Don’t Forget Georgia

Why one of the United States' staunchest allies still needs its strong support.

Miguel Villagran/Getty Images
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Georgia is heating up once again as opposition forces prepare for a major demonstration against President Mikheil Saakashvili on April 9. A number of opposition figures have been arrested, accused by the government of plotting the violent overthrow of Saakashvili. The fallout from last August’s Russian invasion of Georgia, following the state of emergency imposed by Saakashvili in November 2007 and elections early last year, has raised questions about the president’s ability to maintain control amid growing unhappiness with his leadership.

Much already has been written and said about the August war and who was to blame, but the challenge before the current U.S. administration is what to do now: What should U.S. policy toward Georgia be? Following the invasion, there was strong bipartisan support for a $1 billion American assistance package for Georgia. The race was on, in fact, between Barack Obama and his Republican rival John McCain to see which candidate could be more pro-Georgian (McCain got out of the starting blocks faster but they ended more or less in a tie).

More recently, however, some analysts have been wondering whether the Obama administration will seek to distance itself from the government in Tbilisi in an effort to score points with Moscow and differentiate itself from its predecessor. Indeed, a clear U.S. focus on resetting relations with Russia, as Vice President Biden said in early February in Munich, raises questions for Georgia. Will Washington sacrifice closer relations with Tbilisi in order to warm up to Moscow? This would be a mistake.

Georgia already paid a price when NATO allies, meeting last April in Bucharest, failed to offer Tbilisi (and Kiev) a Membership Action Plan; that decision was likely interpreted in Moscow as a green light to engage in more reckless behavior within the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and toward Tbilisi.
There is no guarantee that backing off support for Georgia, whether on NATO or more broadly, would lead to improved ties with Russia. The days when U.S. relations with the states in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova) are viewed through a Russian prism should be long over.

In fact, Georgia still needs U.S. help. Over the years, the United States has emphasized support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, its integration into the West, and political and economic reforms (though many would criticize the Bush administration for not doing enough on the reform score, especially in light of Saakashvili’s November 2007 crackdown following large demonstrations against his government).

Half of the $1 billion assistance package is focused on addressing Georgia’s pressing humanitarian needs, repairing infrastructure damaged by Russia’s invasion, and restoring economic growth. Indeed, more than half of regular assistance for Georgia in last year’s assistance budget goes to political and economic reform. Emphasis should continue to be placed on rule of law, media training, and institution-building programs.

Some 34 percent of the regular assistance budget goes to peace and security designed to train and equip the Georgian military to meet NATO standards and to support contributions to international peacekeeping and security operations as well as to improve the capacity of the Georgian border police and custom service to fight smuggling, increase revenue and improve border control. Georgia has been an important contributor to operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (in fact, at one point it was the third largest contributor to multinational forces in Iraq) as a result of the U.S. train and equip program; it also needs to secure its porous borders as much as possible.

Yes, the United States does need to think carefully before launching a serious effort to rearm Georgia. The obvious yet painful reality is that Georgia simply is no match militarily for Russia, and we should not pretend otherwise. Giving less military support might also reinforce the U.S. message that the military option for resolving the South Ossetia and Abkhazia problems is out of the question.

Supporting Georgia’s NATO aspirations, however, is a matter of principle. Last April in Bucharest, the alliance declared, [We] welcome Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. Even while aiming to reset relations with Russia, President Obama has pledged to uphold the principle that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO. For NATO’s own credibility, Russia cannot be granted a de facto veto over other countries’ aspirations for membership. Nor should wishful thinking of better relations with Russia get in the way of Georgia’s aspirations, which the United States has encouraged. Georgia has been a loyal ally and supporter of U.S. efforts overseas; it should expect no less from the United States in return.

Beyond supporting further reform, the West needs to maintain a firm position on Georgia’s territorial integrity. The United States was right to condemn Russia’s expressed intentions earlier this year to establish bases in the territory of Georgia as contrary to the spirit and the letter of Russia’s existing commitments. To this day, Russia has not fully lived up to the commitments it made last summer to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the status of its forces in Georgia. The United States and the Europeans should continue to press Russia to withdraw their forces to prewar positions, open up the separatist areas to humanitarian shipments, and allow unfettered outside observation, including of allegations of human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict. In addition, as Vice President Biden said in Munich and as President Obama made clear during his recent trip to Europe, the United States must never recognize South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence.

That said, bringing those separatist regions back under Georgian control won’t happen any time soon. The hope is that Georgia, through political and economic reform, becomes an attractive place for South Ossetians and Abkhazians to some day want to join. That will take time and patience on the part of the Georgian leadership, not traits often associated with Saakashvili.

Finally, the United States has to fix the international impression that its policy is support for Misha first, Georgia second. It would be a mistake to dump Saakashvili to support any other candidates — that’s for the Georgians themselves to decide. But America should support processes that encourage a level playing field and avoid picking favorites. To that end, the return to Georgia of former U.N. Ambassador Irakli Alasania to join the opposition against Saakashvili has increased the possibility of more effective checks and balances against the government.

The opposition for years has suffered from fissures and feckless leadership; now it is renewing calls for early elections (Georgia held both presidential and parliamentary elections last year following the state of emergency in 2007). Constant elections may not be the answer to Georgia’s problems, but development of strong, independent institutions is essential. And it is here that the bulk of U.S. assistance should be devoted.

Much will depend on how the April 9 demonstrations are handled by both the opposition and government forces. Violence would harm not only Georgian-American relations but also Georgia’s prospects for democratic development and deeper integration into Europe. Supporting these goals is the best way forward for both Georgia and its allies.

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and author of the recent book, "Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime."

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