U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Georgia Tuesday for meetings with Prime Minister Nika Gilauri, officials in the government of Mikhail Saakashvili, and members of the opposition. Clinton’s visit aimed to strengthen Washington’s relationship with Georgia, as well as signal to resurrected Russian president Vladimir Putin that the United States remains as serious about Georgia’s security as it was during Putin’s last term as president.
The Secretary announced a new $16 million aid package for Georgia’s military. Among the projects the U.S. will fund are the modernization of the military’s helicopter fleet, officer training for better integration of the Georgian military with NATO troops, and radar training to improve coastal and aerial defenses. While each is a relatively small contribution, there was nothing small in Clinton’s rebuke of Moscow for the 2008 incursion and occupation of the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“[The United States] reject[s] Russia’s occupation and militarization of Georgian territory and we call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire agreement, including withdrawal of its forces to pre-conflict positions and allowing free access for humanitarian assistance.”
On Georgia’s territorial integrity, at least, the U.S. administration seems determined not to hit the reset button with Moscow.
One interesting, though little-remarked-upon, development to come from the trip is Clinton’s announcement that the U.S. would recognize “status-neutral” identity documents issued by the Georgian government for residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This will make it easier for people in the disputed territories to travel abroad to study or seek employment. The provinces are recognized internationally by a small handful of countries, Russia among them, which severely limits their citizens’ access to the West. Saakashvili and Clinton said they hoped the decision would be seen as a “strong step toward reconciliation,” between Tbilisi and the breakaway provinces.
The program is interesting in that it mirrors an effort by Russia to gin up a demographic claim in the territories prior to the conflict in 2008. Russia was criticized at the time for issuing passports in the territories, in many cases forcing them upon the citizenry. Residents that refused the papers often lost their land and homes as a result. Russia then used the pretense of protecting an ethnic Russian minority in the regions as one justification for its aggressive actions. Tbilisi now seeks to turn the tables on Moscow by providing documentation that opens doors to opportunity, hopefully drawing the provinces slowly away from Russia’s orbit.
Moscow responded angrily to Clinton’s visit, accusing the U.S. of attempting to foment retaliation by Georgia against Russia. “Senior U.S. officials have once again made strong statements in support of Saakashvili, word for word repeating the false theses of his propaganda regarding the ‘Russian occupation of Georgia,’ thus fueling the revanchist aspirations of Tbilisi,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Clinton also encouraged Saakashvili and his political opponents to ensure that both the 2012 parliamentary elections and next year’s presidential election are free and fair. But here too, Clinton had a message for Putin. She secretary pointedly did not meet with Saakashvili’s Moscow-sympathizing billionaire challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili, head of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, intends to stand in this year’s parliamentary election, promising to pursue the apparently-contradictory goals of repairing relations with Moscow while maintaining strong ties with the West.
Since the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia has been among the most pro-Western of the Caucasus states. Saakashvili has developed a reputation as a champion of good governance and democratic reforms. He has turned Georgia into an important counterweight to Russia in the Caucasus and set his country on a path to greater integration with Europe. Clinton’s visit and the United States’ commitment to Georgia – under diametrically opposed administrations, no less – underscores Saakashvili’s success. Tbilisi would do well to heed Clinton’s advice and produce an election up to international standards of transparency. Putin and Russia wait eager to pounce should Georgia stumble.