VILNIUS - Reeling from the political and socioeconomic fallout from the war with Russia last August, tough times continue to haunt Georgia. In the streets of Tbilisi, mobilized opposition groups have repeatedly called for the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The country's once soaring economy, brought to a crashing halt following the conflict with Russia, faces an anemic recovery this year. Moreover, the country still suffers from Russian ambition to reassert its influence over the South Caucases 's exacerbated by the upcoming NATO exercises in the region.
Despite the swarm of political challenges facing Georgia today, the past year has seen this tiny mountain nation continue to strengthen its close ties to Lithuania. The Baltic state, in response, has consolidated its position as one of the most vocal supporters in the EU for diplomatic and humanitarian assistance to Georgia. In a visit to Vilnius last October, President Saakashvili expressed his gratitude for Lithuanian assistance during the war.
After the war broke out on Aug. 8, 2008, Lithuania immediately sent two relief packages consisting primarily of food, pharmaceuticals, burn treatment packages, antibiotics, emergency shelter tents (accommodating 500 people) and donated blood. A third package followed a few days later, which included additional tents, sleeping bags, and electric stoves, as well as further medical supplies.
In total, the three packages were delivered at a combined value of approximately 460,000 litas. At the same time, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively coordinated public support for the war-affected Georgian population, the results of which culminated in private donations totaling approximately 355,000 litas. Four Lithuanian military planes were used to transport the materials.
Paralleling the outpouring of humanitarian assistance, Lithuania demonstrated its strong political commitment to Georgian sovereignty at the start of the conflict.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, along with the Presidents of France, Ukraine and Poland, traveled to Tbilisi on Aug. 12 in a substantive display of European solidarity. Following an official statement from the Lithuanian President's press office, the unanticipated state visit was "to support Georgia amid the occupation of its territory by the Russian army, to support the Georgian people and its legally elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili."
Speaking at a joint news conference in Tbilisi, President Adamkus called on Western leaders to show stronger support for Georgia, while warning that the failure of making "a proper assessment" of Russia's actions could have devastating consequences, the political equivalent of appeasement prior to the Second World War.
Following their visit, on Aug. 19 Polish President Lech Kaczynski and President Adamkus issued a joint declaration calling for the immediate implementation of NATO Membership Action Plans for both Georgia and Ukraine. In the wake of the Georgian crisis, the declaration read that "Russian actions in the sovereign country of Georgia have gone far beyond any reasonable steps to ensure the safety of civilians and peacekeepers and have escalated to open looting, targeted destruction of the Georgian economy, landscape and nature, and killings which have the obvious signs of ethnic cleansing in the territories controlled by Russian troops."
Throughout the month of August, the deepening support demonstrated by the Lithuanian government was accompanied by an enthusiastic display of solidarity with Georgia amongst the Lithuanian people.
As a Georgian diplomat residing in Vilnius observed, "Georgian flags decorated car windows in a symbolic display of support, while I was amazed by the number of young people asking for donations in supermarkets, as well as all the generous humanitarian aid and Lithuanians donating blood for war victims."
During the annual Be2gether music festival in Norviliskes held from Aug. 14 to 17, emotionally charged rock songs were dedicated to the Georgian people, while organizations such as the Democracy and Development Assistance Fund successfully collected relief funds.
In the aftermath of the war, among the most salient political issues in Georgia has been Russian military occupation of new territories in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, areas in which there had been no troop presence prior to Aug. 7.
Along with Poland, Lithuania persistently insisted that partnership talks between the EU and Russia be postponed indefinitely until Russian troops withdrew to their pre-war positions. Following Presidents Adamkus and Kaczynski, "we call on the international community and the governments of the European Union to demand full and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory in compliance with the Aug. 12 ceasefire agreement, which was unanimously confirmed by the European leaders at the September 1st EU Summit."
While the EU ultimately decided to renew talks with Russia last November 'sdespite the failure of the Russian military to abide by the terms agreed upon in the ceasefire 's Lithuania has remained the sole EU-member country to strongly object, asserting that the EU policy decision was a grave diplomatic mistake. Time will tell if the Lithuanian president's fears are manifested.
Looking at long-term trends in the development of Georgian-Lithuanian relations, political leaders in both nations have actively cooperated in their efforts to consolidate Georgian democracy. A December visit to Tbilisi by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas represented the continuation of diplomatic support.
Additionally, parliamentarians from Tbilisi have regularly visited Vilnius as part of an exchange program designed to become more familiar with the governing institutions and practices of Lithuania's thriving democracy.
Likewise, Lithuanian politicians have recognized the profound changes that have taken root in Georgia since the 2003 Rose Revolution. As far as transparency and openness go in the conduct of Georgian elections, Lithuanian MP Egidijus Vareikis commended the "tremendous changes witnessed in only two electoral cycles" after observing Georgian democracy at the polls over the past five years.
Another Lithuanian MP, Emanuelis Zingeris, calls on Tbilisi to continue developing as an increasingly international capital. In addition to discussing European and local affairs, in the future Georgia could expand its cosmopolitan vision "to host discussions of broader regional conferences such as Christian-Muslim dialogue."
Ultimately, Lithuanians recognize the immense challenges facing Georgia today. Full integration with Europe without Abkhazia or South Ossetia remains politically unrealistic, while the durability of Georgian democracy remains contingent on the development of a healthy, competitive political party system.