Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Tbilisi: Georgia's Confidence Game

A Change of Fortune for Saakashvili's Regime

The tallest building in downtown Tbilisi is the former Intourist hotel, built during the Brezhnev era to host foreign visitors and later used to house Georgian refugees from the war in Abkhazia during the 1990s. Today the 16-story building is in the middle of a multimillion-dollar renovation and will reopen later this summer as a Radisson hotel. Its grandeur, however, is something of a mirage. The hotel dominates a skyline largely filled with ambitious construction projects in seemingly permanent states of half-completion -- glitzy, unfinished monuments to what might have been.

Ever since the Rose Revolution brought Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to power in 2003, the country has presented itself as a democratic, free-market oasis stuck on the edge of the post-Soviet world. For much of the West, particularly the United States, Georgia was an ally and a friend to be nurtured and protected. This dynamic reached a dramatic crescendo last August when Georgia and Russia fought a brief war over the breakaway province of South Ossetia -- a moment when John McCain, then a U.S. presidential candidate, boldly declared, "We are all Georgians."

But in the year since, the fallout from the war -- which has left Georgia with tens of thousands of internally displaced refugees -- has turned the country's machismo into a sense of defeatism and left it increasingly estranged from its Western friends, most especially the United States. Georgians -- who greet one another with a variation of the phrase for "victory" -- are growing tired of conflict and distrustful of their leadership. Support has grown for the country's opposition, a disparate collection of Western-educated reformers and former allies of Saakashvili who are disaffected by his heavy-handed rule.

After a moment of dominating international headlines last summer, Georgia is now figuratively -- and literally -- a rump of its former self. Russian forces occupy two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia's economy has slowed considerably after its double-digit growth in 2007, and the country's Ministry of Finance predicts that it will contract another 1.5 percent this year. Foreign investment has fallen by almost 75 percent since early 2008.

Meanwhile, Russian tanks are stationed less than a hundred miles from Georgia's capital. Ahead of President Obama's visit to Moscow this April, a rumor circulated around Tbilisi that Russia would send its tanks across the South Ossetian border and into Georgia proper. Although the rumor turned out to be false, many Georgians remain convinced that Russia might re-invade any day now. This may not just be paranoia: Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based analyst of the Russian military, who, in June 2008, predicted last summer's war, has said that there is an 80 percent chance Russia will invade again this summer. The Kremlin remains determined to remove Saakashvili from power, Felgenhauer has argued, and the area's difficult terrain and severe climate make a military offensive after September less likely.

Ultimately, a battered economy and fluctuating oil prices may, at least for the time being, put a break on Russia's military adventurism. But this still leaves Georgia feeling increasingly isolated, especially because its main benefactor abroad, the United States, has promised "to reset relations" with Russia, a country whose prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has called for hanging Saakashvili "by his balls." Then, in a speech last month before the Georgian parliament, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivered a stern message, criticizing Georgia's current regime for failing to follow through on its democratic promises of the 2003 Rose Revolution, and stating that its lost provinces could not be taken back by military means. Ahead of Biden's visit, Georgia was hoping for military hardware, U.S. monitors along the border with Russia, and promises of protection; instead it received a dose of tough love.

A cooler relationship between Georgia and the United States may, in fact, be closer to the historical norm than the intensity and closeness seen during George W. Bush's presidency. The two countries' ties are more tactical than strategic, defined by pipeline politics and a shared suspicion of Moscow. As those issues shift, so too may the U.S.-Georgian relationship. "The idea that there is this undying bond between the United States and Georgia is overstated," said Lawrence Scott Sheets of the International Crisis Group.

Still, the lack of an emotional connection with the Obama administration has left Georgia feeling somewhat out in the cold. Unlike most world capitals, Tbilisi was silent the night of Obama's victory last November. Prior to the U.S. election, a minister in the Georgian government drove around town with a "McCain" license plate. Georgia's leaders saw McCain as more supportive of their quest to join NATO, and they appreciated his tough talk toward Russia. (He was fond of saying what three letters he saw in Putin's eyes: K-G-B.)

The loss of land and prestige has dealt Georgia a devastating blow to its national ego, not to mention the image it has cultivated abroad as the standard-bearer for post-Soviet democracy. Even Saakashvili -- who, while skiing, wears a bright parka in Georgia's national colors of red and white -- has seen his trademark swagger and stubbornness replaced by humility. Last month, he told Georgia's parliament that reacquiring Abkahzia or South Ossetia is "not on the political agenda for any immediate action." This came as a shocking admission of weakness for many Georgians, akin to President Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech in 1979. Around the same time, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he admitted that Georgia's hopes to be fast-tracked for membership into NATO or the European Union are all but lost (though he later said he was misquoted). And his promise to restore the nation's democratic institutions -- namely, to remove media restrictions and make the courts more independent -- came across as an acknowledgment that he had violated the country's democracy in the first place when he used force to put down opposition demonstrations in November 2007.

In the months since the war ended, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia essentially independent and under Moscow's control, the national discourse in Georgia has shifted from animosity toward Russia to self-reflection and soul-searching. The political opposition blames Saakashvili for last summer's war; Georgian authorities, in turn, accuse opposition leaders of being bankrolled by Moscow.

This has left the country divided and teetering on the brink of greater political and economic turmoil. The parking lots of Tbilisi's hotels are crammed with vans from international monitoring and aid organizations, making the city resemble East Timor more than Eastern Europe. As Ryan Grist, the former head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring mission in the region explained, Georgia needs such international oversight to prevent it from backsliding on human rights and democratic governance.

The risk of collapse was especially high last fall, when Saakashvili's military gambit and the ensuing standoff with Russia seemed to have the potential to bring the government to its knees. The country's opposition movement was galvanized by Saakashvili's hubris in stoking a conflict with Russia, along with his refusal to allow for greater judicial reform, transparency, and political pluralism.

"After the government lost the war, the president made people come out and shout 'Misha!' in the streets," said Medea Turashvili, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who is based in Tbilisi. But for a growing number of Georgians, it is their country's economy, not the Russians, that worries them most. Turashvili spoke of a growing "sense of insecurity." The financial situation of average Georgians, she said, "is getting worse and worse."

Although Georgia remains a fractured place, Saakashvili's regime is hardly on the brink of collapse. By June, the size of the opposition street protests had shrunk considerably, a sign that the movement remains divided and disorganized. More moderate figures in the opposition, such as former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania, have mostly given up their demands for Saakashvili to step down and seem satisfied with the promise of greater dialogue and democratic reforms. Last May, the government put down a mutiny within the army that was rumored to have Russian origins. And an investigation launched last December by the European Union into how the war was conducted -- which, as Der Spiegel has reported, contradicts the Georgian claim that Russia invaded first -- has been held up indefinitely by Brussels.

In a sense, Georgia is lucky. Its war with Russia may have damaged its reputation and squashed its plans for NATO membership, but the timing of the conflict -- a few months before the world plunged into a recession -- has proven fortuitous. Had Georgia not received the more than $1 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction aid that it did last summer, most experts say it would be far worse off. "It was a good time to have a war," said Timothy Blauvelt, director of Georgia's American Councils for International Education. "It's hard to imagine how devastating the credit freeze would have been otherwise." 

Still, for now, Georgia is in an awkward holding pattern. Saakashvili is barred from seeking reelection in the country's next presidential vote in 2013 and is essentially a lame-duck president. But relations with Russia will not improve until there is a change of regime in Georgia. The United States, then, can do little to alter the geopolitical equation, much less ease the tense standoff in the region. For the moment, Washington can offer moral but not military support. To offer anything more may be an open invitation to reawaken the guns of August.

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