U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania at the Pentagon (photo: defense.gov)
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is on a visit to Washington where he has met his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among other officials. Hagel, after the meeting, gave the usual boilerplate statement that the two sides "agreed to continue to broaden U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation." But what might that mean?
When he talked with The Bug Pit in July, Alasania said that the meeting with Hagel would help clarify some of the defense cooperation agreements -- such as the provision of American military transportation helicopters -- that the presidents of the two countries discussed last January. But at a public event after his meeting with Hagel, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Alasania declined to give specifics of the discussion.
This is something we have been talking about for six months, how to implement, to fast-track the agreement that was made between our presidents. Today was a confirmation... [that the agreement] will be fully implemented, but it's not going to happen overnight.
In the public event, Alasania clearly saw his primary task as disproving the lingering suspicion in Washington that his boss, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is secretly a stooge of the Kremlin. So he not only reiterated his government's strong commitment to joining NATO, but also spent some time discussing the continuity of his government's policies with those of the governments led by Mikheil Saakashvili and Edvard Shevardnadze.
The Georgia that we see today is the hard work of a lot of people in the previous administrations. The first president was someone who brought Georgia independence, Edvard Sheverdnadze was the first one who actually started talking about NATO and the future of Georgia in NATO. Then the third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, made all the efforts to make progress and a lot of new initiatives were started to integrate more closely and to modernize Georgia's state. And we have to acknowledge this and appreciate this and base the forward movement on the solid ground that was built by previous administrations.
Alasania also addressed the large degree of criticism that his government has gotten for prosecutions of political opponents, admitting that "we all made mistakes, there was a lot of emotions flowing after the elections but I think things are now settled."
One entertaining moment came when the event's moderator, Fred Starr, an indefatigable promoter of the "New Silk Road" vision, asked Alasania how Georgia saw itself vis-a-vis transcontinental trade routes. Alasania discussed infrastructure projects that Georgia is undertaking with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan, but Starr wanted him to go further, suggesting that the Caucasus could be a sort of "land Suez Canal" between Europe and Asia. "Does it [Georgia's strategy] go East? Does it include India?," Starr asked? Alasania replied: "We have to shape up first the roads in the Caucasus to make sure they are workable and efficient and then we are going to go to India," to laughter from the audience.
Anyway, what's clear is that Ivanishvili's new administration has very different expectations from U.S. military cooperation than did its predecessor. While Saakashvili placed a huge priority on acquiring high-profile, high-value weapons from the U.S. like air-defense and anti-tank missiles, the new government has much more modest goals. That may be as much to do with the lack of receptivity in Washington to Saakashvili's hopes as it does with Ivanishvili and Alasania's real desires. But we'll see if this new approach bears more fruit in the end.