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Georgia: 'Most Important To Have Western Unity' In Face Of Russian Moves

(RFE/RL) Randy Scheunemann is the foreign-policy and security adviser to Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Scheunemann recently spoke with David Kakabadze, the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, about the increasing tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow recently lifted trade restrictions for businesses trying to trade with the two regions, while Georgia accused Russia of shooting down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance drone over Abkhazia. The UN Security Council met on April 24 to discuss the crisis.

RFE/RL: Just a few days ago, Senator John McCain issued a statement in which he strongly condemned Moscow's decision to establish direct governmental links with the breakaway regions of Georgia -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In his statement, Senator McCain calls the latest Russian move "de facto annexation" of those territories -- an accusation that Moscow flatly denies. What's next? What are the tools that the West, and the United States in particular, could use to make Russia cooperate?

Randy Scheunemann: I think what is most important, first and foremost, is to have Western unity in the face of the latest Russian undermining of Georgian sovereignty. Traditionally, we have seen that the Russians will push and push until they meet opposition. And what they need to understand is that all European countries and the United States are united in opposing the latest Russian moves, which is really the culmination of years of what they've been doing, undermining Georgian sovereignty.

And I think we've seen some significant progress in that after Foreign Minister [David] Bakradze's presentation at the [UN] Security Council, four of the Group of Friends of Georgia issued a united statement for the first time, joining together to express concern and opposition to a Russian action. And that's a very significant development -- to have the key countries like Britain and France and the United States and Germany issue a clear signal to the Russians that they should either revoke or not implement this latest decree. And I think, that's a positive development. We've also seen support in different places in Europe, and we hope and expect that will continue -- whether it's through the Estonian parliament or the European Parliament or other individual countries.

RFE/RL: Well, the Western unity you've just mentioned seems to be in place, indeed, because similar statements, containing Russian condemnation, have been issued by all three candidates still running for the U.S. presidency. Along with Senator McCain, strong statements came out from Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. How much do American voters care about a small, remote country with the population of the U.S. states of Alabama or Colorado, [a country which] has no energy resources, no uranium, no gold or diamonds? What makes Georgia so important?

Scheunemann: First, I think you're exactly right to point out that it is very significant -- at a time when we are engaged in the presidential election campaign and election campaigns tend to highlight differences on issues -- that all three candidates both strongly condemned the latest Russian moves but also strongly supported Georgia in its territorial intergrity. And all three candidates -- interestingly enough, too, prior to the Bucharest NATO summit -- supported Georgia's aspiration to join the Membership Action Plan. So it is broad bipartisan consensus in the United States.

Now, as to your question of how much do the average American voters care, I mean, this is not something that the candidates are asked about in town-hall meetings or regularly by political reporters covering the campaign. And I think, frankly, that makes our statements even more significant in that there is no direct political benefit in the campaign -- a very fiercely fought campaign that's going on right now in the United States -- to take the side of Georgia.

The reason, I think, that there's been such support for years on a bipartisan basis in the U.S. Congress, as well as support through successive administrations, for Georgia is not because Georgia has resources -- as you point out, Georgia is relatively resource poor -- it is because, in particular since the Rose Revolution, that the Georgian example has inspired Americans and American leaders in their dedication to democracy, their willingness to take risks for democracy, the tremendous reforms that the Saakashvili government has put in place.

It's really about shared values, and it's something that Senator McCain feels particularly deeply. He's been to Georgia, I think, three or four times and witnessed the legendary Georgian hospitality on those occasions, and it had a deep and lasting impact on him that will continue.

RFE/RL: In situations like this one, many analysts start talking about possible trade-offs between the superpowers. In this particular case, there was a lot of talk about allowing the United States to develop its antimissile defense system in Central Europe in exchange for giving up the idea of supporting the NATO aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine. How would you comment on that?

Scheunemann: Well, I think first of all the administration has said very clearly and publicly that there will be no trade-offs. Trade-offs like that are kind of a relic of a bygone era of power politics. Second, it's not a question really of Russia "allowing" missile defense. The question of missile defense is between three sovereign governments -- the United States, Poland, and the Czech Republic. And they are able and must be able to make their own sovereign decisions.

These three governments have gone to great lengths to try to meet the stated Russian concerns about missile defense. But I think, at the end of the day, any serious strategic analyst understands that the Russian concerns have nothing to do with concern about how 10 interceptors and a tracking radar in Central Europe could somehow undermine the viability of their deterrent. It's frankly a ludicrous proposition.

As to the support for Georgia's aspirations to the Membership Action Plan with NATO, I think it's pretty clear there wasn't a trade-off. Certainly, President Bush fought very hard and publicly and, as you and your listeners know, kept the leaders at a dinner several hours overdue, arguing his case. And, well, he was ultimately unsuccessful in getting a Membership Action Plan [for Georgia and Ukraine], and it certainly demonstrates there was no trade-off from the perspective of U.S. policy. There was very strong language in the NATO communique, stating that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually be members in NATO. And that's significant because it becomes then a question not of "if" but of "when."

RFE/RL: Some observers argue that NATO's decision not to include Georgia and Ukraine in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the recent summit in Bucharest gave Russia the feeling that it has a free hand to act more aggressively toward these countries. Would you agree with this assumption?

Scheunemann: I think, as Senator McCain pointed out in the statement that he issued last week, that it's very important that Europe and the United States signal to Russia that they do not have a free hand. And I think we have to be candid that one of the arguments in favor of MAP at Bucharest was that if you did not grant MAP, that some in Russia would interpret it as a signal that NATO wasn't interested in seeing Georgia come closer to the alliance; that certain Russians would draw the conclusion that they might have a freer hand.

Ironically, one of the arguments against giving Georgia and Ukraine MAP that was offered in public, and especially in private -- particularly by the German Foreign Ministry -- was that to undertake such a move would be provocative to Russia. Unfortunately, the German position prevailed. MAP wasn't offered, and Russia acted very provocatively on its own. So I think the Russian actions actually undermined the arguments of those that were against Membership Action Plan.

If anybody thought you're going to somehow placate the Russians by not giving Georgia and Ukraine MAP, we've seen through the Russian response that, in fact, rather than being placated, they felt emboldened.

RFE/RL: With my last question, I would like to go back to the issue of reforms, which you just mentioned. After the events of last November -- when the Georgian government cracked down on antigovernment protesters with riot police -- there has been a lot of criticism of the Georgian authorities, both inside the country and on the international scene. Some observers noted that it would be better for everyone if the United States supported institutions and structures, rather than concrete individuals, in Georgia. What can you say about this? How can the West ensure sustainable development of democracy in Georgia?

Scheunemann: That's a very good question. I think, first and foremost, what the United States and the international community can do is what they have been doing -- and that is to push for continued reforms and development of institutions, to ensure that there is free media, that there is the ability for political parties to organize and to operate. We have to realize as well that Georgia is still a transitional country, and the elections that they had for the presidency and a referendum on NATO membership, which passed overwhelmingly and significantly, were the freest and fairest in Georgian history. They were not perfect. And we hope that parliamentary elections will improve the process. But we have to realize that this does take time.

I think that it would be helpful to the process if the opposition parties organized around issues rather than personalities, as well. And instead of uniting for calls of being opposed to President [Mikheil] Saakashvili, actually united in favor of certain programs and policies. That's always a positive development to have your political parties organized around principles and values that you share, rather than the personalities of the moment.

But I think we have to also recognize not only how successful the reforms have been, that there are also many reforms that need to be taken, particularly in the judicial sector; And that it's incredibly difficult to carry out the bold reform agenda when you face the unremitting hostility of Russia, when you have your energy cut off, when you have your exports cut off, when you have an embargo on your wine, when you have embargo on travel. And the fact that President Saakashvili and his government have been able to get as far as they have in face of that unremitting hostility, I think, is a tribute not just to President Saakashvili and his government but to the Georgian people.

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