It is important to fully gauge the extent of US-Georgia relationship in order to put the recent meeting of the two presidents in its proper light. The US support to Georgia has been the most comprehensive: ranging from humanitarian assistance in the early years of Georgia’s independence, leading up to the structural reforms in governance and security at a later stage. The US had been the key protector of Georgia’s security vis-à-vis the Russian revisionism in the region. To date, USAID has provided up to USD 62 million in humanitarian assistance and had pledged USD 1 billion in the aftermath of Russia-Georgia War in 2008. Georgia too had been the dedicated ally. It is now planning to send additional reinforcements in Afghanistan, which will make it the largest non-NATO contributor to ISAF. In the long shadow of the US – Russia “reset,” the first official visit of President Saakashvili to the Oval Office is of notable significance.
President Obama’s marked emphasis on reforms and democracy during the press appearance on January 30th is not to be misguided by an insignificant debate in Tbilisi over what the word “formal” denotes. The emphasis on democracy, in which the transfer of power is an essential part, was there. This is the right emphasis for Georgia, which has many immediate socio-economic, political and security challenges that can only be accommodated by the pluralistic political system.
Consider this: Georgia is an ethnically diverse state – according to the Government of Georgia 15% of its population represent nationalities other than Georgian; The UN sponsored study in 2010 describes about 14% of Georgia’s population as belonging to religions other than Orthodox Christianity – a dominant faith; the same organization counts almost 360,000 internally displaced persons; in 2011, a nationwide poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute – the US based non-profit which supports democratic reforms, found that 67% of Georgians do not consider themselves employed; at the same time, Georgia is politically vibrant. It has many small political parties, that are often disorganized and underfunded, but that are vocal and at times capable of mounting strong opposition movements; civil society organizations are able to engage and challenge the political society; Georgia is bereft of any significant reserves of natural resources and minerals to procure less conditional support from the key foreign players: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs through Georgia, accounts for only 1% of global oil demand; Most importantly, 20% of the Georgian territory is occupied by the world’s largest state, ready to overwhelm the remaining 80%. Finally, Georgia has no security guarantees from either the US or any defensive alliance. In this context, there is simply no other game in town that Georgia can play other than democracy for any significant internal tremor might bring about serious security risks. At the same time, it cannot strengthen its democracy without a degree of modernization to which economy and security are both essential.
Security is crucial as Georgia cannot defend its independence alone. Russia is a strong revisionist power and builds-up its offensive capabilities in the occupied parts of Georgia as well as elsewhere in the region. Rising tensions with Iran, politico-economic turmoil of Europe, revolutionary tides in the Middle East and North Africa will all distract the attention of Georgia’s key supporters and limit their resources; this will also create the potential to strengthen the demand for Russian oil and gas. Where there is oil influence follows. Russia’s Prime-Minister, Vladimir Putin, challenged both by liberals and nationalists alike on the home front and well aware of impending international criticism of his possible 12 years extension at the Kremlin’s helm, will seek to rally domestic public support and thus cement his position. If the past is any prologue then victorious military campaigns are amongst his preferred choices. Georgia’s full subjugation will result in both popular approvals and cement Russia’s influence in the region it considers is its backyard. This is why the US’s unequivocal diplomatic and development support to Georgia’s security is existential.
Military capability for self-defense is a cornerstone of security, as has always been. For a country that is most dependent on international support, the time span, the breathing space, in which diplomatic support can be marshaled by friendly powers is of key importance. Therefore, whether its capital (with effective government) can stand for weeks or months, or whether it will fall in a few days is of important consequence to Georgia’s sovereignty. Weapons can play important part in lengthening this breathing space. The combination of military, political and diplomatic price wall that Georgia can mount against any forceful attempt to overthrow its sovereignty will determine how the odds are counted in Russia. Shall “the elevation of defense cooperation,” to which President Saakashvili referred to on the 30th of January, be conducive to improving the hard capabilities of Georgia’s defense one can only see this as a good step forward in strengthening the politico-military aspects of Georgia’s security.
Georgia’s accomplishments in reducing crime, petty corruption and instituting effective public administration create a solid foundation from which Georgia’s economic growth must spring. The prospect for a free trade agreement is there. Its formalization may take months or even years, but will undoubtedly play a key role in Georgia’s economic success for it can boost investments seeking to exploit the benefits of free trade with the world’s largest economy. Economic growth will improve welfare and strengthen the fledgling Georgian middle class, which shall form the cornerstone for Georgia’s consolidation into a successful economy and democracy. This brings us to where we started.
Middle class is a vibrant part of society, able to flesh out and embrace new political ideas and movements. It may be tempted into the short lived love affair with improved welfare and relative sense of security, but when the first charms fade, lasting issues start to dominate. Educated middle class can only thrive in the open and pluralistic society and in the awareness of its dignity respected and its interests protected. Georgia is not rich enough for any of its governments to be able to procure widespread domestic loyalty in the long-run, so it must be deserved; neither it is strong enough to effectively suppress political dissent, so it must allow it and learn to respect it.
This generation of Georgians looks to the West as a model of political and economic system which they want to bestow to their children. For many cultural, social and political reasons, they would want their children to live and study in a place that looks more like Stockholm, not Singapore. Any Georgian political elite will in the foreseeable future strongly depend on the combination of both domestic loyalty and foreign support from the Western democracies, the US especially. Georgia cannot build a national security state; it must build a liberal state. This holds true both towards broader and greater state-building ends as well as for self preservation instincts of any government.
Presidential talk of democracy, security and economy as a comprehensive whole was well timed and well focused. 2012-2013 will be the litmus tests for the current political elite, for its civil and political society and Georgia’s friends abroad. This will be an important chance for those who steward this country along the difficult path of state building and democratic consolidation and for those who shall ultimately be the guardians of it– the Georgian citizenry.
This is a re-post from DF Watch, the independent news reporting site where this article originally appeared on February 3, 2012