedness has paid off in the international arena. He helped win the release of six Bulgarian medics held in Libya; he has boosted France's diplomatic and military role in Afghanistan; and he has restored France's ties with Syria, among other things.
Above all, Sarkozy patched up relations with the United States, which suffered badly over President Jacques Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war. Nearly as importantly, he reached out to some European countries that Chirac had scolded for lining up with the Bush administration over Iraq.
In part for that reason, analysts said, Sarkozy was able to flesh out a common EU line against Russia at the emergency summit Sept. 1. He had to strike a compromise between calls for tough action made by countries like Poland or the Baltic states and the hesitation of nations like Italy, whose Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi opposed any sanctions against Russia.
Analysts differ about the importance of Sarkozy's role. Francois Heisbourg of the state-backed Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris gave the French leader "high marks" for bringing Berlusconi on board.
Thomas Gomart, of the independent French Institute for International Relations, said Russia's actions — and what he called the "inaudible" role of the United States — were the main driving forces behind the EU unity, more than Sarkozy.
"The positions of the member states have grown closer. ... Countries like France and Germany toughened their stance toward Moscow and others like the Baltic states or Poland have become realistic. They see the United States is distant in this affair," he said.
No historical antagonism
France does not have as much historical antagonism with Russia or as much addiction to Russian oil and natural gas as some of its EU partners do. This makes the timing of Paris' EU presidency a bit of a lucky break, some say.
The French "can make good relations that Paris has with both Moscow and Tbilisi bear fruit," Gomart said. "Had it been another country — say, Poland — EU mediation would have been much more complicated."
In the crisis, the EU is speaking with an uncommonly unified voice, say analysts, and that serves Sarkozy's long-term goal of bringing member states closer together in diplomatic, political and military affairs.
On the other hand, Sarkozy doesn't have a full hand to play in his mission to Moscow.
"The fundamental problem is that the European Union only has diplomatic tools," said Gomart. "They realize that at the core, to be taken seriously by a country like Russia, you have to be a security player too."
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