What is most valuable to the U.S. in regards to Georgia is to have a leader who is supportive of the U.S., but also has democratic legitimacy. And there are plenty of politicians who could fulfill that precondition, according to Lincoln Mitchell, Associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and Georgia-expert.
We sat down for a Skype conference with Mitchell, and started by asking him about the outcome of the meeting between Mikheil Saakashvili and Barack Obama in Washington on January 30 2012.DF Watch: After the Saakashvili-Obama meeting there were different interpretations, some saying that it was full support from the U.S. to Saakashvili and Saakashvili’s opponents say that Obama urged him to conduct free and fair elections and to stand down from power.
Lincoln Mitchell: I don’t think that either of those interpretations are accurate. We don’t know what happened at the meeting, but the real story with the meeting is that Georgia as a country is a close ally of the United States, that sends troops to Afghanistan, and before that sent troops to Iraq; and still it took Obama until his fourth year to meet with Saakashvili. That is evidence that the relationship between Georgia and the United States is emphatically not a personal one and does not depend on personal ties with Saakashvili. Our two countries have been allies since before either Obama or Saakashvili were in office, and will remain that way after they both leave office, assuming Saakashvili leaves office at some point. So the interpretation that this shows how close Saakashvili is with the United States is wrong, I think.
However, there is also little evidence that the United States pushed really hard on the fair elections issue. The extent to which they did or did not do that will become clear in coming weeks and months, based around the policies the U.S. pursues regarding elections, based upon the statements that the U.S. begins to make as we begin to see more cases of intimidation of people by the ruling party, of election laws which are biased in favor of, or against, one party or one coalition. So how the U.S. responds to that we will see, but the meeting itself – it’s really unclear what happened. I was striking to me that a day or so after the meeting, Saakashvili gave a speech where he was asked if he was going to leave office, and he said ‘I’m not going to commit to that, because then I will become a lame duck’. Well, if Obama had made it really clear that he did not want him to stay on as prime minister, Saakashvili would not have said that.
A free trade agreement would force the Georgian government to rethink its anti-worker labor policy, because there is not way the Obama administration is going to sign a free trade agreement with a country that treats workers the way Georgia does. Also remember that U.S. imports into Georgia would continue. With a free trade agreement, you can’t force American consumers to buy Georgian products, right? There is still a competitive market where Georgia isn’t suddenly going to be selling all kinds of things to the United States. So it’s still very difficult from an economic standpoint.
The second thing, repledging American support for territorial integrity, well, that’s nice. It has been three and a half years since the war, and the United States hasn’t done anything other than talk. And there is very little reason to think the United States is going to do anything other than talk. Similarly with NATO. The United States is going to restate its support for Georgia getting into NATO, but it can’t get it there. So I think this meeting was more of a formality than anything else. I think it will keep the status quo in place. And the real questions about the election and whether the United States will push for free and fair elections to me are still unknown. We still have to see if we get a consistent U.S. response if there for instance is intimidation of opposition party activists. Of course, there has been. We have to see what the U.S. will publicly state when it comes to Georgia and Saakashvili becoming prime minister. They talked about a transition, but they were not explicit. So I think there is still a lot up in the air. It’s striking to me that the day after that meeting, Saakashvili gave a speech where he said, again, that ‘I’m not going to become a lame duck’, meaning that ‘I’m not going to pledge that I’m not going to become prime minister’. If the language at that meeting had been firm in ‘you mustn’t do this’, he wouldn’t have said that. Saakashvili was asked the next day about it, and what he didn’t say was ‘I will not do this’. He didn’t say ‘I will do this’, but he also didn’t say ‘I will not do this’; meaning he left the door open. And I think if the message from the U.S. had been strongly ‘you really can’t do this’, he would have said ‘I’m not going to do this’, but he still hasn’t said that. And the U.S. still hasn’t really pushed him on that.
DFW: But here in Georgia, Saakashvili gives quite different statements. For example, he talks about plans in 2025; plans ten or fifteen years into the future. And everyone here is sure that he and his party are seeking ways for how Saakashvili can stay in power, as prime minister or something else. What would be the reaction of Washington if he stays in power as prime minister?
LM: I think your analysis is right. The Georgians I talk to are saying similar things. I don’t think the U.S. is going to tell him he can’t do that at present, but that can change between now and the election. If the American leadership begins to understand the situation. If they become more familiar with some of the opposition and more confident in them, which I think will happen. And if the Georgian leadership makes a few mistakes going into the election, which would raise the awareness on the American side that it is not really a good partner.
The more serious issue is, if this election does not occur on a fair playing ground absence of state resources being used to support the government, without a state controlled media, things are happening. So my sense is that the most serious issue is that in a free and fair election and Saakashvili’s party wins with just a narrow margin, then they can’t make him prime minister. Me as an American would really like to see the U.S. government do everything within its power to make these elections good rather than to do everything in its power to tell Saakashvili he must not become prime minister. If these elections are good, he’s going to realize he can not become prime minister. Even if his party wins.
DFW: What about Georgia’s aspirations to NATO?
LM: The issues about which Saakashvili claimed this kind of victories were about for instance the defense cooperation. But we haven’t seen a renewed weapons sale, it’s not likely that we’re going to. There is talk of a free trade agreement. First of all, it’s unlikely to happened, but secondly, if it does happen, I think it’s a great thing. The reason I think it’s a great thing is that it forces Georgia to change their very anti-worker labor laws. The United States will not sign a free trade agreement with a country that treats workers the way Georgia does.
And then the pledge to get into NATO, the pledge to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, these are really just words. After the war, the United States has done very little, and actually can do very little. So Saakashvili can come back to Georgia and say: ‘Obama promised NATO membership’ or ‘Obama promised territorial integrity’, but those are empty words. Obama probably said something ‘I’d like to work with you on this, and Georgia should get into NATO’, and I certainly agree with that. But it’s further evidence not of Saakashvili’s closeness to Obama, but of Saakashvili’s inability to deliver on these things that he’s been promising to the Georgian people for a number of years.
DFW: In an interview with Asian Times you said that an Iran-U.S. conflict will make Saakashvili indispensable to the U.S…
LM: What I said was that it will make Saakashvili be able to go the U.S. and say that he is indispensable. But my view is that he is not indispensable to the U.S., and the reason is that there are plenty of leaders in Georgia who could be that useful allies, good allies, of the U.S., both within his party and outside. What is most valuable to the U.S. in regards to Georgia is to have a leader who is supportive of the U.S., but also has democratic legitimacy. And if that leader is Saakashvili, fine. If it’s Ivanishvili or Alasania or Ugulava, that’s fine too. But it doesn’t have to be Saakashvili. However, I think there are people in the U.S. who will believe he is indispensable. And I believe he will come to the U.S. and say ‘I am indispensable’, and that there are some people here who will believe that. I myself do not believe that.
DFW: But Saakashvili can anyway capitalize somehow on a U.S. conflict with Iran and the Georgian troops in Afghanistan?
LM: These are two different things. Clearly the troops in Afghanistan are a big deal. That is something the U.S. cares about. However, I believe that many people in my country are misled. They think: ‘Oh, my goodness, if Saakashvili leaves, [Georgia] won’t have troops in Afghanistan’. That’s not the way alliances work. If Georgia is an ally, then they’ll support us and they will want to be with us, regardless of who is president. I think that’s true. I think the opposition has said they will continue to support this policy, and I think people, some in Washington are beginning to understand that. That these troops aren’t there just because of Saakashvili; these throops are there because of Georgia and the Georgian people.
The Iran issue is more complicated. First of all, I really hope there’s not a war betweeen the U.S. and Iran. I think it would be terrible for everyone involved and for the region, and I’m sure that there are many people in the U.S. who share my view. Of course, many people in Iran share my view. However, Georgia has played this in a curious way; moved closer to Iran. I understand the geography of the situation and obviously the anti-Russian sentiment in Iran. But the American people are suspicious of a leader who… Before this [visa free travel] agreement with Iran [which came into force in early 2011], we didn’t have terrorist attacks in Georgia that are linked to the Iranians. Now, we don’t know yet, we don’t know the final story on that. But if Iranians are found to be behind an attack on Israeli diplomats in Georgia, then I think Georgia has a real problem with the United States, because we don’t like to see Israeli diplomats being killed. So I think this is very complicated situation for the Georgian president.
DFW: In the interview with Asian Times you called Georgia’s agreement with Iran about visa free travel ‘untenable’. Do you think the decision was somehow linked to the thwarted attack on the Israeli embassy?
LM: I’m not a defense attache with the American embassy. It certainly is possible. I have contact with a lot of people who don’t know a lot about Georgia except through me; ordinary Americans, many of whom are strong supporters of Israel. And they will just casually say to me, ‘what’s going on over there? you said these guys are friends of ours’. So I don’t know. It’s certainly possible. To the naked, lay American eye, it looks very possible.
DFW: What are the odds of a full scale war with Iran, in your view?
LM: I don’t know. The president of the U.S. is smart enough to know that starting another war is not what the U.S. needs right now, and that extricating ourselves from Afghanistan and Iraq has been taking a decade. And we can’t do a decade in Iran. I think the President of the U.S. knows that. On the other hand, if the Iranian government persists in threatening to obliterate the state of Israel, it’s very hard to image the U.S. and Israel doing nothing. So that’s the dilemma in which we find ourselves. But there is a way out.
The other thing is that we have these republican candidates for president who want to bomb Iran tomorrow, and they are putting pressure on the President of the U.S. But fortunately, Obama seems to be leading in the election enough that he doesn’t have to listen to those people, who are much more hawkish. So I think war is avoidable. And I think a prudent American leadership that will fight for American’s interests and our allies but without making regrettable decisions can avoid a war. But there could be a war, and there are things the Iranians have to do to avoid this war. And as bad as a war might be for the U.S., it’s going to cost us a lot of money and we are going to be there for a long time, it could be bad for Iran as well. Recent history has shown that too, that these wars the U.S. has gotten into that have dragged out forever aren’t good for the other country either.
DFW: About the election in Russia, everybody is sure that Putin will win in the first round. Does it mean that something in Russian politics will change in regards to Georgia in wider terms?
LM: The election is next weekend, so we’ll soon know whether he is going to be elected in the first round. My fear for Georgia is that a Putin presidency in the context where the foundations of his power within Russia have been eroded. Those foundations have been his personal popularity and a growing Russian economy, as well as a feeling among some of the Russian elite, and by elite I mean the educated middle class, that his decision to become president really was the wrong thing to do and insulting to them, that the Russian leadership is going to have to find some way to mobilize people and to drum up support. Nationalist rhetoric is one way to do that, and if you are a Russian leader with nationalist rhetoric, one target of that rhetoric is Georgia. It doesn’t mean there is going to be a war tomorrow, but it’s not good for Georgia.
DFW: In case of war in Iran or Syria, some speculate that Russia might use this turmoil and send tanks to Tbilisi.
LM: I don’t think that’s likely to happen. I think those are the kind of things that will be addressed before the war starts. We’re not going to surprise Russia and do this. We’ll speak to them [first]. So I don’t think that will happen. I know there is a political culture in Georgia where the government is taking what is a real threat – Russia – and making it into a constant presence in people’s lives in a way that is not always constructive. So I recognize that by saying that, there are some in the Georgian government who are going to say, ‘Lincoln is pro-Russia’. That’s insulting and it’s nonsense. One has to be realistic about these things. I remember I was there in December 2009, and everyone kept saying ‘there is going to be another war, invasion this summer’, and I kept saying ‘no’, and people were really angry at me for saying ‘no’. I think we have to be realistic. I don’t think the U.S. is going start a conflict with Iran that is going to end up with Russian tanks rolling into Tbilisi. Now, is it possible that for another reason that Russian tanks would be rolling into Tbilisi? Sure. But not because the U.S. goes to war in Iran.
Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. He was as Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Georgia from 2002-2004, Lincoln has worked on political development issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. His current research includes work on democratic transitions in the former Soviet Union, and in 2008 he published the book Uncertain Democracy: US Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press).