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Georgia: Bush Gives Half A Loaf

U.S. President George W. Bush's pronouncements during his 9-10 May visit to Tbilisi were significant primarily for what he did not say. As anticipated, Bush expressed praise and approval for the November 2003 Rose Revolution; for the aspirations of the Georgian people to build on that foundation a new and democratic state; for the new Georgian leadership's success in cracking down on corruption and implementing badly-needed reforms; and for President Mikheil Saakashvili personally, whose "spirit, determination, and leadership in the cause of freedom" Bush singled out for special menti

Further, Bush endorsed Georgia's territorial integrity and Saakashvili's professed commitment to achieving a peaceful solution to the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia; he termed "very reasonable" Saakashvili's offer to those regions of broad autonomy, self-government, and economic cooperation. But, at the same time, Bush made it clear that Washington cannot and will not intervene to impose a peace settlement nor, apparently, will it lean on Russia to scale back its support for the leaders of the two breakaway unrecognized republics. "This is a dispute that has got to be resolved by the Georgian government and by the folks in the separatist regions. The United States cannot impose a solution nor would you want us to," Reuters quoted Bush as saying.

Moreover, on two other key issues on which Saakashvili had made clear he hoped for a statement of Washington's support, Bush was cautious and equivocal. First, Bush said during a joint press conference with Saakashvili on 10 May that Russia is ready to work with the Georgian side on the problem of the closure of its two remaining military bases from Georgia, thereby implying that the failure during talks last week between the Russian and Georgian foreign ministers to finalize an agreement on that closure was due at least in part to Tbilisi's intransigence. Bush added that "I know that this issue is very important for Georgia, and Russia is ready to fulfill its commitments at the [1999] OSCE Istanbul Summit related to [the] withdrawal of its bases." Saakashvili had said last week he had asked Bush to raise the issue of the bases with Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently hoping that Bush would pressure Moscow to comply with Tbilisi's demands that the two bases be closed by 1 January 2008.

Second, Bush told Georgians congregated on Freedom Square on 10 May that the U.S. supports Georgia's "desire to join the institutions of Europe" and encourages "close cooperation with NATO," but he stopped short of endorsing unequivocally Georgia's desire for NATO membership. Similarly, in an interview two days earlier with the independent television station Rustavi-2, Bush had stressed that neither Georgia nor Ukraine should expect to be admitted to NATO "overnight." Georgia's Individual Partnership Action Plan -- the document that enumerates the measures the country must take to qualify to make a formal request for membership in the alliance -- the initial draft of which President Saakashvili presented to NATO in April 2004 -- had to be reworked extensively before its formal approval last fall.

The precise geopolitical implications of President Bush's circumspect phrasing may not have been clear to some Georgians who simply construed his one-day visit to Tbilisi as a gesture of U.S. support and goodwill. But those implications must have registered with the Georgian leadership as a warning that despite Saakashvili's definition of Georgian-U.S. relations as based on "shared values and a shared belief in freedom and democracy," for Washington, relations with Georgia do not warrant any step that could jeopardize the more important relationship Bush has forged with Russia and with President Putin personally.

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