Saakashvili Visits Washington Amid Heightening Geopolitical Tension in the Caucasus
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Washington for talks with top-level Bush administration officials on expanding strategic and economic cooperation. The Georgian leader's US visit is coming at a time of geopolitical uncertainty in the Caucasus, with Moscow and Washington potentially on a collision course.
Georgia is shaping up as a key venue in the building US-Russian competition for regional influence, a fact that is forcing Saakashvili into a delicate balancing act in the foreign policy sphere, while at the same time trying to restore order on the domestic front. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Georgian-Russian relations have long been marked by tension, but during an early February visit to Moscow, Saakashvili appeared to stabilize Tbilisi's relationship with the Kremlin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili arrived in Washington on February 22 and is expected to seek stronger US security cooperation, along with an expansion of economic assistance. In addition to meeting with Bush administration officials, Saakashvili is scheduled to meet with representatives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as US business executives.
Since Saakashvili led the protest movement last November that succeeded in forcing former president Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation, the United States has strongly backed his stated desire to place Georgia on a fast track towards integration with Western security and economic structures. [For background see Eurasia Insight archive].
At the same time, Russian leaders are loathe to lose any influence in what they consider to be their strategic backyard. Despite Saakashvili's widely praised performance in Moscow, many in Russia's policy-making community remain suspicious of his intentions. Specifically, there is still strong doubt about Saakashvili's pledge that he would not permit the United States to establish a military base in Georgia after Russian forces pull out from the country. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
By all appearances Russia is preparing to wage a vigorous struggle to keep Georgia within its sphere of influence. An indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to get tough on CIS states came February 24, when, in a televised address, he announced that he was firing his cabinet. Putin stressed that his decision was not driven by dissatisfaction with the government's performance. "It is dictated by a wish once again to set down a position on how policy will develop in the country after [Russia's presidential election] on March 14," Putin said. Putin's re-election is considered a virtual certainty.
Putin provided some insight into his thinking during a February 12 televised speech, in which he characterized the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as a "national tragedy on an enormous scale" in which "only the elites and nationalists of the republics gained." The underlying assertion of Putin's comments was that the Kremlin needed to do more to defend Russia's national interests, and, accordingly, would be justified in adopting tougher policies towards other CIS states.
Dmitry Sidorov, Kommersant bureau chief in Washington, said that Putin really believes what he says. "His popularity allows him not to make any statements and win handily in March," he said.
Putin's statements sent ripples around CIS capitals and beyond. "What does this mean that Russia is going to correct the
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation.