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Georgia: Update and Prospects

December 10, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

1. What we know:

Georgia has become an eager partner of the United States in the unstable Caucasus region. Recently, the United States has expanded security cooperation with the Georgian military, committing itself to provide $64 million for the training of Georgian troops under the so-called “Train and Equip” program. Russia has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen terrorists and has pressured the government to crack down on those camped in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. The American commitment to Georgia has, among other things, enabled the country to deflect Moscow’s threats.

Georgia’s location has helped it to become an East-West corridor for Caspian oil. An important section of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline connecting the Caspian Sea with Turkey passes through Georgian territory. In the past decade Georgia has expanded economic and political relations with Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and the Caucasus.

In addition to security and energy cooperation, U.S. assistance has also been crucial for the development of Georgia’s democracy and institutions. Despite numerous challenges after its independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia has managed to create free media, build civil society and active political parties.

The situation in the country, however, has been unstable. Instability is fueled by the separatist movements in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and other Georgian regions. Georgia also faces numerous economic and social problems. Corruption is rampant and is perpetuated further by the low incomes of government officials. Many reforms in the country have been stifled by the government’s inability to be carry out full reforms. Shevardnadze is losing support as a result of economic hardship and lack of progress in resolving the conflict with the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Russian policy has exacerbated instability in Georgia. Russia wants to retain its influence in the Caucasus, and part of the Russian elite is reluctant to accept Georgia’s independence. Russia has supported the separatist movements in Abkhazia and other parts of Georgia and still maintains military bases in Georgia despite its commitment (made at the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul) to withdraw its bases and troops.

Shevardnadze’s succession is another critical issue that could complicate the political situation in Georgia. Shevardnadze’s personality and ties to Western leaders have been crucial in securing U.S. and European support for Georgia. Georgia faces new parliamentary elections in 2003 and presidential elections in 2005. They will put Georgia’s fledgling democracy to the test. Free and fair elections would cement Georgian democratic institutions.

At the recent Prague summit, Georgia expressed its desire to pursue NATO membership. There is support for Georgia’s pro-Western and pro-NATO orientation among the country's elite and populace. However, Georgia’s expectations about NATO may be unrealistic. Some Georgian politicians believe that they can become members of the Euro-Atlantic organizations without the necessary reforms because of Georgia’s strategic importance in the fight against terrorism. The Georgian public also needs to be educated about the benefits and the costs of pursuing NATO membership. At present Georgia spends only $ 17 million of its budget on military expenditures, and despite the infusion of resources made possible by the “Train and Equip” program, the army is weak and disorganized, and morale is poor.

2. What we don’t know:

a) Is a solution to the Abkhaz conflict possible?

The long-term damage to Georgian stability from an unresolved Abkhaz conflict is uncertain, but could be large. The only practical solution is to grant broad autonomy to the region and to create a symmetrical federal structure in Georgia. However, the prospects for reaching an agreement between the Georgian and Abkhaz authorities on the future of Abkhazia are dim, despite international efforts. Russia’s support for the separatist movement has been crucial in perpetuating the conflict. There is growing recognition among Georgian political elites that the Abkhazian conflict is perpetuated not only by Russian support for the separatists but also by internal problems in Georgia.

b) How will relations with Russia develop, especially after the end of Shevardnadze’s term? Will Russia continue to exert pressure on Georgia?

Many of Georgia’s problems with Russia have been connected to Shevardnadze’s personality and hostility toward him on the part of the national security elite. Some in the Russian establishment blame Shevardnadze, former foreign minister of USSR, for the demise of the Soviet Union. Some Russian officials have said that Moscow is determined to play a role in Shevardnadze’s succession, but how that role will be played- and with what limits- is unclear.

c) Will Georgia be able to create durable institutions and state structures?

Viable institutions are a key to ensuring the survival of the Georgian state and Georgian democracy. Failure to develop more effective and functioning institutions and to reduce the corruption that threatens both their legitimacy and their ability to meet national needs have perhaps been the most significant shortfalls of the Shevardnadze’s tenure as president.

d) Would increased U.S. assistance make a positive difference?

Corruption and Georgian paralysis have reduced confidence in the U.S. government that increased aid would be used well. Given this, even a new leadership committed to reform might find it hard to generate substantial new Western support.

3. What are the next steps; what should be done and by whom?

Georgia needs to create strong institutions and implement the necessary political, economic and military reforms, and needs help in doing so. U.S. and European support are crucial for the development the Georgian state and the consolidation of Georgian democracy. The United States will have to stay committed to Georgia, possibly for a long period of time; security assistance will be an essential part of overall support.

To make support effective, the United States needs to convey its views clearly to both the Russian and Georgian governments. Stability and peace in Georgia are not possible without democracy. Free and fair elections are crucial for the country’s future, and Shevardnadze should understand that sham elections will put Georgia’s ties to the West at risk. At the same time, having pressed Georgia over the past year to be responsive to legitimate Russian interests, the United States should be able to expect more responsible treatment of Georgia by the Kremlin.

Russia needs to stop pressuring Georgia and accept Georgia’s independence. Nothing would be a more effective sign of such treatment than Russian support for a balanced solution to the Abkhaz conflict, including full withdrawal of Russian forces.

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