The nation of Georgia is in a position to block Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a top goal of the U.S.-Russia reset policy. The Georgians say that they are willing to strike a deal with Russia but only if Moscow abides by WTO rules on trade and customs policy, a position that would require Russian concessions in its conflict over the occupied territories, according to the president of Georgia.
Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable during his recent visit to Washington. He said that after lot of stalling and hand wringing, negotiations between Tbilisi and Moscow over the latter's desire to join the WTO had begun. As a WTO member, Georgia has veto power over any new additions to the organizations. Saakashvili said it was too early to tell if the Russians were negotiating in good faith or willing to make real concessions.
The Russian government refused to talk directly with Georgia for a long time and expected the United States to deliver Georgia's support for Russia's WTO accession, Saakashvili said.
"They were telling the Americans that we will make a deal with you and Georgia comes as part of the package. I heard some Russians say that it just takes one call from Vice President [Joseph] Biden to Saakashvili to convince him and make him shut up,'" the president said.
"But it's not like this and the Americans know it's not like this -- and they've done their best to clarify this to the Russians. Exactly because of that American position, finally the Russians came to the negotiating table. That's already great progress."
Obama administration officials have made it clear that Washington won't become involved in WTO negotiations between Russia and Georgia. The first round of those talks took place in the city of Bern with Swiss mediation earlier this month. The next round is scheduled to begin in May. Saakashvili said that Georgia was willing to be flexible but that the initial Russian proposals, which only dealt with Georgian exports to Russia, were not constructive.
"Some Russians were saying ‘we'll let back in your wine and you will change your position.'" Saakashvili said. "We don't have any wine left to sell to the Russians. That's not the bargaining chip. We need transparency of border transactions and customs issues. That's where we need to find mutually acceptable solutions with the Russians."
Of course, one huge problem is how to define the Georgian-Russian border. For Tbilisi, that includes the borders between Russia and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it considers breakaway republics. Russia has recognized the territories as independent states and has troops stationed in both regions.
"It's up to the Russians to show that they can go to flexible and compromise solutions," Saakashvili said. "Russians have said we can get [WTO membership] without Georgia. Good luck. Let them try. But Georgia is not going to compromise our principles."
Saakashvili also said that he is willing to limit the negotiations to the economic arena, leaving aside contentious political issues, such as Russia's failure to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire that ended the 2008 conflict. But he doubted the Russian government could keep the two issues separate.
"It would be counter-productive to go to political issues, but unfortunately [throughout the recent history of Russian-Georgia relations] Russians have turned every single economic issue into a political one. That's where we find ourselves," he said.
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's desire to start buying defensive weapons from the United States. There has been an unofficial, unstated ban on selling heavy weapons to Georgia, a ban Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) have often complained about.
"It's not in our interest to leave a stalwart partner, a NATO-aspirant country, without the needs to properly defend itself," McCain said at Tuesday's SASC hearing.
Saakashvili said he takes the administration at its word that there is no ban on weapons sales to Georgia and that some sales of small arms are "in the pipeline." But he added that Georgia really needs heavier weapons that could be used to defend the country in the case of another conflict with Russia.
"We don't' really need small arms, we have plenty of them and actually there are many alternative sources to shop for them," he said. "What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that's anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that's completely obvious ... that's where should be the next stage of the cooperation."
Georgia has been striving to prove its value as a U.S. ally in a tumultuous region. Georgia has over 1,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan in some of the most dangerous areas in the South of Afghanistan and Saakashvili offered to send more troops in his March meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, he said.
The U.S. is also investing in Georgia. Saakashvili highlighted that the U.S. military is increasing its involvement on the ground in Georgia, for example by opening a $100 million U.S. Army Medical Research lab in Tbilisi as part of the Nunn-Lugar initiative.
Saakashvili said that the United States still must lead in supporting emerging democracies and use its moral authority and soft power to push for human rights and democratic change in countries with oppressive governments.
"This administration has been holding the line, at the U.N. Security Council, at the OSCE, at the arms control talks. American was the first major power to call a spade a spade, to call Russia's action in Georgia a military occupation. This moral support is paramount for any nation and these kind of things count," he said.
"This ultimately will make the whole process of advancing freedom irreversible."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.