- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2016

Russia is increasing the pressure on Georgia with increased “anti-Western propaganda,” but the tiny former Soviet republic’s top diplomat says his nation remains as committed as ever to linking its fortunes to Europe and the West.

Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze said popular opinion hasn’t altered despite his small country’s perennial challenge of maintaining a working relationship with its giant neighbor while deepening its ties to Europe. 

“Although we have this increased propaganda, we still see within the population in Georgia big consolidation and support for our foreign policy aspirations,” Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze told The Washington Times in an interview Friday.

Mr. Janelidze, who spent the week in Washington touting Georgia’s “tremendous progress” toward integration with the West, said his nation won’t cave to pressure from Russia, which has spent recent years pursuing a policy of land seizures and exploiting Georgia’s ethnic divisions.

Georgia has struggled to find political stability in the past decade, going through 10 prime ministers in as many years. But Mr. Janelidze, who assumed the foreign minister post in January, said Tblisi’s core foreign policy vision has been a constant amid the flux.

“Becoming part of the European economy and free society is an aspiration and dream of the Georgian people and we are progressing on that path very actively,” he said. “We are doing everything possible in order to make clear to our population what the benefits are in the process of European and Atlantic integration.”

The question is whether the Obama administration and the European Union are truly serious about embracing Georgia.

While Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with Mr. Janelidze on Monday, vowed to visit Georgia this spring and said U.S. officials “very much support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic” aspirations, analysts say Washington and its allies aren’t doing much to back such rhetoric up with action.

NATO in December again refused to accept Georgia’s membership bid even as the alliance extended an invitation to the much smaller Eastern European nation of Montenegro.

At the time, Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli said the snub was an “open invitation” to Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand upon his policy of bullying former Soviet republics.

Georgia has long sought Washington’s approval for the sale of lethal American-made weaponry such as anti-tank systems, but U.S. officials have resisted out of fear that such transfers would reignite tensions between Georgia and Russia, which fought a brief border war in 2008.

Russian troops have occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia during the years since, creating a “frozen conflict” that some analysts say was a warm-up for Mr. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow has more recently beefed up its military presence in Armenia, another tiny former Soviet republic, which borders Georgia to the south.

A new Council on Foreign Relations analysis found that the likelihood of a new and full-blown war between Russia and Georgia is “low,” but that “one cannot rule out renewed confrontation between the two countries in the next twelve to eighteen months.”

President Obama has “kept a much greater distance” from Georgia than did George W. Bush, David J. Kramer, the senior director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, wrote in the study.

“In addition,” Mr. Kramer wrote, “European countries have shown little interest” in Georgia beyond such less controversial issues as trade and visa policy. 

But Mr. Janelidze argued that the free trade and visa pacts shouldn’t be underestimated because they “provide Georgia with an opportunity to be more politically associated and economically integrated” with the EU.

Mr. Janelidze added that Tblisi remains keen to expand its economic ties with the U.S.

He pointed to a deal struck last month to with an American firm to construct a deep-sea port in Georgia aimed at establishing a new maritime corridor between China and Europe. According to a report by Yahoo Finance, the $2.5 billion project is a joint venture between TBC Holding LLC, which is based in Georgia, and Conti International LLC, a major U.S.-based developer.


 

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