Georgia Key to Democracy Building in Caucasus
Tensions remain high between Russia and Georgia, especially over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Georgia's bid to become part of NATO.
Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been strained ever since Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia more than four years ago following a popular movement known as the "Rose Revolution." And in January of this year, Mr. Saakashvili was re-elected, saying he would pursue many of the policies he began during his first term in office.
Sources of tensions
Analysts say many of the tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow can be attributed to Mr. Saakashvili's pro-western policies, including his goal of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - or NATO. During a recent trip to Georgia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated Washington's support for Georgia's NATO membership bid.
Russia vehemently opposes Georgia's desire to become a NATO member. Jason Lyall with Princeton University (Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) says Russia's strong opposition is part of President Dmitri Medvedev's robust foreign policy.
"To imagine this from a Russian perspective, you would now have a Georgia inside NATO," he said. "And Georgia borders unto Chechnya. And it is very hard to think of a more sensitive issue for Russians than Chechnya. And now you would have NATO membership right on its doorstep in the north Caucasus."
"So this is caught up with that. It is also caught up now with [President] Medvedev's desire to show a more strident Russian foreign policy, a more prestige-seeking policy. This would be a huge blow to his regime if NATO could move this close into what are considered vital Russian national interests," he continued.
Another major source of friction between Georgia and Russia is the issue of the breakaway, separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - two regions within Georgia, but bordering Russia. They declared their independence from Tbilisi in the early 1990s.
President Saakashvili has vowed to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by bringing them back into the fold. But analysts say little progress has been accomplished in that area, especially since Russia has been increasing economic and political ties with the two regions.
Why is Georgia so important?
Map of Georgia (including de-facto independent Abkhazia.)
Experts say the West is looking with interest and concern at developments in Georgia, especially as President Saakashvili tries to consolidate democratic gains there. Svante Cornell is with Stockholm's Institute for Security and Development Policy.
"After the 'Rose Revolution' four years ago, Georgia has truly been the country in the former Soviet bloc, after the Baltic states in the early 1990s, to thoroughly remake their country, to reform and to install a democratic government that is a functioning independent state - although there is, of course, a long way to go before Georgia consolidates its democracy," he said.
"It has made tremendous progress and has become a model and a symbol of what can actually be achieved - in anti-corruption and democracy building. And Russia doesn't like that. But for the West, of course, if Georgia fails, if Georgia is allowed to fall, this means that any hopes that we may have of democracy building in this part of the world, in this south-eastern corner of Europe, is going to fail," he added.
Many experts, including Ronald Suny from the University of Chicago, say Georgia is important to the West for another reason.
"It's a corridor - a very important corridor - for oil from the Caspian region going to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean through Turkey," he said. "So it's now an area that has become economically important as well."
Role U.S. plays
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has provided Georgia with considerable aid to support its political and economic reforms. Svante Cornell says Washington has a lot at stake in Georgia.
"Across the region, from Ukraine over the Caucasus to Central Asia, there is no country in which the United States has invested so much of its prestige as in Georgia - which means that if suddenly Georgia is allowed to fail and if the United States does not stand up for Georgia and Georgia's integrity and security, every government from Kiev to Tashkent will draw the conclusion that the United States is not a serious partner. And in that sense, for a very long time, it will undermine U.S. interests in the whole of Eurasia," he said.
Cornell and other analysts say the United States and other western nations could play an important diplomatic role in defusing tensions between Russia and Georgia in order to keep the situation in that volatile region from spiraling out of control.