On Sunday, Georgian voters elected a new president to replace Mikheil Saakashvili, who has dominated politics in the country for nearly ten years. Saakashvili’s rule was defined in large part by his tight embrace of the United States, with a particular emphasis on the military relationship between the two countries. But with the reins of power being handed over, what will become of U.S.-Georgia ties?
The country’s new president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, is an ally of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who upended Georgia’s political scene when his Georgian Dream coalition won parliamentary elections last year. Ivanishvili promised to continue Saakashvili’s efforts to build ties to the West, while at the same time restoring relations with Russia that, under Saakashvili, had deteriorated catastrophically.
During Margvelashvili’s campaign, foreign policy was not a major issue, but he said that continuing the efforts to integrate with NATO and the European Union would be his “major priority.” But he also said that, like Ivanishvili, he would do so while trying to improve ties with Russia. “In parallel to the priority (of Euro-Atlantic integration) we are managing to effectively lower the extremely high temperature existing with the Russian Federation,” he said in a pre-election debate. After his victory he reiterated that sentiment: “Europe is our choice and this election is a confirmation of our European course,” adding that “we will try to reduce tension in bilateral relations [with Russia] and to move discussion of issues to European forums.”
Margvelashvili’s use of “European” rather than “Western” is telling. Saakashvili tended to trust the U.S. more than Europe, believing Europeans to be too unwilling to cross Russia. Compared with the U.S., “Georgia [under Saakashvili] never inspired the same enthusiasm in or had the same close relationship with Europe,” wrote Ronald Asmus in the book A Little War That Shook The World. “It was not uncommon to hear senior European officials remark that Saakashvili was an American-backed hothead who spelled trouble,” Asmus continued.
Substantial U.S. military aid to Georgia actually began before Saakashvili’s election, under the rule of Edvard Shevardnadze, with the Georgia Train and Equip Program, which aimed to help the country fight Chechen rebels who were using Georgian territory as a rear base from which to attack Russian forces. But when Saakashvili became president in 2004, he sought to further tighten ties to the U.S., and sent substantial military contingents to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Today Georgia is the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the Afghanistan war, with about 1,500 soldiers there.)
With those deployments, GTEP was transformed into military training programs focused on preparing Georgian troops for those missions. Those were carried out through a series of programs: two phases of the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program and then the Georgia Deployment Program.
Provision of American military equipment never was a large part of U.S.-Georgian military cooperation, but after the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia, Saakashvili placed the issue of military aid at the top of the agenda with Washington. “What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else [besides the U.S.] and that’s anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that’s completely obvious,” he said in a 2011 interview with Foreign Policy magazine. “That’s where should be the next stage of the cooperation.”
Those efforts failed, however, (in spite of the efforts of some Saakashvili allies in Congress) and Saakashvili soon accepted a more modest level of military aid. During a 2012 visit by Saakashvili to the White House, the two countries agreed on a package that included military transportation helicopters, though the two sides are still working out the details.
After the Georgian Dream won last year, there were indications that the new government put a lower priority on defense ties with the U.S., at least in terms of equipment. When Defense Minister Irakli Alasania was asked in an interview which countries Georgia was focused on in terms of defense cooperation he named Turkey, Estonia, Israel, and Azerbaijan.
Margvelashvili has given every indication that he would continue the trajectory of the Ivanishvili government. And now that the power in Georgia is no longer divided, one can expect Georgia’s defense relations to continue to trend more toward its European neighbors and less toward the U.S.