The expansion of a US military assistance program in Georgia, along with Washington's promise to assist the Georgian government with the cost of closing down two Russian military bases in the country, could provide President Mikheil Saakashvili administration with a much-needed boost as it promotes the country's integration into the Western security framework.
The key element of the US assistance strategy in the coming year is the new Sustainment and Stability Operations Program, an initiative intended as a follow-up to the two-year Train and Equip Program that ended in April 2004. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Although US officials have declined to comment on the program's costs, outgoing Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze stated that the assistance is worth roughly $60 million. Four battalions, or roughly 2,000 soldiers, will be trained under the 16-month initiative, which is aimed at enhancing the Georgian military's peacekeeping skills.
This cooperation takes place against the backdrop of a prolonged standoff between Georgia and Russia over the status of two Russian military bases left in Georgia, in Akhalkalaki and Batumi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Moscow pledged at a 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit to close the bases within two years. The deadline has come and gone, however, and Russian officials have claimed that it could take an additional 11 years before the bases are removed and at a cost of some $300 million.
Some observers have suggested Moscow, in return for military withdrawal, wants a guarantee from Tbilisi that it will not agree in the future to host a strategic facility belonging to third country. By extending its training program with the United States, Tbilisi appears to be directly challenging the Russian stance. Presenting the program on December 5, Baramidze told reporters that "[t]he new US program represents a new step made by Georgia toward the NATO alliance." In a separate development, NATO member Turkey is expected to begin weapons, artillery and reconnaissance training for a brigade of 3,000 Georgian soldiers next year as well.
Georgia has made no secret of its desire to get on the fast track towards NATO membership. Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania stated recently that if "we work actively" Georgia could become a full NATO member within the next two years. Already, the alliance plans to open a liaison office in the Georgian Defense Ministry no later than January 2005, according to the Interfax news agency. "The presence of the alliance's liaison officer in Georgia will stimulate our relations with NATO," an unnamed Defense Ministry source told Interfax on November 15.
To reduce the chances that the ongoing Russian military presence could disrupt Georgia's westernization process, Washington seems ready to take steps to hasten the departure of Russian troops. US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared at a December 7 OSCE ministerial meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, that the United States could assist with "reasonable costs" involved in the removal of Russian troops from Georgia. Russian foreign policy and defense officials have estimated those costs at roughly $300 million about half the size of Georgia's entire budget for 2004.
On top of the military training program, such financial aid would clear the way for Georgia to pull away from Russia's sphere of influence. That, in turn, could give Georgian officials greater flexibility in their efforts to reestablish Tbilisi's authority over the renegade regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Saakashvili clearly intends to maintain a tough line on the re-integration issue. The Russian news agency RIA-Novosti quoted the Georgian president December 16 as cautioning "those forces which are provoking the conflict in Abkhazia [should] understand that in the case of aggression against Georgia, they will be met by [newly named] Defense Minister [Irakli] Okruashvili and a modern and combat-ready Georgian army trained according to NATO standards."
The benefits of US-Georgian cooperation are far from one-sided. From Washington's perspective, the pay-off for its Georgian assistance programs has come in the form of Tbilisi's increased support for US operations in Iraq. In November, the Georgian government announced a decision to increase the country's contribution of peacekeeping troops in Iraq to 850, a contribution that would place it second only to the United States in terms of the ratio of troops to domestic population or 16 troops for every 100,000 Georgian citizens. The number will also rank Georgia in 8th place in terms of overall troop contributions compared with a ranking of 28th out of 34 countries for 2004.
But even here, the relationship can work to Georgia's advantage. By showing itself capable of conducting peacekeeping operations in Iraq, Tbilisi could send a powerful message about Georgia's military capabilities to Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders, who themselves are dependent on Russian support. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
John Mackedon is a Tbilisi-based writer. He works for the on-line publication Civil Georgia, and formerly served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country.