The United States and Georgia officially became "strategic partners" under a charter signed by the two governments on January 9. While Georgian officials are hailing the document as a guarantee of Washington's support for Tbilisi, analysts are divided on what kind of impact the agreement will actually have. Many believe the only certainty is that the pact will rile Russia.
Few details have been publicized about the charter, which was signed four months after Georgia's disastrous war with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. It has been widely reported, however, that the Georgian pact resembles a strategic partnership charter signed by the United States and Ukraine in December.
According to the public version of the Ukrainian document, the signatories pledged "to strengthen" relations in five areas: economics, politics, diplomacy, culture and security. The charter also stressed US "support" for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which "constitutes the foundation" of the bilateral relationship.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lauded Georgia during the signing ceremony in Washington as "a very valued partner of the United States." She added that the charter "outlines a way to advance our partnership." Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze celebrated what he described as a "historic development for my country."
For Tbilisi, still reeling from territorial losses during the week-long war with Russia, and coping with the continued presence of Russian troops in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the US-Georgian charter offers a strong measure of reassurance concerning Georgia's sovereignty.
During his annual New Year's Eve address, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stressed the charter's importance, claiming it represents the end of an "epoch" of Russian influence that started in 1783 with the Georgievsk Treaty, which rendered Georgia a protectorate of the Russian Empire. "A new stage is beginning for Georgia's international relations by the signing of this agreement," he said.
Some local analysts express concern that Saakashvili's administration is overstating the significance of the agreement, thereby giving Georgians a false sense of security. Giorgi Khutsishvili, a founder of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation, believes there is a real danger that Georgian society may have "false expectations," and believe the agreement is more than it really is. "This doesn't mean that we need to conduct less calculated policies with Russia," he said. "I do not want this agreement to embolden the government of Georgia."
According to Tornike Sharashenidze, a professor of international politics and diplomacy, the agreement is little more than a written version of the current policy that Washington conducts toward Georgia. While he noted that "it is better to have the document than not to have it," he stressed that the charter provides mostly psychological support, helping to maintain Georgia's "self esteem" in the wake of the war, rather than signifying any actual expansion in strategic cooperation.
"We need some kind of guarantees, at least some psychological support to feel more stable, more protected. I think that is the idea of the document, basically," Sharashenidze said. "I don't think anything special is going to happen in the upcoming years."
Several Georgian lawmakers insisted the charter has more than symbolic meaning. According to Irakli Kavtaradze, the first deputy chairman of the parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, the document "lays the foundation" for future cooperation between Georgia and the United States - including military training and equipment.
He noted that while the strategic charter cannot "neutralize" all of Georgia's security concerns over the short term, in the long term it could help transform "Georgia into the state of different quality."
Outside the Georgian government, there is concern that the agreement could create new security challenges for Georgia, instead of easing existing ones. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, notes that far from neutralizing any threats to Georgia, the charter could actually increase tensions in the region.
During a telephone interview with EurasiaNet from San Francisco, Zunes noted that the agreement has great "potential" to further antagonize Moscow and lead to more conflict. "To bring [the conflict] to a super power level that would threaten to rekindle cold war mindsets I think would be counterproductive and harden attitudes on both sides," he said. He went on to note that any perceived US encroachment on territory that is "historically" part of the Russian and Soviet empires could easily "bring out the worse aspects of Russian nationalism."
Kavtaradze suggested that the strategic partnership between Georgia and the United States should have no impact on relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. "This will contribute to our country's development," he said. "It has nothing in common with the current conflict situation."
The Georgian charter was initially scheduled to be signed on January 4; it was postponed allegedly due to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's emergency trip to Israel.
The signing of the US-Georgian charter occurred just 11 days before the end of US President George W. Bush's presidential term. Bush has long been a strong supporter of Georgia. It is not certain whether Bush's successor, Barack Obama, will be as firm in his backing for Tbilisi. To a certain extent, then, the US-Georgian charter could constitute an attempt to tie the incoming administration's hands concerning US policy toward Georgia.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.