On January 25, US Secretary of State Colin Powell will attend Mikhail Saakashvili's inauguration as president of Georgia. The transition of power there has some Washington strategists imagining ways to export Georgia's "revolution" to other post-Soviet states. It has also led to consternation in Moscow which could further erode the spirit of partnership that the Kremlin forged with US President George W. Bush in late 2001.
From Tbilisi, Powell will go to Moscow for meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin and other key officials. Insiders expect that Powell will not mince words in expression of support for Saakashvili, whom the Kremlin considers (according to a Moscow political scientist) "too pro-American and too unknown." This is delicate geopolitical territory. Russia commands four military bases in Georgia.
During a December 2003 visit to Georgia, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for Moscow to withdraw its troops from Georgia in line with agreements signed at the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Istanbul summit. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. This call prompted concern in Russia's Foreign and Defense Ministries that the Bush administration seeks to use Saakashvili's ascent to extend its own military presence in Georgia. [See the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili marked his campaign with promises to tackle Georgia's internal corruption and its endemic poverty. He has tried to placate Russia in speeches but has been firm about his insistence on keeping breakaway provinces from seceding to Russia. Powell's spokesman has said that the secretary will deliver an unstinting message to Putin on this issue. Powell also seems likely to demand that Russia expedite its troop withdrawal.
Why would Powell be so firm? In the past he has negotiated more gently with Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, both of whom have invoked antiterrorist rhetoric to blanket their misdeeds. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. The answer may have to do with the fact that Saakashvili represents something new in post-Soviet politics: the leader of a massive, well-organized effort to peacefully render a sitting president illegitimate.
The Bush administration cannot afford to let Russia undermine Saakashvili's story. A confident Georgia can deliver many benefits. It could stabilize the South Caucasus, shielding American access to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and other valves on the Caspian Sea. It could weaken separatist rhetoric in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which might discourage Russian intervention. And it could become a more effective partner in tracking, stopping and punishing terrorists. [For background on these issues, see EurasiaNet's package on the Pankisi Gorge].
Indeed, some in the Bush administration doubt that Saakashvili's "rose revolution," so dubbed because celebrants clutched roses after Shevardnadze stepped aside, will necessarily foster stability. Proponents of the Realpolitik school, primarily at the State Department, point out that a rush to overhaul Georgia could weaken Russia's membership in Bush's antiterrorist coalition and jeopardize American access to Caspian energy sources.
Analysts at the National Security Council and the United States Agency for International Development (US AID) understand that Georgia's entrenched corruption is just one of the symptoms keeping the country poor. It also lacks competitive industries and sound models for capitalist ethics. Moreover, Russian interests control critical chunks of Georgia's economy.
During 2003, state-controlled Russian companies RAO UES and Gazprom acquired the vital electric and natural gas grids in Georgia. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Migrants sending money home from Russia contribute meaningfully to Georgia's annual output. In this context, if Russia encourages the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria to fully secede, it could sap Georgia's already anemic economy.
Washington understands how many challenges the untested Georgian leadership faces. These include conducting legitimate parliamentary elections in the spring, battling organized crime, and rebuilding public institutions that became sinecures under Shevardnadze. Temur Yakobashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies www.gfsis.com suggests that Saakashvili will have to scale down unrealistic expectations, generated in November's rush of events, in order to thrive. The president's inaugural address may try to cool the popular mood.
According to Yakobashvili, the new regime will struggle to attract honest, competent and educated people to the government, deliver pensions, salaries and other social safety payments on time and restarting economic growth and foreign investment amid deep economic crisis. Finally, Mr. Saakashvili will face a difficult relationship with Russia while attempting territorial reintegration in the face of Moscow-supported separatist opposition. Because conditions in Georgia are so fragile, Russia could swiftly claim that the country needs Russian troops.
Powell and his colleagues will have to advance Washington's goals while staying friendly to a Kremlin that balks at the idea of Georgian initiative. Especially after nationalists made strong gains in Russia's parliament in December, the idea that Georgia can act against the Kremlin's wishes is growing especially sensitive. While the Bush administration and European Union figure to encourage institutional development through privatization in Georgia, they will also have to manage Russia's concerns about security and hegemony.
In this context, Powell might be wise to press Saakashvili to make conciliatory gestures to Moscow. The State Department should foster Tbilisi's official contacts with the leaderships of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to develop a jointly workable political model. This could federalize Georgia or otherwise protect minority rights. At the same time, since Ajaria's Abashidze is likely to play provocateur, Powell should manage a dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow on the withdrawal of Russian troops and the end of Russian support to South Ossetian and Abakhzian separatists. In addition to the regular diplomatic channels, such dialogue should include the two countries' National Security Councils and departments of defense.
Saakashvili's country is as fragile as his victory was emphatic. If Georgia grows violent, or poorer, or darker, it could deteriorate to bloody anarchy. That prospect should keep Powell somber at the inauguration and careful in Moscow.
Ariel Cohen is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.