After break from Moscow, Georgia feels its pull again

President Saakashvili urges NATO and the EU to hasten embrace of Georgia.

Mikhail Saakashvili is a man in a hurry. Since being lofted into Georgia's presidency by the "Rose Revolution" almost three years ago, he has turned his nation toward the West in hopes of gaining a secure berth in NATO and the European Union before the momentum of Georgia's pro-democracy revolt fades.

"I am really fed up with every European delegation coming [to Georgia] and saying, 'Oh, this place looks just like Europe,' " says Mr. Saakashvili, a youthful, US-trained lawyer, in an interview. "Well, it doesn't look like Europe, it is Europe. We don't have to prove it every time again."

But time may not be on the side of Saakashvili, nor his peers in Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, all of whom have bumped their post-Soviet states out of their traditional orbits around Moscow and are pleading for greater economic and political backing from the West.

Most of those states have recently found themselves under heavy pressure from Russia to reverse their choices, including Moscow-backed internal political agitation, commercial embargoes, and threats of energy cut-off.

Saakashvili will meet President Bush at the White House Tuesday, where he is expected to ask the US to champion Georgia's case for more Western support at the Group of Eight summit meeting in Russia, slated for July 15-17.

"I believe G-8 should be about values, the values about which [the organization] was created," says Saakashvili, citing Georgia's turn to democracy, economic freedom, and human rights. "Let's hope the G-8 produces something."

In May, the four states revived their regional grouping, GUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova), as a vehicle to promote democracy and economic cooperation as they move toward greater integration with Europe – and away from Russia. This makes explicit a rift that has been creeping upon the former Soviet Union since Georgia's revolution threw down the gauntlet to Moscow. Some countries, including Belarus and Uzbekistan, are clustering more tightly around Russia, which tends to accept their authoritarian political systems and statist economic drift.

"This is a conflict of different visions of the future," says Oleksandr Shushko, research director of the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev. "Russia wants to be a separate center of power and influence, different from the Western community, and to keep the post-Soviet area as an integrated region under Moscow. The GUAM countries' view is that there is no more post-Soviet area. That's finished."

Russia has reacted angrily to the challenge – particularly the expressed desire of Georgia and Ukraine to join the Western military alliance.

"NATO is the instrument of American foreign and military policy in Europe," says Oleg Bogomolov, honorary director of the Institute of World Economy and Political Studies in Moscow. "Russia cannot understand why NATO is expanding into the east, or why the US is promoting the disintegration of the post-Soviet space."

Earlier this year Moscow slapped an embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water – the country's two biggest exports – citing vague "health reasons." The estimated 1.5-million Georgians who live in Russia as "guest workers" have lately found it much harder to get visas.

Moscow also backs two separatist enclaves in Georgian territory, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which many experts see as another ploy to intimidate Tbilisi.

"Georgia is the most pro-Western [state in the GUAM group] but also one of the weakest, which makes it vulnerable to Russian coercion," says Svante Cornell, research director for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Baltimore.

The tide of public opinion could be running against Saakashvili. An April survey by the independent Institute of Polling and Marketing in Tbilisi found that 51 percent of Georgians believe the country is "going in the wrong direction," compared with 25 percent in June 2005. While the poll shows large majorities still favor joining NATO and the EU, public faith in the economy and the health of Georgian democracy has fallen steadily over the past two years.

Experts say Russia is working to exploit that disaffection by backing opposition groups such as the Justice Party in hopes of fomenting a "Nettle Revolution" that might sweep Georgia back into Russia's embrace. "The Georgian authorities have been intriguing against Russia," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "We have to be very active, to get inside Georgia's internal politics and help our allies there, just as the Americans have been doing."

Ukraine has similarly endured Russian boycotts of its meat and dairy products, as well as a brief shutdown of gas supplies in January. Though the feuding pro-Western "Orange" groups have managed to cobble together a governing coalition, the largest single force in parliament remains the pro-Moscow Regions Party, led by Viktor Yanukovich, the man accused of rigging the 2004 presidential elections.

The country's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, has pledged to apply for NATO membership, perhaps as early as 2008. But lawmakers in the mainly Russian-populated province of Crimea gave him a taste of the political storms that may lie ahead by voting last month to declare Crimea a "NATO-free zone." Earlier, two weeks of street demonstrations by anti-NATO activists forced the hasty departure of about 250 US Marines who'd been in Crimea to prepare for joint military exercises with Ukraine.

"This is part of a Russian attempt to reestablish control over Ukraine, using various levers," says Mr. Shushko.

Saakashvili says that Russia's partners, such as the G-8, should help the Kremlin learn to embrace democratic changes in the former Soviet Union.

"We can offer Russia a model of peaceful transformation and partnership that would be good for Russia [in the long run], because it needs a stable neighborhood," Saakashvili says.

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