Clinton’s Visit to Tbilisi and Georgia’s Security Concerns

By David Iberi

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Georgia, as part of her Eastern European tour, on July 5 is seen in Tbilisi as an important diplomatic step that could help both Georgia’s external security and domestic stability. At a joint press conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Clinton said that the United States “is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” underlined the importance of the “deep friendship” between the U.S. and Georgia and praised Georgia’s reforms as “strengthening democratic institutions and processes.” Meeting with Georgian women leaders at a Tbilisi town hall, the secretary of state revived talked about Georgia’s rapid modernization and called the potential of the country “to serve as a beacon and model for democracy and progress” “extraordinary.”

The United States’ diplomatic support is important for Tbilisi in the short term, but given the gravity of the small Caucasus nation’s security threats, no medium or long-term stability is possible without elaborating a clear strategy and establishing firm international security mechanisms.

Russia continues to occupy some 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory and no fewer than 8,000 Russian troops are deployed in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali regions. Hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens have been evicted from their homes and Russia obstinately opposes their return. The Russian troops and military installations in the occupied territories – some of them in central Georgia just miles from the capital Tbilisi and the crucial east-west highway and railroad – pose a permanent threat to Georgia’s security and could turn into a war machine anytime Moscow deems it appropriate. On Georgia’s black Sea coast, in Abkhazia, Moscow is engaged in building military and naval bases, rail and air communications and takes other steps as well – most importantly those aimed at permanently changing the demographics of Abkhazia – in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics that could only be seen as a creeping annexation of that region.

While up until June the United States’ stance on Georgia was “non-recognition” of the independence of its Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories that Russia had unilaterally declared as independent following the August 2008 invasion of Georgia, briefly before Clinton’s Eastern European tour, Washington started to call Russia’s illegal presence on Georgian soil an “occupation” and asked Moscow to withdraw its troops from the occupied Georgian regions. Clinton used her five-nation trip to reiterate again and again in Kyiv, Warsaw, Yerevan and Tbilisi that the United States does not recognize the Kremlin’s claim to a sphere of influence and that the Russians should quit Georgia.

President Saakashvili and other Georgian officials have hailed the United States’ bolder approach as crucial for Georgia to regain sovereignty over its now-occupied regions sometime in the future.

Moscow’s reaction to the Clinton statements was delayed, laconic and in line with its previous position that the “objective reality” on the ground should “be taken into account.” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for his part added, “some think that [those territories] are occupied and some think that [they are] liberated.” Russia’s initial timid response to America’s new line on Georgia could mean that Moscow is still in the process of developing a long-term strategy in order to both avoid further international embarrassment and reconcile its quest for a sphere of influence and the spirit of the U.S.-Russia “reset” era.

Washington itself needs to translate its nascent anti-occupation clause into a clear strategy if its aim is to fully integrate Georgia into the Western democratic and security architecture and prevent Russia from rebuilding its sphere of influence at the expense of its neighbors.