Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Georgian leader may come under Obama scrutiny

Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili is one of the few world leaders who may rue the departure of George W. Bush when he gives way Tuesday to a U.S. president less likely to champion Tbilisi with such zeal. Saakashvili is losing his closest Western ally, a little over five years after he was propelled to power in the peaceful "Rose Revolution" and adopted as the poster boy for Bush's declared agenda of spreading freedom around the globe.

The relationship was personal.

Bush visited Tbilisi in May 2005 and described Georgia as a "beacon of liberty." Saakashvili named a Tbilisi street after Bush and sent 2,000 soldiers to fight in Iraq.
His image dented by August's brief war with Russia and by criticism of his record on democracy, Saakashvili needs allies. Washington, for its part, certainly cannot ignore a country that is a major transit territory for European energy supplies.

"Under the (Barack) Obama administration, I don't think they will throw Georgia under the train, but there won't be the same emphasis on using Georgia as a model of transition that they would like to see in other states," said Jeffrey Mankoff of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Critics say Saakashvili has failed to live up to his promise of democracy. He has stifled the media, judiciary and political opposition, and concentrated power on an inner circle largely blamed for taking the country into war with Russia.

Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, denies squeezing democratic freedoms. He has unveiled a series of measures which he says will reduce presidential powers.
The Bush administration has been "unthinking and unblinking" in its support for Saakashvili, and was sorely let down in August when Georgia moved against pro-Russian separatists in breakaway South Ossetia, said James Nixey, a research fellow on the Russia and Eurasia Program at London's Chatham House.

Critics suggest Bush might have failed to make clear the limits of his indulgence, with disastrous consequences. Georgia's former envoy to Russia told a parliamentary inquiry Saakashvili believed he had U.S. backing for the strike on South Ossetia.
A new administration could bring greater pressure on Saakashvili to follow through with real reform, especially faced with a resurgent opposition that blames him for the war.
Nixey said a change at the White House could bring "a more nuanced U.S. policy toward Georgia."

"Saakashvili has promised to hold himself to a higher standard," he said. "This is his only chance of success. Without that, he hasn't a chance with the new administration."


By sending tanks and troops into Georgia in August, Russia served notice it was ready to defend "privileged interests" in its ex-Soviet backyard, repelling what it sees as a threat from NATO's eastward expansion.

Washington pledged $1 billion in aid and economic help after the war and, much to Moscow's annoyance, sent warships to the Black Sea coast carrying humanitarian supplies. Moscow in return made much of sending its own naval vessels to take part in exercises not that far from U.S. coastal waters.

The war deepened division within Europe over the wisdom of extending NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine.

Analysts say the issue will not be a priority for Obama, compared with arms control, Iran and Afghanistan -- all issues on which Washington will court Russian cooperation.
Bush's policy in eastern Europe and the Caucasus had set the U.S. on a collision course with Russia, Mankoff said.

The Bush White House laid the blame for the August war squarely on Moscow. But Obama's comments at the time gave the impression he had "a more nuanced view of what was going on," Mankoff said.

"The war this summer was a sharp reminder that you cannot ignore Russia," he said.
Western diplomats concede Georgia's NATO ambitions were dealt a severe blow by Saakashvili's decision to launch an air and ground assault on South Ossetia -- which threw off Tbilisi's rule in the 1990s -- and by Russia's crushing response.

Georgia has lost what little control it had over South Ossetia and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia, now recognized by Moscow as independent states.
Tens of thousands of Georgian refugees face little prospect of returning home in the foreseeable future, and investor flight has compounded the effects of the global financial crisis.
Several key allies have split with the president, and the resurgent opposition is demanding his resignation.

"I can see the departure of the Bush administration changing Georgians' view of Saakashvili," Mankoff said. "With the new administration coming in, his ability to turn to the U.S. administration for support diminishes."

No comments:

Post a Comment