Tag Archives: United States

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

New START Treaty: a semi-enthusiastic “… yay.”

Sadly it seems like the Obama administration’s new standard war cry for policy is “Something is Better than Nothing!”

Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace  in Washington, DC July 26, State Department officials could hardly contain their enthusiasm for the START arms reduction treaty with Russia, saying, “the United States is better off with this Treaty than without it.”

Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller, courtesy of state.gov

Strong words, Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller, strong words.

She is right, of course, but considering many U.S. senators, who have yet to ratify the treaty, maintain serious doubts about it, you would expect a bit of a bolder sales pitch than “this washing machine probably won’t make your life worse.”

Nevermind that all but one commander of U.S. strategic nuclear command from 1981 to 2004 signed a letter to the Senate endorsing the treaty, Senate Republicans still love our nukes and hate the Ruskies.

Well, in this case they do actually have reason for suspicion.

According to a State Department report made public today, it’s not entirely clear Russia has complied with past arms reduction treaties.

The document says the U.S. government does not believe Russia is in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention because it has not declared all its stockpiles nor destroyed those it has acknowledged, despite a 1997 plan to do so.

The report also says Russia may not be in compliance with the international convention banning biological weapons. Russia committed in 1992 to dismantle a secret biological weapons program it inherited from the Soviet Union. Although Russia has said it is in compliance, it has “not satisfactorily documented whether this program was terminated,” according to the report.

Continue reading

Azerbaijan should step away from Turkey, towards Russia: Azeri diplomatic analyst

Fariz Ismailzade, director of the foreign policy programs of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, said in an interview with Azeri news service, Trend News, that as the balance of influence and power in the Caucasus continues to change, Azerbaijan should look to Russia, rather than its traditional ally, Turkey, as a strategic partner.

Fariz Ismailzade, speaking with Trend news in Baku, photo pulled from Trend.az

Fariz Ismailzade, speaking with Trend news in Baku, photo pulled from Trend.az

Trend News spoke with him after he returned from the Wilton Park Conference in London, where representatives and analysts from Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan met with EU officials to talk about South Caucasus conflicts and possible EU integration.

He said he concluded from the conference that Western influence in the region is waning and the traditional alliances in the region are slowly coming apart. Much of his pessimism seemed to be driven by the EU’s support for reopening the Turkish-Armenian border — a move Azerbaijan opposes, feeling it relieves pressure on Armenia to relinquish control of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Firstly, the EU does not understand our realities and our internal problems. Secondly, in my opinion, the West is too optimistic about the opening of Turkish-Armenian border, believing that it is even useful for the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. All our arguments that the situation is only getting worse from obstinacy of Armenia have not led to results,” [he said.]

Furthermore, he said, the West has become less committed to Georgia since the Obama administration has taken office, and now Western nations are more interested in peace-building between Turkey and Armenia. He said these actions directly “question the existence of such a strategically important project as Nabucco, and Azerbaijan gradually can increase the volume of gas supplies to Russia.”

Azerbaijan is expected to provide a crucial portion of natural gas to the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, which would run from Central Europe through the Balkans and Turkey to Caspian Sea gas fields. If Azerbaijan were to sell the rights to its natural gas supply to Russia — which has been vying aggressively for it — then Nabucco’s viability would be thrown into great uncertainty.

Overall, he said Turkey risks losing Azerbaijan as a strategic ally, and Russia’s stock is going up.

“[I]n the near future, Azerbaijan can really get closer with Russia and the situation in the region can change. If earlier in the Caucasus there were clear alliance ligaments: Russia-Armenia, Turkey – Azerbaijan, West – Georgia, after the Georgian war, the accent changed. And now Azerbaijan considers Russia as a strategic ally. At the moment everything is going to ensure that Russia becomes stronger, and the West’s position in the South Caucasus is weakening. Now, Turkey and Russia become major players in the Caucasus.”

Georgian opposition protests, demands Saakashvili resign

As many as 50,000 protesters took to the streets today in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi today as part of demonstrations aimed at wresting embattled pro-American President Mikhail Saakashvili from power.

Levan Gachechiladze, a former opposition presidential candidate, was the first to address protesters at the rally. “We came here to say: resign; resign,” he told the rally. “He [President Saakashvili] is fighting against the Georgian church, the Georgian values, he partitioned Georgia and now we should stand here unless he goes from the politics.”

Irakli Alasania, the leader of opposition Alliance for Georgia, told the protesters: “We have gathered today with one goal; to demonstrate our unity to the country’s leadership and to the world; standing together is a precondition for decisive change that we all should achieve.”

“He [Saakashvili] has promised to unite Georgia, but today the only unity that we have is here – our unity around the goal to change the authorities peacefully not through violence…  The change which is inevitable will be possible through our unity… We should all tell the authorities: its enough, go and let’s hold elections.”

Full article from Civil Georgia here.

Despite the large turnout and Saakashvili’s plummeting popularity, according to Le Monde, the opposition is unlikely to be able to put forth a candidate as influential as the sitting president.

According one one opposition spokesperson, about 60 opposition members were arrested in their homes over night in the run-up to the protests.

EU taking lead in West’s Cuba policy

I believe it is time to recognize that more than four decades of economic embargo and diplomatic isolation have produced nothing more than a failed American policy towards Cuba. The Cuban people are no more prosperous today, nor is their government more willing to submit to the will of American foreign policy.

While the U.S. continues to stubbornly pursue this failed policy, Europe is finally approaching Cuba in a productive fashion and is seeing some results. Cuba has now accepted to engage with the EU in “formal political dialogue” in hopes of eventually normalizing relations with the Union’s 27 member-states. Meanwhile, America is still not talking to the bad guys.

The success of the European Union’s approach will bode well not only for the well-being of the Cuban people and interamerican relations, but will also be a victory for diplomatic engagement over forces pursuing policies of diplomatic isolation in Western governments.

As Simon Jenkins pointed out in an insightful column this summer in the London Times, economic sanctions and other isolating measures almost always add longevity to any government the West imposes them on. Need examples? Okay, Saddam Hussein, Omar Kaddafi, Aya-tollah Khomeini, the Taliban, the Burmese generals and the rulers of North Korea.

All sanctions do is disempower the peoples of these countries through economic hardship and leave the only real power in the hands of the small groups of the elites the sanctions themselves are targeting. Furthermore, such action lends credence to the arguments of the these governments that the forces of capitalism and democracy are working against the people, and the only group they can rely on are their own corrupt leaders.

In the case of Cuba, this hard-line policy has surpassed any sense of logic. Even the Bush administration, seeing the death and destruction across Cuba caused by Hurricane Ike, was moved to offer the pariah state $6.3 million in aid. To Cuba, which has few trading partners, this gesture was useless.

Great. Money. But who can we actually buy what we need from?

The Cuban government therefore responded that the U.S. could keep its money, but if it was truly interested in helping it would temporarily lift the embargo to allow Cuba to purchase construction and relief supplies from the United States. The U.S. State Department predictably — but nonetheless inexplicably — refused.

The U.N. General Assembly has voted on this issue for 16 consecutive years with last year’s vote tallying 184-4 in favor of lifting the embargo.

Thankfully, the European Union is now adopting a policy more aligned with the near consensus of the international community. The EU already participates in some commerce with the island nation and has dangled the promise of further investment with the success of these new talks over the Castro regime’s political future.

With the total failure of the Bush administration to make signifacant gains in any international relations issue over the past seven years, the EU has finally taken its cue to step up and provide much needed leadership. Just weeks ago, EU President Nicolas Sarkozy showed the Union’s ability to take the initiative by quickly providing a brokered cease-fire between Georgia and Russia as the United States stuck to its own national interest and continued that misguided policy — providing more weapons to Georgia and negotiating even less with Russia. Even with a change at the head of the American government early next year, the world will still desperately need this assertiveness and independence on the part of the European Union in order for international issues to be resolved in a sensible manner.

Bush may scrap nuclear deal to punish Russia

Western countries continue to look for ways to react to the Georgian conflict in a way that punishes Russia and not the West. The most recent suggestion certainly does not meet that criterea.

According to the International Herald Tribune, Bush is now preparing to boot Russia from a civilian nuclear cooperation project that depended in large part on Russia’s participation.

The imminent collapse of the nuclear deal, once a top Bush priority, represents the most tangible casualty so far of the deteriorating relations with Russia after its brief war with neighboring Georgia. Vice President Dick Cheney is heading to Georgia next week, and Bush is poised to announce about $1 billion in economic aid to the country, the officials said.

The agreement would have reversed decades of bipartisan policy and allowed extensive commercial nuclear trade, technology transfers and joint research between Russia and the United States. It also would have cleared the way for Russia to import, store and possibly reprocess spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors – a lucrative business for Russia and a way for the United States to build nuclear plants while keeping radioactive waste out of less reliable hands.

President Bush broached the deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006, and the two nations signed it on Putin’s last day in office.

Although Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Vice Presidential Nominee Joe Biden has proposed a resolution approving the deal, few in Congress believe it will pass.

“Even before Georgia, there were real issues,” House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman said. “This came along, and there’s just no appetite for it now.”

This deal had once been what administration insiders considered one of the few saving graces of Bush’s foreign policy legacy. Now it will go down the same way all the rest of his would-be achievements have: with arrogance, belligerence and heavy-handedness.

Syria warms up to Russia, as Russian-American rift widens

According to the International Herald Tribune, Syria has publicly upped its outreach to Russia in the recent days, clearly taking advantage of the growing rift between Russia and the West over the Georgian conflict.

Syria’s overtures show they are apparently seeking aid and a build up of Syrian air defense forces.

Syria’s long-term aim, however, remains unclear, in part because Assad also continues to pursue peace efforts with Israel — a key U.S. and European goal — even as he makes overtures to Russia that are sure to antagonize the West. Syria has a long history of apparently contradictory diplomatic moves as it maneuvers to find options and balance its interests.

Syria openly supported Russia’s military action in Georgia, as did Iran and both are likely hoping to get kudos in return. This is exactly what Western leaders had feared.

What is clear to foreign policy experts but apparently escapes U.S. officials is that bad relations with Russia is more than one less friend in our address book. Russia is a world power, and if we antagonize them, they will antagonize right back. The West needs to decide how many new problems it is willing to take in return for standing up to Russia on the Georgia problem.

It should be noted as well, that all of this could have been — and was (in my blog) — foreseen. The United States and Europe (Russia included) made the same mistakes in this modern drama as they made in the run-up to the first World War. Seeking influence and empire they made alliances with everyone they could, hoping that would keep the balance of power in their favor, when in reality it only made conflict inevitable.

Serbia, a small country with disputed territories in a large country, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was supported by Russian Empire, which had classicly protected the Balkans’ Slavs. Serbian terrorists, protesting Austrian rule over a Serb province assassinate Prince Ferdinand. Austria-Hungary invades Serbia; Russia declares war. In accordiance with its alliance with Autria-Hungary, Germany declares war on Russia, which was allied with France. German troops advancing towards Paris pass through Belgium, by treaty bringing Britain into the war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A month later, seeing its economic interest lied with the Central Powers, the Ottoman Empire declares war on Russia, France and Britain.

We all know how well that went. So then why would we support such a foolish policy towards Georgia? The United States and NATO knew full well that Georgia had territorial disputes with Russia, but we nonetheless approached them with an alliance, one that would have threatened Russia’s national interests specifically because of these disputes. We then further destabilized the situation by creating a precedent for an ethnic minority gaining independence due to outside intervention in Kosovo, and upped our pressure to Russia in other ways (i.e. Missile Sheild, criticizing Russian democratic processes, etc).

As this new development shows, these kind of conflicts never remain conflicts between a couple or few countries. We weren’t just playing with fire in Georgia, we were playing with world war.

Who holds the cards?

As the diplomatic aftermath of the Georgian conflict goes into its second week, everyone is asking what is the West’s next move. What I am more concerned with, and what I feel is a much more interesting question is who holds the cards?

Europe, NATO and the United States certainly have far more soft power at their disposal, but given the economic ties that bind Europe and Russia and Russia’s overt disinterest tight relations with the West, what Western leaders actually do?

It is all but certain that the E.U. will not sanction Russia economically, and NATO, when threatening cutting back NATO-Russian cooperation, Medvedev threatened in return to cut all ties to NATO.  Clearly that threat didn’t carry much weight.

What that leaves is unilateral sanctions, but it appears that such actions would be unpopular in nearly all individual Western governments. While the some former Soviet countries have urged strong measures of protest, the European and American consensus has been to quietly protest while maintaining current relations where they are.

What few possible punishments remain would likely hurt the punisher’s as much as the punishee. For all of NATO’s tough talk about cooperation, they have appeared genuinely worried about losing the right to transport cargo through Russian territory, as per an agreement reached with Putin in 2001.

And any economic sanctions against Russia would involve an increase in European oil prices as they depend on Russia for about a third of their oil needs. Such an action would in severely hurt Russia, however, as it gets 60 percent of its oil revenue from Europe.

Basically no Western leaders want instability in the market or worse relations with Russia, so it looks like Georgia’s got muck with all the other players looking for ways out of the hand. There is still a pot in the middle of the table and it remains unclear who will take the geo-political win this round.

‘Russian forces responded soundly to an attack on their peacekeepers’ – U.S. ambassador to Russia

In an intense but releaving interview published in Kommersant, John Bayrle, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, took tough questions but showed optimism for future Russia-U.S. relations. Overall, the exceptional interviewer showed just how difficult it is to defend the United States’ Georgia policy on logical grounds.

Here are some of the more interesting exchanges (translated):

– No one in the upper reaches of the American administration including Bush and Secretary of State Rice has ever criticized the [Georgian] bombardment of Tskhinvali. Does this mean that the United States supports such actions?

The fact that we consistently attempted to persuade the Georgian side not to take this step, clearly speaks to the fact that we did not want all this to occur. We worked for many years with Russia in international mechanisms like the U.N. Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of Georgia in order to solve these frozen conflicts on Georgian territory. And we did not want a return to violence and use of force — the United States clearly took this stance. We see that Russian forces responded soundly to an attack on their peacekeepers in South Ossetia. But then these forces crossed into Georgian territory, and the territorial integrity of Georgia appeared at risk.

– Meaning, Russia’s reaction to the attack on Russia’s peacekeepers was legal, but Russian forces leaving the conflict zone was illegal?

We saw destruction of civilian infrastructure, and also calls by some Russian politicians to replace the democratically elected government of Georgia. Some also called Georgia’s territorial integrity into question. That’s why we think Russia went to far. And we aren’t alone in thinking so — this position is shared by many members of the international community.

– Condoleezza Rice has said that Russia acted improperly. What, in your view, would be the proper course of action for Russia?

What is important now is for Russia to adhere to the six-point peace plan, proposed by the French president and signed by all sides in the conflict. And the sooner Russia withdraws its forces to points occupied before the conflict, the sooner we can bring international observers to the conflict zone, and then, possibly, international peacekeepers to work in resolving these conflicts.

– What does the United States see as a resolution through the six-point peace plan? Russia is convinced that the only way of assuring the security of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a change in their status.

The process should begin with recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity and limits of its international borders. The resolution must also take into consideration the principle of self-determination of ethnic groups. That is the point from which the dialogue should begin, with the involvement of Russia, Georgia, countries like the United States, European Union and the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But all must begin with the acceptance that the territorial integrity of Georgia is recognized by international law.

– Your aforementioned principles contradict one another.

It is impossible to ignore that emotions are very heated after this tragic conflict. It will be difficult to begin this process and difficult to bring it to an end, but we must view the resolution of this conflict as a tangible and possible goal.

Full article (in Russian) here.

No matter which side of the fence you sit on, it’s hard to say that this was not a fascinating exchange.

My comments: The position of the United States, and subsequently the position of its ambassador, is contradictory. If we believe we can solve this conflict with absolute adherance to the priciple of sovereign territorial integrity and the self-determiniation of peoples then we are going to be in this same place twenty years from now. Abkhazians and South Ossetians have already held numerous referendums, all overwhelmingly in favor of breaking away from Georgia. Also, the inclusion of “democracy” in this dialogue is a bit absurd. We recognize the sovereignty of the semi-democratic government of Georgia, but not the democratic referendums of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia agreeing to break away from Georgia. And as far as international borders go, we didn’t respect Serbia’s territorial integrity when dealing with the break-away of Kosovo — basically we pick and choose our principles on a case-by-case basis.

It was also interesting to see Ambassador Bayrle meander around the question of what exactly the United States was against in the conflict. Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali: bad, but we won’t denounce it, Russian counter-attack: sound, but we declared it an invasion, further incursions into undisputed Georgian territory: unacceptable and illegal.

Ukraine requests participation in Missile Shield as tensions mount

According to the Australian, Ukraine has requested to participate in the Missile Shield by offering its Soviet-era radar stations to the system.

Obviously, if this sort of agreement came to fruition it would greatly aggravate already inflamed tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Last week, Ukraine declared Russia would have to inform the Ukrainian leadership of the movements of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which currently docks at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. A Ukrainian military statement last week also stated that, should those vessels engage in the Georgian conflict — which they did — they may not be allowed to return to base.

Russian officials have reacted to such restrictions with sharp disdain, saying its actions are Russian military business, and they have the right, by an agreement signed in 1997, to utilize the port Sevastopol through 2017, regardless of the political mood in Kiev.

While, Ukraine seems reticent to enforce its ultimatum and risk direct conflict with Russia, its pledge to participate in the Missile Shield shows that it plans to continue standoffish relations and not back down from its solidarity with Georgia.

What I personally find interesting is that regardless of the purpose of the Missile Shield in the first place — whether it truly was meant to be used against Iran and other rogue states — no one views its purpose as being such any longer. All sides have now used it as a pressure point for escalation and leverage in the growing tensions between the Western-backed governments in the former Soviet Union and Russia.

Among policy-makers in the Washington and Moscow, there is an widening taking place of what can be considered responses and punishments for perceived violations of each other’s national interest — all of which are destabilizing and unfortunate developments in East-West relations.

No one knows how far the chain reaction will go. Hopefully a push for normalized relations will eventually defeat the desire for brinkmanship in the two capitals.