#47 - JRL 2009-177 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
September 24, 2009
Georgia Considers Taking Gitmo Prisoners
By Nikolaus von Twickel

Georgia is negotiating with the United States about accepting Guantanamo Bay prisoners, a process that highlights the tricky relationship between President Mikheil Saakashvili, one of Russia’s harshest critics, and President Barack Obama, who wants to reset relations with Moscow.

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze discussed the issue with U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried during talks late Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Interfax reported.

Fried, who is the State Department’s special envoy on closing Guantanamo, told reporters after the meeting that if Tbilisi agreed, a small number of detainees might be sent there. But he stressed that no decision had been made.

Vashadze said the issue was so far purely theoretical. “Georgia has not given an answer yet on the question of receiving Guantanamo prisoners,” he said.

Government officials in Tbilisi declined to comment further on the matter Wednesday.

Guantanamo is a political hot potato for Obama at home, and he has ordered that the detention camp be closed by January. But the Obama administration has faced a struggle over what to do with more than 200 detainees who might face human rights abuses if they are returned to their home countries.

Fried visited Tbilisi in August, and The Washington Post later reported that Georgia was among those countries with which the United States had held “positive talks” on resettling Guantanamo detainees.

Georgia was one of the United States’ staunchest allies under the administration of former President George W. Bush and quickly volunteered to send troops to Iraq. Tbilisi has been anxious to keep warm relations with Washington, although Obama has vowed to improve ties with Moscow.

At a meeting with Saakashvili in New York on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Washington’s continued support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Analysts on Wednesday dismissed a Georgian media report that said Clinton and Saakashvili had also talked about plans to open new U.S. military bases in the country. The United States could open six bases for up to 25,000 troops in Georgia by 2014, the Resonansi newspaper reported, citing unidentified officials. It said the bases were lobbied for by a group of Republican congressmen.

The report received broad attention by Russian media on Wednesday.

But Alexander Khramchikhin, an analyst with the Institute for Military and Political Analysis, said military cooperation with Georgia would be impossible if the Obama administration wanted to improve relations with the Kremlin. “The U.S. understands very well how much that irritates Russia,” he said.

Khramchikhin said new bases in Georgia would be of little value to the United States because it already has bases in eastern Turkey.

The sensitivity of military cooperation with Tbilisi was highlighted last month when then-Georgian Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze had to retract a statement that U.S. training for Afghanistan-bound Georgian troops could also be used in the event of a new conflict with Russia. Georgia’s military was routed by Russian forces in a five-day war last year.

The United States sent a small group of military instructors to Georgia this summer to train a Georgian battalion to be deployed in Afghanistan next year.

Sikharulidze was fired by Saakashvili a week after his remarks on grounds that the country needed “a stronger hand” to rebuild its military.

Both Guantanamo and the Georgian Afghanistan contingent are possible bargaining chips for more U.S. assistance, said Ghia Nodia, a former minister in Saakashvili’s cabinet and a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University. “Of course Georgia always hopes for more,” he said by telephone from Tbilisi.

He said while the United States would be very cautious about any open military cooperation, it was sufficient that Washington had continued in its moral and political support.

“Remember that Obama stressed the differences over Georgia when he visited Moscow,” he said.

Obama noted U.S.-Russian differences over Tbilisi when he visited Moscow for a summit with President Dmitry Medvedev in July.

The Obama administration has been mired in a quandary over what to do with Guantanamo detainees. Various U.S. states have refused to take them, and so far only nine people, members of China’s Uighurs Muslim minority, have found new homes ­ four in the British overseas territory of Bermuda and five in Albania.

Palau, a Pacific Island nation, has offered to take another 13 Uighurs, but only four have agreed to move, The Associated Press reported last week. Washington reportedly offered Palau $200 million to accept them.

Russia took seven of its own citizens from Guantanamo in March 2004. Russian authorities failed to implicate the seven of any crime other than illegally crossing the border and released them. The men, natives of predominantly Muslim republics in the North Caucasus and Volga region, had been detained by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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