Master Sgt. Grady Fontana, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe
A Georgian soldier trains in Germany in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan
NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia has praised Georgia's cooperation with the alliance, continuing a recent pattern that suggests Georgia will take some sort of step forward at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago. The official, James Appathurai, gave an interview to the magazine Tabula (video in English), summarized by Civil.ge:
NATO "took a decision in Bucharest [in 2008] that Georgia will become a NATO member if it still wants to and when it meets the standards of course," he said... "[Georgia] still wants to and based on popular support in Georgia I expect that to stay the same and Georgia is working to meet the standards. We have not changed our view. We continue to work towards that step when Georgia will become a NATO member and Georgia is taking the steps as well and in fact, as the Secretary General said, we are getting closer together."
"We've just agreed the package of measures to, as we call it, enhance Georgia's connectivity to NATO. Over the past few years, including since 2008, Georgia has taken steps at bringing closer links, closer ties, closer connections to NATO. We will take a note of that as [Georgia's] National Security Advisor [Giga Bokeria] is here and when President Saakashvili comes in few weeks to meet with North Atlantic Council again," said Appathurai, who is also the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy.
The NATO-Georgia commission also met this week, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the cooperation would be "reinforced further":
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visits Afghanistan Feb. 20
A top Pentagon official is visiting Tbilisi this week, and high on the agenda will be hammering out the details of the much vaunted "new level" of defense cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. As was the case during President Mikheil Saakashvilil's recent visit to Washington, there was a rhetorical disconnect between the U.S. and Georgian sides about what is the way ahead for military ties between the two allies.
The Georgian side again focused on the concept of "self-defense capabilities," i.e. weapons. “The United States is very much interested in increasing Georgia’s self-defense capabilities,” said Nino Kalandadze, the deputy foreign minister.
The American side, by contrast, focused on more institutional reforms in the Georgian military, as could be seen in the speech the Pentagon official, Celeste Wallander, gave at Georgia's National Defense Academy. While Wallander said that the two sides are "advancing our relationship into new areas of cooperation," she spent far more time lecturing the cadets on the need for the military to be apolitical, suggesting that was more important than any hardware:
The Russian military base in South Ossetia will soon include a battalion for Ossetians, which government officials say will act as a "forge" to build a capable military in the quasi-independent country, but which looks just as much like a blow against the territory's fragile sovereignty. The government news agency RES quotes Ministry of Defense of South Ossetia spokeswoman Galina Guchmazovа:
"The citizens of South Ossetia, who want to continue to serve in the army, now will be provided with opportunity to acquire new knowledge, learn military discipline and matériel at a level consistent with the Russian armed forces. - Ossetian battalion of the Russian military base will be the forge of professional military personnel for the Republic of South Ossetia."
Emphasis added. What does it mean, those who want to "continue to serve"? Does that imply that South Ossetia's own defense forces are to be discontinued?
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded quickly, connecting the creation of the battalion to a more general militarization of the territory and the Russian military threat:
[T]he Russian Federation is continuing to build up its military forces, to strengthen its military infrastructure and to deploy offensive weapons in Georgia's occupied regions. These regions have, in fact, been turned into large military bases and their inhabitants are either employed in the Russian military bases themselves or are serving with the Russian occupation troops, as most recently attested by the fact of the creation of the so-called "Ossetian battalion".
The White House today released its proposed budget for the upcoming year, and the big news from The Bug Pit's area of interest is that the U.S. is now giving the same amount of military aid to Uzbekistan as it is to the rest of the Central Asian republics. Last year, Uzbekistan was budgeted a mere $100,000 in Foreign Military Financing aid, which allows countries to buy U.S. equipment. Still, that was the first FMF money Uzbekistan had been budgeted since 2005, because of Congressional concerns about human rights. But according to the budget documents (pdf) released today, in the current fiscal year Uzbekistan's aid has been bumped up to $1.5 million, and it is slated to get the same next year. That's still small potatoes compared to the big U.S. military aid recipients: Pakistan is budgeted to get $350 million, Egypt $1.3 billion and Israel $3.1 billion. And this also is dwarfed by the cash these countries get as reimbursement for being part of the Northern Distribution Network. But Uzbekistan's aid package is now the same as its neighbors': Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are budgeted to get $1.5 million, Kazakhstan $1.8 million and Turkmenistan $685,000.
The countries of the Caucasus get more: Armenia and Azerbaijan $2.7 million each, and Georgia $14.4 million (though we'll have to wait and see if any of that includes weaponry). Except for Uzbekistan's aid, and a doubling of Tajikistan's aid, there aren't many changes from last year. And the documents contain very little explanation of the aid packages for these countries. Georgia does get highlighted briefly:
An Elbit Skylark, the model for Georgia's new drone?
Georgia is building its own drone aircraft, a leading member of parliament has told the Voice of America Georgian Service. The development of the drone has thus far been carried out in secret, but it may be unveiled at a military parade on May 26, Georgia's independence day.
The development of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is part of the explanation for why the Georgian government and Elbit, an Israeli defense manufacturer, had gone to court over what Elbit says was a breach of contract. That lawsuit was just settled about a month ago for $35 million. Givi Targamadze, the chair of the parliament's defense and security committee, told VOA that Georgia returned the drones it bought from Elbit.
"The fact is that Georgia started the production of drones. Accordingly, we do not need the apparatus of Israeli manufacture and can safely return the equipment back."
That is actually a translation of a Russian translation of the original VOA article, which is only in Georgian, so I hope nothing was lost. Anyway, that seems a strange way to do business, but we don't know the details of the contract and Elbit has declined to comment on this lawsuit, so we may never know.
There are no technical details on the drone, including what its mission (surveillance? attack?) might be, or even its name. VOA quotes an expert, George Antadze, saying that there are several variants:
I have all the information available to the Georgian side has already completed work on the unmanned aircraft, there are working prototypes of these devices, the issue is not only one type, but several different types of unmanned aircraft.
Georgia's prospects in NATO, after being more or less left for dead in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia, have lately appeared to be improving. NATO has recently changed its rhetoric on Georgia, for the first time calling it an "aspirant" along with several Balkan countries. And U.S. officials have said Georgia is making "significant progress" that should be recognized at the next NATO summit, in Chicago in May.
So what does this mean? Does Georgia have a shot at NATO membership after all? As a story on EurasiaNet's main page today explains, not really: President Obama, after his meeting with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, used the word "ultimately" to describe Georgia's entrance into NATO, which suggests he doesn't see it happening any time soon. And even if the White House were to again back Georgian NATO membership as strongly as the Bush administration did pre-August 2008, there would still be the matter of the big Western European countries who oppose Georgia's membership. So what to do?
The defense official quoted in the EurasiaNet piece had more thoughts on this (though there wasn't room in that piece). A Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgia, is not a possibility. That subject won't even be discussed at the summit: remember, this will be in May of an election year. "It's about U.S. internal politics, so this summit needs to look good. We don't need a food fight like in '08, between us and the Germans, or the pro-Georgia camp vs. the camp that's not too keen on Georgia. We don't need that. So the whole Georgia issue isn't going to be raised," the official said.
What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.
Still from video of Obama and Saakashvili's White House meeting
Presidents Obama and Saakashvili has their much-anticipated Oval Office meeting Monday afternoon, and their comments to the press afterwards suggested that differences of opinion remained over the question of the U.S. supplying weapons to Georgia. That has become the most fraught element of the U.S.-Georgia partnership, with Tbilisi pushing hard to get the U.S. to give or sell the Georgians "defensive" weapons, and the U.S. demurring. Congress recently tried to force Obama to restart a more robust defense cooperation, including arms sales, but Obama then declared his intention to ignore Congress, setting up the potential of a small crisis between the tiny Caucasus nation and its would-be superpower patron. At the White House meeting, in spite of the formal professions of strong cooperation, it wasn't hard to see cracks in that facade.
Obama spoke first, and made an unfortunate slip of the tongue: he praised the "institution-building that's been taking place in Russia -- in Georgia." (Saakashvili did display remarkable restraint during the second or so before Obama corrected himself, sitting stone-faced.) After mentioning the possibility of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Georgia, he then discussed defense cooperation:
We talked about how to continue to strengthen our defense cooperation and there are a wide range of areas where we're working together. And I reaffirmed to the president, and reassured him, that the United States will contnue to support Georgia's aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO.
By contrast, here is what Saakashvili said about defense cooperation:
Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is making some pretty inflammatory accusations against his successor, reports the website Gruziya Online:
To maintain power, Mikheil Saakashvili may involved in a war against Iran, says ex-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"I do not rule out that Saakashvili to keep his seat can turn to a military campaign against Iran that would be a disaster for our country," he said, stressing that the issue could be the subject of future negotiations between Saakashvili and U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on January 30.
"An anti-Iranian campaign should not be conducted on the territory of Georgia," said Shevardnadze.
The Russian media is full of speculation about an impending attack on Iran far out of proportion with the likelihood of such a thing happening any time soon. And it's unlikely that war with Iran will actually be on the agenda when Obama and Saakashvili meet next week.
This analysis from Messenger.ge seems (except for the Iran stuff) more on target:
Azerbaijan continues to take the flak for roughshod treatment of the media and political critics. But sitting on an embarrassment of hydrocarbon wealth, the country is in no hurry to change its ways. Behind the maquillage of spruced-up buildings and streets in Baku, rights groups see a ruling political dynasty plagued by rampant nepotism and corruption.