Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Georgia and the South Caucasus June 3-6 underscores both the importance of the region to the US and the pressing political and security issues in the Caucasus, which could involve the West, writes Kenneth S. Yalowitz, former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia.
The growing Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the lack of progress in the Geneva talks and the upcoming Georgian parliamentary and presidential elections, which are vitally important to the future of Georgian democracy, will be high on her agenda in Tbilisi. The recent NATO Summit in Chicago affirmed the open door for Georgian NATO membership but also the need first for more reforms on the part of Georgia. I would expect the Secretary to emphasize that these elections will be a crucial test of Georgia’s commitment to a free, fair and transparent electoral process with the world watching to see a transition of presidential power through the democratic process and the seating in parliament of a vibrant opposition committed to a democratic future for Georgia. She will thank Georgia again for its significnt contributions to allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and its support for the Northern Distribution Network, and review progress being made in the bilateral defense cooperation sphere. With Vladimir Putin again assuming the Russian presidency, the unresolved situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be discussed along with the state of Russian-Georgian relations. She will reaffirm US support for Georgia and refusal to recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but may explore whether the recent Georgian assent to Russian membership in the WTO can be built upon in re-establishing a Georgian dialog with Russia. The spread of insurgency and Islamic militant terrorism in the North Caucasus will likely be covered as well. I would expect Secretary Clinton to request Georgia not to exacerbate tensions in the North Caucasus and help prevent terrorist acts there in the runup to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She will caution against returning to the scenario in late 1999 when Russia used the Pankisi Gorge situation to threaten military action in Georgia. No one wants to see a repeat of the events of August, 2008.
The other threatening situation in the South Caucasus is the danger of renewed hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minsk Group process has stalled and an arms buildup is proceeding on both sides. The situation on the cease fire line is not stable and the rhetoric on both sides does not contribute to a peaceful outcome. Renewed hostilities could possibly bring Russia, Turkey and Iran into the fray creating a very ominous international crisis. This subject will highlight the Secretary’s discussions in Armenia and Azerbaijan where she will certainly call for moderation and de-escalation of the arms buildup and rhetoric. She will likely also seek Georgia’s views on this subject as well as on maintaing the unfettered flow of Caspian energy resources.
In sum, the Secretary’s visit is aimed at putting a spotlight on the important issues in the Caucasus and asserting US interests there as Putin again takes office.