This week’s Caucasus Context features Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz, who served as the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Georgia from 1998 to 2001. He discusses last week’s meeting between Obama and Saakashvili.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in the White House. Kenneth Yalowitz, a professor at Dartmouth College and the former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia from 1998 to 2001, spoke to Caucasus Context about his views of the meeting and what it represents for Georgia’s future.
Evolutsia.Net: How significant was the Obama-Saakashvili oval office meeting?
Kenneth Yalowitz: It is the first presidential meeting that Saakashvili has had recently and it coincides with the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and Georgia’s independence. With the tense security situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the North Caucasus, and the changing political situation inside Russia, it was important and timely that the two presidents meet to discuss the bilateral relationship, security issues, trade and investment. Georgia’s membership in NATO and the supply of defensive military equipment to Georgia were certainly discussed and appreciation expressed for Georgia’s contributions to allied forces in Iraq and Afganhistan. President Saakashvili also met Secretary of State Clinton and the Georgian Defense Minister met Defense Secretary Panetta in Europe so this was an opportunity to review the whole relationship.
The meeting also came at an inflection point for the development of democracy in Georgia. Parliamentary elections will be held later this year and it is essential those elections be free and fair and that a viable and constructive opposition have the opportunity to be seated in the parliament. I am sure this subject was thoroughy discussed along with Georgia’s progress in fighting corruption and creating an environment welcoming to foreign investment.
Evolutsia.Net: Georgian officials are heralding a new level of cooperation with the U.S., particularly on defense. What do you think this means?
K.Y.: I don’t know exactly what this means as I am no longer a government official. So, I’ll just express my opinion. I am sure the meeting was mutually useful and productive. That said, the Georgians, for their own internal political reasons, understandably want to put the best possible spin on the meeting. Administration statements before the meeting suggest there would not be a significant change in the restrictive policy on supplying military equipment to Georgia and the U.S. focus would continue on training, education and and technical cooperation. It may be that some understandings on equipment supply were discussed in the event the situation with Russia worsens but that remains to be seen.
This was a very important trip for President Saakashvili; when you meet the President of the United States, you want to put this in the best light possible. He is spending a full week in the U.S. and wants to portray this as successfully as possible. He is also projecting Georgia as a model for countries in transition, such as in the Arab world.
Evolutsia.Net: What are the likeliest practical effects of the meeting between Obama and Saakashvili?
K.Y.: Well, they talked about a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries which could be significant. This follows on Georgia’s assent to Russia joining the WTO which the U.S. had sought. The discussions on security and defense cooperation were comprehensive. While we may not know the specific results, it was very important the two presidents meet face to face. The overall relationship is very solid but there are areas of concern. There are still questions about the clarity of signals coming from Washington prior to the August 2008 Georgian/Russian war and how these messages were interpreted in Tbilisi. For me, the best result of the meeting was the chance for the two presidents to discuss the relationship directly so there is clarity on both sides. With all the difficult issues facing Georgia today, this was very welcome.
Georgia’s greatest challenge today is to strengthen its democracy. Based on U.S. statements after the meeting, President Obama stressed the need for democratic parliamentary elections. With the Georgian Constitution now amended to give more powers to the prime minister, he likely emphasized the importance of the transition when the Georgian president leaves office next year. In light of the developing situation with Mr. Putin’s envisaged return to the Russian presidency, President Obama may have cautioned against a similar path to the prime ministership for Mr. Saakashvili.