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Georgia Coming Back In From The Cold

President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tbilisi on July 5. Suddenly, Georgia's not feeling so isolated.
President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tbilisi on July 5. Suddenly, Georgia's not feeling so isolated.
Over the last few weeks there has been a parade of high-level visitors to Tbilisi and Batumi.

It began with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, followed by the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Luxembourg. It also included the head of the newly created European Union foreign-policy service, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, and, finally, the president of Azerbaijan.

During the same period, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili managed to hold unofficial talks with his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts in Crimea. About a month earlier, he traveled to summits with the presidents of Romania and France.

It has been a long time since anything of this sort has happened. Compared to the last two years, when the number of official visits to Tbilisi fell sharply, we can consider the latest events a sort of "diplomatic breakthrough."

Most of the guests not only visited Tbilisi, but also stopped by other countries among those that Russia considers its "near abroad." From this one can conclude that Western countries are trying -- at least on the level of symbolic gestures -- to stress that relations with Moscow are not being improved at the expense of Russia's neighbors.

The meetings of the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Azerbaijani presidents with Saakashvili -- the embodiment of disobedience toward Russia -- indicate that these leaders are trying to balance their relations with Russia with other political vectors.

Saakashvili Here To Stay

But the uptick in diplomatic activity is particularly significant for Georgia. The fact that in recent times Saakashvili has rarely been invited to summits and that Tbilisi has ceased to be a popular site for high-level meetings stems not only from the fact that the West did not approve of Saakashvili's behavior in August 2008. The problem was that it was unclear whether he would be able to survive politically following the country's military defeat. Or, if he could, would he be able to do it without resorting to political repression and the restriction of democratic liberties.

So the West decided to wait and see what would happen with Georgia....

But the results of the local elections in May finally cleared things up. Saakashvili and his party really strengthened their position. As a result, for the next few years everyone is going to have to deal with him.

Moreover, Saakashvili not only survived but he did so without any radical shifts. Clearly you can't compare democracy in Georgia with the standards of the European Union, but despite domestic political tensions and the existential threat from the north, the general dynamic has been more toward the expansion of democratic liberties than toward their contraction.

This was confirmed by the quality of the elections -- Western observers unanimously noted clear progress compared to the previous polls, although they always added (and justly so) that the consolidation of democratic institutions is still a long way off.

While it seems Saakashvili will never regain the star status that he had in the wake of the Rose Revolution, the West is now convinced that he is a serious leader who must be taken into account and dealt with and that Georgia -- despite its shortcomings -- remains a regional leader in terms of democratic development.

Isolated No More

But what can these visits give Georgia, beside a few pleasant words? It is obvious that Russia is not going to withdraw from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia will not be accepted into NATO or the European Union. The West is not going to fight with Russia over Georgia's sovereignty or even impose economic sanctions on Moscow.

But what is really important is the new dynamic. Lately the United States has begun consistently describing the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "occupation" -- that is, Washington is using the harshest word there is in the diplomatic lexicon. Perhaps this is connected with the upcoming elections in the United States and is a response to criticism from the Republicans. But so what? The word "occupation" is not a bell that can be easily unrung.

Georgia recently signed an agreement with the European Union on the easing of visa restrictions and the beginning of talks on an association agreement has been announced. "So what?" the critics will say. "Nothing will come of it." Maybe so, but nonetheless the dynamic of Georgia's relations with the EU is positive.

It can all be summed up like this: Georgia's opponents (or the opponents of the current government) have been fond of saying that the country is isolated and the West no longer supports us. Either Georgia must throw itself on the mercy of the victor or Saakashvili must leave immediately. After the diplomatic parade this month, it is much harder to make this argument.

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