Unlike Bush, Obama Is More Sober on Georgia

First-time visitors to Georgia are often astonished when they enter the capital from the airport and see a huge picture of former U.S. President George W Bush genially waving at them from a highway billboard. Tbilisi is not the only city with a street named after Bush. The lucky residents of Tirana, Albania and Pristina, Kosovo, also enjoy this questionable privilege. But Bush was seen as a benevolent patron in Georgia and remained popular in Tbilisi long after the Iraq war turned him into a hated figure elsewhere.

Now that Bush is gone, there are concerns that Georgia’s “special relationship” with Washington has cooled significantly under U.S. President Barack Obama’s more pragmatic administration. Some Georgians fear that their country could become a casualty of Obama’s desire to “reset” relations with Russia, especially after a recent White House statement suggesting that Moscow’s continued violation of the cease-fire agreement that ended the war here in 2008 was no longer an obstacle to cutting deals with the Kremlin.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s current trip to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Georgia appears to be aimed at reassuring these former Soviet republics that the United States still cares about them and won’t abandon them to be subsumed once again into Moscow’s sphere of influence. What that means in practice, of course, is another matter. Under Obama, the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership agreement continues, and Washington’s aid dollars still help to prop up Georgia’s fragile post-war economy. But according to the military analysis magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly, the United States is blocking weapons sales to Georgia at a time when Russian forces still hold positions an hour’s drive from Tbilisi.

Clinton stated Saturday in Poland that she still opposes the Russian “occupation” of the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow has controversially recognized as independent states. But despite the supportive rhetoric, it’s hard to see what Washington can do to convince the Kremlin to pull its troops out.

One of Obama’s advisers recently insisted that the United States is not “throwing Georgians under the bus,” and the Georgian government maintains it can still count on U.S. backing for its ambitions to integrate more deeply into Western institutions. But the passionate ideological intimacy of the Bush years is over, and those hoping to see a Barack Obama Street in Tbilisi could have a long wait ahead.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

See also:

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