By Giorgi Kvelashvili
As the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was visiting the United States to discuss with President Barack Obama relations between the two countries, the Office of the White House Press Secretary issued on June 24 the statement, “U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet.” In it, the Obama Administration outlined in several paragraphs the most important issues in the relations between the two countries. Pretty high on the broad discussion list was Georgia, over which the Obama Administration stressed it continues “to have serious disagreements with the Russian government.”
Even more importantly, the U.S. government for the first time openly qualified the illegal Russian presence on Georgian soil as “occupation,” called on Moscow “to end its occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and pressed for “a return of international observers to the two occupied regions of Georgia.” This announcement is important not only in light of the Medvedev talks in Washington but also U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s crucial visit to Georgia at the beginning of July. Her statements in Tbilisi will be examined against the wording of the White House “Reset Fact Sheet.” Incidentally, Moscow has not yet commented on Washington’s “occupation” clause.
Shortly after the White House document was made public, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili issued a statement expressing his satisfaction with the fact that the American government “officially described the presence of Russian troops in Georgia as occupation and our regions as Georgia’s occupied regions.” “The term ‘occupation’ is no longer [only] my term,” Saakashvili said, “it is [now] an internally established term, especially after yesterday.”
Ever since the Russian invasion of Georgia two years ago in August 2008 and the Russian recognition of the two occupied Georgian territories as independent states, Tbilisi pursued two major objectives in the international arena. At the first stage, it had to counter Moscow’s efforts aimed at enlarging the list of countries recognizing the forcible dismemberment of Georgia. And at the second stage, or possibly in parallel with the realization of the first objective, it sought international support to describe the Russian presence in Georgia as occupation.
While the first goal has proved to be relatively easy to achieve and Russia has virtually failed to advance its sphere of influence agenda – only Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru have volunteered to endorse it – the second goal has been more difficult to materialize and even Georgia’s closest partners have until recently been hesitant to designate Russia as an occupying power. But the May 30 local elections in Georgia in which the pro-Western forces gained a landslide victory brought about not only a further consolidation of Georgia’s internal democratic and nation-building achievements but a stronger international attendance toward Tbilisi’s outstanding security problems as well.
Two days after the elections, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a special resolution in support of Tbilisi. The document has openly qualified Moscow’s past and current actions against Georgia as acts of aggression and assessed “continuing presence of the Russian armed forces in the territory of Georgia and the activities of puppet entities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as the illegal occupation of the respective parts of the territory of Georgia.”
Tbilisi hopes that the Lithuanian precedent will be used by other international actors sometime in the near future and many Georgian analysts see the White House statement as a step precisely in that direction. Georgia’s ultimate goal is, of course, to be recognized by Russia as a sovereign nation that can freely exercise its freedom of choice when it comes to both its domestic institutions and international alignment. Russia’s withdrawal of its troops from the Georgian territories is seen in Tbilisi as the single most essential step toward that kind of recognition.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming visit to Tbilisi will be closely watched both inside and outside of Georgia and her statements will show how far the United States government is willing to go at this stage in its demands that Russia end the occupation of the two Georgian territories.