Amid Obama's foreign-policy woes, his subtle handling of Russia’s Tbilisi policy represents a bright spot.
- By Brian WhitmoreBrian Whitmore is the European regional desk editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and co-author of the Russian affairs blog The Power Vertical. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
TBILISI — Young couples sip wine in sidewalk cafes and children play in fountains, seeking relief from the searing heat. Elsewhere, elderly men play chess on park benches and traders hawk their wares from makeshift kiosks. It’s another summer in Georgia’s scruffy, chaotic, but charming capital. But there’s one change this season: For the first time in years, there are no rumors of war.
The calm contrasts sharply with the tension that gripped the city during the sweltering summer of 2008. Two years ago this week, brinkmanship between Moscow and Tbilisi culminated in Russia’s invasion of Georgia. That invasion resulted in the Russian takeover of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, setting up a tense standoff between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgians were jittery again last summer when fresh saber rattling in Moscow led politicians and pundits to predict — incorrectly, it turned out — that armed conflict would break out again.
The fact that Georgians aren’t living in fear of a Russian invasion for the first time in years is an unexpected fringe benefit of U.S. President Barack Obama’s "reset" policy with Moscow. It also runs counter to allegations by Obama’s critics that countries on Russia’s periphery such as Georgia would suffer from Washington’s rapprochement with Moscow. These concerns have not merely been limited to Obama’s partisan rivals: Eastern European luminaries, including former Czech and Polish presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, as well as domestic critics such as former State Department official David Kramer, have raised concerns that Obama’s Russia policy would leave former Soviet states at Moscow’s mercy.
But after initially expressing similar anxieties, Georgian officials now say that closer ties between the former superpower rivals have allowed Washington to exert quiet, yet effective, influence over Moscow and enhance Tbilisi’s security in the process.
Among those praising Obama is Giga Bokeria, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister and a close confidant of President Mikheil Saakashvili. "The immediate danger of a large-scale attack by Russia has been — if not completely eradicated — significantly reduced by a very active position by the U.S. administration," Bokeria told me recently.
He credits Obama’s "very concentrated effort" to make Washington’s position on Georgia clear to the Kremlin during his first presidential visit to Russia in July 2009. At the time, Obama said he had "a frank discussion" with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, during which he expressed his "firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected."
Senior Georgian officials say the U.S. president was even tougher behind the scenes. They claim Obama warned Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Washington wouldn’t stand on the sidelines if Russia launched another attack against Georgia. The White House would neither confirm nor deny that account, but people in Tbilisi say whatever was said appears to have had an effect.
U.S. policy toward Russia has functioned not just with sticks, but with carrots, too. Giga Zedania, a political scientist at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University, says Russia "should have something to lose" if it attacks Georgia. "One of the problems with the Bush administration was that it had no leverage over Russia, because there was no cooperation," she said. "When these links are established…Russia will have more incentive to think twice before it does something like it did in 2008."
Medvedev’s visit to the United States in June, seeking U.S. support for Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, offered a prime example of what Russia now has to lose. The president also visited Silicon Valley to court investors for an ambitious plan to modernize Russia’s high-tech sector. Moscow knows it can kiss such goodies goodbye if it misbehaves in Georgia, or elsewhere.
Despite the U.S. engagement, relations are still fraught on the Russia-Georgia border. Russian troops are increasingly entrenched in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with some troops stationed just 20 miles from Tbilisi. The official policy of the Kremlin, which has long been uncomfortable with Georgian sovereignty, also still calls for regime change in Tbilisi.
But the tense atmosphere of Cold War-style conflict, in which Georgia served as a proxy battleground for the United States and Russia, is clearly fading. And these days, Georgians are asking themselves whether Obama’s reset could go even further, facilitating rapprochement, or at least détente, between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Irakli Alasania thinks it can. Georgia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, now a leading opposition figure, won widespread praise for his calm and reassuring manner during the Russia-Georgia war two years ago. He told me that if U.S.-Russia relations continue to improve, "it will only benefit Georgia" by facilitating an eventual normalization of relations between Tbilisi and Moscow.
"At this point what we can do is to not solicit any more aggressive behavior from Russia, to keep things quiet," Alasania says. "[W]e need strong partners. And we need our strongest strategic partner to have a good relationship with the Russian Federation."
Saakashvili, whose political brand is bound up with his confrontational stance toward Russia, has been publicly supportive of Obama’s reset with Russia, though officials say that, in private, he still has reservations. "We welcome holding of a dialogue between Russia and the United States," the Georgian president said in June shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tbilisi. "The fact [is] that, under conditions of this dialogue, the United States remains committed to its principled position" on Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The Obama administration must remain vigilant in defending Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It should also continue to show Moscow that it has much more to gain by respecting its neighbors — and much to lose by threatening them.
Whether this proves sufficient in the long run is still uncertain. But speaking softly and carrying a big carrot has so far proved to be an effective policy in the volatile South Caucasus.