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U.S., Georgia Face 'Grim Realities' Going Forward

Cheney with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili (left) -- future aid will come at a higher price.
Cheney with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili (left) -- future aid will come at a higher price.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia this week was intended to reinforce relations with Kyiv and Baku and to restore those with Tbilisi.

Georgia's brief war with Russia has negated impressive economic progress, eviscerated the country's U.S.-built military, and shattered expectations of a better future for its people. Many Georgians feel betrayed by Washington in this crisis, but the United States has seen its advice ignored and its assistance wasted.

Despite casual use of the term "ally," there is no treaty commitment between the two countries, nor is Georgia likely to enter NATO anytime soon. The relationship is that of patron and client, and has been since the early 1990s. The U.S. commitment to Georgia emerged from the disastrous rule of ultranationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the resulting civil war that brought Eduard Shevardnadze to power. Washington bankrolled Georgia in part out of solidarity with the former Soviet foreign minister, but more due to truly desperate conditions there.

Billions of U.S. dollars flowed into Georgia, despite rampant corruption and government inefficiency. Initially, only a small portion was in defense and military programs (in which the author participated while working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense). A core Pentagon policy for aid to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan at that time was that it not be combat-related in order to avoid contributing to the potential resumption of ethnic armed conflicts.

For Georgia, that policy changed after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States with the appearance of radical Islamist groups in the Pankisi Gorge near the northeastern border with the Russian republic of Chechnya. A modest train-and-equip program was designed to enable Georgia to deal with that problem. Shevardnadze promised that none of this combat-related U.S. aid would be used against South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

When Shevardnadze was replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili, the program expanded greatly, with the goal of a multibrigade army operating at NATO standards. In theory, Tbilisi would not use this assistance to regain its lost territories by force, but Saakashvili routinely assured his people that his new military could serve precisely that purpose if peaceful means did not succeed within a few years.

Whether the Georgian president fell into a waiting Russian trap or rashly threw a wholly inadequate force into South Ossetia believing Moscow would not respond, the consequences were disastrous for Georgia, but very negative also for the United States.

The essence of a productive patron-client relationship (especially one involving a Great Power) is that it serve the interests of both parties. Shevardnadze well understood that his obligation in return for aid was not to compromise U.S. interests with Russia. Relations with Moscow were quite poor during his tenure, but Shevardnadze carefully avoided steps that might trigger larger armed conflict and thus present Washington with bad and costly policy choices. The youthful and romantic Saakashvili ran a more honest and progressive administration, but lacked the cynical older statesman's understanding that a client state must protect its patron's interests as well as its own.

New Phase Of Relations

Now, a new phase in U.S.-Georgian relations begins, dominated by four grim realities.

First, the Georgian economy is in dire straits, with many new refugees, damaged national infrastructure, and frightened foreign investors. Only 16 years ago, Georgia verged on mass hunger. It could happen again. Aid (both U.S. and European) is needed, but Tbilisi must also create confidence that investments will be safe from further strife.

Second, the Georgian Army is in tatters, in a society with a vibrant warrior culture. Only 16 years ago, Georgia was ruled by warlords and private armies. It could happen again. The integrity of the Georgian state requires some kind of army, but with confidence that it will not again be used recklessly.

Third, no amount of Western political "pressure" will restore Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian rule. Moscow's recognition of the entities as independent is surely a prelude to their incorporation, sooner or later, into the Russian Federation. This step would likely receive overwhelming endorsement in free referendums by the Abkhaz and Ossetians, while the dispossessed Georgians will have no say. Wars have consequences, usually bad, that diplomacy cannot rectify.

Finally, the current Georgian leadership will pay the price at home for its failed venture. While the embattled Saakashvili has the titular support of all political factions at the moment, the jockeying is already under way to replace him. Georgia's first and second presidents were forcibly removed from office. Politics are pitiless, and Georgian politics more so.

Georgia today needs its U.S. patron as never before, but any future U.S. administration will certainly impose tighter controls and more conditions on its help. The rhetoric from Washington will doubtless be supportive of Georgia, but no patron state enjoys the feeling that the tail has wagged the dog, especially against its own advice and interests.

E. Wayne Merry is a former State Department and Pentagon official and now a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.