Trump declares support for Georgia despite Russian encroachment
US President Donald Trump’s connection to Georgia can be traced to 2011 after a meeting of then business tycoon Trump and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Trump Tower in New York. Later in 2012 Trump visited Batumi, a Georgian Black Sea resort, turning it into the main touristic hub in the region with an attempt to license the use of the Trump name for the construction of a Trump building in Batumi. Acknowledging many business and investment opportunities, Trump called Georgia “one of the really amazing places in the world right now”.
Years later, the project was officially cancelled. Georgia underwent a political reshuffle – the Georgian Dream party replaced Saakashvili’s United National Movement – and due to domestic charges, Saakashvili moved to Ukraine in an attempt to relaunch his political career, first as Odesa Governor and later starting his own party in Ukraine – the Movement of New Forces.
Nevertheless, as president, Trump welcomed Georgia’s prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, to the White House in early May, who later received a closed-door meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. According to the vice president’s office, the leaders affirmed the strength of US-Georgian strategic partnership and recognised Georgia’s substantial contributions to global security. Moreover, Pence stressed the US’s firm support for the territorial integrity of Georgia reaffirming Washington’s backing of Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, including its strive for NATO membership.
In other words, Georgia managed to raise its most heated foreign policy issue – NATO membership. The issue remains on top of the agenda with Russia bolstering military troops in the two breakaway regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were taken over after the five-day war in 2008. In the aftermath of the war, Russia recognised the Georgian sovereign territories as “independent states” and ever since has pursued a policy of creeping annexation, undermining Georgia’s security. Such moves are highly unsettling for Georgia particularly while it is widely believed that there are friendly ties between Russian and US presidents.
In fact, after pledging firm support for Georgia – awkward timing considering it came right after the controversial firing of James Comey, the former director of the FBI investigating the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials – Trump met with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at the White House.
Shortly after the meeting with Georgia’s prime minister, Trump signed an immense federal spending bill containing a provision openly dubbing the Kremlin-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “Russian-occupied Georgian territories”. Furthermore, the bill explicitly prohibits assistance to countries that recognised the independence of the Georgian territories. In essence, Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru would no longer be eligible for any US government financial support.
Paradoxically, while the Georgian delegation secured Trump’s support for Georgia in the dispute with Russia over the annexed territories, the Georgian government let persona non-grata former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to illegally enter Tbilisi, Georgia. Back in 2009, Luzhkov urged Georgia to recognise the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, fostering discord among Georgian people. Surprisingly, during his recent visit, the ex-mayor made an almost identical comment about Georgia’s breakaway regions: “I think that Abkhazia is an absolutely different country, people are different there. And it is the same with South Ossetia. Of course, there is some feeling of nostalgia and anger, but I still think that after the breakaway of those regions, Georgia is going to feel much better in future.”
Aside making political statements, Luzhkov visited Georgia’s occupied territories – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – for official meetings in 2006 and 2009, violating Georgian Law on Occupied Territories. Despite the fact that the violation of the law by officially regarded persona non-grata was self-evident, the Georgian government let him enter the country. It is quite notable that such an entry was permitted while the official delegation stressed its aspirations towards NATO and EU membership, asking Trump for the support of the territorial integrity of Georgia.
Astonishingly, nine years since the August 2008 War, Georgia’s deputy minister of interior, Shalva Khutsishvili, called Luzhkov a known staunch supporter of the independence of Georgia’s breakaway territories, yet added that: “There was no particular reason for preventing Luzhkov from entering Georgia when crossing the state border. He entered by the legal document that envisaged no sign of him having violated the law on occupied territories. Therefore, the border guard had no formal basis to make any different decision”.
Rather awkwardly, the Georgian foreign minister, Mikheil Janelidze, called Luzhkov’s statements provocative. However the Georgian MFA avoided any confirmation that Luzhkov’s visit was legal, in compliance with the Law on Occupied Territories. Prior to these events, the Georgian government officially denied entry to the controversial pro-Putin biker group called “Night Wolves”. Yet, the bikers later appeared in the center of Tbilisi commemorating the 72nd anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
As a cherry on top of the Georgian government’s blurry political axis, Russian forces renewed its creeping annexation schedule on July 4th, moving the administrative boundary fence closer and closer to the central Georgian highway which connects the eastern part of Georgia to the west part of the country.
Finally, such events raise uncertainty within the Georgian population as the publicly declared aspirations towards NATO and EU membership are under solid question marks. Incoherent, or at times contradicting, political decisions have sparked protests and pushed the newly independent country into political turbulence, while Russian hostility continues to grow in the South Caucasus and every misleading policy approach could generate long-lasting damaging results.
Beka Kiria is a political analyst, and a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security. He is also a former defence and security official at the Georgian Ministry of Defence, and a member of NATO’s Future Alumni Network. He tweets at @BekaKiria.