Elite Perceptions of the US

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Georgians like the US because it gives them a chance to survive their post-colonial struggle with Russia

GEORGIA MEDIA

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  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • American policy process

I can call myself a ‘product’ of US soft power. I graduated from a school established by the US government, took part in trips organized by the American embassy, had my first internship in Washington DC, and ended up working with US major media outlets. This means I feel empathy with this country, despite its poor policies in Georgia, the post-Soviet space and the Middle East.

US officials play an important role in Georgian domestic politics. There would be a scandal, politicians would fight each other for weeks, and then the American ambassador makes a statement, and his word is often final.

Some Georgians do not like this, especially when US interventions are in relation to nationalistic or orthodox issues, such as the calls for more liberal policy on ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. But there were cases when US involvement helped avoid a major crisis, for example, its mediation in 2012 between the government and opposition after important elections resulted in the first ever peaceful transfer of power in Georgia.

So, although some believe American officials get too involved in state sovereign issues, you can still find people who say this assistance was essential to Georgia’s young democracy.

Overall, I believe people in Georgia are in favour of the US. They perceive this superpower as their ‘big brother,’ who has its own interests in the region, but at the moment this is ok, because these interests correspond to Georgians’ inspiration for building their statehood. Georgians like the US because its involvement gives them a chance to survive in their post-colonial struggle with Russia.

The biggest challenge in relations came in 2008. During the war with Russia there were people in Tbilisi calling for deeper US involvement, including military and weapons support. This never happened. Moreover, after the war the US was quick to forget about the Georgian problem, and during the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency one could often hear Georgian officials and analysts saying the US had ‘betrayed’ Georgia. Although this was the first major downturn in perception, it was never really reflected in the official Georgian rhetoric.

The Georgian government knows it cannot afford to spoil relations with the US as Capitol Hill has been supporting Georgia’s development as a Westernized country, and assisting in gaining more foreign investment and humanitarian aid. However, a lack of US interest in the South Caucasus region diverted Georgia to the European Union and, although the US is still very important, now the EU is the main provider of advice for democracy and administration reforms in Tbilisi.

However, a lack of US interest in the South Caucasus region diverted Georgia to the European Union and, although the US is still very important, now the EU is the main provider of advice for democracy and administration reforms in Tbilisi

One important thing a foreign analyst has to understand is that the Georgian nation is very much about itself and its problems. You hardly find anyone interested in news on US problems in Afghanistan or Iraq, even though these countries are geographically close to Georgia. Few Georgians can articulate what is at stake in US-Russia relations, or why the US needs Moscow’s support in Iran or Syria. This rudimentary knowledge of its own regional politics also contributes to Georgia’s self-isolation and deepens its image as a ‘victim’ of Obama’s unwillingness to engage with the region.

But the US will remain a priority partner for many Georgians as America has invested a lot of money and effort in us and it’s easy to see where. The US Millennium Challenge project helped Georgia build a new road from the capital to Javakhety, a region with a dominant Armenian population. This helped a lot in the government’s attempts to integrate this population into the rest of the country, and people in Javakhety often emphasize that the US built this road.

The US has supported Georgian civil society for years, helping create strong NGOs in the country, bring in ‘checks and balances’, and train lots of people who are now part of the government. The US role in strengthening the Georgian media is also worthy of note, as Americans helped establish TV companies and supported training and education to local journalists and media managers. In addition, the US has supported the Radio Liberty local office - one of few unbiased and professional sources of information in the country.

However, I believe there is one serious problem with American support to Georgia. So far the US has been reluctant when facing up to problems relating to the regions caught up in the Georgian conflict. America effectively ceased its contacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 Russian recognition of their independence, whereas previously US officials often travelled to these regions and were even trying to play a mediator role.

I would speculate that the US shift in policy is dictated by its unwillingness to add the Georgian conflict to the list of its political bargaining with Russia. As a result, the US has very poor contact with officials in the breakaway regions, and there are no projects for local populations which would help to develop better understanding of the American agenda in the region.

I have travelled to Abkhazia and South Ossetia regularly for several years, and could see the change in attitudes as locals developed negative perceptions of American policy in the region. Here, the US is mainly seen as a strong and biased supporter of the Georgian ‘enemy’ with no intention to help ‘other’ people – an image which I am not sure best serves the long-term interests of the US.