Monday, May 11, 2009

As President Obama courts closer relations with Russia, U.S. ally Georgia has plenty of reasons to be nervous.

After all, Russia invaded Georgia in August, recognized the independence of two wayward Georgian territories and has ramped up its military presence in those territories in the face of Western condemnation.

So far, the Obama administration is saying all the right things - that it rejects Russian assertions of a sphere of influence; that both Georgia and Ukraine are on track for NATO membership; that Moscow should respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Georgian officials, who have visited Washington, say they are pleased with the administration’s approach so far and are confident of continued U.S. support.

It also is clear, however, that the Obama administration is not eager for a showdown with Moscow over Georgia, or anything else.

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made his first trip to Washington under the new administration and met with both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The two sides set a cordial tone, emphasizing new cooperation on arms control and a host of other issues.

“We have expressed on several occasions our concerns about Georgia,” Mrs. Clinton said. “But it is, I think, old thinking to say that we have a disagreement in one area, therefore, we shouldn’t work in something else that is of overwhelming importance.”

Both Mr. Lavrov and Mrs. Clinton also expressed an interest in maintaining stability in Georgia, although they might not agree on how to achieve it.

Despite all the calming rhetoric, Mr. Lavrov’s visit came during an active time for geopolitical gamesmanship in the Caucasus. Earlier, Russia declared that it was posting border guards on Georgia’s de facto borders with its two breakaway regions.

Last week, as NATO prepared contentious military exercises in Georgia, the Georgian government broke up what it said was a mutiny by its soldiers that it initially said Moscow had orchestrated.

Against this backdrop, Georgia’s opposition is intensifying protests and demanding that President Mikhail Saakashvili resign.

The American-educated president has enjoyed strong backing in Washington since he rose to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution and won plaudits as a champion of democracy. More recently, he has lost some of his support both at home and abroad amid accusations that he has used state power to silence critics and bears responsibility for the August war with Russia.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, still early in its tenure, is formally reviewing U.S. policy on both Russia and Georgia. Although the administration has promised unconditional support for Georgia and its budding democracy, it has not promised the same for Mr. Saakashvili.

As much as the Obama administration would like to keep Georgia from disrupting its rapprochement with Moscow, recent events show that U.S.-Russia maneuvering in the Caucasus is unlikely to end. If tensions flare, or the Kremlin should decide to test American resolve, Georgia may learn how it fits into the Obama administration’s priorities.

• Desmond Butler covers European affairs for the Associated Press in Washington.

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