Just a few days before the Wall Street bailout plan fizzled, the US Congress approved an aid package for Georgia that could total up to $1 billion over the next two years. The amount of aid would be about 30 times what Georgia has gotten per year from the US government, and three times what the White House proposed to spend on the entire post-Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia over the next year.
President George W. Bush announced the aid package on September 3, but some in Congress - which had to approve the aid package - balked at the massive amount and the perception that it would be rewarding Georgia for its recklessness in attacking South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But the large spending bill that included the aid to Georgia passed the House of Representatives on September 23 and the Senate passed it four days later. President Bush is expected to sign it on October 1. "Everyone was surprised at the amount of opposition that popped up but it's not indicative of the attitude toward Georgia in Congress generally," said one Congressional staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The bill passed both houses of Congress with little debate because Congressional leaders made it a priority, the staff member said. President Bush as well as the two major presidential candidates have come out strongly in favor of strengthening ties to Georgia, and "the leadership in Congress wants to demonstrate their support for Georgia and this was the best way they could do it," the source said.
The bill that Congress approved allocates $365 million in new funding for Georgia this year. The White House has also reallocated $200 million from the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to Georgia. And the bill proposes the remainder of the $1 billion to be appropriated next year. "Congress strongly supports providing a total of $1,000,000,000 in assistance for Georgia," according to the language of the bill. "Congress is committed to authorizing the remaining funds for fiscal year 2009 in a subsequent Act of Congress."
But that will have to happen with a new president and a new Congress, and with the US Treasury in delicate shape following the market meltdown in September. "What happens with the next Congress, the next administration, remains to be seen," said another congressional source.
The Georgian government welcomed the aid, which will be used to rebuild the country following the August conflict with Russia. "We are grateful to the United States for the support and swift offers of financial assistance by both the US Administration and Congress to help address our nation's most pressing needs after the Russian invasion of Georgia," a statement issued by the Georgian Embassy in Washington said.
This first phase of aid will not involve any military aid, but an assessment team from the US European Command is visiting Georgia now to determine what kind of military aid would be appropriate, said Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. He testified at a September 10 hearing of the Helsinki Commission.
The Georgian military may be undergoing a fundamental shift in the way that it is structured. Under US training, the military has been focusing on becoming a NATO-style force capable of deploying abroad, and 2,000 of Georgia's soldiers were serving in Iraq until the recent conflict, as well as smaller contingents in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his remarks, Bryza suggested Georgia may be considering building a different kind of military in light of the conflict.
"They [the US assessment team] have to look some tough choices that the Georgian military itself will have to make about whether it wants to focus on homeland defense and/or whether it still wishes to contribute to more expeditionary ventures, I mean, like contributing to the coalition in Iraq or Kosovo or Afghanistan," he said.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.