US Secretary of State Colin Powell will be attending the inauguration of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. This gesture has come as a pleasant surprise for Tbilisi (and not it alone) and has led to talk about Russia being forced out of Georgia. But this is not the case.
The euphoria in the Georgian capital caused by Powell's upcoming visit is natural. Before Shevardnadze's resignation, the relationship between Tbilisi and Washington had cooled. American military aid had been cut by 30% and economic assistance was gradually decreasing, too.
In this light, the current events in the US-Georgian relations are a kind of restoration. How long this "tender friendship" continues will depend on the domestic policy pursued by Saakashvili and his team. If they manage to put an end to corruption, solve the budget problem, etc., then Western aid might increase. And this is not only true about the assistance from the United States, but also from European countries that recently suspended their programmes in Georgia.
As for Russia, its presence in Georgia might be reduced, and this mainly refers to its military bases. However, this does not mean pulling Russian troops out of Abkhazia. The fate of the two bases in Georgia - in Akhalkalaki and Batumi - has been solved, though Moscow and Tbilisi disagree on the timeframe of the withdrawal. The former suggests 11 years, while the latter wants to see it happen in three years.
There is every opportunity to find a compromise today.
On the one hand, the solution of this issue could become a graphic demonstration of Saakashvili's effective policy. On the other hand, the new Georgian leader knows that excessive pressure on Russia will only produce the opposite effect. This is why he said last week that he had no intention of forcing the Russian troops to leave.
The withdrawal will cost Russia a great deal of money. Of course, supporting the bases is not very economical either, considering the rent and combat training expenses, but it is nothing compared to the costs of pulling the soldiers out. According to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, the Russian troops will leave Georgia only after new military towns have been built to accommodate the bases and the servicemen.
Therefore, despite the military strategic insignificance of the bases for Russia, Moscow is not going to hurry the withdrawal.
There is another obstacle here. At issue is the changing internal political situation in Russia, above all the mounting nationalist sentiments, as seen in the December elections to the State Duma, when the Motherland people's patriotic union and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) gained an unexpectedly large shares of the votes, 9.02% and 11.45%, respectively. These sentiments are first of all due to the hope that Moscow will restore its military and political prestige in the former Soviet republics. Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to ignore this circumstance, regardless of his personal opinion on the matter.
The United States now has its hands full in Iraq, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Moreover, to a certain degree, it suits the Americans and the Europeans that Russia is upholding stability in the former Soviet republics. However, President Bush still wants to maintain the image of a "cool guy" in the eyes of American voters, and to this end, his team should continually demonstrate the energy and expansiveness of its foreign policy.
The danger for Russo-US relations does not lie in Georgia, but Russia's internal situation, as society is becoming increasingly mobilised and a trend towards the need for an external enemy is becoming increasingly evident. If the Russian authorities encourage such sentiments, Moscow will not only damage relations with Washington, but will also lose its authority in Georgia and all the other former Soviet republics.
Today, Russia still has good chances of assuming convincing positions in this sphere, though not through the help of tanks and military bases, but thanks to economic levers, above all energy co-operation. Russia's Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais has begun to implement this concept, while Georgian President Saakashvili welcomes such co-operation, if it does not develop into expansion and pressure.
Furthermore, Russia is a natural and the only possible market for Georgian agricultural products, because European and other neighbouring markets are already saturated.
Agricultural products are Georgia's main export item. The incomes received from oil transit through the Baku-Supsa pipeline are not enough to stabilise the Georgian economy and the situation will hardly change after the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline is put into operation. Indeed, it is still unclear whether this pipeline will recoup the initial investments.
Accordingly, statements to the effect that Moscow has lost its positions in Georgia are unsubstantiated. In a way, the Russian Federation is obviously weaker than the West, which is trying to gain a foothold in the former Soviet republics. But there will be enough room for Russia, too.
Georgia's new leaders represent a generation of pragmatists. If they find it profitable to co-operate with Russia, they will do so. Moscow, therefore, must do everything possible to make this co-operation advantageous.