Red ties and broad white-toothed smiles: the 36-year-old Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili looked very comfortable next to US President George Bush during his visit to the USA this week. This was complemented with the impressively emotional compliments. Bush praised Saakashvili as a leader, his visionary talent and courage, while the Georgian president promised never to forget that the USA became "the first country that granted assistance" to Georgia during the overthrow of the Shevardnadze regime.
Mikhail Saakashvili did not return home empty-handed, but neither were his hands too full. In his words, US lawmakers assured him that Georgia would be granted more than $200 mln in 2004 in addition to the $150 mln, the provision of which US Congress had approved immediately after the "Rose Revolution." Besides, the International Monetary Fund promised to proceed to a more flexible and correct attitude in its economic co-operation with Georgia. In a word, Saakashvili should be pleased with his overseas trip.
But those who know more about the visit say this is not enough for the new Georgian president. Saakashvili wants to get from the USA as much as possible and as soon as possible. He has admitted publicly that his fantastic rating at home - 96.7% - can only decline. The leader of Georgia's velvet revolution would like to get long-term and capital-intensive assistance from the USA while he is still popular at home.
On the other hand, it appears that the lively onslaught by the Georgian guest stumbled at the calculating restraint of his hosts. As the saying goes, Once bitten twice shy. "Bitten" by Shevardnadze, Washington is now shy of Saakashvili. The millions of dollars, which the USA had lavishly sent to Tbilisi only recently, landed in the pockets of corrupt Georgian officials and the US administration now wants to avoid stepping on the same rake - especially now when the future of Georgia as a rising democracy is doubtful.
If the State Department were as demanding to Tbilisi as it is to Moscow in its recently published report on human rights, it could have asked the Georgian president many unpleasant questions. This means the questions which Saakashvili's recent allies in the velvet revolution are asking now.
For example, why have the new Georgian authorities forced two of the three private television channels that supported the overthrow of the Shevardnadze regime to close all chat shows that featured political debates? Georgian journalists see this as an open attempt by the government to suppress the most influential media.
The country's liberal forces also question a parliamentary decision that opened the door to the re-nationalisation of large enterprises, which is threatening multimillion investments, including foreign ones, as well as thousands of jobs.
That Mikhail Saakashvili was not asked these unpleasant questions in Washington does not mean that the US administration is not taking them into account when pondering long-term economic obligations to Georgia.
I do not think Washington was pleased with the anti-Russian rhetoric of the Georgian guest. Mikhail Saakashvili said in the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies that "the persisting imperialist psychology of Russia" was the main evil hindering the political settlement of the Abkhazian problem. The Georgian president also complained that he could not convince the Russian leadership that the Georgian "revolution was not a CIA-sponsored revolt." It was strange to hear it from a man who had promised in the Kremlin a week before to turn a new page in the book of Georgia-Russia relations.
Another interesting element of the first US visit by the president of a nearly totally ruined country was the tilt towards military co-operation, as if Georgia needs weapons more than it needs firewood and bread.
Saakashvili announced after his meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz that a new five-year US programme for training the Georgian armed forces would be launched in April. The ripe fruit of that military partnership will be a 5,000-strong "US-type brigade trained by US standards." The new task group will be deployed on the eastern border of the country, said the Georgian president.
In his opinion, there is "a power vacuum" in Georgia and the USA should fill it.
I would say that such news does not correspond to the recent statements made by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said that the US military experts would end their mission in Georgian in the next few months and their deployment contract would not be renewed. Powell also promised to limit the US military presence in Georgia to military attaches at the US Embassy.
Russia believed the promise. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma international affairs committee, wrote in an article for RIA: "We have been demanding this clarity [with regard to military attaches] for many years; now we have it."
The surprise results of Saakashvili's visit to the USA show that clarity has been replaced with fog again.
Will these developments change the Russian leaders' belief that the former Soviet republics, including Georgia, should not be the sphere of US-Russia rivalry but a zone of co-operation? Ask me another. Meanwhile, the Russian hawks, who have been trying to convince the Kremlin to challenge the USA in the post-Soviet territory, seem to be spreading their wings.