Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Central Europe Digest: Georgia’s Post-War Fallout

Issue Brief No. 106: Georgia’s Post-War Fallout, by Jonathan Hayes

3 August 2009

CEPA Associate Scholar Jonathan Hayes assesses the dramatic reversal of fortune in Georgia’s relations with the west. Faced with a change in Western support and tarnished by a slipping commitment to democracy, “Saakashvili’s ability to effectively lead Georgia is diminishing,” writes Hayes. Going forward, Washington is unlikely to push for a Georgian MAP until it sees the fruits of the “reset” with Moscow.

As the anniversary of the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia approaches, Tbilisi finds itself in a more difficult position than this time last year. Under the Obama administration, Georgia’s American ally is less interested in promoting NATO membership for the small Caucasian state than in “resetting” relations with Russia. Questions about President Mikhail Saakashvili’s commitment to democratic governance have not gone away.

What has happened since the August War?

Since the onset of the conflict twelve months ago, Georgia has changed in two dramatic ways. First, the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have grown more intractable than ever, sabotaging Georgia’s bid for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Second, Georgia’s domestic political turmoil has intensified, with a growing number of observers questioning Saakashvili’s credentials as a democrat and reformer. Meanwhile, America’s rapprochement with Russia has converged with the policy of Western Europe governments, sparking concern among Central European states over Washington’s commitment to the region.

The previous U.S. administration invested considerable energy into the securing MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine. Many European allies, particularly Germany, resisted the proposal. In the case of Georgia, alliance members stressed concern over the status of “frozen conflicts” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Since the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia in 2008, the international status of both regions has remained unresolved. Russia recognized them as independent countries, but only Nicaragua followed suit. Georgia’s NATO candidacy is indefinitely on hold. After taking office in January, President Barack Obama has made reengagement with Russia, rather than NATO expansion, the top priority in the region. The president’s visit to Moscow and the bilateral nuclear arms reduction agreement announced in July are demonstrations of the White House’s intention to “reset” relations with the Kremlin. Though Obama has reiterated that Georgia and Ukraine have the right to join whatever military alliance they wish, he has stopped short of providing strong public endorsements for their candidacy.

Why is this change significant?

Faced with a change in Washington’s once assertive support, Saakashvili’s ability to effectively lead Georgia is diminishing. Official restrictions on the press and a crackdown on opposition protests have tarnished the president’s democratic credentials. The opposition has taken advantage of the geopolitical turmoil to mount a challenge to Saakashvili’s rule. Former close political allies such as Nino Burjanadze (the former parliamentary chair) and Irakli Alasania (the former ambassador to the United Nations) have defected from the president’s camp.

Despite these challenges, Central European states have been keen to continue promoting NATO candidacy for Ukraine and Georgia. As seen from the recent “Open Letter to the Obama Administration,” many officials in the region view America’s rapprochement with Russia as a threat to their own foreign-policy priorities. Closer relations between the United States and Russia, coupled with little progress on negotiating the deployment of the missile defense system, is especially worrisome to leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic. Both governments took risks by ratifying the missile defense agreement. They now fear that the new administration will leave them holding the bag.

What’s next?

Tbilisi’s backslide in democracy and lingering questions over its viability as an ally will present obstacles to substantive western support. In the worst case, Georgia will become nearly irrelevant to European and U.S. foreign policy priorities. Already, the United States and Western Europe have shown an unwillingness to expend valuable political capital on Georgia at the expense of building a positive relationship with Russia. This lowers the chances for a western-lead settlement on South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the near term. In addition, Washington will be unlikely to push for a Georgian MAP until it sees the fruits of the “reset” with Moscow. Meanwhile, opposition figures inside Georgia will continue to position themselves as a alternative to Saakashvili – even if his official term in office does not expire until 2013.

Jonathan Hayes is a CEPA Associate Scholar and a Senior Analyst for Jane's Strategic Advisory Services.

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