Saakashvili Visits Washington Amid Heightening Geopolitical Tension in the Caucasus

Date: 02-24-2004 | Category: Articles, Energy Security, Geopolitics

Saakashvili Visits Washington Amid Heightening Geopolitical Tension in the Caucasus


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Washington for talks with top-level Bush administration officials on expanding strategic and economic cooperation. The Georgian leader’s US visit is coming at a time of geopolitical uncertainty in the Caucasus, with Moscow and Washington potentially on a collision course.

Georgia is shaping up as a key venue in the building US-Russian competition for regional influence, a fact that is forcing Saakashvili into a delicate balancing act in the foreign policy sphere, while at the same time trying to restore order on the domestic front. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Georgian-Russian relations have long been marked by tension, but during an early February visit to Moscow, Saakashvili appeared to stabilize Tbilisi’s relationship with the Kremlin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Saakashvili arrived in Washington on February 22 and is expected to seek stronger US security cooperation, along with an expansion of economic assistance. In addition to meeting with Bush administration officials, Saakashvili is scheduled to meet with representatives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as US business executives.

Since Saakashvili led the protest movement last November that succeeded in forcing former president Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation, the United States has strongly backed his stated desire to place Georgia on a fast track towards integration with Western security and economic structures. [For background see Eurasia Insight archive].

At the same time, Russian leaders are loathe to lose any influence in what they consider to be their strategic backyard. Despite Saakashvili’s widely praised performance in Moscow, many in Russia’s policy-making community remain suspicious of his intentions. Specifically, there is still strong doubt about Saakashvili’s pledge that he would not permit the United States to establish a military base in Georgia after Russian forces pull out from the country. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

By all appearances Russia is preparing to wage a vigorous struggle to keep Georgia within its sphere of influence. An indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to get tough on CIS states came February 24, when, in a televised address, he announced that he was firing his cabinet. Putin stressed that his decision was not driven by dissatisfaction with the government’s performance. "It is dictated by a wish once again to set down a position on how policy will develop in the country after [Russia’s presidential election] on March 14," Putin said. Putin’s re-election is considered a virtual certainty.

Putin provided some insight into his thinking during a February 12 televised speech, in which he characterized the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as a "national tragedy on an enormous scale" in which "only the elites and nationalists of the republics gained." The underlying assertion of Putin’s comments was that the Kremlin needed to do more to defend Russia’s national interests, and, accordingly, would be justified in adopting tougher policies towards other CIS states.

Dmitry Sidorov, Kommersant bureau chief in Washington, said that Putin really believes what he says. "His popularity allows him not to make any statements and win handily in March," he said.

Putin’s statements sent ripples around CIS capitals and beyond. "What does this mean – that Russia is going to correct the ‘mistakes of the past?" a senior Central Asian leader visiting Washington asked rhetorically.

Already, Russian rhetoric is toughening. At an early February security conference in Munich, Germany, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that Russia might opt out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, alleging that the pact is an outdated "legacy of the Cold War." Such an argument is mimics the US contention that the ABM treaty is outdated, and thus should no longer be binding.

Russia’s potential withdrawal from the CFE pact could have significant ramifications for Tbilisi. Moscow’s obligations under the CFE treaty are perhaps the most significant source of pressure on Russia to pull out from its two remaining bases in Georgia.

In his speech at the Munich conference, Ivanov complained that Western leaders were ignoring Russian security needs. "NATO should -- in deed, not only in words -- take into account Russian concerns," Ivanov said.

The Russian threat to withdraw from CFE comes at a time when the United States is planning a wide-ranging re-deployment of its forces in Europe, much of it related to the ongoing war on terrorism. For example, the United States is planning to deploy more troops in Romania and Bulgaria to enhance its ability to project power in the Middle East and Central Asia. Small-scale forward bases in the Caucasus and Central Asia are also under consideration by Pentagon planners, although US diplomats have stressed that Washington has no firm plans to establish bases in the region.

Ivanov attacked Georgia twice in his Munich policy speech. Georgia allows terrorists from the Middle East to enter Chechnya from its territory, Ivanov claimed. He also stated that Georgia has been lax in controlling terrorists along its borders with Russia. Georgi Baramidze, the Georgian Interior Minister, has rejected Russian claims. "The Interior Ministry has written to the Acting Interior Minister of Russia and suggested a number of concrete cooperation projects, and so far received no response," he told EurasiaNet.

US Senator John McCain, speaking at the same panel as Ivanov, provided a ringing rebuttal. The Arizona Republican said, that "undemocratic behavior and threats to the sovereignty and liberty of her neighbors will not profit Russia -- but will exclude her from the company of Western democracies."

In a message to President Bush published February 11, Putin tried to smooth over tension. "I think by practical actions we shall be able convincingly to show everyone that the partner foundations of our relations remain immutable and that any speculations about a ’cooling-off’ between Russia and the United States are far removed from reality," Putin said. "Russia will remain a stable, reliable and predictable partner."

A majority in Washington policy-making circles believe that Russia will ratchet up its involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia after presidential elections. This may include further acquisitions of energy, transportation, and other industrial assets. It may also take the form of pressure on CIS states for more favorable trade conditions, and more military and security cooperation under the umbrella of the war on terrorism.

Regardless of any Russian policy shift, Washington will remain intent on supporting Georgian democratization efforts and pushing for the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

US officials privately doubt that Russia would formally pull out of the CFE Treaty. Both Russia and the NATO members are well below CFE ceilings along the Western and Southern flanks, and Baltic states are unlikely to deploy significant NATO or own forces. Many in Washington also do not expect a massive Russian campaign to destabilize Georgia, as Russia has no alternative candidate who could assume control of the country’s government. One American official characterized the prognosis for the Caucasus as a "status quo plus".

While Georgia is firmly in the US and Western camp, Azerbaijan is a more difficult case. According to a senior CIS official who spoke on condition of anonymity, President Ilham Aliyev has been stung by criticism in Washington of his human rights record, and may be gravitating towards the Russia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nevertheless, US officials are not concerned about "losing" Azerbaijan, citing the fact that Baku will always require a diplomatic partner to balance its relations with Russia and Iran.

Whether Putin will remain a reliable partner for Bush, who is proving increasingly vulnerable in an election year, remains to be seen, Washington insiders say. As the Bush Administration is facing escalating violence in Iraq, a power hand-over in Baghdad on June 30, and a hotly contested presidential elections campaign, it can only hope for no additional foreign policy surprises.


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