Georgia: One Of Trickiest Issues On Obama's Agenda In Russia

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MOSCOW -- At Ergneti, Georgia the Georgian and South Ossetian flags fly at checkpoints just a few meters apart. A drunken soldier spraying a few bullets in the night could be all it takes for conflict to flare again in this troubled Caucasus hotspot. Since the war last August, this has been the uneasy border between Georgia, which is funded, supported and armed by the United States, and South Ossetia, its breakaway state that since the war essentially functions as a Russian garrison.

If there is a New Cold War, then this may be its frontline. Barack Obama arrived in Moscow Monday for a summit that aims to reroute Russian-American relations from New Cold War to Reset, and Georgia will be one of the trickiest issues on the agenda.

For all that Moscow paints its foreign policy in terms of values, there are very few positions that the Kremlin wouldn't abandon given the right incentives. A tougher stance from Moscow on Iran, access to Central Asian and Russian airspace to aid the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, cooperation on arms control - all of these are areas where Russia is more than willing to compromise, as long as it receives something in return, of course.

But not Georgia. Georgia is personal, emotional - the former lover that walked away into the arms of America. Russia, the dispassionate cynic that usually stays calm at all times, is in no mood to compromise here. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a deep-seated personal hatred of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili; merely mention his name to top Russian officials and they visibly convulse in paroxysms of rage and distaste.

It will be interesting to see how Obama handles this during his two-day trip to Moscow. Keen to press the "reset" button and sideline the zero sum issues in favor of the areas where mutually agreeable compromise might be possible, he has nevertheless shown that he is not planning to acquiesce to the Kremlin's foibles in every area. He has given an interview to Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper; arranged meetings with Kremlin opponents including the former chess grandmaster turned radical oppositionist Garry Kasparov; and even made the curious move of publically criticizing Putin ahead of the visit, saying that unlike current President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin has "one foot in the past."

But even if Obama decides to avoid lectures and tries to sidestep the Georgia issue tactfully, it's unlikely that the Russians will let him leave without their own lecture on the Caucasus state. Obama said Monday that he had a "frank" discussion on Georgia with Medvedev. But the real test may come tomorrow when Obama has breakfast tomorrow with Putin, who has said he'd like to see Saakashvili "hung by the balls," the U.S. president is likely to receive a stern lecture on the need to stay out of Russia's backyard.

It will be a difficult call for Obama to decide how to respond to Russia's Georgia concerns, and one that might define the tone of Russian-American relations over the next few years. On the one hand, the sensible course might be to move away from the aggressive mantra that Georgia and Ukraine should in time become NATO members, a provocative stance from the Bush administration that contributed to tension in the region. On the other hand, Obama won't want to be seen to be abandoning a U.S. ally.

For Georgians, it's an uneasy time, waiting to see whether a post-neocon America still affords tiny Georgia the status of special ally, or whether the country is sacrificed to Russia in the name of a wider resetting of relations. In Tbilisi the famous "reset button" presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by Hillary Clinton is widely seen as a detonator button, demolishing hopes of Georgia's move out of Russia's orbit.

When I met Saakashvili in Tbilisi last week, there was a well thumbed book about Barack Obama lying on the Georgian leader's desk, and the president talked up the possibility that Russia might want to provoke renewed military action and finish the job it started last summer.

"They have never said the mission is accomplished, and that's the problem," Saakashvili said. "Putin has a personal ball-hanging policy, and the Russian government has a regime change policy."

"For now everything is contained. If there is a policemen and he keeps a close watch on the neighbourhood it's not going to happen."

The visit to Moscow might give us a clue about how strict a policeman Obama intends to be.

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