It's dangerous to tease a bear
It's dangerous to tease a bear
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

It's dangerous to tease a bear

After celebrating the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism in Moscow, President George W. Bush will attend an alternative party in Tbilisi on Tuesday, hosted by President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia, who refused to travel to Moscow. The result of his boycott, and the Bush visit, may be a bigger post-party headache than anyone, including the United States, now expects.

Saakashvili explained his decision as the consequence of the failure of last-minute talks between Russian and Georgian foreign ministers aiming to secure a long-awaited agreement on the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia. "These bases are the last legacy of the Soviet totalitarian domination here," he said. As long as Russia and Georgia could not agree on a deadline for their withdrawal, the Georgian president decided to stay home.

President Vladimir Putin is sure to be infuriated by the boycott of a celebration aimed to show Russia's continued importance on the global stage. Bush's two-day visit, in which he will herald Georgia as a beacon of freedom for countries incarcerated by authoritarian regimes, will only add salt to the wound.

Since Saakashvili became president 18 months ago, he has captured much international imagination, and certainly that of the Bush administration, with the credentials of a young, ambitious democratic leader. Bush has said that he is willing to help facilitate talks to secure a Russian withdrawal.

Since coming to power in January 2004, Saakashvili's relations with Russia have steadily deteriorated. In addition to the bases, tensions between the two countries are linked to Georgia's perception of Russian meddling in its internal affairs through the provision of aid to Georgia's two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia originally undertook to reduce its military presence in Georgia to comply with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty when it signed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's 1999 Istanbul Declaration. It pledged to close two of its bases by July 2000, and to begin talks with the Georgian leadership on the timeframe for shutting down the two others. Since 2000, when Russia claimed the first two bases closed, talks have dragged on. Russia requested 11 years to pull out the others, while Georgia insisted that it should do so in three. The United States, with appropriate pressure, has repeatedly called on Russia to fulfill its commitments.

Suddenly, two weeks ago, the two sides appeared close to a deal. On April 25, the Georgian foreign minister, Salome Zurabishvili, announced that she had shaken hands with her Russian colleague sealing an accord to start withdrawal in 2005 and close the remaining two bases by Jan. 1, 2008. The Georgian side pressed for the signing of an official treaty. Yet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, never publicly confirmed that he promised to take all soldiers out by the end of 2007. Georgia is insisting on that deadline because it wants the Russians gone before parliamentary elections in 2008.

On May 6, when the two foreign ministers met again, they were unable to agree on a deadline. Zurabishvili promptly announced that her president would not go to Moscow for the celebrations.

It remains unclear to what extent the United States encouraged Russia behind the scenes to agree to Georgia's deadline demands, or Georgia to take such a hard-line stance. Yet Bush's visit to Tbilisi will provide Saakashvili with a clear feeling of accomplishment and a sense that Washington will go out on a limb to support Georgia against Russia.

What will happen after Bush's departure is of greater concern. When Saakashvili called Putin on May 7, it was the first time the Russian and Georgian leaders spoke since last summer. Now that talk on the bases has been indefinitely postponed, the Georgian Parliament is likely to act on its threat to declare them illegal after May 15. With no progress visible on other issues that divide the two countries, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow and Tbilisi seem to be moving toward a clash. Saakashvili is likely to be expecting Washington's backing should this occur.

For Bush, his Tbilisi trip is a highly symbolic moment, to be filled with well-intentioned rhetoric about freedom and democracy. For Saakashvili, it is perhaps the sealing of an irreversible split with Russia. The question is to what extent Bush will support his host once the party is over and all the guests return home to their side of the Atlantic.

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