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Messages Exchanged

US Visit May Lead to Georgia’s Policy Adjustments.

By Jaba devdariani, UNAPAR,Tbilisi

Despite some initial disappointment regarding Georgian President’s public showing during his visit in the U.S. the main task is achieved – the U.S. administration provided Georgian President with a clear message, while Georgia voiced its concerns.

A visit of the President Shevardnadze to the United States fell at a crucial moment, when the international community shapes its new architecture to take on the challenges of international terrorism.

Georgia’s proximity to the epicenter of anti-terrorism drive coupled with a forging Russian-U.S. arrangement regarding common anti-terrorist policies generated unease of the Georgian leadership since September 11.

Mounting Russian allegations on Georgia favoring the terrorist movements in Chechnya bred uncertainty, which brought forward subconscious fears of the old metropolis and hopes for the Western support.

Georgian leadership demonstrated the lack of a clear policy vision on the eve of Shevardnadze’s visit as Georgian foreign policy establishment failed to turn the tide of Russian allegations in large-scale support to Chechen guerrillas (or the “terrorists”). Against this background, half-hearted confessions on a “possibility of presence of a small number of Chechen boyeviks” only served as an irritant to the Russian policy-makers.

It was expected, that Shevardnadze’s visit would dot the “i”-s regarding U.S. support to Georgia and Bush administration’s position towards what Russia actively promoted as a “threat of Chechen terrorism.”

President Shevardnadze speech at Harvard University was a disappointment to many as it failed to articulate Georgian leaderships’ perspective on regional implications of anti-terrorist campaign, as well as on the internal problems the country is facing.

However, in his speech at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. Shevardnadze was far more straightforward in stating his foreign policy priorities. While reiterating his concept on importance of the South Caucasus for Euro-Atlantic security, Shevardnadze slammed Russia for applying double standards – pinpointing Chechen separatism as a terrorist threat, while blocking peaceful resolution of the Abkhazian conflict at the UN.

In what might become the most surprising declaration for its direct and almost aggressive framing, Shevardnadze stated: “Georgia is not the southern flank of Russia’s strategic space, but rather the northern flank of a horizontal band of Turkish and NATO strategic interests.”

Devoting quite substantial part of his address to the need to view South Caucasian region through the prism of Turkish interests, Shevardnadze clearly indicated willingness of the Georgian government to consider Turkey as Euro-Atlantic (and the U.S.) proxy.

The official position of the United States towards Georgia as communicated to President Shevardnadze can mainly be assessed through the secondary sources. President Shevardnadze himself mentioned that President Bush reaffirmed a clear redline policy for Russia – Georgian leadership was assured that the U.S. will remain reluctant to allow Russian military involvement across the Caucasus range.

However, the information from the U.S. academic and research community accents that the U.S. administration also stressed an urgent need for Georgia to deal with the Russian allegations regarding presence of the Chechen guerrillas and to find solution to this problem.

Yet another aspect of U.S. message related to the need of countering corruption in Georgian government – a clear response to Shevardnadze’s statement at Johns Hopkins University that “the key indicator of the strength of the nation is not the presence or absence of corruption” but the determination to fight this malaise. U.S. administration would, it seems, rather see tangible outcomes than a sheer determination.

Shevardnadze’s U.S. visit will undoubtedly affect Georgia’s ongoing policies. However, recent events in Abkhazia and Pankisi gorge prove that averting Russian allegations in supporting Chechen guerrillas is easier said than done. According to some news sources, Chechens appearing in Abkhazia’s Kodori gorge is a direct outcome of failed attempt to facilitate “return” of the boyeviks to the Russian territory.

If confirmed, the reports on Russian planes bombing the Georgian villages in Abkhazia that were circulated on October 9 also pose some questions regarding the viability of the “redline policies.”

Against this background we can expect activation of Georgian-Turkish consultations. Georgian Foreign Minister Menagarishvili will visit his Turkish counterpart by October 12. It is expected, that the main part of this dialogue will be devoted to Abkhaz problem and Turkish position regarding Russia’s allegations.

It is clear that Georgian government faces a severe time condurum for making the policy choices, and the situation is only worsened by escalation in Abkhazia. Georgian foreign policy establishment is also severely pressured by the Russian official agencies and media, that legitimately demand attention towards the conflict region, in which Russia has an official mediating role.

With the fresh message from the U.S. administration, President Shevardnadze should have escaped some uncertainty over the extents to which the Bush administration is ready to commit itself to backing Georgian interests. Right after this weekends consultations in Turkey, the puzzle should be complete, and the new policy moves from the Georgian government are expected.

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