Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

George's Georgia Trip: Just a One-Night Stand?

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

With unseasonal tardiness, spring came to Tbilisi earlier this month. Almost overnight, the surrounding hills turned a luxuriant green, crowds poured onto the streets, and workers came out in force for a frenzy of urban embellishment. The urgent pace of the painting and decorating has been quite breathtaking, spurred on by the anticipation of the official state visit by U.S. President George W. Bush on May 10.

Bush's itinerary through town has effectively already been announced by the trace of road construction designed to spare him the juddering drive that the experience would normally involve. The pretty, cobbled street running by the complex of bathhouses has been ripped up and relaid by a huge gang of argumentative workers. Every cherry picker in town has been commandeered to the delight of the residents in the center, who get to have the front of their apartments freshly painted. Meanwhile, bored young policemen dot strategic street corners in a boring rehearsal for the big day. The scale of the works even prompted a visiting Austrian jazz musician to warn the city against overdoing it, in case Bush thought he was in a rich country and decided against being generous with aid.

By all accounts, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is over the moon about the visit, and innumerable hours have duly been allocated to discussing the matter in parliament. If the head of state is so delighted, however, it has yet to be seen whether the Georgians will be so quick to press George to their bosom. Opinion on the streets ranges from lively enthusiasm to downright distrust, though the prevailing sentiment appears to be one of indifference. Only if concrete commitments are made will the population at large be persuaded that the United States is truly prepared to invest in the future of the country.

Understandably, there is only so much that can be achieved on these types of brief trips, though the stop has been allocated an unusually generous 24 hours, which has given rise to rumors that Bush may use the geographical proximity to Iraq to make a surprise detour. But, as always in international politics, timing will be of the essence, and guessing what kind of crisis might erupt in Georgia before, during or after Bush's stay is taking on the qualities of a macabre parlor game.

The most immediate threats on the horizon are the hotspots of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose presidents have made a hobby of calling on Putin for help, much to Georgia's distress. For some time, May has been cited as the most likely month for renewed conflict in South Ossetia, and Saakashvili's perpetual posturing is doing much to ensure that this will indeed happen. At the same time, some sources in the hugely excitable Georgian press have suggested that Bush may attempt to bring all the warring parties to the table. This wildly implausible scenario was prompted by a recent visit to Sukhumi by Steven Mann, Bush's senior adviser for Caspian basin energy diplomacy. Saakashvili himself has stated that he is open to dialogue, but he steadfastly refuses to conduct it anywhere but in Tbilisi.

Some Georgians given to muttering darkly have even hinted at the possibility of renewed internal political tensions. The possible causes for this range from increasing popular dissatisfaction with Saakashvili, whose popularity ratings have nosedived from their formerly lofty heights, to internecine struggles among the infinitely fractious coalition of interests currently running the country. Though Saakashvili has sold himself as a crusader against corruption and cronyism, his decision to build himself a plush new official residence in the center of town has raised quite a few eyebrows. Even more so than in former President Eduard Shevardnadze's day, astounding allegations of malfeasance and foul play traded between politicians have become the mainstay of newspapers and television talk shows. Well-worn theories abound about the precise nature of the death of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. They are as numerous as they are extravagant, and all of them are libelous in the extreme.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Bush's visit, one of the few visits by a U.S. president to a CIS country other than Russia, but it would be far from accurate to say that most people feel comfortable with the consequences of Georgia's definitive realignment. Indeed, though it is commonly held that Russia lies at the roots of most of the country's woes, it is also accepted that Georgia's fate will always be in some way bound to that of its neighbor. Aside from other concerns, many people remain dependent on the remittances that the large Georgian diaspora residing in Russia sends home, a situation that regularly comes under threat from Tbilisi's habit of punching above its weight.

Even if the May visit proves to be Georgia's official consummation of its break from Russia's sphere of influence, the bond is destined to remain solid at the popular level, for any number of historical, cultural, economical and practical reasons. This could prove to be a dangerous move, as there is an unaccountability in the supposedly transparent style of leadership ushered in by the Rose Revolution.

To begin with, there is the uncertainty about the final destination of the notorious levies being collected from the numerous businessmen and politicians wanting to avoid landing in jail. The elderly complain of the miserable raise in their already mockingly insignificant pensions.

In a country where some taxi drivers cannot afford to buy fuel until they pick up a client, the police drive around town all day, to the disgruntlement of many. Though the police force has been largely purged of its most corrupt elements, there is a latent feeling that one clique has simply replaced another. All entrants to the police force are required to pass an examination. However, family connections and acquaintances are still considered to be a better guarantee of success.

Sinisterly, the government is apparently plowing the funds it is accumulating in unclear ways into the acquisition of military hardware. Saakashvili has never shied away from exploiting nationalist rhetoric to maintain his popularity, and the idea that he might seek to strengthen the integrity of Georgian statehood, at any cost, is not a remote one. A close Saakashvili confidant, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, is a proponent of taking an aggressive line against Russia. He has caused some indignation over his reluctance to fully disclose the details of the defense budget, a position he maintains protects national security. He has announced that Georgia's military budget has been boosted to levels exceeding that of other southern Caucasus states, to roughly $300 million according to some estimates. Okruashvili also aroused doubts about his suitability for the post of defense minister after he vowed to clamp down on soldiers protesting their poor living conditions.

More pertinently, however, there is genuine widespread cynicism about the United States' motives and willingness to commit. While it is expected that Bush may attempt to curry favor with an aid package or development assistance, the diffident Georgians know they have been forgotten about enough times and know better than to think these things will make a permanent impact.

As one of Georgia's countless and uncounted unemployed young men said of Bush's visit, "He'll come, he'll have a look round, and he'll leave. But we'll still be stuck here."

Peter Leonard is a freelance writer, formerly based in Moscow, currently touring the Caucasus and Central Asia. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.