Georgia: Tbilisi Welcomes Biden

By Molly Corso

US Vice President Joseph Biden’s July 22-23 visit to Tbilisi may have been more about show than results, but for Georgians wearied by war and wary of Russia that show of support was all that mattered.

Policy results played second fiddle. Georgian officials could not specify whether or not Vice President Biden had agreed to new military hardware or to US participation in an international police force for border areas with the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Reassurances of Georgia’s special ties with the United States, however, appeared to allay any qualms on this front among Georgian politicians.

In a July 23 speech to parliament, the vice president emphasized that the United States will "stand by" Georgia -- and its aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- despite Washington’s recent attempts to improve relations with Moscow. "[I bring a] clear and straightforward message: We, the United States, stand by you on your journey to a secure, free, democratic and once-again-united Georgia," Biden said.

The vice president also held closed-door meetings with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Parliament Speaker Davit Bakradze, opposition leaders and Georgians displaced during the August 2008 war with Russia.

Pressed for details by EurasiaNet about the visit’s results, Bakradze declined to "steal the butter from Biden’s bread."

"Clearly we have a concrete vision in all these areas [covered by the strategic partnership agreement with the US]," said Bakradze, when asked if anything "concrete" had come from the trip.


> Map Of Georgia


Giorgi Targamadze, chairman of the Parliamentary Defense Committee, told EurasiaNet that discussions concerning American involvement in an international police force have been underway for the past month.

Although Targamadze said there were no clear indications from Biden that Washington was ready to sign on to the proposal, he said that the talks still have "prospects."

The government is also asking for anti-aircraft and anti-tank hardware from Washington, he said. Those are requests, Targamadze stressed, that Georgia has the "right" to make. "That is not offensive equipment, but defensive equipment," he said.

BidenSaakashviliIn his 18-minute speech to parliament, the only opportunity that reporters were given to hear the US vice president speak directly, Biden only touched on military assistance in general terms.

He mentioned that the United States is ready to help Georgia with its military reforms, although he underscored that American help would focus on training, organization and planning.

Biden also highlighted that Georgia is one of the highest per capita recipients of US foreign aid in the world. As a senator, he helped push through a $1 billion aid package for Georgia following its
disastrous war with Russia last August. Nearly 75 percent of the package has already been allocated for programs ranging from emergency supplies to budgetary support.

He reiterated broad statements of support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity -- as well as reminding the government that the country’s democracy is still a work in process.

The message was received warmly: Biden was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations.

"The [2003] Rose Revolution will only be complete when government is transparent and accountable . . . when issues are debated inside this chamber, not out on the streets," he said.

Although Biden did not announce any new initiatives during his speech to parliament, the reaction from parliamentarians was glowing.

"That sort of support, that clear of a message from the vice president of support and that the United States will stand by Georgia, that it does not recognize any sort of sphere of influence, that America will always be next to Georgia, that is a very admirable speech," First Deputy Parliamentary Chairperson Mikheil Machavariani told EurasiaNet.

Even though Biden’s visit heralded the removal of their remaining protest tents on Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue by police, Georgian opposition leaders expressed equal satisfaction with Biden’s words.

"It was a very serious and important meeting," Irakli Alasania, leader of the Alliance for Georgia coalition and Georgia’s former UN ambassador, said of a meeting between select opposition leaders and Vice President Biden at the Tbilisi Marriott.

alasaniaAlasania said that opposition leaders had "received a concrete promise" from Biden that Washington’s support for democratic reforms in Georgia "will continue" along with its interest in the further development of Georgian civil society. "This is very important for all Georgians," Alasania told television reporters.

Independent opposition leader and former presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze took that interpretation of Biden’s message a step further.

"One of the main results" of the meeting, in Gachechiladze’s words, was that "if Georgia doesn’t take steps towards human rights and democratic development, there will not be any US help" for Tbilisi.

Georgian analysts, however, agreed that Biden’s trip to Georgia -- coming just two weeks after US President Barrack Obama’s visit to Moscow -- was meant more to illustrate American support for Tbilisi, rather than to dictate terms or declare new policies.

"You never expect tangible, immediate results from visits like this," said political scientist Koba Turmanidze. "[This is a ] reinforcement of support."

"[T]he United States is trying to demonstrate that Georgia remains United States’ strategic partner in the region," agreed parliamentary foreign affairs expert Vasili Tchoidze, adding that after Obama’s Medvedev meeting "this visit looks very important for Georgia."

In a recap of Biden’s remarks at a July 22 state dinner, a Rustavi-2 television announcer hit on a similar theme, telling viewers that the US vice president had stated that "Georgia is an important country and very important in this region."

The pro-government broadcaster replayed throughout the day footage of a beaming Biden watching an outdoor performance of Georgian folk dances and songs, touring Georgia’s new presidential residence with President Saakashvili and chatting jovially with government officials in a reception line.

Nothing more, apparently, was required. Commented First Deputy Parliamentary Chairperson Machavariani: "All of Georgian society has been waiting for this."

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor, also based in Tbilisi, added reporting to this story.