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Georgia Gets A Timely -- And Welcome -- Phone Call

  • Ghia Nodia

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12

U.S. President Barak Obama's phone call last week to Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili came with Georgia's pro-Western political regime increasingly isolated in the post-Soviet space. Russia is on the offensive to restore its dominating influence, and the West has insufficient resources or will to curb this trend.

Recent changes in the region are not encouraging for Georgia. After pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine, Georgia became "decoupled" from Ukraine as a candidate country for NATO membership. It is now alone in its neighborhood in this respect. A coup in Kyrgyzstan has brought to power a government whose first steps suggest it will be more pro-Russian than its predecessor, and some speculate that it may try to squeeze the U.S. military from its soil.

Kyrgyzstan is much less important for Georgia than Ukraine is, but the symbolism is very negative. The results of two out of the three "color revolutions" that shook the region in 2003-05 now appear to have been reversed. Some radical Georgian opposition leaders immediately vowed to repeat the Bishkek scenario soon in Tbilisi. Coincidentally, they are the very political figures who recently changed their views, withdrawing support for Georgia's NATO aspirations and instead engaging in friendship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that could create positive dynamics toward Europeanizing the region is now stalled. So far, the most unpleasant by-product of this effort is the further alienation of Azerbaijan from both Turkey and the United States. This by default strengthens Russia's hand in the region.

Dependable Ally

All this leaves Georgia pretty much the West's only dependable ally in the region. Despite the misfortunes of the recent past, the Georgian leadership sees no alternative to developing as close a partnership with the U.S. and the EU as it can, and there is solid public support for that stance. The major and better organized factions within the opposition -- the Christian-Democratic Movement and the Alliance for Georgia -- also support such a policy. Georgia is frequently criticized for its democracy deficit, but it still looks much better on this account than almost any of its neighbors, and the assumption that Western-style democracy constitutes the only role model for Georgia's political development is never questioned.

Georgia stressed its allegiance to NATO by sending a battalion of 750 Georgian servicemen to Afghanistan on April 7, raising the number of Georgians serving in Afghanistan to 950. Georgia thus became the largest per capita contributor to NATO's Afghan operation. The first thing President Obama did in his talk with his Georgian counterpart was to thank Georgia for this. Georgia has also helped Obama by accepting three former inmates of the notorious Guantanamo prison on its territory.

All this cannot fail to annoy Russia. Many Georgians expect it to step up its efforts to bring about regime change in the only country of its "near abroad" where it has not made any headway in terms of political influence (except of course for consolidating military control over 20 percent of its territory that Russia now considers the independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

...And Valuable Partner

A controversial fake report aired by Imedi TV that depicted a hypothetical Russian takeover of Georgia in the wake of internal turmoil was almost universally criticized, and with good reason. However, it reflected real fears that exist within Georgian society, and some Georgians would say that recent images from Bishkek have reminded them of the Imedi story. The main way to prevent a repeat of the Bishkek events in Tbilisi is to maintain internal stability by democratic means -- and the internal situation appears fairly stable of late. Western support remains indispensable nonetheless.

By making a much-publicized call to President Saakashvili just before signing the new START arms-control deal with the Russians (obviously the greatest achievement of the "reset" policy so far), Obama sent the message that Georgia continues to be a valuable partner in the region. This runs counter to messages sent by Russian politicians and experts, mostly through informal channels, that the Obama administration does not really care about Georgia, and so the latter should deal with Russia on its own.

A gesture of encouragement from the U.S. was something Georgia badly needed at this juncture. But it was also a smart move on the part of the Obama administration, which cannot afford to abandon the only regime in the region that despite all difficulties, internal or external, continues to pursue the course of integration with the world of western institutions and values, and is popular among its own population for that.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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