Whether by words or by her mere appearance, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s July 5 visit to Tbilisi will serve to reassure Georgian officials that Washington still values its strategic partnership with Georgia, analysts say.
Georgia is the fifth and final stop in Clinton’s whirlwind tour to the region, following stops in Baku and Yerevan on July 4, and in Kiev and Krakow on July 1-3.
While the trip is Clinton’s first visit to Georgia as Secretary of State, it is more symbolic than substantial, commented Thomas De Waal, a specialist on Georgia and the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
“I think the whole goal of the visit to all five countries is to give a very public message that the reset with Russia is not at the expense of neighbors… the country that will be the hardest sell of this message is Georgia. There is a lot of nervousness in the government,” De Waal said.
The quiet tone of US President Barack Obama’s policy toward Georgia has fed Georgian fears that Washington is no longer Tbilisi’s champion after years of exuberant support from the Bush White House. The lack of an official meeting between Obama and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at an April nuclear summit in Washington underlined those concerns for many.
In response, the White House has downplayed media reports that Georgia -- and other allies in the region -- feel threatened by President Obama’s reset policy with Russia, which advocates cooperation with Moscow over geopolitical jostling.
Despite an ongoing scrutiny of the Washington-Moscow relationship by Georgian media, Saakashvili indicated during a June 29 National Security Council meeting that he is willing to play along with the new “reset” policy.
He applauded a White House statement that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are “occupied” by Russian forces and pledged his government’s willingness for “comprehensive talks” with Moscow.
That readiness to go with the flow could stem from a realization that, while the style of relations with Washington has changed, key policy positions have not. The US still supports Georgia’s territorial integrity – a term that refers to its claims to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- and advocates its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Nonetheless, addressing any lingering jitters about Washington’s attempt at a newfound friendship with Moscow may rank as a secondary priority. At a June 29 press briefing in Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip H. Gordon denied that the visit is part of a “reassurance tour.”
Discussions about the US’s new policy toward Moscow is not the purpose of the five-day trip, Gordon asserted, adding that he “suspected” that Clinton would, however, discuss the policy with local dignitaries.
“We don’t think… that anybody should have any concerns about the new and better relationship with Russia,” he said.
Some Georgian opposition parties, like Irakli Alasania’s Our Georgia-Free Democrats, appear to have other concerns, however.
Aside from showing support for Georgia, it is even more “important” that Clinton leaves with a clear appreciation of the fledging democracy’s shortcomings, argued Our Georgia-Free Democrats senior member Alexo Petriashvili,
Petriashvili said that the opposition expects Clinton to pressure Saakashvili to reform the election code before parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013.
“She will bring the message that the US government knows that the local elections were not perfect,” he said, in reference to the May 30 vote. [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive.] “No one [in the ruling party] can conclude ‘We are good boys and passed the exam on local elections and we can get the benefits.’”
Any such “benefits” could be few in number. De Waal stressed that there is “nothing of substance” that Clinton can offer the Georgians. The Obama administration “is kind of downgrading Georgia’s expectations about its priority in US foreign policy,” he said.
“I think maybe there is a feeling that they have been overplayed and now they are being underplayed,” De Waal said.
Alexander Rondeli, president of Tbilisi’s Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, however, believes that the mere gesture of Clinton’s support is enough.
“She is coming to show [the] Georgian leadership and the Georgian nation that America cares about Georgia. To show Russia that America is not abandoning the region,” said Rondeli.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.