Tbilisi Buoyed by US Commitment

Georgia hails treaty with America as sign of long-term support.

Tbilisi Buoyed by US Commitment

Georgia hails treaty with America as sign of long-term support.

Georgia and the United States have signed a strategic partnership agreement, which has been hailed in Tbilisi as proof that Washington will not abandon its South Caucasus ally when Barack Obama takes over as president.

George W Bush’s administration forged close links with Georgia, helping train its army and supporting its aim to join NATO despite European objections. The president himself even visited Georgia in 2005, and hailed it as “a beacon of liberty”.

The new document, which was signed on January 9 at a ceremony in Washington, confirmed the US’s support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.

“This is a historic day for my country,” said Georgian foreign minister Grigol Vashadze who, along with American counterpart Condoleezza Rice, signed the document.

“The Charter... strengthens the close strategic partnership between Georgia and the United States, and stresses that the countries signing this legal document share a vital interest in a strong, prosperous, independent, sovereign, and territorially integral Georgia. This is something the Georgian nation has been aspiring to and this is a stepping stone which will bring Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic institutions.”

The document sets out areas of cooperation, including a pledge from Washington to help Georgia in its quest to join NATO, despite the damage done to its reputation by a short but disastrous war against Russia in August.

The fighting, which ended with Russia and its separatist allies driving Georgian forces out of two breakaway areas, alarmed European NATO members who are reluctant to extend security guarantees to a country embroiled in a conflict with Moscow.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, however, said the new document showed US-Georgian friendship had survived intact.

“The term ‘strategic partner’ has never been used [with respect to Georgia] before. America has used this word very rarely and with regard to a very limited number of countries. To them, the term has always had a very concrete political meaning,” said Saakashvili.

“Although this is a difficult process full of contradictions, and we still have a long way to go, this is indisputably a step bringing Georgia closer to the NATO and Euro-Atlantic space, a new important stage.”

As for the prospects of Tbilisi’s relations with the new US administration, Saakashvili had no worries.

“I had a very positive conversation with Obama just days after his election, and I am pleased that he is a very active supporter of Georgia, knows the problems of the region well and has an opinion on every issue,” he said.

As part of cooperation plans, the US is expected to help train and equip the Georgian army.

“Recognising the persistence of threats to global peace and stability, and recalling the Georgian and Russian commitment within the August 12 ceasefire agreement to the non-use of force, the United States and Georgia intend to expand the scope of their ongoing defence and security cooperation,” the document said, also pledging cooperation in trade and energy supplies.

The countries promised cooperation “to bolster independent media, freedom of expression, and access to objective news and information, including through assistance to journalists and media outlets”, as well as “to strengthen further the rule of law, including by increasing judicial independence”.

Georgia’s political reputation took a blow this week when prominent US think tank Freedom House said Saaskashvili’s increasingly authoritarian rule had induced it to remove Georgia from its list of electoral democracies, although it still falls into the “partly free” rather than “not free” category. Rice, however, insisted that Washington and Tbilisi had an ideology in common.

“Georgia is a very important partner of the United States, a valued partner,” she said before the signing ceremony.

“Our relationships rest, of course, on shared values of democracy, on security, on economic prosperity. And this charter underscores the principles and outlines a way to advance our relationship and our cooperation in defense, trade, energy security, strengthening democratic institutions, people-to-people contacts, and cultural exchanges.”

Georgian analysts said the agreement was an important stepping stone for their country towards the integration into the West that it craves, but warned that it has a very long way to go.

Archil Gegeshidze, of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Research, described the document as “very important in many respects”, especially since it had been signed after and in spite of the Georgia-Russia August war.

“[America] has been cooperating with many countries, but it has rarely concluded agreements like that,” he told IWPR.

“This confirms that the United States has the will to cooperate with Georgia, a will that does not depend on what administration is in power.”

He said the charter’s implementation depended on the wills of the governments involved.

“Reading between the lines in the charter, one can read certain conditions being laid down to Georgia,” he said.

“The charter is not a panacea and, unlike NATO membership, does not give any security guarantees. But the country can achieve serious results by coordinating the conditions with the action plan given to it by the European Union.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a journalist with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.
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