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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is the paramount political event, which attracted worldwide attention. But as the Biden-Harris administration is planning to take the reins of American foreign policy, a far-away election will help American interests in the strategic Caucasus region and the Black Sea basin.

The democratic elections on Oct. 31 won by the governing Georgia Dream party will enable the Republic of Georgia to bolster its constructive role in the strategically crucial Black Sea region. Regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential race, it is in America’s national interest to deepen cooperation with a forthcoming government committed to expanding relations with Western institutions. The U.S. Senate can now take an important step in this process by approving the Georgia Support Act.


Georgia’s elections demonstrate what can be accomplished in Europe’s east regardless of prior phases of instability. During the early part of its post-Soviet history, Georgia faced violence between rival political factions and separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia fueled by Moscow. But during the last three election cycles the country has benefitted from growing stability and public consensus in a highly volatile region.

Monitors from the European Union and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the elections were competitive and fundamental freedoms were respected despite some flaws. This assessment was confirmed by the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi. The ruling party, Georgia Dream, won 48% of the national vote and can gain broader parliamentary support to tackle the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Georgia’s transformation into a parliamentary democracy has been assisted by the U.S. and EU. Both helped to facilitate a multi-party agreement on a phased transition to a fully proportional electoral system that better represents the spectrum of Georgian voters and is inclusive of a wider array of parties in parliament.

Georgia’s progress must also be measured by its geopolitical position. The country stands on the front lines of Russia’s ambitions in the Black Sea region. While NATO aims to provide security to its three members — Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria — and help Georgia and Ukraine defend their independence, Moscow seeks to dominate its former satellites and use the Black Sea as a launch pad to project military power toward Central Europe, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia is engaged in an extensive military build-up in order to control major sea lanes, maritime economic zones and energy deposits, and Georgia is a major target.

In 2008, Russian forces invaded and occupied 20% of Georgian territory. Moscow also attempts to undermine Georgia’s democracy and disqualify the country from Western integration by engaging in media and cyber warfare. It threatens to further divide and isolate the country by restricting its maritime access and creating a corridor across Georgia to its military bases in Armenia. Such moves would also sever Europe’s energy connections with the Caspian basin. The escalating war between Azerbaijan and Armenia may enable Moscow to pursue these objectives by injecting more Russian forces in the region.

The new Georgian government is poised to advance policies that bring the country closer to the U.S., EU and NATO. One of its pillars is regional economic development that can help generate security, attract Western investment and deepen integration in European institutions. In his recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia underscored that Tbilisi will remain focused on positioning the country as a regional hub for business, energy, logistics, tourism, education and medicine.

Georgia benefits from strong bipartisan support in Washington. In July 2016, the U.S. and Georgia signed a memorandum on deepening the strategic partnership that was established in 2009. A comprehensive Security Cooperation Framework was subsequently agreed in 2019. To demonstrate solidarity and support for Georgia, the next important step for Washington is for the U.S. Senate to approve the Georgia Support Act, which passed the House of Representatives in the fall of 2019 and is now making its way through the Senate.

The act underscores U.S. commitments to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and specifies arenas in which the two countries can collaborate. One key arena that can generate practical cooperation is cyber security, whereby both partners can profit from sharing tools and expertise to counter Russian cyberattacks. This is especially timely in light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent indictment of six Russia’s GRU military intelligence agents for cyberattacks on several Western states, including Georgia.

Enabling Georgia to protect its territory and cyberspace sends a positive message to other U.S. allies and partners determined to defend their sovereignty. Georgia’s example demonstrates that despite the pervasiveness of nationalism, populism, isolationism, and foreign pressure throughout Europe, democratic systems are better equipped to resist subversion and contribute to Western security.

• Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His most recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks” (Jamestown Foundation).


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