The West Beefs Up Its Support for Georgia

By David Iberi

The Georgian capital has seen several high-profile visits over the past weeks, and as reported by Georgian media more dignitaries are expected to arrive in the following days despite the unusual triple-digit temperatures and the summer vacation season. Shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up her one-day visit to Tbilisi on July 5, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski arrived on July 13 and held talks with his Georgian counterpart Gregory Vashadze in Tbilisi as well as President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia’s burgeoning Black Sea resort city of Batumi.

Then, on July 14, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France came to town late at night to celebrate with his “Georgian friends” La Fête Nationale, Bastille Day, in the brilliantly illuminated Georgian capital. And yesterday, July 15, Catherine Ashton, vice president of the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union (E.U.) visited Tbilisi to inaugurate a process toward agreement between the E.U. and Georgia on association relationship.

Apart from meeting with the Georgian president and some of the senior members of his cabinet, as is tradition, the American and European guests have also found time to talk with representatives of Georgian civil society and the opposition. However, unlike in the past, they have now met almost exclusively with a “constructive” or “systemic” part of the Georgian opposition who are either represented in Parliament or have scored good results in the crucial May 30 local elections. Clinton was first to start this trend, and Sikorski and Kouchner have followed suit with a slight modification. With the indiscriminate, dissident-like approach to Georgia’s political spectrum left in the past, it is now believed by Georgian analysts that the opposition will more constructively engage with the government, which will help consolidate and further democratize Georgia’s political landscape.

As far as the West’s international support of Tbilisi is concerned, Lithuania and the United States were first to designate Russia’s illegal military presence in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia as occupation and call on Russia to withdraw its troops from the occupied territories. France’s role in the fulfillment of the August 2008 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia is special, since French President Nicolas Sarkozy, then holding the E.U.’s rotating presidency also, mediated the agreement between the two countries. Georgia thus expects that the French should exert sufficient pressure on Moscow so that the latter withdraws its troops to the antebellum positions required by the international arrangement.

When asked about the issue – which is incidentally the single most important security question for Georgia – Kouchner told his audience at Tbilisi’s newly established Europe house: “We could of course use the word ‘occupation’ but one word can hardly solve the problem…Dialogue with Russia is needed. We should convince the Russians to pull their troops back to their pre-war positions as it is stipulated in the [ceasefire] agreement.” He then added that the European observers “should be allowed [by Russia] to enter the [Russian-controlled] Georgian territories. That is our stubborn request…But we must be patient. The current situation in the world could hardly provide for a rapid de-occupation.” Touching upon the question of Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration, the French foreign minister admitted the innate inertness of the E.U. and advised the Georgians to be more straightforward when trying to “shake” Europe.

The United States’ and Europe’s help in the de-occupation of the Georgian territories and in the return of hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens to their homes in the cities and villages now controlled by Russia is important. But no less significant are the West’s closer diplomatic, military, economic, trade, cultural and people-to-people ties with Georgia, since this would only help deepen the Caucasus nation’s reforms and democratic metamorphosis domestically and bring about the day of its full Euro-Atlantic integration.