A visit by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, a new embassy complex on the outskirts of Tbilisi, a U.S. training program for the Georgian Army, and long-term commitment to the success of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Washington's political, economic, and military involvement in Georgia shows no sign of letting up. But Russia is looking on with increasing irritation, as Georgia itself remains beset by instability.
Tbilisi, 21 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It's a hot Sunday afternoon, and a group of U.S. Marines sips iced Cokes and flirts with the waitresses in the air-conditioned sanctuary of a Marriott hotel -- a welcome break from training local soldiers.
The scene could be almost anywhere, but this is central Tbilisi. Until recently, the only soldiers here were from the Soviet Army. Georgia was Moscow's southern border with NATO and one of the cornerstones of the Soviet Union's Cold War defenses.
Times have changed. On a recent flight into the capital, the plane was full of large U.S. soldiers crammed into seats far too small for comfort. And there are far too many such soldiers in Georgia for Moscow's comfort.
As seen from Russia, the Stars and Stripes have unfolded across Georgia with alarming speed, coinciding with Georgia's official application for NATO membership last November. Russian generals are grumbling, especially after NATO sent an AWACS reconnaissance plane on a goodwill mission to Georgia last week. Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers continue to train Georgian troops as part of a $64 million antiterrorism program.
Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL: "It looks like it's part of penetration in the region. I think the Americans are teaching, [are] showing the Russians that it is inevitable, and they're doing it in a very delicate way -- step by step."
When Russia began bombing Georgian territory last year, in pursuit of Chechen fighters allegedly sheltering in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, Washington warned Moscow to back off. Earlier this year, a U.S. spy plane cruised along the Georgian-Russian border, sending some Russian parliamentarians into fits of rage.
What are Washington's motives? Mark Mullen of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute in Georgia thinks oil is a big factor. The construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is under way, and huge sums of U.S. money are involved.
"Part of it may be is because of the pipeline -- in terms of the stability of world oil prices and being able to move Caspian oil, threading its way between Russia and Iran. A big reason is, I think, some of the relationships that have built up -- and not just with [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze. I think there is a sense when Americans visit here, they feel a connection to this place. They like it. It feels a little bit less autocratic than a lot of other places in the region. It's pretty conveniently located in terms of putting a long-term strategic 'body block' between Russia and the Middle East," Mullen told RFE/RL.
Gela Charkviani believes there are other reasons. Charkviani, who is Shevardnadze's personal interpreter and foreign affairs adviser, believes Georgia has passed the democracy test.
"It seems like, you know, I don't want to [say] Georgia is a 'darling' of the West or the United States, but in some sense it looks like the importance attached to Georgia is greater than any other post-Soviet state. But again, I find it difficult to say whether this is geopolitics, a pragmatic approach, or an idealistic infatuation with our freedom. Because really, where we have succeeded is in creating a free society," Charkviani said.
Not everyone is quite so convinced, least of all, it seems, in Washington. In yet another sign of the importance it attaches to Georgia, the White House recently took the extraordinary step of sending former Secretary of State James Baker on an urgent mission to persuade Georgia's fractious politicians to get their act together ahead of crucial political events. Shevardnadze must step down in 2005, and Georgia elects a new parliament in November.
Mullen said Baker's message -- delivered earlier this month -- was clear: the elections must be free and fair. "[Baker] talked about the president's legacy and how he is going to be perceived by history. Certainly, [Shevardnadze] is not as popular here now as he was several years ago. You know, it's time for him to consider that and to consider a peaceful and fair electoral transition of power. And he is of two minds on that, and so they needed to discuss that," Mullen said.
The pill was made sweeter because it came from Baker, Shevardnadze's long-time friend. But it cannot have been easy to swallow. Baker came with his own formula for the composition of the Central Election Commission, as well as some strong advice on how to conduct the elections. Opposition and pro-government parties have agreed to put aside their differences and fall into line. No one, it seems, wants to upset the U.S.
"For the most part, the U.S. is still a whole lot more popular than what is perceived as the alternative, which is Russia. For the time being, and this may change, most presidential candidates are likely to be pro-American, and I think this fits in a little bit with the Baker trip. The U.S. does not want to be put in the position where it is in disagreement with the majority of the Georgian population," Mullen said.
But things may be changing. Among ordinary Georgians, the government is synonymous with corruption. While the rich have grown richer, the lives of most Georgians have grown immeasurably poorer due to gas, electricity, and water shortages, soaring crime rates, and falling standards in health care and education.
Gocha Tskitishvili of the IPM public opinion research center thinks the Georgian love affair with the U.S. may be cooling off. "The problem is much of U.S. investment here is wasted," he told RFE/RL. "The measures proposed by foreign experts often fail to take into account Georgian conditions, while the people who come to work here rarely understand anything. So America's attempts to build a civil society in Georgia are not achieving much. But Russia's use of simple, direct military levers is becoming more successful. The number of people who view Russia positively in Georgia has doubled over the last few years."
This argument does not impress Rondeli of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He accepts the problems, but said Russia has created too much ill will to be welcomed back anytime soon as a friend. "In our relations with Russia, Georgia lost a lot. Russia from the very beginning was very tough with Georgia and contributed to Georgia's disintegration and never did anything good after the independence of Georgia. So if you have a neighbor which is powerful and is constantly trying to amputate one part after another of your territory, trying to manipulate you from the inside, trying to destabilize you, it is absolutely logical and natural that you will try to find a better protector," he said.
There is no doubt today who that protector is -- nor that it intends to stay. The United States has economic and geostrategic interests in the region and has made clear its intent to protect them. It will do what it can to prevent instability in Georgia.
It is equally clear, however, that Russia is and will remain the regional power. Whatever Georgia's relationship with the United States, it is not in its interest to antagonize its northern neighbor.
How Georgia resolves the tensions in its relations with Washington and Moscow could be the key to its future survival.