Tag Archives: U.S.

When You Call Georgia, Who Picks Up the Phone?


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, courtesy of wikicommons

As Europe increasingly began integrating the European Union and becoming more of a bloc than a constellation of self-interested nations, Henry Kissinger once famously retorted, “When you call Europe, who picks up the phone?”

Georgia, which is now going through its first experience with divided government, faces a similar problem with its foreign policy.

Although the Georgian Dream government, which won parliamentary elections last fall, has formed its own cabinet and staffed the Foreign Ministry itself, that hasn’t kept officials from the previous government from representing its own foreign policy vision on trips abroad and in public statements.

After all, the United National Movement party still holds the executive branch and a sizable minority in the parliament. But, after presidential elections this October, a new Constitution will take effect and transition the country into a parliament-centric system where the president is largely a figurehead. Until then, however, the country is still run by a system with a powerful executive president.

So who’s in charge?

Technically both parties are, but they have been unsuccessful thus far in coordinating their new foreign policy together, so each side has been making foreign visits, each espousing very different viewpoints on where the country should be headed. Foreign leaders and outside observers can be forgiven for being confused by the display.

The focal point of the schizophrenic statements is, of course, Russia. Since his initial election in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili has styled himself as an anti-Russian, pro-Western crusader. Prime Minister Ivanishvili, who took power in October, meanwhile, campaigned on a pledge to improve ties with Russia. The open disagreement has already made it awkward for a number of Georgia’s partners, who also straddle the balance between Russian and Western interests.

Azerbaijan is a perfect example. Last December, Ivanishvili began his tour of Georgia’s neighbors in Azerbaijan with a delegation from the new government. In late February, President Mikheil Saakashvili did the same, this time taking with him members of the minority. No Foreign Ministry officials accompanied him. Continue reading

Spies, State Terrorism and Government Credibility

Last weekend I finally got the time to catch up on a number of projects that were hanging over my head, and among the things that I desperately needed to get done was to write a column for the Faster Times on the biggest drama of the summer: photographer spies and terrorist patsies.

Were several freelance photographers secretly spying for the Russian government? Did Russia plant a bomb at the U.S. embassy and other locations? We don’t know, what we do know is that these two much ballyhooed cases have provoked serious questions about the Georgian government’s credibility.

When I first contacted journalists and NGO workers in Georgia about coming to this country in the summer of 2009, most said that it was poor timing.

“Everyone’s on vacation, it’s too hot to work, so, nothing really happens in Georgia in the summer,” they said, “except the occasional war.”

Still that was enough for me to buy the one-way ticket and I am now moving into my third eventful summer in the South Caucasus.

This year, while the Western world was gearing up for barbeques and summer movie blockbusters, Tbilisi was host to a fascinating spy scandal involving three freelance Georgian photographers. Two of them worked directly for the government, including one who was the president’s personal photographer. They were accused of being paid to transmit sensitive government documents – including the minutes of ministerial meetings, blueprints of government buildings, official itineraries, etc. to another country.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about a series of mysterious explosions the previous fall that had rocked Tbilisi – actually “rocked” is a bit of an overstatement. All of the devices were small, causing hardly any damage and no one in Tbilisi seemed to pay much attention to them.

Either way, it has been an interesting, if swelteringly hot, couple of months.

On the explosions, I actually happened to be at the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi to interview the ambassador the day after the strange explosion occurred outside their walls. Although I was there to discuss IDP issues, I asked every aide and employee at the place what they thought it was all about. Most shrugged, figuring it was some local digging for copper, who accidentally struck a natural gas line, or perhaps some sort of odd practical joke. Who knows.  These things happen in Georgia (in March, a Georgian pensioner allegedly cut off the internet for a significant portion of the South Caucasus – including nearly all of Armenia – while scavenging for buried cables).

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U.S., EU impose the right kind of sanctions on Belarus

I’m not a huge fan of sanctions.

In fact, I tend to fully agree with London Times’ Simon Jenkins when he wrote in 2008 “Sanctions are a war waged by cowards.” Typically sanctions are ineffective, target the wrong people and sometimes can be directly counter productive.

If you want to topple an autocratic power, you don’t do so by disempowering its people by crashing the national economy. But that is exactly the logic of economic sanctions. The theory goes that by making it illegal for governments and businesses to invest or trade with the country, the regime will grow weaker, and the people will blame their new hardship on their leaders and take them down. As nice as that sounds, autocratic and bad-behaving regimes always find money for themselves and their military (by stealing more from the people), which in fact leaves them even more powerful vis-a-vis the people.

Aside from South Africa, name one country on this list where economic sanctions brought about the end to a misbehaving regime: Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Afghanistan, Serbia, North Korea. Continue reading

EU holds firm on Chinese weapons embargo

Flag of the Chinese People's Liberation Army

Despite cracks in the NATO-EU’s de facto arms embargo on Russia and hints that the EU was considering lifting its ban on weapons sales to China, EU officials confirmed this week that such a move was not going to be considered.

EU officials cited human rights and  political pressure from China concerning the nomination of Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize as the primary reasons for the resumption of the embargo, although the EU’s foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, publicly supported lifting the ban.

What is interesting is that all of the justifications for not selling weapons to China are the same for not giving guns to Russia. Russia, however, has made significant political inroads with several European nations — particularly France, which authorized a French company, shipbuilder DCNS, to build four high tech helicopter carriers for Russia.

Nonetheless, China’s foreign track record and its booming, increasingly open economy argues in it’s favor: it hasn’t used military force outside its borders in decades and it is already too economically interdependent with EU/ NATO countries to confront them directly. So, other than last year’s quarrels with the Nobel Committee, why is the EU still not selling weapons to China?

Leaving aside the moral dimension, any change on the embargo could also harm EU-US relations.

Asked by EUobserver on Tuesday if the US is reconsidering its position on China arms sales, the State Department pointed to comments made by a senior US diplomat, John Hillen, in 2005 as still being relevant. Mr Hillen at the time said that lifting the embargo would “raise a major obstacle to future US defence co-operation with Europe.”

Well, that’s that.

Why blocking the New START treaty is dangerous to Russia’s neighbors

Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who supported the START treaty before leading the charge to kill it.

Of all the various things I wanted to write about this week, the issue that got me most hot and bothered was the sudden attempts by Senate Republicans to sink the START arms reduction treaty with Russia. I’ve made no secret of my misgivings about the treaty, but failing to ratify it would be highly irresponsible, and a scary look at things to come from the new Republican Congress.

So, naturally, I railed off a rant about it this morning in the Faster Times.

Watching Russian-American relations unfold from the geopolitical tinderbox of the Caucasus, it’s hard not to feel like a flammable bystander in middle of a match fight at times. One of those times is now, as Republican lawmakers, emboldened by their party’s victory in midterm elections, are trying to kill Obama’s New START Treaty with Russia.

The new arms reduction treaty would pick up where previous post-Cold War deescalation treaties with the former Soviet Union left off, pulling back weapons systems from European soil and reducing the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons with mutual inspections to ensure compliance. This same kind of cooperation has produced agreements to put in place radiological detection systems at border posts to prevent illicit trade of nuclear materials and weapons.

State Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher wrote in a Sept. editorial in Politico:

For the past 15 years, our principal arms control agreement with Russia, START [1], has been based on President Ronald Reagan’s guiding principle, “Trust, but verify.”

But START [1], which allowed us to monitor and inspect Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, expired last December. Now, we have only trust — and that’s not enough in an uncertain world.

Kind of hard to argue with that, right? Wrong.

To keep reading, click here.

Enemies in the Caucasus, Allies in Afghanistan

Most people paying attention to the gradual post-Bush thaw in U.S.-Russian relations and increase in bilateral cooperation likely see it as a logical development between two powers that can collaborate in mutually beneficial ways. And I agree.

However, observing this from the vantage point of the Caucasus, it’s hard not to note the flakes of absurdity that shake off of the policy.

Last month was a good one for U.S.-Russian relations. First, executives from Google and other tech companies arrived in Russia as a part of a delegation led by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to examine Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s efforts to spur the emergence of a “Russian Silicon Valley.” Schwarzenegger called Medvedev an “action president” and declared that the U.S. “wants to be friends with Russia.”

Medvedev for some reason thought it was good symbolism to drive the Governator to Russia's innovative new business school in a old Soviet luxury car. Photo by Mikhail Klimenyev/Agence France-Presse

Both sides were also remarkably civil both publicly and behind the curtains when the Kyrgyz went to vote in parliamentary elections Oct. 10, in what could have made for a nasty proxy battle over a poor country that hosts both Russian and American military bases.

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All eyes on Kyrgyzstan to see if democracy improves or implodes

To preview Kyrgyzstan’s Oct. 10 parliamentary elections, Washington Diplomat Managing Editor Anna Gawel and I took a close look at the elections and the stakes for three superpowers involved in the Diplomat‘s October issue. Take a look!

As voters in Kyrgyzstan go to the polls in parliamentary elections Oct. 10, many will be watching intently for a sign of where this unstable yet strategic Central Asian nation is headed.

Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases and is a key link in energy trade and narco-trafficking routes. The country is also perpetually hobbled by ethnic strife, endemic corruption and streaks of authoritarianism. This past year alone, Kyrgyzstan has experienced bouts of upheaval that have all but wiped away hopeful memories of the so-called “Tulip Revolution” five years ago.

In April, a violent uprising toppled the autocratic regime of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, although his presence lingers in the bitterly divided nation. That bitterness came to a boil this summer when inter-communal violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s ethnically mixed south between minority Uzbeks and the majority Kyrgyz, killing at least 400 people — and possibly many more — while displacing tens of thousands.

When the ethnic fighting broke out in July, Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president, publicly requested that Russia send a peacekeeping force to help quell the violence. Interestingly though, despite Moscow’s penchant for inserting itself into the affairs of its former Soviet-bloc neighbors (most notably Georgia), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declined, saying his country would not become involved in “an internal conflict.”

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START clears first hurdle

The new START nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia quietly passed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday with little opposition.

[A] wild card emerged when Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) told the hearing that intelligence agencies had, at the last minute, produced “some very serious information that directly affects what we’re doing here.”

He did not reveal the information, but later told the blog the Cable that it involved Russian cheating on arms-control agreements. [...]

A classified State Department report produced this year determined that New START was “effectively verifiable.” Another State Department report said that Russia had observed the “central limits” of the first START treaty, although it noted there were disputes over compliance.

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Saakashvili celebrates victory over Russia

Saakashvili meets with Georgian troops at the Krstanisi military base in February.

Saakashvili meets with Georgian troops at the Krstanisi military base in February.

Apparently I missed a rather odd weekend in Tbilisi.

Throughout the region, local journalists and politicians mark August 7-8 on their calendar for the usual stories and statements about the anniversary of the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. The political leaders of Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia snipe and grandstand and journalists write up something quick about where the two sides stand today.

I didn’t stay for the fireworks and instead marked the war’s birthday by trekking my way through Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park in central Georgia.

Surprisingly, what I missed in Tbilisi was, indeed, fireworks.

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