The Bumpy Road between Moscow and Tbilisi

The Bumpy Road between Moscow and Tbilisi

Can Georgia block Russia's WTO membership?

Two years after the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the tiny Caucasus state is again becoming a potentially contentious issue between Washington and Moscow. And without care in both capitals, and in Tbilisi as well, Georgia could again set back not only the U.S.-Russian relationship but many broader U.S. foreign policy goals.

Notwithstanding obligatory statements about support for Georgia’s territorial integrity—which the United States is hardly in a position to restore after Russia’s occupation and recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—the Obama Administration has essentially accepted the reality of a smaller Georgia outside NATO and has focused on other priorities in dealing with Moscow, most notably Iran, Afghanistan and the New START Treaty. Russia, for its part, has been generally satisfied with the new status quo, despite periodic and somewhat overblown complaints about American efforts to “rearm” Georgia.

Without Georgia on the agenda, America and Russia have edged closer to one another, building real but still tentative cooperation. But even as Washington and Moscow move forward, their progress brings new obstacles into view on the horizon.

In the wake of the global financial crisis—in which Russia's economy fared worse than any other larger than it—Moscow has reoriented much of its foreign policy toward economic growth under the banner of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s drive for modernization. While less attached to Medvedev’s rhetoric, and perhaps skeptical of some of his ideas, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has constitutional responsibility for the economy and appears to take it seriously in his own way. One result of this, according to a number of reports, is that the United States and Russia are increasingly close to agreement on Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

Enter Georgia. Assuming that America and Russia make a deal—which is not guaranteed, and would require a major effort by the Obama administration on Capitol Hill—Moscow will need an agreement with Tbilisi as well if it is actually to join the WTO. Such an agreement will not be easy to reach with Moscow unwilling to engage with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili or to accept constraints on its presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with Georgia eager to take advantage of rare leverage in dealing with Russia, and with the United States torn between wanting Russia in the WTO and avoiding the appearance of pressuring Saakashvili to make it happen.

The administration already appears to be positioning itself, with leaks from a “senior administration official” to Foreign Policy in which the unnamed official states that the agreement is “a bilateral issue between Russia and Georgia”, that mediation is “not our job” and that because “it is Russia who is seeking to join the WTO, we would see it as up to them to come up with a way to start negotiations.”

On one hand, this makes perfect sense and is the only public position that the United States could take under the circumstances. Appearing to pressure Georgia could undermine not only the U.S.-Georgian relationship (which is not so central in the grand scheme of things, though America does have some important interests there), but also American ties with other countries in central Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia who may develop new (or stronger) doubts about Washington’s commitment to them. Likewise, putting some of the onus for a deal on Russia is entirely appropriate, both because it takes two sides to negotiate and because the U.S. should not have final responsibility for the outcome of any Russian-Georgian talks. Finally, the administration can ill afford the domestic political fallout from seeming to press Tbilisi to give in to Moscow.

On the other hand, however, the long history of mutual misunderstandings, disappointments and disillusionment in the U.S.-Russian relationship makes this kind of game playing rather risky. Without American involvement, it seems unlikely that Russia and Georgia will reach an agreement on Russia’s WTO membership any time soon. Moreover, Russian officials clearly expect the United States to
encourage Georgia to make a deal, something senior American officials
have privately said they would do. So they have been naturally surprised to hear from a “senior administration official” that the Washington will not do so and seem to wonder whether they have been deceived.

The resulting situation appears to have unfortunate parallels with the administration’s handling of the New START Treaty, where attempts to reassure Russian leaders on missile defense ended up raising questions among Senate Republicans about the administration’s plans. In fairness, in both cases the administration is trapped between the competing requirements of working with Russia and working with the Congress—now no longer controlled by Democrats—and it is not easy. But creating one set of expectations in Moscow and another on Capitol Hill is bound to backfire.

In the narrow sense, Russia needs to be a WTO member more than America needs Russia in the WTO, though Russia is the largest economy still outside the group. In a broader sense, however, it is important for the United States to bring Russia into the WTO, both to respond to Moscow’s priorities in a way that also benefits America and to further the West’s top-level strategic goal in dealing with post-Soviet Russia—integrating Russia into the rules-based international system.

More generally still, the U.S.-Russian relationship today is a little bit like an underpowered car climbing a steep hill with no brakes. It is difficult to move forward, but simultaneously impossible to stop without rolling backward—with unpredictable and dangerous consequences. Hopefully Georgia will be a bump and not a roadblock.