TBILISI – The message the Georgians wanted to send to Vice President Joe Biden was clear almost from the minute Air Force Two landed in Tbilisi.
And it was not subtle.
As Biden’s motorcade sped into town, it was greeted by lines of people along the road carrying signs reading “Don’t Forget Us” and “We Are Counting On You.” Some played off President Barack Obama’s campaign slogans with banners reading “You Are Our Hope” and “Yes You Can!”
But that was just prologue to the welcome Biden would get from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at the newly constructed presidential palace, where the U.S. vice president was awarded the St. George Victory Order, Georgia's second highest state honor.
“Joe, my dear friend, it is such a great pleasure to have you back in Georgia,” Saakashvili said, opening a banquet in the vice president’s honor and recalling Biden’s visit to Tbilisi during last August’s war with Russia.
Saakashvili said Georgia was “building democracy at gunpoint” and that Russian artillery was “pointed at…this palace, this city, right now as we speak.”
He reached for Cold War metaphors, saying “new bags of cement and barbed wire are being transported, and a new Berlin wall is being built,” in reference to the fortified checkpoints along the de facto borders with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This was reset-phobia on steroids and Saakashvili laid it on thick. The Georgian leader is clearly jittery that his ties with Washington could become a sacrifice in the alter of improved U.S.-Russian relations.
And in case the point was lost on anybody, after the banquet, when Biden had retired for the night, Saakashvili attended the opening of an outdoor photo exhibition comparing the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the Cold War division of Germany – complete with a makeshift Checkpoint Charlie.
On the eve of Biden’s visit, Georgian officials said
they wanted U.S. involvement in a European Union mission to monitor the de facto boundaries with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
At the banquet, Biden did his best to reassure. He reiterated the Obama administration’s mantra that resetting relations with Russia would not come at Georgia’s expense.
“Let me say that one year ago, when I came to Georgia, it was under very different and difficult circumstances. I was proud to stand with you then,” Biden said.
“And the reason I'm back, and the reason President Obama asked me to come back, was to send an unequivocal, clear, simple message to all who will listen, and those who even don't want to listen, that America stands with you at this moment and will continue to stand with you.”
That drew a hearty applause from the assembled politicians and dignitaries.
But it wasn’t the only message Biden was in Tbilisi to deliver. While Saakashvili wanted to talk about what Russia is doing to Georgia, Biden was wanted to talk about what Georgia needs to do to help itself.
Biden said Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution was “a clarion call” for “everyone who loves freedom and democracy, and even more importantly, those who yearn for it, those who yearn for it and do not have it.”
But echoing the signals
he delivered in the Ukraine
on the first leg of his trip, Biden suggested that the promise of Georgia’s democratic revolution remains unfulfilled.
“I am not exaggerating when I say many other people in the world are looking to you to see whether or not you can bring the revolution to full fruition and dig those roots -- plants those roots of democracy very deep,” Biden said. “Every progressive nation has a stake in your success.”
The day before Biden’s arrival in Tbilisi, a key opposition figure, former UN ambassador Irakli Alasania, published an open letter
calling on the vice president to press Saakashvili to implement meaningful reforms
in the country’s electoral system to assure that future votes will be free and fair.
U.S, officials have indicated privately that the topic would likely be on the agenda in Biden’s talks with Saakashvili.
Biden is also due to meet Alasania and other key opposition figures before addressing the Georgian parliament on the last day of his visit. Like his address in Kyiv
, it is expected to be another message of tough love.
Washington's relations with Russia may be in the midst of a reset. But the U.S. relation with Saakashvili appears to be in for a slight recalibration as well.
-- Brian Whitmore