05 Sep 2008
Georgia: Cheney offers "encouragement"
Visiting Georgia on 4 September, US Vice-President Dick Cheney offers predictable words of encouragement, praising Georgia and denouncing Russia.
By Giorgi Lomsadze in Tbilisi for EurasiaNet
US Vice President Dick Cheney carried a predictable message to Georgia on 4 September, praising the Georgian government while assailing Russia’s "illegitimate and unilateral" attempt to detach Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Caucasus country. While Georgians were certainly cheered by Cheney’s arrival in Tbilisi, they also realize that their country will be interacting with a new presidential administration in 2009.
Cheney’s one-day visit came a day after the Bush administration revealed that it would provide up to US$1 billion in aid to help Georgia rebuild following its disastrous clash with Russia in August. Following his meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Cheney eschewed a press conference. But he did make a brief statement, in which he repeated the Bush administration’s full support for Tbilisi, and offered a full-throated endorsement for Georgia’s membership in NATO.
"I have assured President Saakashvili today, America will help Georgia to rebuild and regain its position of one of the world’s fastest growing economies," Cheney said. "He and his democratically elected government can count on the continued support and assistance of the United States."
Neither American nor Georgian officials provided details on how the announced US$1 billion aid package will be spent. In a 3 September statement, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice specified only that the assistance was for Georgia’s "pressing humanitarian needs" and "to facilitate its economic reconstruction." Washington expects to hand over US$570 million of the total package by the end of 2008, Rice said.
The lack of clarity concerning the aid package is not a source of concern in Tbilisi. Cheney’s mere presence is perhaps the most effective aid that the United States could provide at the present moment, some experts suggested. "Just by the fact that he comes and gets off the airplane, the first objective [showing US support for Georgia] is accomplished," commented David J Smith, director of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Security Analysis Center.
Georgians have felt a particular fondness for the Bush administration since May 2005, when US President George W Bush visited Tbilisi. While offering succor over the short term, Cheney’s visit to Tbilisi reinforced an awareness that the Bush administration will remain in power only for another five months. Many in Tbilisi wonder whether US support for Georgia will diminish after a new president takes office in Washington.
When contemplating the options, Georgian media has naturally gravitated to the Republican Party candidate, John McCain, as the man most likely to continue the Bush administration line. McCain’s confrontational rhetoric in the early days of the Russian incursion, along with his 26 August visit to Georgia by the candidate’s wife, Cindy McCain, solidified his strong stature in Tbilisi.
At the same time, many Georgians are coming to see the Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama, as a friend of Georgia. Initial impressions in Tbilisi of Obama were mixed. But in recent weeks, more Georgians have felt assured that the United States will continue to be a stout defender of Georgia in the event of a democratic victory in the presidential vote.
Obama’s selection of Delaware Senator Joe Biden as the vice presidential candidate helped to encourage the belief in Tbilisi that the Georgian-Russian conflict would remain on the US foreign policy radar screen no matter who won in November. On 18 August, five days before he was named as Obama’s running mate, Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Georgia outlining a policy line akin to that of the McCain campaign. "The war that began in Georgia is no longer about that country alone," Biden said in a statement. "It has become a question of whether and how the West will stand up for the rights of free people throughout the region."
The Georgian government is not playing favorites, and is already taking steps to build a strong working relationship with the next presidential administration, whether Democrat or Republican. "I cannot speculate on what’s going to happen after the elections," said Deputy Foreign Minster Giga Bokeria, a longtime Saakashvili loyalist. "What we’ve seen is a very strong bipartisan support from the United States and, speaking on behalf of the Georgian people, I want to say that we are very grateful to the Americans."
"Senator Obama was very specific about the ways he wants to help us," Bokeria continued. He did not elaborate. The government, he added, is grateful to both the Democratic and Republican Parties for the scope of support offered. "We don’t compare our friends."
In an effort to broaden Georgian government contacts with the Democratic Party, former Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, current Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze, State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze and First Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Mikheil Machavariani were among other Georgian political leaders on hand at the 25-28 August Democratic convention in Denver.
The expert consensus in Tbilisi, meanwhile, seems to be that a change of administrations in Washington will not significantly alter US-Georgian relations. "[W]e shouldn’t expect major changes in American foreign policy," said Tornike Sharashenidze, head of international programs at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs in Tbilisi. "Remember that it was during [former US President Bill] Clinton’s term that the United States focused on Georgia."
"The United States has made serious political and economic investments in Georgia and reversal of this course is highly unlikely," he continued.
Analyst Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, suggested that US support for Georgia was likely to expand in 2009. "Whoever wins, Georgia should expect greater US involvement after the election," he said.
Rondeli expressed confidence that an Obama administration would be a staunch supporter of Tbilisi. "Obama is surrounded by an army of international affairs experts - Biden being one of them - and he will do what he has to when the time to act comes," he said.
Republican Party chief Davit Usupashvili, an opposition leaders who met with Democratic Party officials during a recent visit to the United States, came away impressed. In an interview published on 4 September in the newspaper Rezonansi, Usupashvili suggested that US policy toward Georgia might be "more effective" under an Obama administration.
He expressed the belief that Obama administration policy toward Georgia would be "based on deep analysis, oriented on the development of democratic institutions, based on freedom of media, judicial system and elections."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.