Intense planning is underway as Georgians prepare to welcome the first U.S. President to visit their country. President George W. Bush will stop in Georgia on May 10, following the VE-Day celebrations in Moscow. The Georgian government has established a special coordinating committee to handle all visit-related issues. The exact schedule of the visit, as well as the agenda for Bush’s talks with Georgian leaders, remains confidential. Giorgi Arveladze, a member of parliament and head of the welcoming committee, has warned, “Unpleasant surprises will be ruled out” during the visit. Georgian officials made similarly ominous remarks after some opposition groups declared they would greet Bush with a protest rally in Tbilisi.
The opposition says that the extensive preparations for Bush’s visit, including unprecedented security measures, repainting dilapidated houses, and repairing roads along the route of Bush’s motorcade, recall the last-minute bustle before visits by top Soviet leaders.
Some representatives of the ruling party argue that Bush’s visit is more a reward to President Mikheil Saakashvili than a function of Georgia’s geo-political location and U.S. interests. “Bush’s visit [reflects the] the merit of Saakashvili first of all, who contributed to the change of authoritarian regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan…This would be a serious signal for Russia and shows that the United States supports Georgia,” says Koba Bekauri, deputy chair of the ruling National Movement’s parliamentary faction. National Movement leaders want to show Bush a consolidated Georgian populace that fully supports Saakashvili. Consequently, potential protesters must be “national enemies” or agents of foreign services.
Meanwhile, opposition groups are making their own preparations for Bush’s visit. The Labor Party appears to be the sole extra-parliamentary opposition group that plans to stage a protest rally outside the parliamentary building to draw President Bush’s attention to their concerns. Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili observed that Bush is not Saakashvili’s personal guest, but rather “He is the guest of the Georgian nation.” The Labor rally is planned under the motto: “Down with Saakashvili’s dictatorship!” “Welcome President Bush!”
So far none of the major opposition movements has joined the Labor initiative, except for the small League of People’s Protection, which recently submitted a motion to parliament — with the 34,000 signatures that requires the legislature to put the issue to a vote — demanding that Georgia withdraw troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.
The other opposition groups consider the visit a landmark. While they likely do not want to disrupt it, they do want Bush to hear their concerns.
On April 21, the opposition movement “Tsin Sakartvelo” (“Go Forward Georgia”) told a news conference that they had sent a letter to Bush, asking him “to find a time” to meet with extra-parliamentary opposition groups. Giorgi Kobakhidze, one of the leaders of the movement, said that the United States, which supported the Rose Revolution, made a mistake in their political calculations. “We think that it is in the interests of the United States to change the current system in Georgia.”
Mamuka Katsitadze of the opposition New Rights party, says that Bush will reprimand Saakashvili’s government for its unsuccessful military venture in South Ossetia, plans to sell trunk gas pipelines to Russia, and desire to conduct energy projects with Iran. “Bush’s visit is the last warning to Georgia’s government” to make it define clearly the priorities of both foreign and internal policies, including human rights and economic policy, he said.
However, Zviad Dzidziguri of the moderately opposition Conservative Party does not think that Bush will be critical of Saakashvili. He explains Bush’s visit by the increasing U.S. interests in the Caucasus. “Bush likely considers the current Georgian government as an adherent to American interests in South Caucasus and that is the main reason for his visit,” he suggested. Dzidziguri said that the Russian lobby in Georgia has failed to achieve its goals, meaning Russia-dominated privatization and trunk gas pipelines. At the same time, the Conservative Party wants to deliver to Bush their critical assessment of the domestic political situation in Georgia.
Pro-government Georgian analysts argue that Bush’s visit, apart from being an expression of support to Saakashvili, will most certainly have serious political consequences, affecting the settlement of separatist conflicts Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia, and Georgia’s assistance to the United States in the global war on terror. However, some of them admit that Bush will not avoid raising such issues as democracy building and respect for human rights in Georgia. The post-revolutionary processes in Georgia might be an issue for discussion. “America feels a certain responsibility for these processes and is watching them closely,” says Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an analyst from Saakashvili’s public advisory council.
Avtandil Ioseliani, the former chief of Georgian intelligence, argues that Bush will focus on the safety of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and might ask Saakashvili to deploy American military infrastructure in Georgia in the event of military actions against Iran. “This might entail fatal consequences for Georgia, because we live in a neighborhood of Muslim countries,” he said.
(Akhali Taoba, April, 20, 22; Caucasus Press, April 18, 20, 21, 22; Georgian Times, April 21-28)