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Books on Georgia


Update No: 367 - (26/02/12)

Georgia is inflating the level of military cooperation that it has with the US in order to stand tall against Russia, but the White House is keen to dampen its fire in order to have a more open dialogue with Moscow on the issues of Syria and Iran.

After visiting the United States on February 1, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that talks that he had held with US President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had raised US-Georgian strategic ties to a “new level”. Then, after a follow-up meeting between Georgian Defence Minister Bacho Akhalaia and his American counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Brussels, The Georgian Ministry of Defence issued a press release, saying, “The US side expressed its readiness to extend assistance with regard to enhancing Georgia’s defence capabilities which implies new levels of cooperation. From now on the American side will focus not only on preparation of Georgian military servicemen for peacekeeping operations, but on enhancing and improving Georgia’s defence capabilities.”

The issue of defence between the two countries has been strained since the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. Since then, the United States has not provided Georgia with any weapons, although it has given Georgian troops military training. Georgian officials have complained that there is effectively an embargo against them, and president Mikheil Saakashvili has been consistently keen to get hands on more US arms.

But while Saakashvili claims to have won over America, Washington is not corroborating his story. During a news conference on February 2, State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland spoke of US military assistance to Georgia in terms of training and expertise, not weapons deals. When asked about the “new level” of defence cooperation, she said: “The United States and Georgia have agreed to continue to develop our bilateral defence and security cooperation. This cooperation is built on the successful programs that we already have to help the Georgian military in its reform effort, something that we do with many militaries around the world, including many of Georgia’s neighbours, and their defence modernisation effort to support their self-defence.”

Washington is nervous of being seen to give Georgia significant military assistance and has long been annoyed with Saakashvili's thirst for weapons. A cable written by the US embassy in Tblisi to the State Department in February 2010 that was released by Wikileaks, reads: “It is hard to overestimate the extent to which an intense climate of insecurity permeates Georgian society and political culture. Russian forces, located as close as 25 miles outside of Tbilisi, are building permanent bases and Georgians hear a steady drip of Russian statements alleging Georgian aggression or announcing the latest step in incorporating Abkhazia into Russia's economy. Moscow's statements suggesting that Georgia is planning provocations in the North Caucasus have raised fears among Georgian officials that Russia is looking for another pretext. Tbilisi, in turn, is overly focused on weapons acquisition as an antidote to its jitters. It fears our approach to defence cooperation (heavily focused on developing the structures and processes to assess threats, develop appropriate responses and make informed decisions about use of force before moving to acquisition) is a trade-off to secure Russian cooperation on other issues, such as Iran… Your discussion of our broader efforts with Moscow will help reinforce with Saakashvili that we do not see this as a zero-sum equation – and that Georgia also benefits from Moscow's cooperation on the wider agenda.”

It seems that America’s stance hasn’t changed, especially since Russia vetoed a February 4 UN mandate to take action against the regimes in Syria and Iran. Russia's rhetoric on Syria in particular has become increasingly inflammatory (See New Nations, March, Russia). On February 10, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's had assured Russian officials that he will hold a constitutional referendum and that the Syrian opposition now "bears full responsibility" for ending the violence there. Ryabkov then said that Western states that push the Syrian opposition into what he called "uncompromising measures" were "accomplices" in inflaming the crisis.

With that kind of fighting talk, the US needs to tread carefully in order to keep the lines of communication open. But while Obama has held back from promising Saakashvili significantly more than his country already receives from the States, he has displayed a little more faith in Georgia by suggesting that the US could sign a free trade agreement with the country. During Saakashvili's trip, Obama said that it was a "possibility" and would be a "win-win" situation for both countries. He also said that "a lot of work" was needed before an agreement could be drafted that would eliminate tariffs, quotas, and other trade restrictions. Obama also reaffirmed America's support for Georgia's ambition to join NATO.

Given Russia's future uncertain as popular discontent with President Vladimir Putin grows (see New Nations, March, Russia), the US will likely bide its time before making any firmer promises to Georgia.


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