US President, Barack Obama, will host the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12-13 and Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been invited to participate. According to the Georgian presidential spokesperson, it still remains unclear whether the US president will meet separately with his Georgian counterpart on the sidelines of the summit (www.civil.ge, March 23). Many in Georgia fear that should this meeting not happen, Russia would have a serious argument to convince the Georgian public that Georgia’s pro-Western road is deadlocked and Moscow is capable of isolating Tbilisi internationally. Obama’s refusal to meet Saakashvili would resemble the shockwave Germany and France sent when they denied Georgia the NATO Membership Action Plan during the Bucharest summit in April 2008. Then, Russia did not wait long to attack Georgia.
As US Senator, Richard Lugar, stated in his report, published last December, since the Russian invasion in 2008 the US has suspended the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia and the country lacks basic territorial defense capabilities (US Senate, December 22, 2009). Meanwhile, Russia has established its military bases in the occupied Georgian territories, which poses a direct threat to Georgia’s national sovereignty.
Georgia has pursued strategic patience with Russia and has also deepened its cooperation with the West. Last November, Georgia sent 175 servicemen to Afghanistan to participate in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation. The combat troops currently serve under French command, near the Afghan capital Kabul. Since the early fall of 2009 American instructors from the US Marine Corps have been providing training to the Georgian military and an additional 750 Georgian troops will soon be sent to Afghanistan to serve under US command. Tbilisi once again confirmed this pledge during the visit of several high-ranking American military officials to Georgia on April 6 (Imedi TV, April 6). Obama telephoned Saakashvili on April 6 to thank him for Georgia’s “significant contribution to the international effort in Afghanistan,” and expressed “the strong support of the United States for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (www.civil.ge, April 7).
Georgian sources had earlier reported that some 40 American instructors were engaged in the training of Georgian troops for the Afghan campaign and the two-year training program was specially designed to prepare four Georgian battalions (www.civil.ge, September 3, 2009).
The Georgian contribution to support these efforts is not new. Prior to the Russian invasion in August 2008, Georgia had as many as 2,000 troops deployed in Iraq –the third largest contingent after the US and the UK. Georgia has also contributed to international mechanisms to bring peace and order to Bosnia and Kosovo.
President Saakashvili has repeatedly stated that by fighting in Afghanistan alongside US and other NATO soldiers, the Georgians are contributing to international security as well as their own security. This position was restated during Saakashvili’s meeting with Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who visited Tbilisi in late February as part of his high-profile trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, Georgia and Germany. “Not only the fate of Afghanistan and the coalition countries depends on the success of this operation, but resolving many of our issues also depends on the success of our allies and friends –of those countries who support Georgia’s future, and unity and welfare of the Georgian people,” Saakashvili said (Official Website of the President of Georgia, February 22).
In addition to the deployment to Afghanistan, Tbilisi has also offered the US and NATO access to Georgian ports on the Black Sea and airports, as well as the country’s transit capabilities “to develop a corridor for armaments across Georgia and Central Asia to Afghanistan” (Associated Press, January 28).
On March 2, Holbrooke highly praised the professional level of Georgian troops. “The US Marines, who are conducting the training and who do this as a profession, said these are among the best troops that they have ever seen,” the special representative said. He also added that “they are going into Afghanistan with no national caveats, and after they unpack and get acclimatized, they will be integrated into marine operations in Helmand” (Official website of the State Department, March 2). Indeed, “no national caveats” is a feature that distinguishes the Georgian commitment in Afghanistan from some NATO members who refuse to participate in combat operations. Moreover, after bringing its troop numbers in Afghanistan to nearly 1,000, Georgia will have the highest per capita troop contribution “of any country in the world,” as Holbrooke rightly observed.
Holbrooke also expressed the US government’s gratitude for the Georgian contribution as did the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, when she spoke before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on February 24: “Georgia remains a high priority to this Administration” and the US is “supporting the government of Georgia,” as well as Georgia’s “military deployment to Afghanistan with new equipment [and] new training.” She then concluded: “We stand up for Georgia in many international settings against the very strong attitudes expressed by their Russian neighbors” (Official Website of the State Department, February 24).
Recently, the Pentagon announced that it would further strengthen the military capabilities of Georgia along with the Baltic States, Croatia and Hungary to prepare them for operations in Afghanistan and Tbilisi’s decision to accommodate three former Guantanamo detainees has been hailed by the Obama administration as supportive of Washington’s effort to close the controversial detention facility (Bloomberg, March 24).
Cooperation in Afghanistan, and over Guantanamo, is just part of the US-Georgia relationship. Washington has been supportive of Tbilisi ever since Georgian independence, providing financial aid as well as other assistance. Georgians believe that if the US had not offered unwavering support for their country’s sovereignty, Russia would have attacked the capital Tbilisi during the 2008 military invasion (Rustavi-2 TV, March 31). In addition, an overwhelming majority of Georgians support the country’s NATO membership efforts, despite German and French opposition under Russian influence.
The US-Georgian Charter on Strategic Partnership is a major framework paving the way toward deepening cooperation between the two countries, and the NATO-Georgia Commission has been established to facilitate the membership process. These are instrumental in promoting Georgian liberal reforms and democratic transformation.
Georgia is arguably the freest, most open, and the least corrupt society in the post-Soviet space, along with the Baltic nations. Its laissez-faire economic system has merited international acclaim, and significant improvements have been made to modernize the justice system, the penitentiary and the electoral process. The Georgian public broadcaster has recently completed the transformation of the Second Channel, modeling it on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Georgia has westernized its police, armed forces, public register and almost all other services. Even its fiercest critics admit that the country has left little remnant of its Soviet past.
Moscow continues the same old Soviet policy, and sees international relations as a zero-sum game. While Georgia remains outside the Euro-Atlantic collective security framework, Moscow will not stop isolating it and undermining its sovereignty and freedom of choice. As Georgia remains under a de facto arms embargo from the US and other NATO countries, Moscow sees this as Western weakness and tacit consent that it has a free hand in Georgia. Until the US and the European Union unequivocally demand that the Kremlin respects international law and withdraws all Russian troops from Georgia, peace and security on the European continent will remain undermined. The Obama-Saakashvili meeting might offer an opportunity to raise these issues.