On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton, in the course of her visit to Georgia, reiterated American support for Tbilisi in its conflict with Moscow, saying that Russian troops should return to their positions from the period before the year 2008. However, the real intrigue of the visit was much more complicated than this largely ritual statement.
For an outsider, Hillary Clinton’s visit to the three former Soviet republics in the Caucuses – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – might look like just another “regional tour,” since the three countries are located next to each other, providing an opportunity to see many capitals in a few days. But that is a deceptive impression. These three countries have very different geopolitical orientations, different political systems and pursue different goals in their relationships with the United States. Georgia, the largest per capita recipient of American financial aid and the largest per capita donor of “cannon fodder” for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, wants more aid to alleviate the losses connected to the policies of its pro-American president Mikheil Saakashvili. Azerbaijan, still locked in a regional “cold war” with Armenia over the Karabakh region, hopes that Washington will help it reclaim that territory, lost in a bitter war with Armenia in the early 1990s. Armenia’s wishes on Karabakh, as can easily be guessed, are the exact opposite of Azerbaijan’s desires. Feeling isolated because of Washington’s policy of encouraging economic ties between Georgia and Turkey, Armenia’s second old foe, Yerevan is rather apprehensive about American plans of “remaking” the region. And of course, Armenia and Georgia are worried about the looming danger of a war which the U.S. and its allies may start against Iran. For economically isolated Armenia, Iran is an important economic partner and Georgians cite Tehran’s threat to retaliate against any country from where it would be attacked – even if the attackers are not Georgians themselves, but American military to whom Saakashvili gave a virtually unlimited access to Georgia’s territory.
Mrs. Clinton’s position, which includes both sticks and carrots, is well known and has long proven its inability to resolve the above mentioned problems. Pushing Armenia to let bygones be bygones and start building a local economic “axis” with Turkey, Georgia and even Azerbaijan, leaving Russia out of the region, is a rather futile exercise on the part of Washington. Lecturing the locals on democracy does not bring much in the way of real rapprochement in the value systems of the United States and a patchwork of nations inhabiting the ancient land of Transcaucuses.
“Constant abstract talks about democracy and human rights on the part of American officials in many cases just irritate, for example, Georgians,” said Felix Stanevsky, former Russian ambassador to Georgia. “Such talks sound especially out of place from the people who have a very vague understanding of the region’s history – Americans, for example, normally do not know anything about the existence of the ancient Abkhazian state, dismissing Abkhazia as just another renegade Georgian province. But the locals pay lip service to American values – not a surprising attitude in a region where people have an experience of accommodating themselves to a number of various “government cultures” – from Byzantium and Iran to Russia and now the United States.”
It should be noted that Georgia is politically the most troublesome ally for the U.S. in the region. For the moment, the problem is not in Mikheil Saakashvili’s loyalty to the U.S. – in terms of flattering rhetoric and participation in American “projects” for Afghanistan and Iraq his loyalty has always been absolute. The problem is not even in his penchant for local “victorious wars” – even Batumi, where Mrs. Clinton is meeting Georgian officials and opposition figures, is the capital of a region which was “reunited” with Georgia in 2004 at a cost of a small armed conflict with its former leader Aslan Abashidze, not to mention the 2008 war for South Ossetia.
The real problem is in Mr. Saakashvili’s tremendous ability to stir conflict inside his own country. Almost all of his former allies and subordinates – former Parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, former defense minister Irakly Okruashvili – have now joined the opposition to Saakashvili. Following the above-described tradition of accommodating themselves to foreign influences, they combine protest actions inside Georgia, which are sometimes violently suppressed, with numerous complaints to Washington. The accusations, not without a reason, expose Saakashvili’s authoritarian style of government, but they rarely expose the Georgian leader’s main problem – his propensity for conflict with Russia.
“According to opinion polls, 80 percent of Georgians want better relations with Russia, and this fact was reflected in good approval ratings for Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire turned politician, who promises to achieve two incompatible aims – getting Georgia into NATO and building friendly relations with Russia,” explains Alexander Tchatchia, the head of the Tbilisi-based center for Globalization Studies. “But Americans understand that Saakashvili is not forever and Ivanishvili positions himself as a pro-American politician, so Hillary Clinton’s message to these two men is the following – divide power in a more or less decent way.”
Ivanishvili has been barred from running for Georgian presidency by Saakashvili who declared him a non-citizen – Ivanishvili made his fortune during his long stays abroad in several countries, including Russia. However, obviously in an effort to please American lovers of democracy, the Georgian parliament, currently under control of Saakashvili’s supporters, plans to change the Georgian legislation, allowing a citizen of an EU country to run for office in Georgia after having lived in the country for 5 years – this is exactly the case of Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has a French citizenship. Ivanishvili says that if he is not allowed to run, his party will run – and win.
“Polls promise this party 35-40 percent of the popular vote,” says Tchatchia. “This tremendous success indicates that protest sentiment is strong in Georgian society. So, the United States is obviously interested in letting someone like Ivanishvili to “saddle” this sentiment, so that, heaven forbid, some pro-Russian force does not use it.”
However, despite numerous rumors, a one-to-one meeting between Clinton and Ivanishvili did not take place during Mrs. Clinton’s visit, she did not even see him while meeting a group of Georgia’s opposition leaders, which included less “heavyweight” figures, such as David Gamkrelidze from the New Right party and Gueorgy Targamadze, the leader of Georgian Christian Democrats. Local experts saw in this fact an indication of Washington’s unwillingness to endorse Ivanishvili. Obviously, Mrs. Clinton is hedging her bets, not yet abandoning Saakashvili to his own devices. The general American plan for Georgia is clear – as a result of parliamentary elections, scheduled for October this year, Saakashvili will be able to retain power via parliament. In this situation, even his formal quitting the office of head of state in a few months won’t change much. The new president will have largely symbolic powers, while Saakashvili – probably in tandem with Ivanishvili – will keep driving the country. This time – from the back seat.