George W. Bush is a hero to many Georgians, who feel sheltered by the outgoing US administration, despite the disappointing outcome of their August war with Russia.
Yet, with a ceasefire brokered by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy at the head of the EU presidency, Georgia has become a sort of test bed for the US and Europe to reshape their relations, starting on Europe’s eastern borders.
Both are trying to put aside their divisions on NATO enlargement and forge better relations with Russia. And this is unlikely to change after the US elections.
Things can only get better, according to Daniel Fried, a top US state department official:
“Without president Sarkozy’s commitment, energy and determination, we would be worse off than we are. So, this is not an issue where the United States and Europe have different views, or share some other goals, some other assessments. So this is an area where the US and Europe have been working well together, and I strongly suspect that we will be working well together in the future”
The Caucasus and Georgia represent a key transit area for the European Union’s energy supplies, independent of Russian pipelines. While the EU does not want to completely abandon Russian energy sources, the US wants Russia excluded from its main European allies’ energy markets. This is an ongoing process.
“This situation may give impulse to a new concept of transatlantic relations, and I think that this new conception will be necessary to make a new world and a new relation,” says Georgian political advisor Ramaz Sakvarelidze.
The people of the Caucasus are caught in the middle of this great game. Many of them have paid a high price, losing their lives or homes. Despite the unusually proactive attitude of the European Union, the US is still perceived on the ground as the biggest source of political and financial aid.
“The support from the USA exceeds the support from the EU. The Europeans rely on resources from Russia. America is a little further removed,” says Gisla Dewey from the Christian NGO World Vision.
The EU has sent a mission on the ground to monitor the two sides’ compliance with the cease-fire agreements brokered by president Sarkozy. However there was division between member states who did not want their relations with Russia threatened, and others who wanted a tougher stance with Moscow to be adopted, by teaming up with the US.
Hansjorg Haber leads the EU Monitoring Mission to Georgia:
“This does really not affect this mission, we have a lot of support from the US, both at the level of the embassy here and at Washington level, what the United States says to the European Union in Brussels and in Washington, so I think that as far as the mission is concerned, there is unity of purpose”.
Unity of purpose in the Caucasus is a major challenge for transatlantic relations. After tensions on Iraq and on the war on terror, Europeans and Americans want to avoid useless disputes. Renewed Russian assertiveness in the Caucasus is pushing Washington and its European allies to seek more cooperation then confrontation.
It is in America’s interest to avoid isolating Russia, while the EU needs a position of strength to deal with Moscow. To find the solution to this riddle will be the task of the next US administration.