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Caucasus: Council Established To Strengthen Georgian-U.S. Ties

By Sonja Haase

A movement is under way in the U.S. to promote greater democracy for Georgia. Americans and Georgians have established a nongovernmental organization aimed at strengthening democratic institutions in Georgia.

Washington, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A group of prominent Georgians and Americans have founded an organization to promote stronger ties between the two countries in an effort to strengthen democracy in Georgia.

American businessman Kenneth Feltman, the chairman of the new Georgia-Caucasus Council of the United States, told a news conference in Washington on 22 April that the group's goals are to help Americans understand how much they have in common with Georgians on international issues.

"Right now, [the council's goals] are to educate U.S. opinion-makers about Georgia's strategic geopolitical position in a troubled region and to let people know of Georgia's strong support for the United States and our policy positions in this country."

Specifically, the council will promote economic development and trade among Georgia, the United States, and Europe, and will encourage political stability and democracy in Georgia. This will include promoting Georgia's goal of someday joining NATO.

The council's executive director, political scientist Irakli Areshidze, said that with parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year and a presidential election in 2005, Georgia is facing a possible political crisis and it needs U.S. help.

Areshidze said American influence is especially important now because of the way Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, is maintaining control over his political party, the Citizens' Union of Georgia. He said the party follows what he calls the "Chinese model" because Shevardnadze continues to run it even though he has relinquished the chairmanship.

He also suggested that the party could resort to illegal means to ensure that its coalition maintains a majority in parliament.

"So, my assessment is that they have declared war, and it forces everybody to reassess how they can respond to it. Now, I don't belong to that part of Georgia analysts who believe that in response to this, the opposition has to come together and you have to have this polarization of Georgian politics -- on the one hand the government, on the other hand the opposition -- kind of going at it. But you have to reassess what Shevardnadze's intentions are, and certainly influencing him will be a lot more important now than it was two months ago."

According to Areshidze, the leadership in Georgia now looks to Washington as it once looked to Moscow -- not as a friend but as a political authority. He said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush could exploit this position to help promote democracy in Georgia.

Areshidze welcomed Bush's letter to Shevardnadze in January that stressed the importance of the upcoming elections as a transition in political leadership.

"If elections are not free and if democracy is not allowed to flourish, people will go in the streets, they will rebel, and the result will be extreme instability and possibly chaos."

Areshidze suggested that the Bush administration could take several steps to bring pressure on the Georgian government to ensure free and open elections both this year and next. These steps would include linking foreign aid to the quality of the parliamentary and presidential elections, and threatening to isolate Shevardnadze politically if there is electoral fraud.

According to Areshidze, another way the United States can promote democracy in Georgia is to encourage U.S. businesses to invest in the country. He said this would help not only Georgia, but promote stability in the entire Caucasus.

"The reality is that business flourishes a lot better when there is democracy," he said. "And I'm absolutely confident that the Georgian business community can be an extremely influential force in promoting democratic values in Georgia."

Feltman -- the council's chairman -- emphasized that promoting democracy in Georgia could be as important to the United States as it would be to Georgia. He said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has learned in recent months about the importance of having international support for dealing with Iraq. He said just as Georgia needs friends, so does the United States.