Issue 2 2016. April-May



Two of the front-running candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential election have ties to Georgia: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and billionaire Donald Trump. spoke with Georgians about their expectations for the race - and what the candidates could potentially mean for U.S. policy toward Georgia.

Joseph Larsen

It is campaign season in the United States. It is always campaign season in the United States, but now the candidates are playing for keeps. On November 8, 2016, Americans will go to the polls and choose the country's 45th commander-in-chief. This election year has brought a number of surprises.

Lifelong Democrat Hillary Clinton is the odds-on favorite to win both her party's nomination and the presidency but is facing unexpected challenges from the right and left in Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both political outsiders with large followings. Trump has no public-sector experience; Sanders has been a member of the Democratic Party for less than one calendar year. What is certain is that American voters face a more genuine choice than in past election years.

"There is a mess in U.S. politics," remarked Kornely Kakachia, Professor of International Relations at Tbilisi State University. Kakachia and many other Georgians are following the campaigns closely, as the United States' unique role in the international community means the outcome could impact their country's future.

The current favorite for the Republican nomination is Trump, a Manhattan billionaire who flouts conservative orthodoxy on issues from healthcare to abortion to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Trump relies on a boisterous persona and targeted insults toward immigrants, Muslims, women, and his political opponents.

On the Democratic side, Clinton is running against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-professed "Democratic Socialist." Sanders is a classic left-wing populist who resents the wealth and power amassed by America's financial and industrial elite. He vows to succeed where the Obama administration has come up short: ensuring universal healthcare and affordable tertiary education, reining in Wall Street, and getting organized money out of Washington.

Some candidates have personal ties to Georgia.

GOP frontrunner Trump has ties to Georgia. Trump visited the country in 2012 to kick off construction of the Trump Tower Batumi, a $250 million, 47-story residential building bearing his personal brand. Despite his financial presence, Georgians are more likely to view him as an enigma than an authority figure.

"[Trump's popularity] gives the wrong message to Georgians. If a stable democracy will tolerate someone like Trump, what does it mean for Georgia?," Kakachia remarked.

Clinton leads all candidates in demonstrable foreign policy expertise. She served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013 and made official visits to Georgia in 2010—where she pledged American support for Georgia's NATO aspirations—and in 2012.

Gvantsa Koberidze, a 26-year education administration professional, was straightforward about her preferred candidate: "Hillary Clinton, of course." While Koberidze doesn't view gender as a decisive factor, she believes a Clinton victory would be a symbolic step forward. "I'm pretty excited that a woman will be the next president. That's a pretty amazing thing," she added.

Clinton's reputation has been tarnished, however, by the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia, an initiative that remains deeply unpopular in Georgia. Launched less than a year after Russia's 2008 invasion, many Georgians view the reset as American acquiescence to Russian aggression.

Clinton has defended the policy, even declaring "the reset worked" in a 2014 interview with CNN. Scepticism remains. "Many Georgians would not be happy with Hillary [Clinton] as president," Giorgi Lomtadze, an analyst at the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information in Tbilisi, in an interview.

Kakachia, while critical of the reset, was less harsh toward Clinton: "She has experience in how to deal with Russia. She was doing as much as she could in the Obama administration."

Many Georgians believe the outcome will have a significant impact on their country's future, especially with regard to NATO accession.

Sergi Kapanadze, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and current Dean of Caucasus University, had this to say: "There is a chance for a window of opportunity [for NATO expansion], and you need an initiative to use it, to exploit that chance."