Georgia Should Be Friends with Both Europe and Russia

President Mikheil Saakashvili was a favorite in the West, so his party’s defeat last October was a bitter defeat for his many foreign admirers as well as his local supporters.  Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is being challenged to demonstrate that his government can be friends with both Europe and Russia.

Since the so-called Rose Revolution brought Saakashvili to power in 2003, Tbilisi has tilted West.  Relations with Russia deteriorated accordingly, and went into a deep freeze after the two countries’ brief war in August 2008.  Moscow’s continuing hostility has left Georgians feeling insecure and counting their economic losses.

Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream party campaigned to improve relations between the two countries.  Movement has been slow since the new prime minister said that he would make no concession on Georgia’s sovereignty over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence with Russian support.

Nevertheless, 23 Members of the European Parliament, 19 of them affiliated with the more conservative European People’s Party, recently wrote Ivanishvili, complaining of his “democratic backsliding” and closing “European doors for Georgia.”  (Their letter differed dramatically in tone from that sent by outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which cited the peaceful power transfer as “an achievement of which would be impossible without your leadership.”)

In fact, the EPP is not without interest in the controversy.  President Saakashvili’s United National Movement is an observer member of the EPP.  No surprise, Prime Minister Ivanishvili responded sharply, challenging the Europeans to send observers to monitor developments before “living on Saakashvili’s lies.”  Perhaps the best assessment is that neither side is entirely clean.  After all, a recent Transatlantic Academy report cited a “grimmer than originally suspected” picture of human rights abuses by the ousted government.

Of particular interest to the U.S. is the charge, not addressed by the MEPs, that the new government is moving the country eastward.  It is a frequent claim with few specifics behind it.  Although Ivanishvili does not have Saakashvili’s close connection to America, the former has affirmed his desire for Georgia to enter NATO.  In mid-March Ivanishvili’s party joined with the UNM to back a parliamentary resolution affirming Tbilisi’s Western-orientation.

Although Washington policymakers undoubtedly would prefer that the U.S. remain Georgia’s first love, it actually is in the West’s interest for Tbilisi and Moscow to normalize their relations.  As long as the two are at odds, Russia will view with suspicion any contacts between Georgia and the U.S.  Bringing Tbilisi into the alliance is unthinkable while the bilateral conflict remains frozen, ready to flare again.

Reopening bilateral commerce also would help Georgians economically.  In fact, the belief that economic gains had not been shared widely enough contributed to Georgia Dream’s victory.  Continuing economic hardship is likely to undermine popular support for Tbilisi’s Western orientation.

Georgia faces more than a few challenges in the years ahead, starting with its “cohabitation” with President Saakashvili until presidential elections later this year.  The country is likely to be most successful if the West encourages Georgia to engage in economic and political reform at home and promote peaceful relations abroad.

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