Can Biden Thread the Georgian Needle?

This week Vice President Joe Biden travels to Ukraine and Georgia. The purpose of Biden’s trip is to affirm American support for these two countries and to demonstrate that pressing the now-famous reset button with regards to US-Russia relations does not mean trading U.S. support for Ukraine and Georgia for better relations with, or more cooperation from, Russia. Biden’s trip will reiterate the statements on this issue made by President Obama earlier this month in Moscow. In this regard, it is not entirely clear what remaining confusion Biden’s trip intends to clear up, but Biden’s trip will be important and watched closely throughout the former Soviet Union.

If Biden travels to these countries and simply restates U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine, the trip will have some value as it will continue to demonstrate that the new administration will not abandon old allies. However, if that is all Biden does, the question of how, precisely, this administration intends to differentiate itself from its predecessor with regards to Russia and the former Soviet Union will be hard to avoid. The reset button will have proven to be little more than rhetorical tool, and, of course, fodder for a translation gaffe by the State Department.

Georgia, in particular, presents an opportunity for Biden to restate America’s commitment to the right set of principles, while demonstrating some crucial differences between the Obama and Bush administrations. It is clear that Russian ambitions towards Georgia did not end with the war between the two countries last year. Moreover, the ceasefire agreement brokered by French President Nicholas Sarkozy has been, at least on the Russian side, honored substantially in the breach. Biden’s presence in Georgia will make it clear that the U.S. support for the sovereignty of that country is as strong as it was during the Bush administration.

Biden, however, also has an opportunity to send an additional message while in Georgia, one that does not at all conflict with the message of U.S. support for Georgia, but, if delivered deftly, will strengthen the U.S. position with regards to Georgia, Russia and the region more broadly. The message that Biden should send is that while U.S. support for Georgia remains unequivocal, the U.S. will no longer continue to hail Georgia as a democracy while turning a blind eye to the faults, missteps and movement away from democracy of the current Georgian government. One sentence from the Vice President while he is in Tbilisi stating that the U.S. is looking towards the Georgian government to get back on the track towards democratic reform will show that while we are still committed to Georgia, the U.S. now has a different way of doing things, one that takes more seriously the principles it espouses.

The drift away from democracy which has occurred in recent years in Georgia has not only contributed to the poor planning around last year’s war, placed stress on Georgia’s relationship with key western European countries and helped push Georgia’s dream of NATO membership into the distant future, but it has also reflected poorly on the U.S. and made U.S. Russia relations even more difficult than necessary.

By also making it clear that U.S. support for Georgia is based on principle and shared interests rather than personal relations, Biden will also help push the Georgian government, which will understand that it no longer has carte blanche from Washington, to more actively pursue political reform and get back on the path to democracy. That is the path, after all, down which a functional Georgian future lies.

Official Russian views towards the Georgian leadership are, by any measure, extreme. The President and Prime Minister of Russia have referred to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a “political corpse” and threatened to “hang him by his balls.” Nonetheless, Russian puzzlement as to why the U.S. continues to view Saakashvili as a democratic reformer is legitimate-and shared by other, friendlier governments as well. In many countries in Europe, the U.S. view that Georgia is a democracy is increasingly understood as some kind of inexplicably American quirk like, baseball or widespread obesity. More harmfully, it is also used by many to argue that the U.S. is not less interested in democracy than in supporting pro-American leaders.

Biden’s challenge is to thread the needle of asserting continued American support for Georgian sovereignty while taking a more sober view of the true nature of domestic politics in Georgia. Demonstrating that while the U.S. remains committed to supporting Georgia, the U.S. also understands, and is concerned about, the shortcomings of Georgian democracy, the role of the Georgian government in those shortcomings and why this is so bad for Georgia, will show Russia, and the world, that the new American administration has a more sound and less personality and ideology based understanding of the world than the Bush administration did. This is the kind of reset U.S. Russian relations needs.