A friend emails me to say:

I just watched video of Saakashvili’s press conference with Sarkozy. Still claiming outright that the Russians started it and that the Russians are the invaders. Speaking English, naturally. Russians are of course indignant about this claim. Georgia is like the younger sibling who constantly pokes and prods the older and then runs to mommy to complain when the older eventually hits back. Then when the older gets grounded for hitting, hides behind mommy’s legs and sticks his tongue out at the older. Russia’s reputation as a bully (plus the fact that mom likes the younger one better anyway) means that no one will believe their version of what happened. They stamp their feet at the injustice of it all, but they are still stuck with it.

But how much does this matter on the ground? E. Wayne Merry writes in RFE/RL:

Whether the Georgian president fell into a waiting Russian trap or rashly threw a wholly inadequate force into South Ossetia believing Moscow would not respond, the consequences were disastrous for Georgia, but very negative also for the United States.

The essence of a productive patron-client relationship (especially one involving a Great Power) is that it serve the interests of both parties. Shevardnadze well understood that his obligation in return for aid was not to compromise U.S. interests with Russia. Relations with Moscow were quite poor during his tenure, but Shevardnadze carefully avoided steps that might trigger larger armed conflict and thus present Washington with bad and costly policy choices. The youthful and romantic Saakashvili ran a more honest and progressive administration, but lacked the cynical older statesman’s understanding that a client state must protect its patron’s interests as well as its own.

How grim are the “realities” of US-Georgian relations?

First, the Georgian economy is in dire straits, with many new refugees, damaged national infrastructure, and frightened foreign investors. Only 16 years ago, Georgia verged on mass hunger. It could happen again. Aid (both U.S. and European) is needed, but Tbilisi must also create confidence that investments will be safe from further strife.

Second, the Georgian Army is in tatters, in a society with a vibrant warrior culture. Only 16 years ago, Georgia was ruled by warlords and private armies. It could happen again. The integrity of the Georgian state requires some kind of army, but with confidence that it will not again be used recklessly.

Third, no amount of Western political “pressure” will restore Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian rule. Moscow’s recognition of the entities as independent is surely a prelude to their incorporation, sooner or later, into the Russian Federation. This step would likely receive overwhelming endorsement in free referendums by the Abkhaz and Ossetians, while the dispossessed Georgians will have no say. Wars have consequences, usually bad, that diplomacy cannot rectify.

Finally, the current Georgian leadership will pay the price at home for its failed venture. While the embattled Saakashvili has the titular support of all political factions at the moment, the jockeying is already under way to replace him. Georgia’s first and second presidents were forcibly removed from office. Politics are pitiless, and Georgian politics more so.

Georgia today needs its U.S. patron as never before, but any future U.S. administration will certainly impose tighter controls and more conditions on its help. The rhetoric from Washington will doubtless be supportive of Georgia, but no patron state enjoys the feeling that the tail has wagged the dog, especially against its own advice and interests.

At some level, this isn’t all that surprising. The basic dynamics here involve what I have termed the “balance of influence in patron-client relations.”

Despite many features of the relationship that should, at first glance, provide the US with more leverage over Georgia than Georiga ought to enjoy over the US, Saakashvili ultimately ignored US warnings. He then made appeals to the United States that it would have been very difficult for Washington to ignore, but that also required it to step beyond its ability to influence events on the ground. In doing so, he dragged Washington into a conflict with the Russians that has, in many respects, harmed US interests.

But for a variety of reasons–some ethical, some political, and others strategic–the Washington cannot, nor should it, abandon the Georgia. The obvious answer, then, is to seek more ways to control the policies that come out of Tbilisi. But how to accomplish this task? That’s the crucial, and as yet unanswered, question.

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