Vladimir Putin ‘wanted to hang Georgian President Saakashvili by the balls’

(Dmitry Astahov/AFP/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin reportedly wanted to hang President Saakashvili “like the Americans hanged Saddam”

Nicolas Sarkozy saved the President of Georgia from being hanged “by the balls” – a threat made last summer by Vladimir Putin, according to an account that emerged yesterday from the Élysée Palace.

The Russian Prime Minister had revealed his plans for disposing of Mr Saakashvili when Mr Sarkozy was in Moscow in August to broker a ceasefire in Georgia.

Jean-David Levitte, Mr Sarkozy’s chief diplomatic adviser, reported the exchange in a news magazine before an EU-Russia summit today. The meeting will be chaired by the French leader and President Medvedev.

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” – he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah – you have scored a point there.”

Mr Saakashvili, who was in Paris to meet Mr Sarkozy yesterday, laughed nervously when a French radio station read him the exchange. “I knew about this scene, but not all the details. It’s funny, all the same,” he said.

Mr Putin’s remarks confirmed that he was calling the shots in Moscow and not Mr Medvedev, who was Mr Sarkozy’s official host at the Kremlin meeting. The language was in keeping with Mr Putin’s fondness for coarse imagery: in 1999 he vowed to chase down Chechen separatists wherever they were – “we will rub them out in their s***houses,” he said.

In Brussels in 2002 he threatened a French journalist with circumcision – remarks that the news conference interpreter failed to translate. “I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back,” he added.

Mr Sarkozy’s team leaked their exchange to bolster their claim that the French President’s intervention saved Georgia – or at least its leader – from further torment. They want to counter charges that he ceded too much in Europe’s name by accepting the Russian annexation of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Mr Saakashvili denounced Mr Sarkozy for that, saying Europe’s acquiescence over Georgia was identical to its appeasement of Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938 after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. “I never imagined that I would be saying such things but unfortunately those are the facts,” he said.

Mr Sarkozy, who is under fire for his cosy relations with the two Russian leaders, hit back with sarcasm and an attack on Mr Bush for his supposed impotence towards Russia. Mr Bush had telephoned him and urged him repeatedly not to fly to Moscow to negotiate a ceasefire, he said. “When someone had to leave for Moscow or Tbilisi, who defended human rights?” Mr Sarkozy asked.

“Was it the President of the United States who said, ‘this is unacceptable’? Or was it France which kept up the dialogue [with Russia]? . . . We were in Moscow and, as if by chance, the ceasefire was announced.” He was speaking after receiving an annual Political Courage Prize from a French review.

November 14, 2008
Charles Bremner in Paris

Source: The Times

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