Will Biden’s visit to Georgia revise Bush-era relations?

After his trip to Ukraine, US Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in Georgia. However, following Obama’s fanfare trip to Moscow, some believe Biden’s tour is merely a consolatory gesture to Russia’s neighbors.

The visit to Georgia, however, might not be accompanied by as large a bag of diplomatic goodies from the US as before. With the country locked in both political and economic turmoil, some predict Biden may be bringing a revised attitude to relations with Tbilisi.

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New US administration…new approach?

Friends in high places – that's long characterized Georgia's approach to relations with the United States.

However, the White House is clearly a lot more reserved in its support now than it was during the Bush administration. So can Georgia's politicians still count on Washington’s help?

Gigi Tseretel, vice speaker of the parliament, said “Biden was one of the very effective supporters after the war with Russia. He personally initiated a $1 billion financial aid package, which later became part of wider financial aid to Georgia."

“I think he will more clearly articulate in Georgia the new administration’s plans and strategic vision about Georgia, about this region,” he added.

The United States seemingly supports Georgia in its territorial ambitions, like claiming independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia as its own. However, words are not actions. The green light given by the Bush administration to Saakashvili has changed color, and now is perhaps a warning shade of yellow.

Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor says “the new administration has a different approach on NATO membership, in particularly for Georgia and Ukraine.”

“You’ll probably hear Joe Biden, as he travels through this region, telling them to remove this issue from their front burner – it’s not going to happen really quickly,” he said. “And otherwise, perhaps move to put their own houses in order.”

Both Ukraine and Georgia, he went on, “are in some kind of disarray domestically, economically they are in serious trouble, and their relations with Russia are deeply strained.”

“Probably the American idea is that this problem should be addressed first,” Weir said.

Obama “puts higher priority on Russia”

Biden's visit comes just weeks after Obama was in Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart. Some are convinced that the short amount of time in between the trips is far from a coincidence.

Ivan Eland, a political analyst, thinks Obama “does want to improve relations with Moscow.”

“The president was in Moscow, and the vice president was in Ukraine,” Eland said. “So I think that’s an indication that he probably puts a higher priority on Russia and less on admitting Ukraine and Georgia into the NATO.”

The once-touted “beacon of democracy” in the Caucasus, however, is going through very tough times. Continuous opposition protests are in their fourth month, and Georgia's economic prospects have nosedived with the international financial crisis.

So Biden is welcomed by a president who is trying to save face while his country falls apart around him.


Salome Zourabichvili (AFP Photo / Gerard Cerles)
Opposition keeps “striving for democracy”

Salome Zourabichvili, an opposition leader, said a mass rally will be held to greet the American vice president.

“The Georgian population wants to show that it’s still striving for the same democracy that it was striving for when the Rose Revolution occurred, that is has listened very carefully to the words said by President Obama, including in Moscow, where he mentioned and underlined that any country has its right to have its own freely chosen leadership,”

she said.

The US vice president will hardly come empty-handed, and will undoubtedly deliver some plan for future cooperation between Washington and Tbilisi.

However, with American foreign policy moving in a different direction after eight years under Bush, and with trouble brewing in Georgia itself, Mikhail Saakashvili may well find himself with little support both at home and abroad.

Tbilisi asks Washington to send monitors

According to the International Herald Tribune, Tbilisi has asked the US to send American observers to Georgia’s borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The newspaper reported that the issue would be raised during Biden’s visit to Tbilisi.

"The attachment of US representatives to the EU monitoring mission in Georgia will strengthen the mission, improve the provision of security and send a very important political message,” Temur Yakobashvili, Georgia’s vice premier and state minister for reintegration, told journalists on Tuesday.

"It will also supply the US with more information about the situation in the conflict zone, which is important against the backdrop of the ended mission of UN military observers in Abkhazia and the OSCE mission in South Ossetia,” he added.


European Union observers in Georgia (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Meanwhile, according to The International Herald Tribune, EU countries are holding informal consultations about plans to invite the United States to the monitoring program.

The observers were deployed in Georgia on October 1, 2008. There are about 250 people from 22 states and, according to the mission heads, they are monitoring territories bordering on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, said during his visit to Georgia on July 17 that the monitoring must apply to the entire territory of the country, including Abkhaz and Tskhinval districts.

Give us the weapons

Prior to Joe Biden’s visit, Georgian president Saakashvili gave an interview to American newspaper The Washington Post where he said that Georgia had asked the US for a shipment of new defensive weapons.

The Georgian president insisted that the antiaircraft and antitank systems he asks for are purely defensive – to protect the country against the “Russian threat”.

Saakashvili said that since the consultations between the American and Georgian military had been already conducted, he thinks the United States have already made the decision to help.

He also warned that a refusal of the US and its NATO alliances to deliver the weapons to Georgia will be seen by Tbilisi as a sign of weakness.

Saakashvili’s hopes lie with Joe Biden’s visit, who he expects will make positive conclusions on the matter.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that at this stage, freezing arms trade with Georgia is the right thing to do.

“I hope that everyone remembers how Saakashvili uses his weapons,” Lavrov said. “Long before the start of aggression against South Ossetia in August last year, we warned our Western partners who were selling weapons to Tbilisi. Many drew positive conclusions after the tragedy. According to my info, many countries have frozen arms trade with the current regime in Tbilisi.”

Moscow has repeatedly called for an end to Georgia’s militarization. Russia warned that Tbilisi’s military build-up during the six months prior to August last year resulted in the use of arms against the Republic of South Ossetia.

In Kiev, Biden met with President Viktor Yushchenko and said that Washington would support Ukraine’s NATO membership bid if that is the will of the country’s people. He also had talks with Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and other likely candidates who will be in next year’s Ukrainian presidential election.