1. (S) Summary. Georgia is calmer and more stable than at any time since the war, but those improvements are far from durable. A palpable sense of insecurity still permeates society and politics. Miscalculations and provocations – domestically, in the territories or north across the mountains – could easily spark renewed crisis. With a more stable economy and no viable rival, President Saakashvili is stronger politically, but paradoxically more insecure, burdened by the fear history will judge him to have lost irrevocably the occupied territories. He is also concerned our measured approach to defense cooperation and engagement with Moscow presage a deeper reorientation of U.S. interests. These concerns are reinforced by a steady drumbeat of Russian accusations about the legitimacy and behavior of his government and comparative silence from the West about Moscow’s consolidation of its position in the territries. In this hothouse environment, your visit is an important, visible manifestation of the depth of our partnership, and of the enduring commitment of the United States to support Georgia’s aspirations to move west.
2. (S) Much of the government and society are still motivated by the lure of Euro-Atlantic integration. Fears that Georgia will remain in the West’s waiting room in perpetuity have sparked a minority to begin discussing the viability of a deal with Moscow in order to reintegrate the territories. These trial balloons, and Moscow’s ongoing efforts to de-legitimize the government and create more palatable alternatives, further polarize a political environment that encourages zero-sum thinking and hinders deeper democratic and economic reforms. Saakashvili continues to cast about for the “one big thing” that will secure Georgia’s place in the west, recently adding an offer to NATO and the U.S. to provide a logistics hub for Afghanistan to his substantial troop commitment over the next two years. Our challenge is to convince President Saakashvili that he risks losing the enormous goodwill generated by Georgia’s extraordinary contributions in Afghanistan if he fails to combine them with a new push to deepen Georgia’s democratic development. Your visit gives us a chance to thank Georgia publicly for its contribution, providing reassurance of our support, and thereby creating space for Saakashvili to feel secure enough to do the right thing. End Summary.
3. (C) The upcoming deployment to Afghanistan is arguably the most visible example of President Saakashvili’s continued determination to anchor Georgia firmly in the west. The two-year deployment commitment follows an extant deployment of a reinforced light infantry company (173 troops) under French command and anticipates a likely additional partnership with the UK. The Georgians did well in their mission-readiness exercise last month; U.S. evaluators determined that the Georgian troops are sufficiently trained “to conduct the full spectrum of combat operations in a counter-insurgency environment” with their parent Marine Expeditionary Brigade. The battalion is continuing its training program (which you will observe) for an expected deployment in April.
4. (C) Despite the substantial commitment Georgia has made to Q4. (C) Despite the substantial commitment Georgia has made to the effort in Afghanistan, public discussion of Georgia’s involvement has been limited. President Saakashvili has made the case that the commitment is directly linked to Georgia’s own security, arguing publicly that “as soon as the Afghan situation is resolved and the war is over in Iraq, Georgia will be more protected.” He has also pointed out that serving in Afghanistan will give Georgian soldiers useful combat experience. Officials have avoided suggesting that the contribution will help Georgia get into NATO, saying instead that it will help Georgia demonstrate itself as a contributing partner, with the apparent implication that NATO allies will then take Georgia more seriously. Foreign Minister Vashadze, for example, described Georgia’s efforts as “our contribution to the tasks the alliance is trying to resolve in Afghanistan . . . the fight against terrorism, the fight against drug trafficking.” Opposition members have been mostly silent on the topic and offered little public criticism of the contribution, either on its own terms or as a strategy for moving toward NATO membership, although parliamentary opposition leader Giorgi Targamadze expressed support for the deployment to Deputy Secretary Steinberg during his February 5 visit to Tbilisi. Another opposition TBILISI 00000203 002 OF 004 leader, Irakli Alasania, even used language similar to the government’s when he said, “We should not be only consumers of security, but we also should be contributors to international security.” Overall, your visit provides an opportunity not only to raise the profile of Georgia’s involvement, but to frame the discussion in a helpful context.
5. (C) The training program — the Georgian Deployment Program-ISAF (GDP-ISAF) — has been in progress since September 1, 2009. Training includes broad hands-on training, from marksmanship to identifying and safely disposing of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This hands-on training is supplemented by classroom seminars, ranging from cultural familiarization to medical officer training. Rather than remaining in a static position like in their current mission with the French, these Georgian troops will share “battlespace” with the U.S. Marines and be responsible for conducting the same combat mission as the U.S. Marines, without national caveats to the rules of engagement. The Georgians will also send two Georgian staff officers to ISAF under Turkish command, providing liaison to the Afghan MOD and National Defense Staff for one year.
6. (C) Whether they make the connection explicit or not, the Georgians see their contributions to Afghanistan as a down payment on their admission into NATO. Support for NATO remains high in Georgia. After the Alliance’s declaration at Bucharest in April 2008 that Georgia would eventually be a member and after the war in August, NATO has been intensifying relations with Georgia under the aegis of the NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC). Through the NGC, Georgia and the Alliance have worked closely on an Annual National Program (ANP), which is designed to help Georgia advance reforms in areas key for membership, including political, economic, and defense reforms. Georgia continues to be a strong supporter of NATO operations and is a contributor to international security missions, including in particular ISAF in Afghanistan. The challenge is to express our appreciation for those efforts, but deliver the candid message that such contributions are a helpful, but insufficient step toward membership without the concomitant progress on the civilian side.
7. (C) It is hard to overestimate the extent to which an intense climate of insecurity permeates Georgian society and political culture. Russian forces, located as close as 25 miles outside of Tbilisi, are building permanent bases and Georgians hear a steady drip of Russian statements alleging Georgian aggression or announcing the latest step in incorporating Abkhazia into Russia’s economy. Moscow’s statements suggesting that Georgia is planning provocations in the North Caucasus have raised fears among Georgian officials that Russia is looking for another pretext. Tbilisi, in turn, is overly focused on weapons acquisition as an antidote to its jitters. It fears our approach to defense cooperation (heavily focused on developing the structures and processes to assess threats, develop appropriate responses and make informed decisions about use of force before moving to acquisition) is a trade-off to secure Russian cooperation on other issues, such as Iran. Your discussion of our Qon other issues, such as Iran. Your discussion of our broader efforts with Moscow will help reinforce with Saakashvili that we do not see this as a zero-sum equation – and that Georgia also benefits from Moscow’s cooperation on the wider agenda.
8. (C) The immediate security environment has stabilized, with fewer incidents along the administrative boundaries. Shootings and explosions still occur, but much less frequently; in the age-old tradition of the Caucasus, detentions have become the major source of tension, especially around South Ossetia. The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms (IPRMs) established by the Geneva talks have helped increase communication and decrease the volatility of individual incidents, especially in Abkhazia; the South Ossetian de facto authorities have refused to participate in their IPRM since October 2009, pending the resolution of three missing persons cases. Overall the Abkhaz de facto authorities are more interested in engaging with partners other than Russia and are therefore more constructive in the IPRM and in Geneva; they continue to allow international partners to operate inside Abkhazia. The South Ossetians are steadfastly uncooperative, even when TBILISI 00000203 003 OF 004 proposals would benefit their own residents. Local residents still face limitations on movements and other human rights concerns in both regions.
9. (C) A maturing Georgian policy on the territories reflects growing recognition that there is no short-term – or military – path to reintegrate them into Georgia, but implementation may founder on Abkhaz or Russian insistence on first discussing the status of the two regions as a way to gain international acceptance of Russia’s recognition of both. A key question is the extent to which the de factos control their own fate versus Russia orchestrating the immediate security ups and downs; the Georgians are convinced the Abkhaz/South Ossetian good cop-bad cop routine is played at the behest of the Russians. No one expects much constructive reaction to the strategy from South Ossetia, but a positive response from Abkhazia, even on relatively modest activities, could indicate sincere interest in moving away from Moscow’s orbit and finding some accommodation with Tbilisi. We are currently developing ways the United States will support the strategy’s objectives through our own activities.
10. (SBU) Even in Abkhazia, however, the underlying situation remains fundamentally unstable. Georgia and Russia disagree profoundly over the source of the instability and the direction the parties must take toward resolution of the conflict. This impasse has become more and more apparent in Geneva, where Georgia sees Russia as a party to the conflict and an existential threat, while Russia sees itself as a keeper of the peace analogous to the EUMM. The Geneva co-chairs have tried to square this circle by combining Russia’s demand for a non-use of force agreement (between Georgia and the regions) with Georgia’s demand for new international security arrangements, but Russia refuses to contemplate any new international presence. Even the Georgians agree that the talks provide a useful forum for engagement among the parties, but if we continue to see no progress on what should be simple issues, we will have to reconsider the usefulness of Geneva.
11. (SBU) The Saakashvili-led United National Movement (UNM) continues to hold a constitutional majority in Parliament, and its current poll numbers reflect broad popular support. The government’s restrained handling of the months-long opposition protests in 2009 reinforced Saakashvili’s and his party’s popularity throughout the country and reduced support for opposition leaders. A rapidly shrinking economy, Saakashvili’s sharpest challenge in 2009, seems to have stabilized beginning in late 2009. Although consumer indicators are improving, the economy remains a concern, as unemployment is up and investments and government revenues have fallen. International assistance, particularly the U.S. provision of USD one billion in aid following the August 2008 conflict, helped insulate Georgia from the worst of the global financial crisis and has provided a significant base for recovery. The EU, other donors and international financial institutions are providing an additional USD 3.5 billion in post-conflict assistance to Georgia.
12. (SBU) The government has made some tangible democratic progress in a number of areas, including passing a new Qprogress in a number of areas, including passing a new electoral code on December 28, 2009, which will set rules for upcoming May 2010 municipal elections. The divergent positions and motives of the opposition (which ranges from “responsible” parties who sit in parliament to “irreconcilable” ones who insist on Saakashvili’s early departure or removal before engaging in any dialogue) precluded the kind of grand bargain which could have turned the electoral code into an engine for new democratic reforms. In the current zero-sum environment, the government did not stretch itself, either. The revised election code has been sent to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for legal comment on whether it meets international standards; the Georgians expect to receive a response by March. President Saakashvili agreed to allow for the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor, giving the opposition a chance to control this politically important post in Georgia’s most opposition-minded city. However, substantial government influence, if not outright control, over broadcast and other media steepen the slope the opposition needs to climb. In addition, the government has formed a constitutional commission to review ideas for constitutional change to TBILISI 00000203 004 OF 004 lessen the power of the president.
13. (SBU) Opposition leaders, representing parties both inside and outside of Parliament, generally urge the United States and international community to do more to level the electoral playing field in Georgia by emphasizing the importance of U.S. support to strengthen civil society, improve the media climate, and foster increased political pluralism. Much of the public is still looking for the government to make good on its promises of a new wave of democratic reform as articulated by Saakashvili after the August 2008 conflict. The opposition argues that Saakashvili has consolidated power over the past seven years and is increasingly moving in an authoritarian direction. However, there is little agreement among opposition forces as to what needs to be done or what a good alternative political program would be.
14. (SBU) Georgian media at present reflect the polarized political environment in the country, largely divided into pro-government and pro-opposition operations. Nationwide television channels remain the main source of information for most people. Television content is limited, resulting in a majority of the population which is poorly informed about a variety of issues and everyday concerns. Limited news programming by the Georgian Public Broadcaster in Azeri, Armenian and Russian leaves members of ethnic minorities poorly informed about developments in Georgia; many receive news via satellite from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. There are no hard walls separating the editorial and management sides of media organizations. The media market is small, creating financial challenges. Journalists are low-paid and tend to practice self-censorship.
15. (SBU) While official relations between Russia and Georgia remain contentious, the two governments reached a preliminary agreement in December to reopen a border crossing for transit traffic to Armenia and limited access for Georgians, and the government has indicated that it could be willing to sign a protocol as early as March. Georgian Airways ran a few charter flights to Moscow and St. Petersburg in January — the first direct commercial flights since a brief period in 2008 — and is negotiating for permission for more regular flights.
16. (C) Georgia is also concerned by a significant increase in military supplies from Russia to Armenia planned for 2010 primarily via overflights between Russia and Armenia. Although Georgia has continued to allow the flights to maintain a good relationship with Armenia, it does not believe Armenia has the capacity to use these shipments itself and fears that such armaments as large-caliber ammunition for aircraft could be intended for Russian forces in Armenia, instead of the Armenian military. Not only could such shipments disrupt the balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but they could potentially be used to squeeze Georgia from the south as well should there be a future conflict with Russia.
17. (S) Georgia is also trying to manage its relationship with Iran. Georgia agrees with many of our concerns about Iran’s policies, and has been willing to raise those concerns directly with the Iranians. Georgia still faces lingering Qdirectly with the Iranians. Georgia still faces lingering anger from Tehran for extraditing an Iranian arms smuggler to the United States several years ago. At the same time, it cannot afford to alienate a powerful regional neighbor and major commercial partner — especially as it seeks to prevent any further recognitions of the breakaway regions.