Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the United States has sparked widespread speculation in Georgia about the future of US-Georgian relations and the broader issue of US-Russian geopolitical competition in the Caspian Basin.
Some observers believe that, with the advent of the Obama administration, Tbilisi will have to make policy changes of its own, both in foreign and domestic policy.
Ombudsman Sozar Subari, a frequent critic of the government's civil rights record, expressed hope that US assistance to Georgia would continue, but become more conditional on Georgian government transparency. "I hope the assistance will be more values-based, contingent on the performance of democracy in Georgia," Subari said.
Opposition leaders like Davit Usupashvili, a leader of the Republican Party, have expressed hope that an Obama administration would provide a fresh "incentive for the spread of liberal and democratic convictions" in Georgia.
But the key question for most local observers is what will happen with US-Russian relations. "To live up to expectations, Obama's government will try to change from hard-line foreign policies to diplomacy and I expect a change in attitude in the Georgian government, too," said independent political analyst Koba Liklikadze, who also works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian service. "The United States will try to defuse tensions around the world, including in US-Russian relations, and the Georgian government will have to follow suit and soften its tough line in foreign affairs and seek diplomatic solutions."
Heavily reliant on American development dollars and diplomatic support, President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration is hoping to find yet another benefactor in President-Elect Barack Obama. While maintaining ties with Democrats in the United States, Georgian officials and politicians had developed a strong relationship with former Republican presidential candidate US Senator John McCain. McCain's strong words of support for Georgia during its war with Russia made him the preferred candidate in the eyes of most Georgians.
Obama's relatively reserved initial reaction to the war has prompted some ordinary Georgians to be concerned that the incoming US administration would scale back support for Georgia.
"I feel that Obama will focus more on domestic issues and try to withdraw from international military or diplomatic battles," said Tbilisi State University student Salome Vashakmadze. "It makes sense, as America has a whole slew of homegrown problems it has to deal with. So I think it's a great day for the American people, but I'm not so sure if it's something we Georgians should be equally excited about."
To assuage such concerns, the Georgian government has begun to speak about the "strong" non-partisan backing it enjoys in Washington. "We have seen during the worst crisis for our country in our recent history that we had full bipartisan support," Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria told EurasiaNet. "President Obama, before he became president, expressed very explicit and crucial support and I'm sure this friendship, which is based on strategic interests, is going to continue."
Obama's running mate, Vice-President-Elect Sen. Joseph Biden, drives much of Georgian hopes about the new US administration. Tbilisi State University Rector Giorgi Khubua emphasized that Senator Biden was among the early proponents of a billion-dollar post-war aid package for Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The funds, Khubua noted, are "more than just aid. This is a political investment, and, thus, a clear indicator that US interest in Georgia will continue."
Balancing the pros and cons of US support for Georgia, though, has proven a difficult act for Tbilisi. The issue of how Washington decides to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia, and to what extent that response will affect Georgia is being watched closely.
Analyst Liklikadze expects adjustments in US-Russian relations that could have significant implications for Georgia.
"I expect Obama to be principled, but also rational in dealings with Moscow," Liklikadze said. "Barack Obama, who essentially has a worldwide mandate, will seek to nip in the bud the elements of the Cold War. I think the United States will push Georgia to establish a rapport with Moscow. And, counter to what it may seem, there still room for that dialogue in Russia and this is where the United States can act as a negotiator, not as an irritant."
But for the Kremlin, the White House still appears to be more troublemaker than peacemaker. Within hours of Obama's win, President Dmitry Medvedev, in his first state-of-the-nation address, slammed the United States for "self-serving" foreign policies.
"[The South Ossetia conflict] is a result of the arrogant course of the US administration that brooks no criticism and is prone to making unilateral decisions," Medvedev said in a televised speech. "The conflict in the Caucasus was used as a pretext to bring NATO warships into the Black Sea and then to expedite forcing American anti-missile systems upon Europe."
Stepping up that Cold War message, Medvedev pledged to deploy a missile system in Russia's European exclave of Kaliningrad to counter the US missile shield. He also said that Russia will "not step back in the Caucasus."
Despite the talk about change, some Georgian officials foresee essentially little movement in US-Russian relations.
Said Deputy Foreign Minister Bokeria, touching on Obama's expressed support for Georgia's NATO membership: "I'm pretty sure that the fundamental principles of United States foreign policy will not change."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.