Georgia-US relations

Twenty Years of U.S.-Georgia Partnership


George H.W. Bush

41st President of the United States, 1983-1991

Statement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on Diplomatic Relations with the Republic of Georgia

March 24, 1992

The President has decided that the United States will take immediate steps to establish diplomatic relations with Georgia. The United States had recognized Georgian independence on December 25, 1991. In recent weeks, the new Georgian Government has taken steps to restore civilian rule, begin a dialog on national reconciliation, and committed itself to holding parliamentary elections this year….


Thus began an historic U.S. statement made at a time of severe hardship in Georgia: the Tbilisi civil war had just ended; a coup against the first president of the newly independent country had succeeded; Eduard Shevardnadze, appointed chairman of the Georgian state council, was unable to control the whole of Georgia because his legitimacy was not recognized by supporters of deposed President Zviad Gamsakhurdia; the Samegrelo region had declared civil disobedience; armed conflict was under way in the Tskhinvali region; war in Abkhazia was only months away; Jaba Ioseliani proclaimed his paramilitary organization Mkhedrioni “in good shape,” and in addition to Mkhedrioni and the National Guard, the country swarmed with hordes of armed formations - Tetri Artsivi, Orbi, Avaza….

It is now twenty years since diplomatic relations were established between the United States of America and Georgia. This anniversary was marked with the official visit of the Georgian President to the White House. At a press briefing after that meeting on 30 January 2012, President Barak Obama announced that the two Presidents had discussed the prospect of deepening and strengthening joint

cooperation in the areas of free trade and defense. The U.S. President commended his Georgian counterpart for progress made in the country, calling him a responsible player and thanking him for cooperation.

The international community and media have mainly concentrated their attention on prospects for a free trade agreement and strengthening defense cooperation between the United States and Georgia. A particular focus of discussion among a noisy segment of our society has been on only one adjective – formal. Some assert that the phrase “the formal transfer of power” used by President Obama is tantamount to a demand for unconditional capitulation of the Georgian ruling party; others interpret it to mean only a formal, cosmetic change.

Those lost in translation would do better to recall Sigmund Freud’s observation that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” and consider a more obvious meaning – the U.S. President wished our country fair and free elections in which voters decide who they want to see in


Attempts at linguistic parsing in the national press reminded me of the very first question ever put to an American president in the history of our media. During a press briefing held after the first official meeting of the leaders of the United States and Georgia in 1994, a Georgian journalist asked verbatim:

“Mr. President, I want to ask you about your feeling. What do you feel when you hear such words, ‘Thank you very much for your helping because your helping helped us not suffer.’ What do you feel when you hear such words?”

Unable to understand the question, President Bill Clinton diplomatically blamed his earphones, not the journalist.

Years have passed since that introduction of Georgian journalism in the Washington corridors of power, but our journalists still maintain their form and even today succeed in stunning foreign dignitaries and Georgian audiences alike with their professional qualifications.

While our faceless media continue to march in place, the country has changed its face. Today, many of us take the existence of the Georgian state for granted, but to recall our history is to realize that twenty years of independence is truly a great achievement. And in that achievement the contribution of the United States is also great.

One cannot claim that Otar Patsatsia (1993-95) or Tengiz Sigua (1990-91) were any better Prime Ministers than Noe Ramishvili (1918) or Noe Zhordania (1918-21). Nor can one assert that Murman Omanidze (1991) and Aleksandre Chikvaidze (1992-95) were more advanced

diplomats than Evgeni Gegechkori (1918-21) and Akaki Chkhenkeli (1918). It is also obvious that Vardiko Nadibaidze (1994-98) and Tengiz Kitovani (1992-93) were not superior to Giorgi Mazniashvili (1918-21) and Giorgi Kvinitadze(1918-21) as army commanders.

Print media and parliamentary debates of the time evidence that the political discussion of the early Twentieth Century stood head-and-shoulders above what it is today. Nonetheless, the first independent republic of Georgia (1918-21) failed to secure support of Western countries and, for that very reason, it ceased to exist after three years of standing alone.

Back then, the United States did not recognize the independence of Georgia. One of the reasons for that was the policy of Noe Zhordania’s government. Charles Moser, an American consul then living in Tbilisi, reported to the U.S. State Department that members of the Menshevik government shunned relations with the United States and that Minister of Supply Giorgi Eradze especially was “the implacable foe of ‘capitalism’ and of ‘capitalistic government’.”

In the early Twentieth Century, as it transpired, the American government tried not to irritate Russia. It therefore did not heed the warning from Tbilisi of its consul Felix Smith, who recommended that the United States aid anti-Bolshevik forces. And indeed, of all the countries falling within the Russian Empire, the United Stated recognized the independence of only Finland, Poland and, later, Armenia. It dragged its heels on recognizing the independence of any of the remaining countries under Russian dominance. The United States chose a decidedly different approach toward members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson presented his famous Fourteen Points policy urging “autonomous development” for all those countries.

The determining factor must surely have been the United States’ isolationist foreign policy. That policy had been dominant since the birth of that nation and was clearly expressed in the Farewell Address of George Washington. The first U.S. President argued that the United States had little or nothing to do with the interests of Europe and, hence, an artificial alliance with the Europeans would make no sense. His formula for America’s success was deepening trade relations with foreign countries.

Similar reasoning can be seen in Ilia Chavchavadze’s article, “The Militarism of Europe and America’s Future,” published in 1889. In that article, Chavchavadze criticized Europe for high military costs and expressed the belief that, in such a situation, the economic dominance of America was inevitable because the United States based its policy on trade, industry and international peace.

That attitude of liberals seemed rational in the Nineteenth Century… but in the Nineteenth Century! The invention of the airplane undermined that logic. Japan’s air attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 forced the United States to turn its back on isolationist inclinations for good. America had no other way left but to undertake an active foreign policy. Results of that policy were witnessed by everyone when the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union broke up, and when Eastern Europe became free.

The relationship between the United States and Georgia had an inauspicious beginning in the 1990s: “This guy better get his head examined,” exclaimed the first President Bush to a CNN correspondent when he heard that Zviad Gamsakhurdia had blamed Mikhail Gorbachev for the August 1991 putsch, according to the account of American writer Thomas Goltz in his book “Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post- Soviet Caucasus.”

But “opposition” between Bush and Gamsakhurdia was not caused by only one impolitic remark. On 1 August 1991, George Bush visited Ukraine and addressed a session of the Supreme Council. That address was dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Safire. Speaking to members of the Supreme Council in the Ukrainian capital, the U.S. President talked about the importance of an emerging democracy in the Soviet Union and warned that America would not support leaders of those republics that sought independence.

In response to that speech, the Gamsakhurdia government published a letter on 9 August 1991 in the Sakartvelos Respublika newspaper, denouncing the foreign political course of the United States: “Every state occupied by the Empire shall be given an absolute freedom of choice… Mr. Bush calls the fight of Soviet-occupied nations for freedom and self-identification an expression of dangerous nationalism. We would wish that the President and government of United States supported not communism, tyranny and sham reforms but genuine democracy, freedom and democracy of nations. Only in this case will the United States remain committed to its historic mission.”

It is difficult not to agree with that sentiment, but the post-Soviet leader only further alienated Georgia from the West by expressing it publicly. Criticism of “Gorbi” – the architect of “glasnost” and “perestroika” – was not considered fashionable in U.S. political circles.

The American President described his Georgian colleague as swimming against the tide – to which Gamsakhurdia quipped that only “dead fish” swim with the tide.

No matter how we evaluate the politics of the Gamsakhurdia government, it is clear that the main factor influencing the United State’s attitude toward the Soviet republics then was not the behavior of the leaders of the newly independent states; it was the foreign policy of the United States itself. Bush the Elder, like American leaders of the early-Twentieth Century, believed that preserving the integrity of a “transformed” Soviet Union was in U.S. national interests.

On 25 December 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated formally. International recognition of the independence of the post-Soviet republics became an inevitability.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia was sheltered in the Parliament bunker when word reached him about recognition of Georgia’s independence by the United States. On 5 January 1992, Georgia’s first elected president had to flee the country. In March of that same year, the Georgian administration - in chaos and at the mercy of Jaba Ioseliani and Tengiz Kitovani – was taken over by Eduard Shevardnadze.

The reputation of the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union stirred U.S. interest in Georgia. U.S. State Secretary James Baker quickly paid a visit to Shevardnadze in Tbilisi. Yet, nothing had fundamentally changed: in 1992, before the fall of Sokhumi, Shevardnadze’s appeal to the international community – to prevent “a dreadful crime,” “to stop the punishment of a small country” and to save “his people” from Russia’s imperial policy – proved futile. Shevardnadze’s Georgia was left alone to wage its war while the United States heralded Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. The United States was swept away with euphoria over the defeat of communism. Americans believed that interfering in Russia’s near neighborhood would impugn the dignity of the former empire and might embolden reactionary forces in Russia.

Foreign policy priorities of the United States at the end of the Twentieth Century bore a striking resemblance to those at the beginning of the century. At the same time, there was also a significant difference: the United States maintained intensive diplomatic ties with post-Soviet Georgia. That was manifest in huge (in fact, unconditional) humanitarian and technical aid, as well as implementation of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline project. Even more importantly, America’s efforts at the OSCE Summit in Istanbul forced Russia to commit to pulling its military forces out of Georgia (and Moldova).

A turning point in U.S.-Georgia relations came after 11 September 2001. Similar to what happened after Pearl Harbor, the attack on the World Trade Center impelled the United States to pursue an interventionist course in its foreign policy – George W. Bush launched a

global war against terrorism.

Several weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, Eduard Shevardnadze paid an official visit to Washington and met with the President of the United States to express Georgia’s commitment to the antiterrorist campaign. Within months of that meeting, George W. Bush announced plans to send a group of one hundred and fifty U.S. military instructors to Georgia to train Georgian military troops so they could reinstate state control over the Pankisi Gorge. That was the beginning of bilateral military cooperation between the United States and Georgia. It soon became clear, however, that Shevardnadze’s failed state was not a reliable partner and that unconditional financial aid would not advance the country.

The reality is that the former First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party pursued neither a consistent foreign policy nor a consistent domestic policy. Year after year, the U.S. State Department reported myriad problems crippling our country – endemic corruption, undeveloped economy, ineffective institutions, gross violations of fundamental rights.

During his official trip to the United States in October 2001, Eduard Shevardnadze visited the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and was harshly criticized for widespread corruption. Several months after that visit, the World Bank cut assistance to Georgia by twenty percent on the basis of the slow pace of reforms.

Following in the footsteps of the World Bank, the United States, on 1 October 2003, sharply cut back its assistance to Georgia too. The reason was again the lack of reforms. According to representatives of the U.S. government, Georgia was second only to Israel in per-capita U.S. aid, yet showed the worst result in terms of progress.

Frustration caused by Shevardnadze’s politics by then was increasing both inside and outside the country. The estrangement between the government and the population reached its peak and resulted in the Rose Revolution in November 2003.

That relations between the United States and Georgia moved up qualitatively on 23 November 2003 was proved once again by the recent meeting of the Presidents. At the start of the press briefing, Barack Obama took the opportunity of the twentieth anniversary of Georgia’s independence to recognize approvingly the eighth anniversary of the Rose Revolution.

It is noteworthy that when Mikheil Saakashvili visited the World Bank on that same official trip, he received a far different reception than his predecessor. Georgia’s current president was welcomed warmly by the world’s largest financial organization, where he had been invited to the presentation of a book describing anticorruption reforms implemented in Georgia as both unprecedented and exemplary.

Naturally, Georgia still has a long way to go to achieve full-fledged success. How fast Georgia will move that way depends not only on Georgia, but also on its key ally. Both the United States and Georgia are gearing up for elections this year. The result of those elections will determine the fate of the cooperation between the two countries.

The Beginnings of Georgia-America Relations

The first known contact between America and Georgia took place a quarter of century after the declaration of independence of the United States. At that time, Georgia was losing its own independence and was in the process of being annexed into the Russian Empire. In 1804, American Allen Smith entered Georgia from the North. Smith traveled from Georgia with a Russian military escort to Azerbaijan, where he witnessed the Russian army’s occupation of the Muslim khanate of Ganja.

In 1807, Joel Poinsett, a South Carolinian, arrived in Georgia from St. Petersburg. It is impossible to say just how much Mr. Poinsett learned about Georgia when he travelled here with a Russian military escort. His diary contains just one mention of Georgia – an entry that he “supped with Her Majesty the Queen of Imeretia on the roof of her house” and was welcomed very hospitably. After returning home, Joel Poinsett was elected to the U.S. Congress.

Perhaps the most notable American guest to Georgia in the Nineteenth Century was General William Sherman, who arrived in 1872 – eight years after he had led the Union army on a victorious march through U.S. Georgia during the American Civil War. His visit to this country was part of a longer overseas trip that originated in London and ended in Baku. General Sherman reached Batumi by ship and then traveled on the newly built railroad to Kutaisi and farther on to Tbilisi.

By the end of the Nineteenth Century, American society had reached a high level of development. Americans started travelling abroad and Russia became an especially popular destination. A correspondent for The New York Times who signed himself “D.K.” arrived in

Georgia in 1884. In his reports, D.K. described Tbilisi as the place where East meets West. “Five minutes’ walk in Tbilisi took you from the nineteenth to the ninth century,” he reported.

During that period, Georgia was visited by George Kennan – an elder cousin of George Frost Kennan, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and became famous as the author of the “Long Telegram.”

Lyman Abbott, a well-known Protestant clergyman and author, visited Tbilisi in 1901 and wrote a detailed account of his visit. He was drawn to Georgia by a brochure that described Tbilisi as “a half-European, half-Asiatic town, aptly described as a city of contrasts, Cairo alone presenting a similar mixture of Oriental poetry and decay, with some of the humble types of European society.”

Appeal of Representatives of Khevsureti

to Government of United States

We, the people of Khevsureti are under oppression of Bolsheviks. They force us to deny our belief. They want to establish Kolkhozs and collect very high taxes and often come to tell us this, but we do not agree. We will not agree until the last Khevsurian is alive. Even though we do not have firearms, we will fight with swords and daggers. We do beg America to help us; you are the strong country and please, support us or else we are in a pitiful state. We hope you will help. No one else is left to help us save you. Go ahead brethren, we are in a predicament.

Giga Likokeli, V. Gorgilashvili

Representatives of Khevsureti

23 June, 1936


In 1880, Ivane Makharadze was heading for Bakhmaro when his horse died and he was forced to return to his native village of Bakhvi with only a saddle on his back. Faced with disapproving parents, Ivane ran away from home, found a job in Batumi and, shortly thereafter, caught a ship to New York. He eventually wound up as a circus stable cleaner, where his fondness for horses was noticed and he was allowed to perform trick riding for the circus. Clad in Georgian national dress, he charmed the American public with his amazing stunts while galloping on his horse. After saving enough money, he returned to his native Guria. Years later, however, he found himself back at work in an American circus – this time together with Georgian compatriots.

In 1883, Buffalo Bill created a show featuring “live scenes” of the Wild West. That show would go on to entertain fifty-million people worldwide for the next thirty years. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West entertained Americans with recreated legends and staged battles. Acting on Mark Twain’s advice, Buffalo Bill brought his show to Europe and started touring the continent. Georgians joined the Wild West tour in England in 1892, and they became an integral part of the show. Englishman Thomas Oliver recruited the Georgian riders for the show after travelling to the Russian Empire and making his way to Georgia with the help of Ivane Makharadze. Oliver selected the best riders in Guria and brought them to London. “Cossacks” (Georgian riders performing in the show were referred to as Caucasus Russians) generated great excitement in London. Queen Victoria invited them to perform for her and the royal family, later presenting the Georgians with a gold-engraved album with photos of their performance. In 1893, the riders from Guria went to America with the Wild West show. The performance of the Georgian horsemen proved extremely popular there as well and became an essential feature of every show. Only cowboys and Indians enjoyed similar popularity with American audiences, even though representatives of many

countries participated in the show. 

Christine Tsintsadze - was born in Lanchkhuti and went to America in 1908 with a group of riders against her parents’ wishes. She had three near-death experiences in her four years of riding in Buffalo Bill’s show. Christine was so widely admired that her admirers tried to kidnap her a couple of times. The would-be kidnappers failed in their attempts when Christine managed on her own to fend them off. When she returned to Georgia in 1912, the entire town of Lanchkhuti greeted her as a returning hero. 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 86, published 6 February 2012.


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