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How a Free-Trade Pact With Georga Could Help Heal the Wounds of War

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By John F. Kerry and David Dreier
Thursday, May 7, 2009

As the Obama administration seeks a fresh start in our strained relationship with Russia, the case for cooperation with Moscow on everything from nuclear terrorism to global finance is clear and compelling. So, too, is the case for protecting the freedom and sovereignty of the fledgling democracies on Russia's borders. We must do both.

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Part of the way we can continue to support allies such as Georgia even as we do more to pursue vital national interests alongside Russia is by focusing on areas that can deliver real benefits to one side without hurting ties to the other. That's why we believe we should sign a free-trade agreement with Georgia and why we plan to introduce a resolution to this end today.

While some mistakenly view constructive relations with these two countries as mutually exclusive, we see no inherent contradiction in offering Russia a fresh start while maintaining our commitment to ensuring that its neighbors have the right to choose their own destinies. Yes, sometimes Russia and its neighbors see the world in zero-sum terms -- and sometimes their interests collide violently, as when Russian tanks rolled into Georgia last August. But we need not define our relationships with these countries the same way.

Georgia, as the scene of recent tensions, is an important place to find better approaches. It is suffering from the economic impact of two catastrophes: Soon after Russian missiles stopped falling last summer, Georgia was hit by the global economic crisis. It is vital that we help Georgia weather the economic crisis -- and doing so should not be threatening to Russia. In the past year we have largely fulfilled our pledge of $1 billion in postwar reconstruction aid to Georgia, but in the long term, increased trade and foreign direct investment would have far greater and more sustainable benefits. In the year before the war, trade between the United States and Georgia amounted to $580 million -- a total with significant room to grow.

A trade agreement with a small country half a world away would not have negative consequences for workers here at home, but it could mean a great deal to Georgians far beyond the trade it directly sparks. First, even the act of launching negotiations may increase investor confidence in Georgia and attract badly needed foreign direct investment. Our pact with Jordan shows how an American trade agreement can attract international businesses, even in volatile regions and even before the deal takes force. An agreement between the United States and Georgia could also create momentum for a similar deal between Georgia and the European Union. Building economic ties between Georgia and the West, particularly the neighboring European Union, is the least strategically costly way to significantly bolster the Georgian people's democratic and economic aspirations.

Second, bilateral trade negotiations would provide impetus for greater economic and political reform in Georgia. The Georgian people have committed themselves wholeheartedly to democracy, but the path to stable, effective and fully representative democracy is not an easy one. Greater economic engagement would provide a tremendous opportunity to hold Tbilisi accountable in its efforts to enshrine the rule of law and build the institutions that are the foundation to both democratic governance and economic prosperity.

Geography cannot be denied; Georgia and Russia should eventually restore strong trade relations. Today's standoff hurts both nations. Even two years before the conflict last summer, Russia severed transportation links and blockaded Georgian exports of mineral water, fruits, vegetables and wine. It would be a positive step if Russia removed these restrictions. It is notable that despite the rising tensions before last summer's war, the Georgian government had accepted Russian investment in Georgia, even in its infrastructure, an area in which other countries are often reluctant to allow even their friendliest neighbors to invest. Russian and Western investment should ultimately co-exist in the healthy atmosphere of a democratic Georgia whose sovereignty is respected.

Of course there will be times when we must stand on principle in the face of real disagreement -- and we certainly will. The 2008 Russian-Georgian war was a tragedy that cannot be repeated. We have both been to Georgia and met with its leaders. Georgia's people deserve praise for their impressive democratic and economic accomplishments, and America should support Georgia's undeniable right to its territorial integrity and independence.

In addition, Russia should fully implement its cease-fire agreement and adopt a more constructive attitude toward the full deployment of international monitors to help preserve peace.

But the challenges of a new moment demand a commitment to creative solutions. Economic prosperity has a way of spreading throughout both sides of a trading relationship and may offer the best long-term solution to forging some form of reconciliation between Georgia and Russia. Over time, increased trade and a higher quality of life may also help to heal wounds between Georgia and its alienated separatist regions.

History has shown that, when done right, trade brings benefits to all sides. Diplomacy can do the same. We need to use both to build closer ties with Russia even as we continue to support our friend and ally Georgia.

John F. Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. David Dreier, a Republican from California, is the ranking minority member of the House Rules Committee and co-chairman of the House Democracy Assistance Commission.


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