Two years after a disastrous war, Tbilisi is booming, but Georgians remain on edge, for one overriding reason: They're not sure Barack Obama loves them enough.
Over the course of the last week, Russia has celebrated the second anniversary of its war with Georgia in typical style: A visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to the breakaway province of Abkhazia, which Russia now recognizes as an independent country, and the announcement by a Russian general that the air force had stationed in Abkhazia the S-300, a highly sophisticated anti-aircraft system, to counter unspecified Georgian threats. While the Georgians, who tend to treat each new act of Russian provocation as a prelude to apocalypse, reacted with alarm, a State Department spokesman waved off the S-300 as old news. President Barack Obama’s administration has tried — successfully, so far — to strike a balance between defending Georgia and preserving the "reset" with Russia. But what will it do if Russia simply refuses to withdraw from territories seized in an illegal and unjust war?
Grossly inferior to Russia in all matters of hard power, Georgia enjoys a crushing soft-power advantage that the Russians must find both bewildering and infuriating. Like Israel, Georgia is a country that many Americans find impossible to think about rationally. Visitors to Tbilisi, the country’s charming and ancient capital, quickly succumb to Georgia Syndrome, a blissful capitulation to hand-on-heart sentimentality, sodden feasts, Mitteleuropean boulevards, and passionate devotion to Western values in the face of threats both real and imagined. I’ve been half in the bag myself since writing an account of the run-up to the war in the New York Times that President Mikheil Saakashvili apparently found highly satisfying. I’m in Tbilisi now at the invitation of the government to deliver a series of lectures, though really to visit my son, who is working as a summer intern with the Ministry of Finance.
It’s not just me, of course. When George W. Bush came here in 2005, he danced a little jig of happiness that made him an instant national hero — and the namesake of Tbilisi’s George W. Bush Avenue. Georgia quickly became the unofficial mascot of the president’s crusade for democracy; Bush supported providing Georgia a path to NATO membership in the teeth of furious Russian opposition. (He failed.) Sen. John McCain nominated Saakashvili for the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of Saakashvili’s central role in the 2003 "Rose Revolution" that brought democracy to Georgia, and Saakashvili to power. (Then-Senator Hillary Clinton was co-nominator.) McCain remains a single-minded Georgia booster: His recent Washington Post op-ed, in which he alleged that the Obama administration "has appeared more eager to placate an autocratic Russia than to support a friendly Georgian democracy," was reprinted in full in the Messenger, Georgia’s highly pro-government English-language daily.
Georgian leaders take a more sanguine view, at least publicly. Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s minister for reintegration and a Saakashvili intimate who shares many of his boss’s leading traits — total self-assurance, reckless candor, and spontaneous wit — said to me, "We believe that the Obama administration is not selling out Georgia." As a candidate, Obama issued a sharp — if ever so slightly belated — condemnation of the invasion, and as president he has been unambiguous in his repudiation of Russia’s de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway region where the 2008 war began. Yakobashvili and others were much reassured last month when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Tbilisi and bluntly described the ongoing Russian presence in the two regions as "occupation."
Nevertheless, Georgia has not yet had the chance to work its voodoo on Obama, and Georgians fret that this dispassionate and unfamiliar figure is not the type to succumb to the Syndrome. Insiders worry that while Michael McFaul, the National Security Council (NSC) official responsible for Russia and Eurasia, is philo-Georgian — McFaul once worked in Georgia for the National Democratic Institute — Denis McDonough, Obama’s longtime advisor and McFaul’s superior at the NSC, is a cold-hearted realist. Outsiders ask whether Obama has discarded the principle of "Eurocentrism," which is code for "Western values," or whether he is prepared to sacrifice Georgia to the reset with Russia.
Like Israelis, Georgians are plagued by the uneasy sense that their claims on the United States are moral rather than strategic. Yakobashvili makes the wild assertion that the Russian presence in the South Caucasus threatens NATO’s commitment to stopping terrorism, organized crime, and nuclear proliferation — he says that Russian passports issued to Ossetians have been found on Chechen separatists — but the truth is that the current stalemate is hardly destabilizing. When I asked Irakli Porchkhidze, deputy secretary of Georgia’s national security council, why the West should pressure Russia to withdraw from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he said, "Russia has violated the principle of the inviolability of borders; Russia has engaged in ethnic cleansing. Are these not human rights issues?"
The answer is yes, mostly. The ethnic cleansing in question occurred chiefly during the savage civil war of the early 1990s, when forces on all sides committed atrocities. But though disputes remain over who fired the first shot in 2008, in the course of the war Russia violated Georgia’s territorial integrity as brutally and unequivocally as Iraq did Kuwait’s in 1990. And despite signing a cease-fire agreement requiring both sides to withdraw from the disputed region, Russia has maintained thousands of troops in the region, held the territories as dependencies, and flaunted its contempt for the agreement by moves like the announcement of the S-300, which serves no conceivable defensive purpose. "Our air force has like three and a half planes," Yakobashvili said to me. "What are they going to shoot down — UFOs?"
Georgia really does pose a problem for its friends. Most of its neighbors in the post-Soviet space have knuckled under to Russia’s demand for regional hegemony. Georgia, defiantly, has not. Many of those not wholly under the spell of Georgia Syndrome have urged Saakashvili to stop taunting Russia and its volcanic prime minister, Vladimir Putin; to put aside his aspirations to join NATO; and to mute his strident nationalism. In a recent Financial Times op-ed, Thomas de Waal, a regional expert, suggested that Russia is seeking its own "reset" with the West, which could well include reconciliation with Georgia, but added that such change would be impossible so long as Saakashvili, "the sworn enemy of Moscow," as de Waal put it, remained in office. (His tenure runs to 2013.)
Saakashvili is a tempestuous and reckless figure, but Georgians seem to like him that way. He’s recouped some, though hardly all, of his popularity from the fiasco of the war, which Georgia lost quickly and decisively, and his opposition is hopelessly divided. The country is booming, and Saakashvili is erecting mighty public works to cement his claim as the second coming of David the Builder, the great 12th-century Georgian leader he has vowed to emulate. He may run as prime minister wh
en his presidential tenure expires, as Putin did (a comparison Saakashvili would not care to encourage). He is, in short scarcely an alien presence. Moreover, it’s not too easy to find the alleged signs of Russian moderation toward its neighbors. Putin’s Russia — or Medvedev’s — seems to want compliance, not reconciliation. If Russia’s goal were simply to liberate the Abkhaz and Ossetian people from the Georgian yoke, some kind of solution involving substantial autonomy might well be found. But if Russia’s goal is to bring Georgia to heel, then it will not withdraw its military presence in the region save under concerted pressure from the West.
And there’s the rub. If Russia makes another bid to crush Georgia, the West may react. But what if Moscow is content simply to consolidate its gains? European leaders, many of whom depend on Russia for oil and natural gas, will hardly deem the stalemate sufficient cause to jeopardize relations with Russia. A McCain administration might sacrifice arms control or Iran policy to the great cause of Georgia’s sovereign integrity, but neither Obama nor any other president not under the spell of the Syndrome would do so. Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory is one of those abuses that one must keep insisting is unacceptable — even as, in practice, one accepts it, and waits for the moment when compromise solutions become possible.
This is the kind of reality Georgian leaders, so addicted to maximalist claims, need to hear from their friends rather than their adversaries. As we were leaving our conversation at the bar of the Tbilisi Marriott, Yakobashvili told me something an ambassador had recently said to him: "We love Georgia, but we will not love you unconditionally."