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Published on: October 28, 2010
Georgia in the Crosshairs

Part of any trip to Georgia getting the most out of local color: the food, the scenery, the Stalin Museum. But there’s another dimension to Georgia: geopolitics.  Divided, occupied in part by Russian troops, Georgia is one of the world’s most at-risk countries and the shadow of new crises with Russia hangs over everything in the […]

Part of any trip to Georgia getting the most out of local color: the food, the scenery, the Stalin Museum.

But there’s another dimension to Georgia: geopolitics.  Divided, occupied in part by Russian troops, Georgia is one of the world’s most at-risk countries and the shadow of new crises with Russia hangs over everything in the country.

Some of Georgia’s problems are, frankly, the fault of bad decisions by its government.  The reckless and aggressive Georgian policies toward Russia in the summer of 2008 — policies it undertook in defiance of warnings from the Bush administration and the rest of the West — gave Putin an opportunity to occupy South Ossetia, create a new wave of Georgian refugees, and make trouble for both Georgia and the United States.  Even today, there is a certain trust deficit.  Many in western Europe for example simply do not trust Georgia’s president and I do not believe that Georgia will be admitted to NATO until either he or his successor convinces skeptics in Europe that things have changed.  Most of the Georgians I spoke with, including political allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili understand this.  But it is not clear that Georgia’s president or its political process can or will summon up the necessary “strategic patience”.

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, speaking at the United Nations in 2009 (Credit: UN).

In fact, while I was visiting the country Georgia announced a new policy of ‘visa-free’ travel for residents of the Northern Caucasus — including places like Chechnya.  The move angered Russia (which wants to keep the lid on tightly in the North Caucasus and already blames Georgia for allowing arms and people smuggling in and out of the troubled region); it also seriously annoyed the United States, which does not does not want Georgia poking at the Russian bear; the US also objects, strenuously, to the idea of Islamic militants crossing the Georgia border and then roaming freely around a country with many US Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats and other personnel.  Georgia is trying to attract many more native English speakers to beef up the country’s fluency; good luck with that if militants are crossing over from the North Caucasus.

The visa move also struck a blow at Georgia’s relations with the EU; Georgia’s hopes for easing the restrictions on Georgians working in or traveling to the EU were not furthered by demonstrating a careless attitude toward a serious security issue on its frontiers.  One suspects that the foreign investors Georgia seeks desperately to lure are also put off by a decision that, to say the least, does not enhance the security of foreign personnel and installations.

As far as I could determine, the Georgians did not consult with the Europeans, the Americans or anyone else before taking this step, reinforcing the belief that Georgia’s hotheaded leadership is unpredictable and impulsive.  The hard and even brutal lesson that Georgia needs to learn is this:  NATO’s European members will not accept a rash and headstrong Georgia into the alliance.  Ever.

Georgia’s worst enemy could scarcely have harmed the country more.

The behavior of the Georgian president, rightly or wrongly perceived as reckless and rash by both Europeans and Americans, has so spooked the NATO alliance that Georgia will not be joining it anytime soon.  The US has no power to change this; European members of NATO are free to make up their own minds and new members must be admitted by a unanimous vote.  (A military alliance could hardly run its affairs in any other way; free peoples cannot be bound to go to war in defense of someone else without at some point giving their consent.)  The US supports Georgia and Georgia’s aspirations to NATO, but we are not going to make a bilateral security treaty with Georgia like the one we have with Japan.

That leaves Georgia in a pickle.  It is embroiled in a series of disputes with Russia, with Russian troops currently occupying Abkhazia in the northwest and South Ossetia in the north-center.  Almost 300,000 Georgian refugees were driven from or fled their homes in these regions.  With Russia’s blessing, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have declared their independence.  Georgian public opinion can be rabidly nationalistic, and the 4.4 million residents (about 85% of whom are ethnically Georgian) are divided by geographical, cultural and clan lines into many quarreling factions.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Georgia has known two revolutions and, depending on how you count them, three civil wars and two significant international ones.  New wars could flare up unpredictably, though it seems to me that with the Winter Olympics scheduled in nearby Sochi in 2014, Russia is unlikely to seek new conflicts that could spoil its Olympic celebration.

A Georgian magazine laments NATO’s perceived tardiness (photo by Walter Mead).

Hotheaded Georgian policy has made matters worse, but Georgians have a point when they complain that many of the country’s problems are not its fault.  As a transit route for oil and gas from the Caucasian Sea and Central Asia to the west (the only such route not controlled by Russia), Georgia engages the attention of many powerful countries; Russia wants to control the pipeline, and the US and the Europeans don’t want that to happen.

Georgia’s situation is to some degree a hostage to developments in Ukraine.  While Ukraine’s government was pushing the country toward NATO membership, Georgia’s aspirations seemed reasonable.  Now, with NATO pretty much off the table for Ukraine, Georgia (despite its border the fellow NATO member Turkey) seems a long way from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.

The cooling of expansionist fervor in the EU also leaves Georgia exposed.  There was a time, not all that long ago, when many observers thought that Turkey and Ukraine would both be joining the EU.  It now seems likely (though in my view very unfortunate) that neither country will get an invitation.  There is simply no way that Georgia can get in if both of these larger countries stay out.  That leaves Georgia out in the cold as far as powerful international organizations and alliances are concerned.

Again, none of this is Georgia’s fault.  The incompetence, corruption and political infighting that doomed the hopes of Ukraine’s Orange Revolutionaries also changed the character of the ex-Soviet space.  The serial political and economic crises and failures of the EU have dramatically weakened the ability of EU elites to impose large, unpopular changes like eastward expansion on their sullen and resentful publics.  Geography and politics make it profoundly unlikely that Georgia can enter the EU before Turkey does; with Turkish membership looking increasingly as if it is scheduled for the 12th of Never (or the Greek kalends as the ancients used to say), it looks as if Georgia’s accession date will be on the 13th.  The growing distance between the new foreign policy of the AK Turkish government and the US threatens over time to make it more difficult for Georgia to please both its Western patrons and its Turkish partners.  The confrontation between Iran and the United States continues to cast shadows over the prospects for peace and stability throughout the region.

An American visiting Georgia is in an interesting situation.  On the one hand, Georgians are grateful to the United States for our support; more than one person told me that without US help, Georgia would have long since been eaten by the hungry bear.  On the other hand, there’s some bitterness that we don’t do more.  Where is Georgia’s membership in NATO?  Where are missiles Georgia needs to protect itself?  Why is the US trying to ‘reset’ its relationship with Russia, and isn’t this a cynical sacrifice of Georgia’s vital interests?

Georgians in the opposition want to know why the US supports the current president.  Georgians aligned with the president want to know why we criticize him so much and support him so little.  Refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to know why we are doing so little to help them get back to their homes.  Members of Georgia’s ethnic minorities want to know why we aren’t doing more to protect their cultural rights.

Many Georgians believe that the Republicans are their true and loyal friends, while Democrats are a bunch of spineless wimps and appeasers.  The road in from the airport is named for George W. Bush; if there are plans to name anything big after President Obama, I didn’t hear about them during my trip.  Some Georgians were clearly hoping that GOP majorities in Congress after the midterms would bring more support from the US.

These hopes, I think, are misplaced, and only partly because Congress doesn’t have all that much power over American policy towards Georgia.  More fundamentally, Georgians seem to have forgotten what happened in the summer of 2008.  Various western diplomats I spoke to in Georgia told me that according to their information the Bush administration categorically warned the Georgians in 2008 to avoid responding to Russian provocations.  Georgia ignored those warnings, perhaps hoping that the US would have no choice but to back it in a conflict with Russia.  The Bush administration felt there was no alternative but to let Georgia face the consequences of its folly.  The Bush administration, not President Obama, pulled the plug on Georgia.

Yet Georgians are easily led by their hopes rather than their reason.  “Georgia has some very good friends in America,” one Georgian said by way of rebutting my comments that Georgia cannot afford provocative or hotheaded behavior.  And there are people in the US whose natural sympathy for a small, threatened nation in a strategic hotspot moves them to say things that Georgians like to hear.

Americans and Georgians would both do well to remember the Hungarian tragedy of 1956.  American politicians were talking about ‘rolling back’ Communism, but they were indulging in political rhetoric rather than making serious plans to send tanks across the Iron Curtain.  Unfortunately the Hungarians failed to understand that these were just vain and empty words; in part because they were deceived by rhetoric on Voice of America, the Hungarians rose against the Soviets — and were left alone to face the Soviet tanks.

This is not a pleasant message to carry, and I did not enjoy delivering it to a country under the shadow of a partial Russian occupation, but to do anything else would be irresponsible, dangerous and cruel.

There is approximately zero prospect that Georgia will join NATO anytime soon.  There is even less chance that the Russian occupation of large chunks of Georgia will end in the near future.  Georgian anger and fear given these facts is natural and understandable.  But rash Georgian action will only make a bad situation worse — perhaps catastrophically worse.

To improve their situation, the Georgians are going to have to the kind of dull and boring things that many Georgians don’t like.  They are going to have to follow a discreet and modest foreign policy, avoiding all unnecessary provocations of Russia and being guided by the advice of their friends.  They are going to have to take a very long-term view about Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  They need to work on developing the territory they still have, at building a prosperous economy and a stable democracy.

If Georgia can do these things, over time its prospects will improve.  As the west (slowly) regains confidence in Georgia’s political leadership, and perhaps also as NATO-Russia relations improve, NATO membership could once again be a realistic prospect.  Russia itself ultimately needs stability in the Caucasus more than anything else; a prosperous and stable Georgia would be an important regional partner in helping Russia bring security and peace to the restless peoples of its southern fringe.

I hope Georgia succeeds.  This is a beautiful country with a glorious past and an extraordinary culture.  But Georgia’s future today is as cloudy as it was when I first visited twenty years (and several wars) ago.

show comments
  • joe

    Professor Mead, aren’t you being a little hard on the Georgians? Their rashness is simply a recognition that finally an opportunity exists to exist as sovereign nation within an existing and protective international order. In addition, for the first time since ‘the great Schism’ and an Emperor sat in Constantinople there exists a chance to be re-integrated within Western European culture. Of course, they’re being uppity, inconsistent and paranoid. When will the stars be the same?

    The War of Russian Aggression has nothing in common with the ’56 uprising. VOA did not lure the Georgians with false promises into returning Russian fire in Ossetia. The Georgian leadership reached a point where they felt Russian belligerence and encroachment was an existential threat to the health of the state and acted, with full knowledge of their potential success and how it would be portrayed by the foreign press. Rightly or wrongly, the Georgians felt this was an Existenzschlacht and fought.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      But it wasn’t an existential conflict, and the Georgians, sadly, are substantially worse off after their humiliation and defeat. This kind of strategic miscalculation is exactly what a small state trying to establish itself cannot afford.

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  • http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/ Patrick Armstrong

    Gee, perfessor, a great piece of propaganda (except you failed to mention that “democratic” Saakashvili is figuring out a way to stay in power forever (http://www.rferl.org/content/Georgian_Opposition_Wants_Saakashvili_Barred_From_Becoming_Prime_Minister/2079394.html).

    BTW talked to any Ossetians or Abkhazians, speaking of “Members of Georgia’s ethnic minorities want to know why we aren’t doing more to protect their cultural rights.” and asked them why they do not want to be in any Georgia that they have seen since Jughashvili and Beria put them into it? But that might complicate your simple “Russian occupation” story.

    And, BTW, Stalin is being re-branded and the statue was removed in June (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10412097), so you probably can’t go to the Museum any more.

  • J-P

    Interesting, regarding the new North Caucuses visa-free travel policy of Georgia’s, that your mind goes directly to militants and arms – the two least likely imports to travel such a legitimized route. It sounds to me like you’ve been reading too much Russian press, because it’s only The Kremlin that has ever alleged that Georgia is host to Islamic militants, and that this move is intended to help aid them in their travels. If you find yourself concurring with official Kremlin spin, chances are you’re suffering under an information deficit.

    Thousands of local villagers and regional tradespeople will take advantage of this new policy to engage in very local cross-border trade and inter-city small business. Not inflammable news, to be sure – but that’s all there is to it. More Dagestani silver in Tbilisi, not more Chinese AKs in Grozny.

  • Mr. X

    With all due respect to ‘Joe’, if the Georgians thought the ‘War of Russian Aggression’ was an existential threat, they wouldn’t have tossed down their weapons and left the road to Tblisi wide open for any Russian unit that wanted to take it. The fact that they didn’t take a stand shows they really did not expect Russia to eliminate their sovereignty and in fact knew that it wouldn’t, after South Ossetia and Abkhazia were secured.

  • http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/ Patrick Armstrong

    Sorry J-P “only The Kremlin that has ever alleged that Georgia is host to Islamic militants”, but you’re wrong.

    The Georgians finally admitted it in January 2003.

    This from a Georgian source in 2003.
    “The Ministry of State Security disclosed classified materials of Pankisi gorge, including video tapes, which prove presence of Chechen and Arab militants and their training camps, various terrorist objects and persons, linked with Al-Qaeda in Pankisi.”
    “Laliashvili stated that the Arab emissaries were very well organized. Along with the fighters, there also were Arab religious emissaries (“Spiritual Fathers of Wahabism”) in the Pankisi gorge, who were responsible for functioning of the wahabist schools in Pankisi.
    There were several such schools in the gorge, where children were taught wahhabi ideology. “There are children in Pankisi, who speak Arab better than Georgian,” Laliashvili told Civil Georgia.”

    And here’s the source so you can read for yourself.

    http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=3033

  • joe

    Professor Mead:
    I am not sure I agree completely with your assertion that the Georgians are worse off now than before the war. Operationally, the Georgians surely are in a more vulnerable military position, but strategically all the endless nattering by the Georgian government about Russian aggression has been proven true.

    Russia, according to the Georgians, were attempting to de facto annex Ossetia and Abkahzia and militarize their boundaries for future military action against Georgia. The war proved this.

    Georgia maintained that Russia was attempting to colonize both areas through the settling of Russian citizens and indiscriminate granting of citizenship to indigenous Ossetians and Abkahzians. This has happened as well.

    Georgia always insisted that the Russian bear was still a bear interested in colonizing the near-abroad, discounting bilateral or international agreements prohibiting such behavior. To my knowledge, Russia has still not abided to the terms of the Sarkozy cease-fire.

    The war didn’t change much on the ground. True, Russian troops are occupying positions within striking distance of Tiblisi, but they were in striking distance before the war. What has changed is Russia is now unmasked as an international actor in a 19th century mold; namely, the brutal Russia of old that colonized Koenigsberg and the Baltic States and terrorized Europe.

    The war internationalized what was a provincial disagreement between Russia and some indeterminate, fuzzy-wuzzy, vaguely Western ethnic group into an international incident. The Georgians did not lose anything they could protect. Their only protection was and is public opinion and perhaps public international law.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Yet as I wrote in the post, Georgia is much farther from NATO membership today than it was in 2008. Since getting a formal security guarantee from the west is Georgia’s principal strategic objective, it is hard to call the 2008 conflict anything but a serious setback.

  • Peter

    “On the other hand, there’s some bitterness that we [the U.S.] don’t do more. Where is Georgia’s membership in NATO? Where are missiles Georgia needs to protect itself? Why is the US trying to ‘reset’ its relationship with Russia, and isn’t this a cynical sacrifice of Georgia’s vital interests?”

    What, it’s America’s God mandated responsibility to provide for Georgia’s protection and to insure its freedom?

    Those people are delusional to expect that, and you should make every effort possible to sober them up, Mr. Mead, before they continue to hurt themselves with rash acts.

    And for the rest of you, understand this. The U.S. will be trimming back on the burden it has been carring of guaranteeing world peace since 1945 — 65 year ago.

    The U.S. is bankrupt, thanks in no small part for playing the role of the world’s policeman to an unappreciative world.

    Georgia can go pound sand — not the Peach State mind you, but the country.

  • J-P

    @ Patrick Armstrong

    2003? So, way back during the Second Chechen War (and Shevardnadze’s tenure!). I see. Things are a little different in Tiflis now – don’t know if you’ve heard. Same article describes how the militants were removed. So there we have it.

    Joe makes several good points above that obviously bear repeating. Somehow, I feel the background was lost in Dr. Mead’s analysis.

  • Haim

    The real problem with Georgians is that they want to be like Israel, but fail to understand that American (and by that I mean all-American, not Jewish-American) love affair with Israel began when Jews showed their military prowess and readiness to sacrifice. Put simply, Americans like to associate with winners (or at the least, fighters), and Georgians are seen now as quitters who start something they doesn’t know how to finish.

  • Halfon

    Not only is the current Georgian leadership reckless, it is also stupid and dangerous to its people. While supposedly badly seeking foreign investment in Georgia, they effectively “kidnap” and put in jail an international businessman, needless to say on “fake, made-up charges”, who had won an international arbitration award against Georgia and who had been seeking to settle it at a much lower number. (See Fuchs – October 14). The leadership, led by gangster Minister of the Interior, is now seeking ransom. WHO IN THE WORLD WOULD EVEN DREAM OF INVESTING IN GEORGIA ? The leadership response shall be, as usual, halfon kidnap and ransom.

  • http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/ Patrick Armstrong
  • http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/ Patrick Armstrong

    And, J-P, here’s another assertion, this time from a Georgian.

    http://nationalinterest.org/article/mishas-world-3309

  • Earl of Sandwich

    The idea that Georgia could have gotten a security guarantee from the West if it hasn’t provoked a war is absurd. As long as Georgia had a border dispute with Russia it would not be allowed into NATO. And Georgia has no way to force Russia to settle the dispute.

    Beyond with, why does Europe care one way or the other if Georgia is annexed by Russia?

  • John Koch

    Finland after WWII would be a better model than Israel for Georgia to follow. Geography and other, US current military commitments more important to the US, not sentiment, dictate this. Finland developed its democratic government and its economy while taking care not to offend the Russians and especially NOT trying to join NATO or establish close military ties with the West. By playing it safe in foreign and military affairs Finland managed to remain free domestically (although not entirely sovereign), and became prosperous and accepted as an established nation before asking politely for return of parts of its territory (Porkkala) that had been leased (at gunpoint) to the Soviet Union. It worked for the Finns and it’s the only approach that could work for Georgia.

  • David

    I have not read more realistic article about Georgia for years. Many thanks to the author of “Special Providence.”

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  • Jeffrey

    Walter,

    1. Georgia has one way out of its mess; the recognition of Abkhazia. In this they lose nothing, aside from a few dusty old bits of pride, as they will never regain Abkhazia under any circumstances, and, as they stand to win suge huge profits if they can manage to exact them, this is the only good road and the one that can break their stalemate. M. Saakashvili is practically a sociopath, with charm, who needs to be told by the US to leave power at the first possible moment. I am afraid things are going to get worse there if they don’t begin to get better.

  • IA

    When speaking about the visa free regime with North Caucasus thouse mistakenly thinking it as a danger and threat forget to about number of very important points. First, nobody has mentioned existing humanitarian necessity of introducing a visa free regime. There are ethnic Georgians residing, for example in Vladikavkaz [Russia’s North Ossetian Republic]. There are 100,000 Georgian citizens of Ossetian origin residing in Georgia and they have relatives in the North Caucasus and they find it increasingly difficult to see each other because they have to go to Moscow and wait for the visa for weeks which is both costly and not practical. Also, many in North Caucasus can not afford sending their children to Moscow universities and their access to higher education is very law. In Georgia they can both more easily and cheaply send their kids to the Georgian universities. Also, the propaganda campaign that Kremlin are mounting by trying to show Georgia as an enemy in Caucasus will easily be refuted if the contacts between Georgia and North Caucasus intensifies. Tother with this, free travel does not imply free travel for terrorists as such and there is a proper border check point functioning at Upper Larsi to oversee that no millitants can go through. As to the allegations of Georgia harbouring terrorists it is absurd and has been proven by number of international organizations. Diplomats accredited to Georgia have many times visited Pankisi gorge and found nothing but peaceful population there. True, there was a special operation conducted in Georgia (during Shevardnadze’s times) to clear Pankisi area of any possible chechen rebels there (we are speaking about the period when there was an active war between Russia and Chechnya and period when groundbreaking police and MIA reforms in Georgia were not even in the making) and nobody is either denying it or hiding the fact but the simple thuth is the situation has changed dramatically since then. All the international organizations present in the country will confirm this point.

    And what is more important, let’s not forget that it was Russia who introduced a visa regime with Georgia without any consultations and also without any consultations did not introduce visa regime with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adjara region. Thus, it is not a new practise in the area and Russia created this very precedent!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Even so, it would be wiser for Georgia to consult with its friends before taking a step that affects their interests.

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  • http://theprisonerofthecaucasus.blogspot.com/ Alexander Melikishvili

    This post proves and exemplifies the frequent fallacy committed by Western social scientists with pompous academic credentials, who think they can become experts on Georgia and the Transcaucasus region after just one or two visits. The American nationalist, revisionist historian Walter Russell Mead is no exception to this rule. Of course, it would have been much better for him to stick to what he knows how to distort and embellish the best – namely the history of Anglo-American accomplishments. But academic figures of his stature are often characterized by such oversized egos that they are sure that their reputation is unassailable. The response below only partly aims to dispel this egotistical self-perception. It is largely intended to rebut some of Mead’s most ostentatious claims and factually incorrect observations.

    In Mead’s highly amateur hodgepodge of facts, myths, truths, half-truths, unexamined assumptions and sweeping generalizations disguised as an authoritative crash course on Georgia, particular emphasis is placed on the incompetence, unpredictability and impulsiveness of the Georgian ruling elite as personified by the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili. To recap Mead’s argument – bad decisions by the Georgian government produced “trust deficit” in European capitals and Washington and now Tbilisi is destined to linger in the dangerous geopolitical limbo, wherein it has no choice but to exercise “strategic patience” and to conduct modest foreign policy entirely subservient to American interests in the Caucasus region and vis-à-vis Russia. This, Mead argues, will hopefully, at some indefinite point, lead to closer relationship (but no membership) with European Union and perhaps better chances (but highly unlikely) at being considered for NATO membership. What a bright perspective indeed.

    First of all, since the August 2008 war blaming all of Georgia’s misfortunes on the Georgian government has become a favorite pastime of many European and some American analysts, observers, experts as well as government officials. Pointing out real and perceived drawbacks of the Georgian decision makers in reality masks the inability and unwillingness of the American and European political establishment to do anything about Russia’s aggressive policy towards those post-Soviet countries that lean in the Western direction. Growing strategic dependence on Russia in Afghanistan further complicates and actually precludes any meaningful Western response in this regard. The result of this sad state of affairs has been the marked increase of Russian influence across the post-Soviet space.

    Ukraine is the best case in point because anyone, who is even remotely familiar with current developments in that important country, has plenty to worry about because the Kremlin-friendly government of President Viktor Yanukovich has been systematically eroding the democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution. Moreover, following direct orders from Moscow Yanukovich now began to develop relations with world’s rogue authoritarian leaders as evidenced by the recent visit to Kyiv by the virulently anti-American leader of Venezuela Hugo Chavez.

    In Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, the contours of the unequal and awkward Russo-American geopolitical condominium are beginning to materialize. Regardless of flowering rhetoric of official pronouncements, statements and speeches to the contrary, at the center of the American approach (because reactive positioning cannot be called policy) to Kyrgyzstan remains the uninterrupted operation of the Manas Transit Center. However, it is an open secret that the Kremlin exerts significant influence over Kyrgyz political circles and any decision on Manas will be taken only with Moscow’s approval. The success of the parliamentary model in Kyrgyzstan, which is espoused by the Obama administration, is far from assured considering Russian determination to keep American influence there checked at all times.

    This brings us to Georgia. It is clear that in the context of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, Georgia has become an inconvenient ally. The current U.S. approach to Georgia is predicated on the repetition of the familiar mantra of respect to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which does not really oblige Washington to do anything to change the untenable status quo there. This approach can be otherwise crudely summed up in a pithy American expression – words don’t cost a thing.

    To be sure, in exchange for the generous diplomatic and financial support from Washington, Tbilisi, as a stalwart American ally, does what it can. Georgia’s contribution to the fledgling mission in Afghanistan is certainly appreciated by the U.S. and NATO officials, but apparently disregarded by Mead, who never mentions it in his meandering screed. Similarly the close bilateral cooperation in the counter-proliferation area that yielded the arrest and transfer to the United States of Amir Hossein Ardebili, one of the key Iranian arms dealers responsible for procurement abroad of weapons and dual-use items for Iranian armed forces, also somehow escaped Mead’s attention. It should be noted here that the Iranian government exerted significant pressure on Georgia to release Ardebili, but Tbilisi refused and risked angering Tehran. As a matter of fact, this individual was of such importance to Tehran’s clerical regime that during the official visit to Iran last year the Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze reportedly apologized to the Iranians for the Ardebili affair. Perhaps Mead would learn a thing or two by reading the most comprehensive and richly detailed account of the Operation Shakespeare, which was compiled by the investigative reporter John Shiffman and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in September:

    http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20100917_YARDLEY__APRIL_2004_To_capture_a_global_arms_smuggler.html?viewAll=y&1990580

    Second, with no apparent knowledge of the developments preceding the August 2008 war Mead asserts that Georgia pursued “reckless and aggressive policies toward Russia in the summer of 2008.” Had he read the relevant parts of the report prepared by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (more frequently referred to as simply Tagliavini Report for the name of the Swiss diplomat, Heidi Tagliavini, who chaired the mission), he would have known that the Russian-Georgian war was preceded by the pattern of escalating tensions in which the Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia were subjected to the increasing small arms fire and shelling by the South Ossetian separatist paramilitary forces.

    Moreover, in the unlikely chance Mead would want to venture to examine the events that transpired in the spring of 2008, he will discover that with some support from Germany and active participation and mediation of the then Georgian Ambassador to UN, Irakli Alasania, the Georgian side approached the Abkhaz with the proposition that envisioned the partition of the territory of Abkhazia in return for the recognition of its independence. However, due to the pressure from Russia the Abkhaz rejected the partition proposal, which envisioned the reintegration of the Georgian-populated Gali region into Georgia in exchange for Tbilisi’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence.

    With regard to the warnings from the Bush administration not to antagonize Russia, Mead ought to consider the official visit to Georgia by the then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in July of 2008, less than a month before the beginning of hostilities in South Ossetia. Just as the Georgian airspace was being violated by the Russian aircraft, Secretary Rice casually assured the Georgian President: “We always fight for our friends.” (For full transcript of that joint press conference, visit: http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2008/July/20080710161637gmnanahcub0.3613092.html) In hindsight not the best choice of words given the extremely charged atmosphere on the eve of the conflict in which misperceptions and misinterpretations could have happened easily. In general, the deliberations on the American side prior, during and after the August war are meticulously described by Ronald Asmus in his seminal study A Little War that Shook the World, which Mead can buy here: http://www.amazon.com/Little-War-that-Shook-World/dp/0230617735

    Third, Mead expresses concern over the Georgian government’s decision to introduce the visa-free regime for the residents of the North Caucasus partly because he is concerned for the safety of the American expats living and working in Georgia and partly because such a move would irritate Russians. What Mead fails to realize is that the aforementioned decision serves Georgia’s long-term national interests in that volatile region. The best way to promote people-to-people interaction is to have a visa-free regime. The improvement of relations with the North Caucasian neighbors, over time, will have a positive impact on Georgia’s image among them. Developing good neighborly relations with the North Caucasian republics is of utmost importance to Georgia. Tbilisi remembers all too well what the neglect of this region produced in the early 1990s when, on the wave of separatist conflicts in Georgia, the North Caucasus region was permeated by the anti-Georgian sentiments. In presuming that all North Caucasians willing to take advantage of the visa-free regime are rebels or are somehow connected to them Mead commits another ignorant mistake, which actually borders on ethnic prejudice, the kind that is popular in certain Russian circles.

    Fourth, by the time the doors of NATO may finally open for Georgia in accordance with the Bucharest summit commitments, the alliance may cease to exist altogether. Mead would hopefully benefit from reading about NATO’s inconsistent enlargement policy, diminished internal cohesion and inadequate military spending in this article: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/nato%E2%80%99s-double-standards-make-hollow-alliance

    The problems within NATO are manifest and they go beyond the apt typology of “Old” vs. “New” Europe introduced by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, they are perhaps the most painfully manifested in disagreements over Afghanistan and mandatory defense expenditures. Another area of constant tensions within the alliance is represented by the topic of contingency planning. For many representatives of “New” Europe in the alliance, who began to feel uneasy over Article V (collective defense) in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war this issue became extremely important. The Baltic States in particular felt defenseless and they insisted and belatedly received some assurance in the form of military exercises, which were most recently held in Latvia last month. Similar concern by Poland had to be allayed by the deployment of the Patriot missile battery and limited U.S. contingent there, which serves very little military purpose, but has tremendous political and symbolic significance.

    Irrespective of what will be decided at the approaching Lisbon summit, in the context of the global economic crisis some NATO member-states intend to significantly reduce their military expenditures as part of the austerity measures. The recently brokered Anglo-French defense agreements are basically creative cost-cutting mechanisms, which make sense between the two highly compatible military force structures. However, it is easy to see in the medium- to long-run that unsustainable social welfare systems of European NATO members will invariably lead to more defense cuts to the detriment of the alliance. Therefore, while searching for external security guarantees will remain a top priority for Georgia, NATO may not be the only available option.

    Finally, perhaps the only thing about which Mead is right is in pointing out that the Georgians should learn to be far more circumspect with regard to voicing their preferences between the Democratic or Republican parties. The Democratic Party has a long memory and in many ways the current Georgian government is still wrongly viewed by many party insiders and heavyweights as the neoconservative experiment closely associated with the Bush administration and its democracy promotion in the post-Soviet space. Overcoming this bias will not be easy, but it is not impossible. Georgians are not that beholden to illusions as it may seem at first glance by Mead. Many centuries of survival against the overwhelming odds taught them to be pragmatic and to balance the interests of other, more powerful players. Most recent confirmation of the latter was the official visit to Tbilisi by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki this past Wednesday.

    To Mead there is only this left to say – thanks for nothing. Your demagogic admonition to Georgia, its people and its leaders can be summed up in the following funny and bitter title of the article, which appeared on August 25, 2008 in the popular American satirical magazine The Onion: “U.S. Advises Allies Not To Border Russia.” Such advice is not worth a dime and you ought to keep it to yourself.

  • peter mamradze

    Dear Mr.Mead,

    I think your article is deep and precise. I often cite fragments of it in my public speeches. Your phrase ,,Georgia’s worst enemy could scarcely have harmed the country more” could be applied to many other ,,deeds” of President Saakashvili and his team. The main problem for Georgia is, that there is no force to balance and check Saakashvili’s reckless activities. Elite corruption is flourishing. Decisions are often made spontaneously and implemented instantly, nobody from President’s team dares to argue with him (like sending more than 2 thousand(!) troops (policemen, special units etc) to Kiev as observers for Presidential elections there).

    I was member of Parliament 1n 1992-1995 and I am member of Parliament now and I agree to Sir M.Rifkind, who said last year, that now Georgia faces the greatest dangers for it’s statehood since declaration of independence in 1991.

    With respect,

    Peter Mamradze, MP

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