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Nation of Georgia punches above its weight in COVID crisis and beyond

By James C. Grant
Nation of Georgia punches above its weight in COVID crisis and beyond
The bow-shaped "Bridge of Peace" pedestrian bridge in Tbilisi, Georgia, has few visitors on Sunday, during the pandemic quarantine. Photo by Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE

May 14 (UPI) -- As the world battles soaring deaths and disruption due to the global pandemic, there's a small country in the Black Sea region that has so far managed the crisis exceptionally well: Georgia. And it has done so with the help of its most important strategic ally, the United States.

On Feb. 26, the government in Tbilisi confirmed its first case of coronavirus. Today, Georgia has just 652 confirmed cases with more than half recovering, and just 12 deaths. Its success in mitigating the spread of infection and ensuring a low death rate is not an accident. The government is providing free screening and treatment to everyone, ICU slots are plentiful and quarantine measures are vigorously enforced.

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Inter-agency government response teams met as early as January to start planning. At the beginning of the year, flights to and from China and other hot spots like Iran and Italy, were quickly suspended .The country was also among the first to implement airport screenings for infected individuals. A concerted media campaign under the guidance of health experts raised public awareness and reduced panic.

Georgia's success in fighting the pandemic has been aided by reliable allies around the world. At the center of this coordination is the U.S.-funded Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, a world-class facility owned and operated by the Georgian government. With its ability to process hundreds of COVID-19 tests in under 24 hours, the center has become a major resource for research, results and best practices not just for the region but also for the United States.

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U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan has praised the Georgian government for its "proactive steps" to contain the spread of coronavirus and its continued assistance throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, in the spirit of Cold War nostalgic info-ops, conspiracy theorists at the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the Lugar Center as a hotbed of U.S.-funded bio weapons research.

This is not the first global crisis in which the South Caucasus nation has stood side by side with the United States.

When the United States invoked Article V after the attacks of Sept. 11 -- the first and only time in Alliance history -- Georgia committed troops, infrastructure and materiel to advancing International Security Assistance Force objectives in Afghanistan. For the past eight years, Georgia has remained the largest per capita contributor to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Over 11,000 Georgian soldiers have served in Afghanistan aiding the U.S.-led war on terror, sustaining the highest per-capita losses of ISAF troops in the process. Some 7,800 Georgian troops served alongside U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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To America's credit, Washington has a track record of strong bilateral support for the small country's democratic and economic development dating back to 2001, when the two entered a partnership in the war on terror. The history of security cooperation includes the 2002 Georgia Train and Equip Program, the 2005 Georgian Sustainment and Stability Programs and, more recently, the 2016 Memorandum on Deepening the Defense and Security Partnership -- all of which focus on developing the combat readiness of Georgia's Defense Forces.

At the July 2018 Brussels summit, the United States reaffirmed its 2008 pledge to support Georgian accession to NATO. Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia makes a strong case for the country's membership to the alliance in a Washington Times op-ed, which echoed sentiments expressed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the 56th annual Munich Security Conference.

Such a move would surely be opposed by the Kremlin, but a fully integrated Georgia in NATO would undoubtedly raise the cost of Russian actions in the region and bolster NATO's key strategic asset -- deterrence. Georgia already meets NATO's GDP military spending obligation of 2 percent, has a history of joint exercises with the alliance, and a demonstrated capacity for military interoperability.

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Russia's growing adventure-seeking policies, which include open belligerence as seen in Ukraine, Syria and last year's cyberattacks on Georgia, cannot be contained and deterred without dependable and capable regional relationships. As the United States seeks to shift supply chains and trade routes away from China, Georgia's location, business-friendly policies, and close partnership with the United States make it an increasingly appealing location for siting production and transportation facilities. The passing of legislation like the Georgia Support Act last year was a positive step in the deepening of this strategic relationship.

The United States should continue to reciprocate goodwill from its Black Sea partner, providing security and economic development assistance and now, COVID-19 cooperation, given the country's successes in fighting the pandemic. The need for dependable partners in this time of public health and geopolitical upheaval is now greater than ever.

James C. Grant is is the energy, growth and security program manager at the International Tax and Investment Center, an independent, nonprofit research and education organization that promotes tax reform and public-private initiatives to improve the investment climate in transition and developing economies.

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