I am just back from Tbilisi in Georgia, where I received this unorthodox welcome from a Tbilisi-based academic. “You have heard of the end of the earth. Well this is it. We are the last outpost of western civilisation.” This is not the normal Georgian line. The usual spin is that Georgia is a central part of the west – and always has been – apart from unfortunate periods on invasion by Mongol hordes (Tamburlaine passed through on numerous occasions) – or incorporation into various incarnations of the Russian empire.
There is certainly no denying Georgia’s ancient Christian culture and its historic links to Europe. The question for the Georgians is whether all this history will help them achieve their dearest political and strategic wish – membership of Nato. Right now they are feeling a bit let down because they failed to get a “Membership Action Plan” at the recent Nato summit in Bucharest, although they did get a promise that they will be Nato members – some day. The Georgians think things are a bit more urgent than that, since the Russians are (according to them) rapidly consolidating their grip in the break-away Georgian territory of Abkhazia.
I was in Tbilisi as a guest of the Brookings Institution, which had organised a conference on the “Frontiers of Europe”. My column for the paper next Tuesday will probably be about whether the west should accept the idea of a Russian “sphere of influence” that includes Georgia.
But Georgia’s Nato aspirations were not the only fall-out from the Bucharest summit to crop up in Tbilisi. As we were assembling, Presidents Bush and Putin were meeting not too far away in Sochi in Russia. Their squabble about American plans for a missile defence system in Central Europe continues. President Bush is determined to press ahead. But not all of his compatriots are convinced. One conference participant memorably described the scheme as “a system that won’t work, against a threat that doesn’t exist, paid for with money that we don’t have.” Sounds like quite a good epitaph for the entire Bush administration to me.