Shevardnadze Seeks Economic Boost During London Visit
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is making a state visit to Britain, seeking economic and political backing for his domestic reform efforts.
Shevardnadze departed for Britain on July 17. During his London visit he was scheduled to meet with top British leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as leading members of the business community.
Since winning reelection as Georgia's president in April, Shevardnadze has moved vigorously to promote economic and political stability in Georgia. The president has made a campaign against corruption a central element of his economic development strategy. Shevardnadze's administration has also recently taken steps to ease tension with separatist regions, in particular the autonomous region of Abkhazia.
In comments broadcast before he left Tbilisi, Shevardnadze indicated that he will emphasize foreign economic investment during the visit, promoting the concept of a trans-Caspian pipeline that would facilitate the export of oil and gas from Central Asia and Azerbaijan to the West, via Georgia and Turkey. A lack of progress on domestic economic reforms has shaken investor confidence. Georgia's economic reputation suffered further when the International Monetary Fund recently decided to temporarily suspend restructuring loans.
"Our [bilateral] relations have been developing at a quick pace and have refreshed their essence," Shevardnadze said in the interview on Georgian Radio. "Powerful British companies are effectively working in our region and are implementing major projects. These projects mainly involve oil and gas prospecting and production."
Shevardnadze said he would hold meetings with executives from several companies, including BP Amoco and Frontera Resources. He was also scheduled to meet with officials of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
In talks with members of Britain's political establishment, Shevardnadze will focus on the turbulent geopolitical situation in the Caucasus, aiming to bolster Georgia's security position. Georgian officials have expressed concern about Russia's geopolitical intentions, warning that Moscow may be planning new initiatives to reassert influence over so-called "near-abroad" countries. British support for Georgian security initiatives would help Tbilisi resist potential Russian pressure in several areas, including pipeline routes and lasting peace in Abkhazia.
Russia has already exerted considerable pressure on Georgia in connection with Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya. Russian government officials have assailed Georgia for indirectly aiding Chechen resistance, asserting that Chechen separatists have utilized the porous border to ferry supplies to troops in the field. Georgian and Russian officials are currently engaged in contentious bilateral discussions on closing Russian military bases in Georgia. The presence of Russian troops in Georgia provides the Kremlin with leverage to intimidate Georgia in other political and economic discussions.
Shevardnadze is also expected to seek Britain's assistance in conflict resolution and prevention not only in Abkhazia, but also in Georgia's other autonomous regions, South Ossetia and Ajaria.
There are indications that Shevardnadze will find a largely receptive audience in Britain. According to a top Georgian diplomat, British officials have initiated a proposal for the creation of a special OSCE fund to help finance the withdrawal of Russian military forces from Georgia. Specific details for the fund have yet to be finalized.
Several political observers, including Professor James Gow, a professor of War Studies at the University of London, have said that Georgia potentially can play a significant role in the stabilization of the Caucasus. Accordingly, on the eve of the visit, Shevardnadze renewed calls for the formulation of a South Caucasus security pact that would include Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, but also Russia.
Konstantin Kandelaki is affiliated with the International Center for Civic Culture in Tbilisi.