Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 149

William Cohen’s August 1 visit to Georgia, the first by a U.S. Defense Secretary to that country, is being described in Tbilisi as an historically significant event. On the other hand, Cohen’s visit, rather than ushering in an American-Georgian military relationship, illustrates an existing and successfully developing one. Cohen’s discussions with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s and Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze focused on the continuation and expansion of U.S. military assistance to Georgia. Bilateral programs currently underway or planned for the remainder of 1999 include: handover of two batches of six and four Iroquois military helicopters to Georgia, and training of Georgian helicopter crews; delivery of additional U.S. coastal guard cutters to Georgia; equipping Georgian border troops and air defense units with U.S. control and communications gear; training of Georgian officers in U.S. military schools; and planning the first joint exercise of Georgian and U.S. ground troops, to be held in Georgia in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

In the concluding briefing, Cohen stated that the matter of Georgia’s eventual accession to NATO is for the Georgian nation and leadership to decide–a position which implicitly rules out a Russian veto. Cohen observed that Tbilisi has a long uphill road to travel before meeting NATO’s military criteria; but he also noted that Washington and NATO in general regard Georgia as making a successful transition toward democracy and a market economy, and “NATO looks at that with great favor.” Cohen was responding to the Georgian leadership’s recently stated aspiration to work toward meeting the qualifications for NATO membership. Shevardnadze and other Georgian officials recently revealed that aspiration as a medium-term goal (see the Monitor, July 1, 22; Fortnight in Review, July 16).

During the joint briefing with Cohen, Shevardnadze made the point that the development of transit routes between Western Europe and Central Asia via the South Caucasus holds not only great opportunities but also “potential risks and undesirable consequences, unless we are all vigilant and properly address the questions of security and defense…. By joining forces we can avert those undesirable consequences.” The president seemed to allude to possible attempts by Moscow and/or Tehran to thwart the transit projects through destabilizing interference in Georgia or Azerbaijan.

On the eve of Cohen’s visit, Turkey’s Tbilisi ambassador Burak Gursel announced that Ankara has consented to the request to include a Georgian platoon in the Turkish contingent serving under NATO command in Kosovo. Ankara acted almost immediately after the Georgian parliament approved Shevardnadze’s initiative to dispatch that platoon–the first Georgian unit trained to operate with NATO troops. The unit will join the Azerbaijani platoon under Turkish command in the German sector in Kosovo. The choice, approved at NATO headquarters in Brussels, reflects Georgia’s close relationships with both Turkey and Germany (Prime-News, Kavkazia-press, Radio Tbilisi, AP, Reuters, August 1).

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