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Georgia Moves Away From Russia and Toward Europe

Georgia's president hopes to steer his country toward the West, and diminish Russia's influence. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the intricate relationships between Washington, Moscow and Tbilisi.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia by an overwhelming margin in January 2004, following a popular movement known as the Rose Revolution that forced the resignation of the incumbent, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Saakashvili is trying to move Georgia away from Russia and toward Europe. His first goal is to make Georgia a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

During a July 5th meeting at the White House, U.S. President George Bush repeated to President Saakashvili that Washington supports Georgia's membership.

He said, "I believe that NATO would benefit with Georgia being a member of NATO, and I think Georgia would benefit. And there is a way forward through the membership action plan, and we will work with our partners in NATO to see if we can't make the path a little smoother for Georgia."

Georgia's drive toward NATO membership is a contentious issue between Mr. Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ronald Suny is a Russia expert with the University of Chicago.

"If you think back to Soviet times and their victory over the fascists in 1945, all of the gains of that post-war victory - that military victory - are gone. The Soviets have lost Eastern Europe, their buffer zone there, the sort of satellite states they held for decades - and now Ukraine, the Baltics, and others are integrated into the western alliance," he said. "In other words, NATO troops could be right on the border of Russia. This is an enormous blow to Russian prestige. And Putin, if anything, aims at resurrecting Russia to get some of that power and prestige that the Soviet Union enjoyed."

In addition to supporting Georgia's NATO membership, the United States has provided Tbilisi with extensive economic aid to support its domestic reform programs.

Robert Legvold, a Russia expert with Columbia University, says the assistance has also included a military component.

"We have, since early 2003, provided military training under a program called G-TEP - Georgia Train and Equip Program - for a modernized battalion of Georgian forces in counterterrorism exercises. And, we have continued to provide considerable military assistance to the Georgians in bringing the military up to snuff [modernizing], as they proceed toward NATO membership," he said.

Experts on Russia say many officials in Moscow see Georgia's move toward the West as a threat because they still consider Tbilisi to be in Russia's sphere of influence - a throwback to Soviet times. Once again, Ronald Suny of the University of Chicago.

"The Soviet sphere of influence would certainly have to include the former states of the Soviet Union, the former republics of the Soviet Union - perhaps with the exception of the Baltic region, because that is so well integrated now in Europe. But it [Moscow] still has various kinds of ambitions, aspirations vis-à-vis Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and central Asia," he said. "The most important thing about Georgia is that Georgia has become a kind of prize in a very low level, but important contest between the West, particularly the United States, and Russia. And both are vying for influence in Georgia, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, is playing the American card very often."

Some experts - including Olga Oliker from the RAND Corporation - believe playing the American card as it were, could be a double-edged sword.

"From the perspective of the United States, that is not necessarily in the U.S. interest. Yes, the U.S. has a friendly relationship with Georgia, but it also has a fairly friendly relationship with Russia that it would like to maintain," she said. "And, it is not in the U.S. interest to allow the Georgian-Russian relationship to damage its own ties with the Russians. And, I think that is something the United States has been trying to avoid."

Oliker says the Georgians are playing a dangerous foreign policy game. She says, trying to win stronger allies by provoking a strong neighbor could have negative consequences for Georgia.