Following recent miscalculations regarding Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia, US policy in the South Caucasus also suffers from an erosion of credibility with regard to Georgia. A recent spate of commentaries in US mainstream media has taken cognizance of Washington’s and NATO’s de facto strategic disengagement from the wider region, in favor of a Russia-first or even “Russia-only” approach (David Kramer, “US Abandoning Russia’s Neighbors,” Washington Post, May 15; Judy Dempsey, “East Europe Feels Ignored by NATO,” New York Times, May 16; Charles Krauthammer, “The Fruits of Weakness,” Washington Post, May 21).
To Georgian observers outside the government, those analyses confirm a trend that Georgian policy planners were already following with concern. More recently, Russia’s seemingly unopposed bid for control of Ukraine has compounded Georgian concerns about US and NATO capacity to fill the security vacuum in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region.
On May 11, the US White House informed Congress that the Russia-Georgia conflict “need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding” with ratification of the 2008 US-Russia agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Thus far, Russia’s incorporation and militarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been deemed just such an obstacle. The White House could have chosen to argue that Georgia and the nuclear agreement are intrinsically unrelated and ought to be de-linked, even if US disagreements with Russia over Georgia (and the wide-reaching implications of that conflict) remain unresolved. Instead, the White House seems to have shifted without explanation from the position that it seriously disagrees with Russia over Georgia, to a new position of brushing that issue aside.
In his recent, “government-hour” replies to the Russian Duma, Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, felt confident enough to dismiss the US-Georgia Strategic Partnership Charter (signed in January 2009) as a dead letter and a relic of past US policies (Interfax, May 13).
The situation with the NATO-Georgia Commission could be characterized in a similar vein. Created in the fall of 2008 to demonstrate NATO’s commitment to its open-door policy (at least in terms of mentoring, if not accession), the commission has nevertheless failed to stipulate programs, goals, and time-tables that would open a realistic prospect for Georgian accession to the Alliance in the future. Such aloofness contrasts with Georgia’s commitment of almost 1,000 combat troops for US and NATO operations in Afghanistan –the highest number among troop-committing nations in per capita terms, and exceptionally without restrictions (“national caveats”) in Georgia’s case. Georgian forces remaining in the country, however, are unarmed and untrained for conventional defense of the homeland. While the French-proposed sale of warships to Russia has received a free pass from NATO, Georgia is subject to a de facto embargo on defensive arms (anti-tank, air defense) by the US and NATO countries.
All this adds to Georgia’s sense of exposure and apparent relegation to a grey zone of insecurity for some time to come. The government has thus far responded by reaffirming its Euro-Atlantic commitments. While these remain irreversible, Tbilisi is embarking on a more active regional policy, as a form of reinsurance against persistent security risks.
On May 17, President Mikheil Saakashvili welcomed Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Batumi, one day after the signing of the Iran-Turkey-Brazil nuclear fuel swap agreement, which has obviated the US push for economic sanctions against Iran. The Turkish government had all along opposed sanctions, playing the key role in brokering the nuclear fuel swap agreement, and has assumed co-responsibility for its implementation. Saakashvili conferred a Georgian state award (Order of the Golden Fleece) to Erdogan for his “historic act of diplomatic heroism. We were all anxious, as our fate depends on what happens around Iran’s nuclear program. Brazilian president Lula [da Silva] and Erdogan, who for many months had been saying that there was a chance for talks, but were largely disbelieved, went nevertheless to Tehran, effectively saving and turning around the situation concerning Iran’s nuclear program. A great diplomatic victory also for Iran, Europe, America, the world, our region as well as Turkey, and of course this is about peace for Georgia” (Imedi TV, May 17).
Thus, Tbilisi has breathed a deep sigh of relief after Erdogan’s mission to Tehran. From Georgia’s perspective, the Turkish-Brazilian mediation has (at least temporarily) averted a critical round of bargaining over Iran sanctions in the UN Security Council. This had given rise to concerns about the US sacrificing its own long-term strategic interests in this region while seeking Russian support for sanctions against Iran (the top item on a list of US and NATO solicitations from Moscow). While Russia stonewalls and bargains over the sanctions, the US and NATO seem to have practically desisted from the role of security actors in the South Caucasus. This is increasingly regarded as an implicit, preemptive concession, which Moscow might interpret as a free hand, and possibly test it (Georgian Daily, May 20).
Such concerns are shared in varying degrees by a number of countries, within and outside the NATO alliance. Georgia, however, is the most exposed to Russian exploitation of US and NATO predicaments over Iran and other conflicts.
Erdogan’s visit to Georgia, however, occasioned an upbeat review of increasingly close Georgian-Turkish ties. Turkey has become Georgia’s number one foreign trade partner, moving into the gap left by the Russian economic blockade. Turkey built the Tbilisi and Batumi international airports (the latter being operated jointly by Georgia and Turkey) and has just completed the construction of a Sheraton hotel in Batumi. The two countries recorded approximately two million border-crossing visits by their citizens in 2009, and plan to cancel passport requirements for travel between the two countries in 2010 (Rustavi-2 TV, Civil Georgia, May 17, 18).
Turkey is interested in providing transit service for additional volumes of Caspian oil and gas to European countries, relying on the Georgian transit route. Turkey and Azerbaijan are building and financing the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku railway, which will connect Georgia with Europe through Turkey. The Azeri government is financing the railroad’s Georgia section with soft loans, after the US government bowing to Armenian advocacy groups pulled Eximbank out of that project.