TBILISI -- Apprehensions about Moscow are never very far from the surface in Georgia’s scruffy, chaotic, and charming capital city.
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:
When the situation was very critical, during President Obama's visit to Moscow, he made a very concentrated effort to be more than clear about the United States' position with respect to Georgia's sovereignty. That message is very important for stability. When the situation was the most dangerous, in the summer of 2009, when the Russian Defense Ministry made openly clear statements about intentions to use force against the Georgian threat, whatever that was, President Obama called President Medvedev to highlight the importance of the issue for the United States and the region. That was the most important thing. What we heard in public from President Obama in the summer, when the situation was very tense, had a very important effect on stability. I am not saying the problem is over. The occupation continues, the ethnic cleansing is not reversed, Russia does not accept our sovereignty, they want to dominate their so-called spheres of influence, but the immediate danger of a large scale attack by Russia has been -- if not completely eradicated -- significantly reduced by a very active position by the U.S. administration.
Likewise, opposition leader Irakli Alasania, who served as Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations during the war with Russia, told me that better U.S.-Russian ties actually make Georgia safer. Alasania, who won plaudits for his calming presence during the August 2008 conflict, says Tbilisi needs Washington to be engaged with Moscow so Georgia can eventually normalize its own relations with Russia on a more equal footing:
I do strongly believe that if the US-Russian relations expand and become closer, it will only benefit Georgia. We have enormous security problems, especially after August 2008, and we will not cope with these problems alone. At this point what we can do, just to not solicit any more aggressive behavior from Russia, is to keep things quiet and resolve the problems that were not resolved by the war. We need strong partners and we need our main strategic partner [the United States] to have good relations with the Russian Federation. This is why I also believe that to the extent that there are better ties between the Russian Federation, the European Union, and the United States, it will make the prospects of resolving these problems better. This is why I do believe that there is no threat in Russian-U.S. rapprochement. I strongly believe that there is no way that Georgian state interests, Georgian democracy, or Georgian territorial integrity will be sacrificed in that relationship.
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.
Fear of Russia remains strong in Tbilisi. But for cooler heads – and I consider Bokeria and Alasania to be two of the coolest heads in Tbilisi – Obama's reset with Moscow is a lot less frightening than all the alarmist punditry suggests.
I'm working on a feature-length article on this topic, so stay tuned.
-- Brian Whitmore