When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cast his vote in Tbilisi in municipal elections on May 31, he pointedly said that his government's real adversaries were not the Georgian opposition, but the Russian forces based in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a somewhat critical report about those elections, some Georgians openly wondered whether Moscow’s influence was at work.
And when reports surfaced out of Brussels that the European Union was considering pulling its special envoys from the South Caucasus and Moldova, many Georgians warily noted that the move came ahead of a highly anticipated Russian-EU summit. Was this a gift to Moscow? Were the Eurocrats tossing Georgia under the bus as they pursued closer ties with the Kremlin?
The fears are understandable. Russian troops sit just 30 kilometers from Tbilisi. Regime change remains Moscow’s official policy here. And the Kremlin has long been clearly uncomfortable with Georgian sovereignty.
The biggest source of apprehension, of course, is U.S. President Barack Obama’s reset policy with Russia and what it might mean for Georgia’s future.
When Obama resubmitted the “123” nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia to Congress for ratification last month (former President George W. Bush withdrew the agreement following Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia), that apprehension went into overdrive – and not just in Georgia.
In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on May 15, David Kramer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in George W. Bush's administration, wrote that the Obama administration was moving from a “Russia first” approach to a “Russia only” approach.
"Obama and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly said they do not recognize a Russian 'sphere of influence,' but actions, or non-actions, speak louder than those words," Kramer wrote. "Through its neglect of countries in the region except for Russia, the administration is ceding to Moscow exactly such a sphere."
While on a reporting trip to Tbilisi, I asked a couple of the smarter Georgian foreign policy thinkers – and players – if they really feared the new U.S. posture toward Moscow would harm Tbilisi's interests. And what I found was that the people who are – or have been --actually responsible for Georgia's security are much more at ease with the reset policy than all the noise suggests. Among people in the know, the Yalta Syndrome in Tbilisi is greatly exaggerated.
"I fundamentally disagree with this analysis" that Washington is abandoning Tbilisi, Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria told me. "There has been no shift in the administration's policy. We know they have a reset with Russia and they have important issues to be discussed with Russia. But there has never been any point for us in the process where Georgia's sovereignty and security was not highlighted."
Bokeria’s actual power and influence in Georgia are far greater than his official title suggests (he is one of Saakashvili’s closest confidants). He added that the U.S. administration was instrumental in calming things down during the tense summer of 2009, when many analysts feared armed conflict would resume:
As I have written here -- and blogged here -- it apparently was not just Obama’s public statements regarding Georgia, but also his private conversations with Medvedev and Putin, that persuaded Moscow to back off from another conflict. As I have blogged here, Obama’s chief Russia advisor Michael McFaul has long argued that Washington can more effectively influence Moscow’s behavior when it is engaged and has a broad bilateral agenda with the Kremlin. The considerable de-escalation of tensions we have seen in the south Caucasus can now be called Exhibit A.
I'm working on a feature-length article on this topic, so stay tuned.
-- Brian Whitmore