Does Washington's Silence Send Georgia a Loud Message?

Most of the American bandwidth for developments in the former Soviet Union is being taken up these days by events in Ukraine. But in late February, something very interesting happened in Washington that had to do with Georgia.

New Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili led a delegation from Tbilisi to the United States. The Georgian prime minister spoke at the Atlantic Council and Columbia University, was hosted by several prominent American non-governmental organizations, and, most significantly, had numerous meetings with US government officials. The highest level meeting was with Vice-President Joe Biden. That meeting was joined by President Barack Obama, sending a clear message that Georgia remains on the administration’s foreign policy radar.

To a certain extent, Gharibashvili benefitted from lucky timing. Events in Ukraine have helped raise Russophobia in Washington to its highest level since the end of the Cold War. Thus, by giving Georgia a diplomatic pat on the back and demonstrating American support for one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s frequent targets, the Obama administration could pick some low-hanging diplomatic fruit.

Statements from various American politicians and organizations with whom Gharibashvili met contained the usual platitudes about Georgia’s strides towards democracy and the strength of the bilateral relationship. The most significant thing about those statements, however, may well have been what was not said. Only a few days before the trip, former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, a very close ally of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and for most of the previous decade the second most powerful man in Georgia, was sentenced to five years in prison for various abuses of power.

Merabishvili’s arrest had drawn some attention from conservative European and American supporters of Georgia’s previous government, but the silence on his conviction, from both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, was striking. The release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, while Gharibashvili was in Washington, created an easy opportunity for US government officials to raise concerns about Merabishvili, but American officials remained publicly silent on the issue.

There are several explanations for the public silence. Perhaps US officials didn’t think the matter important enough to create a stir, or maybe they wanted to send a message by declining to raise the issue. It seems possible that US officials either were given access to the evidence brought against Merabishvili, or otherwise grew to believe in the guilt of the former PM, who is reviled by many in Georgia. If this is the case, it is potentially an important development in the US-Georgia bilateral relationship. The failure of US government officials to bring up the conviction during Gharibashvili’s trip could imply tacit recognition by the United States that Georgia’s previous government had significant flaws.

If this interpretation of events is accurate, it marks a significant change. Keep in mind that Georgia’s previous presidential administration was led by Mikheil Saakashvili, a longtime darling of the Washington foreign policy establishment. For much of his presidency, as Georgia drifted away from the democratic promise of the 2003 Rose Revolution, he relied on heavy-handed tactics to keep political opponents in check. During Saakashvili’s tenure, especially after Georgia’s war with Russia in 2008, Washington preferred to overlook the non-democratic aspects of his government. Ultimately, this contributed to a US-Georgia relationship that was grounded more in personal factors and ideological platitudes than in the interests of either country.

The evident reluctance of American officials to comment on the sentencing of Saakashvili’s closest ally is an indication that the bilateral relationship is now on a different footing -- one more grounded in empiricism and mutual interests. The US government appears to have understood that demanding the freedom of a guilty man, according to the Georgian courts, as well as an individual associated with some of the most violent abuses during the Saakashvili era, could undermine Washington’s interests in the Caucasus. Shaking off the remnants of an out-of-sync relationship with the previous Georgian government is an important foundation for a strong bilateral US-Georgia relationship, and for maintaining the pro-western and pro-American orientation of most of the Georgian people.