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With Obama Win, NATO Prospects For Ukraine, Georgia Appear To Shift

  • Daisy Sindelar

John McCain was a strong ally of Georgia during its August war with Russia

John McCain was a strong ally of Georgia during its August war with Russia

Barack Obama's election may have prompted celebrations from Chicago to Nairobi. But in Tbilisi, it was disappointment that carried the day, with many Georgians ruefully contemplating what John McCain's defeat would mean for them.

"I was rooting for McCain because he favored a more rigorous policy toward Russia," said one man in the Georgian capital. Another added: "I was sure he would win. He was very strong in his dealings with Russia."

Since its Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia -- like Ukraine, whose Orange Revolution brought democratic change to Kyiv the following year -- have frequently looked to the White House for support as they attempted to ease themselves out of the Russian fold and into NATO and other Western institutions.

At first this meant a close friendship with President George W. Bush, who was eager to tout the countries as success stories to bolster his wobbly legacy as a democracy-builder abroad.

More recently, it has meant strong ties with McCain, the Arizona senator who had hoped his foreign policy expertise -- including frequent advocacy on Georgia's behalf -- would secure a White House win.

It did not, however, appear to entertain the possibility of an Obama presidency -- despite suggestions by some observers that Obama's leadership style will ultimately prove the better fit for post-Soviet neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine.

Known Quantity

McCain, whose top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann was a lobbyist who counted Georgia among his clients, proved a stalwart ally during its August war with Russia. Aides reported McCain spoke to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "every day" at the height of the conflict.

McCain was also an advocate of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and an unyielding critic of the Kremlin. He argued that Moscow should be kicked out of the G8 group of major industrialized nations for its aggressive behavior, and provocatively suggested a planned U.S. missile-defense system would offer protection against Russia as well as rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

For Georgia and Ukraine, McCain appeared to offer a continuation of the Bush mandate to push for NATO expansion, and tamp down Russia's influence in its post-Soviet backyard.
I was rooting for McCain because he favored a more rigorous policy toward Russia

But critics say both Bush and McCain overstated the countries' actual democratic progress, and turned a blind eye to transgressions by officials, particularly in Georgia.

"Georgia had to meet NATO at least halfway," said Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics at New York's Columbia University. "And what it got under the Bush administration was the constant message: 'Have bad elections? We'll cover for you. Make a foolish decision and get pulled into a war with Russia? Here's a billion bucks, don't worry about it. Keep cracking down on media and civil liberties? It's OK.'"

Georgia's lapses have proved especially egregious to rights-watchers who say the country is far from the beacon of democratic progress advocates like Bush and McCain make it out to be.

The country on November 7 marks the one-year anniversary since police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful antigovernment protests and cracked down on nonstate media. Saakashvili was widely criticized for authorizing the violence, and was forced to call early elections the following year.

That incident prompted skeptical NATO member states to warn against fast-track membership for Tbilisi -- a sentiment that has hardened in the wake of the Russia-Georgian war, as questions continue to arise about Saakashvili's actions in the early days of the conflict.

NATO foreign ministers are due to revisit the question of providing Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia in December; without a consensus among major players like Germany and France, however, a deal is considered unlikely.

The Russia Question

Ukraine's path toward NATO is in some ways even more bedeviled than Georgia's.

While the country has been consistently praised for maintaining free elections and a flourishing press in the years since the Orange Revolution, fierce political infighting and divided loyalties between Russia and the West have kept the country at a virtual standstill.

Ukraine's lost momentum, like Georgia's democratic stumbles, have allowed Moscow, with its exploding resource wealth, to reassert authority over its former Soviet empire. Ukraine is home to millions of Russian speakers, and Moscow has threatened energy cutoffs and missile attacks to remind Kyiv of the dangers of looking West.

The country's beleaguered pro-Western forces now worry that McCain's defeat means the loss of a powerful protector, and the rise of an unknown quantity who may attempt to accommodate Moscow at the expense of countries like Ukraine.

"I've got the impression that Obama will conduct a traditional Democratic policy. That means that Russia will come first," said Yuriy Shcherbak, a former Ukrainian ambassador to Washington. "I think our prospects under an Obama government will be quite difficult. We don't know whether, and to what extent, Obama will be ready to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine."

Obama has acknowledged that Russia's "resurgence" is one of the major issues to be faced by the incoming U.S. administration.
Russia has threatened to place missiles in Kaliningrad

Many worry Obama's pragmatic, consensus-building style will prove a losing tactic in dealing with the bluster of the Kremlin, whose first gesture after the U.S. elections was not an offer of congratulations but a threat to place missiles in Kaliningrad to counter the planned U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

A Cooler Head?

Others, however, argue it was McCain -- hotheaded and confrontational -- who would have proved the far greater risk in dealing with Russia.

"I believe there are many in Georgia who felt McCain would have been a stronger advocate for getting Georgia into NATO quickly," Mitchell said. "But McCain would never have been able to get them into NATO. I believe Georgia in the longer term probably should get into NATO. But it's only going to happen by building a coalition -- and Obama is far, far better prepared to do that than McCain."

Despite lingering doubts in Tbilisi and Kyiv, Obama indicated clear support for NATO expansion in a number of policy statements issued before the election.

One statement noted that Obama and his vice-presidential running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, "have consistently called for NATO Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia, and support their admission to NATO when they are ready."

The readiness of Georgia and Ukraine remains, however, a separate question -- particularly as Tbilisi continues to answer for its actions in the recent war with Russia.

Shalva Pichkhadze, who heads the Tbilisi-based organization "Georgia for NATO,” acknowledges the August conflict was a setback for Georgia's membership bid. But he says he believes the election of Barack Obama as the 44th U.S. president will not be a roadblock in Georgia's long-term membership goals.

"For me it's more important to what degree Georgia is doing everything it needs to in order to get into NATO,” he said. "As for Obama, if he supports NATO expansion -- and I think he will -- then Ukraine and Georgia are the likeliest candidates for entry. And we're doing everything we can so that it will be worth it to Obama and our allies to fight for our membership in NATO."

Back To Basics

Not all Georgians may measure Obama's worth in terms of his stance on NATO. Sozar Subari, the country's human rights ombudsman, has been a frequent critic of Saakashvili's leadership style and says the best contribution Obama could make would be to return Georgia's focus to questions governance and civil society.

In this, he says, he sees a notable difference between Obama and Georgia's "old friend" John McCain.

"What I expect from Obama, as opposed to McCain, is this: more support for democracy in Georgia," Subari says. "I hope that the huge support for Georgia we saw with the previous administration will continue, but that more attention will be paid to democracy within Georgia."

Mitchell of Columbia University echoes the sentiment. "The best outcome of an Obama victory," he said, "would be that the Georgian-U.S. relationship is returned to normal."

Marina Vashakmadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service and Maryana Drach of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report