More than Georgia on Obama's Mind

February 23, 2012 Topic: NATODefense Region: RussiaGeorgia

More than Georgia on Obama's Mind

President Saakashvili's recent Washington visit has drawn the White House deeper into domestic Georgian politics.

The Georgian media is still talking about President Mikheil Saakashvili’s recent visit to Washington. Saakashvili himself, in a conversation with parliamentarians on February 13, called it a “strategic breakthrough” in U.S.-Georgian relations.

That is forgivable hyperbole. The January 30 meeting of the two presidents, Obama and Saakashvili, was primarily about the meeting itself. Saakashvili had long sought the symbolic achievement of an Oval Office meeting with Barack Obama, having had two with George W. Bush. As for Obama, his Freudian slip, when he started to say “Russia” and then corrected himself to “Georgia,” told us a lot about what was on his mind. For Obama, it is important to be able to defend himself against accusations by candidate Romney or Gingrich that he had “thrown Georgia under the bus” because of his reset policy with Russia. Saakashvili’s phrase—“I’ll be leaving this office very happy”—will have made the U.S. president happy too.

Obama’s Agenda

The first item on the agenda was defense cooperation. The Obama administration has been caught in a bind here. The Pentagon loves Georgia because it is virtually the only country prepared to send more troops to Afghanistan—and to dangerous places like Helmand province—as everyone else is scaling back. But the United States has done everything it can not to supply weapons to Georgia, partly because this will enrage the Russians and partly in the belief that this will only destabilize the delicate standoff with Moscow over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Likewise, the Georgians were pressing for some new statement from Washington on their NATO aspirations at the Spring 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.

The result is a dance where the Georgians talk about weapons and NATO and lobby Congress hard on these issues, and the White House burnishes its language of equivocation. After their Oval Office meeting, Obama said, “We will continue to strengthen our defense cooperation,” and “The United States will continue to support Georgia’s aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO.” The lack of clarity here confirms the impression that this administration will look for new types of military cooperation that do not involve weapons sales and that in Chicago they will try to duck the Georgia issue in deference to European allies, who have been allergic to the Georgia-in-NATO issue since the 2008 war.

The second issue was trade. Last year, U.S. exports to Georgia were worth $538 million and imports amounted to $176 million. That is seven times more than a decade ago but still smaller by a factor of more than two hundred than U.S. combined turnover with Germany, the next country alphabetically on its list of trading partners. Georgia is a tiny economy in world terms.

Yet the major news story Obama announced in the White House was “the possibility of a free-trade agreement” with Georgia. This would be a big political prize for Saakashvili as the United States currently does not have a free-trade agreement with a single European country.

For the White House, this was something they could offer Saakashvili in lieu of a new defense deal. And it positions them cleverly as they seek to have Congress repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, something that needs to happen before American companies can get the trade privileges they are entitled to with Russia under World Trade Organization rules. The push to scrap Jackson-Vanik will be made in the early summer, just after Vladimir Putin’s presumed return to the Kremlin. It will help to be able to tell Congress that business is blind and the United States is seeking free trade not just with Russia but with its archenemy Georgia as well.

Finally, the meeting was all about the domestic politics of Georgia. Interestingly, this was the topic with which Obama began his postmeeting remarks, suggesting that it had been a major part of the private conversation in the Oval Office.

Here again, the United States is in a bind. Usually, of course, the United States tries not to get too involved in the domestic political minutiae of other states. But Georgia has come perilously close to being a U.S. client state, being as it’s a major recipient of aid money, defense training and political advice. It’s not just President Saakashvili—two senior representatives of the opposition were in Washington the same week. That means that there are two elections being fought in Georgia, one in Georgia itself and one in Washington.

Saakashvili’s Dilemma

The number-one political issue in Georgia is the personal intentions of Saakashvili. As soon as he steps down at the end of his presidential term next year, a new constitution will come into effect that creates a powerful new prime ministerial position. Saakashvili will be legally entitled to take that job, but if he does it will certainly tarnish his reputation abroad. As he ponders this dilemma, internal political pressures to hang on to power compete with international political messages to leave the scene.

In the Oval Office meeting, Obama used an eye-catching phrase: “the formal transfer of power that will be taking place in Georgia, which I think will solidify many of these reforms that have already taken place.” It sounded as though Saakashvili was told that Washington expects him not to move to the prime minister’s job.

If so, it was a useful piece of advice for Saakashvili—but one which inevitably pulls Washington even deeper into Georgian domestic politics. It looks as though it will be a bumpy year politically in Georgia. Being half-in already, it is probably better for the United States to get fully engaged than to pretend it is a detached bystander—especially when the Georgian public suspects that a lot of key decisions on their future are being made in Washington anyway.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Image: European People's Party—EPP