Category Archives: US

NATO’s “Small Talk”

On March 26, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Tbilisi and met high officials, including PM Giorgi Bakhtadze and President Salome Zurabishvili. During his “blitzkrieg” visit, Stoltenberg firmly re-iterated the Alliance’s official standpoint once again: Georgia will become a member of the military bloc and Russia has no rights or power to oppose it. Yet, according to mainstream media outlets, this time Secretary-General added “very soon,” wording that offered more concrete timing and raised hopes that the so-called MAP (Membership Action Plan) will finally be granted to the small Caucasus country.

Unarguable, such high-level visits are extremely important to maintaining Georgia’s aspirations for NATO membership and, generally, to keep spirits high on the ground. But Tbilisi has been hearing such promises of commitment on a regular basis for the last decade, with visits from NATO officials having become something of an annual tradition. We can easily argue that Jens Stoltenberg’s trip to Tbilisi was another example of NATO “small talk” without real outcomes for MAP issuance, but with more serious consequences for local society and its perception of the real ongoing processes in global politics.

NATO & Democracy

NATO has little to do with democracy. The Alliance is a military bloc based on ideology and with concrete geopolitical interests; in this case, democracy is just an additional advantage. These assumptions must be made clear when it comes issuing membership. It is obvious that, according to Western democratic standards, neither Georgia nor Ukraine are actually ready to satisfy such strong requirements; to say nothing of the 2008 period when Tbilisi and Kiev hoped to get MAP and had strong support from the US government. The promise given by the Bucharest Summit Declaration to open doors for these two states in the future was clearly the result of geopolitical calculations that dealt with strengthening the Eastern flank of the bloc and bringing NATO forces closer to the Russian border.

So far, using lack of democracy in Georgia as an explanatory variable for MAP refusal is an outdated trick to avoid naming the real reasons; seemingly, the only group of people who might still trust such arguments are regular citizens.

Russia, Rights & the Black Sea Region

Despite loud claims that Russia has no rights and no powers to oppose Georgia’s integration, it actually has. Moscow’s geopolitical interests stopped Tbilisi from getting MAP in 2008 and it is the only opinion that matters when it comes to the decision-making process. Putting aside political rhetoric, Russia does not need special rights to counter NATO’s policy on the Eastern flank. Every single political actor by default has the right to protect its own political, economic and social standpoints. Thus, the Kremlin has the right to defend its national interests without being granted “permission” from the West or any other actor. What actually matters is whether Russia also has the economic and military strength to back up any protest. Even though Moscow is no match for Washington in general, the state currently possesses enough accumulated power to counter the West, especially near its borders and geopolitically important life-space. Furthermore, the Russian policy of containing NATO enlargement is perceived as crucial by the majority of society; this is not constructed by Putin’s regime but a factual given. As such, the Kremlin will do its best not to let Tbilisi or Kiev be granted Alliance membership.

Whether officially noted or not, the highest and most influential political actors in the West are well-aware of Russia’s NATO fears; additionally, Georgia’s strategic partners understand that, historically, Moscow has always been keen to fight such threats by all means necessary. That is why they are not in a hurry to give a green light for the next stage of the military bloc enlargement. Even worse, NATO representatives are unsure whether bringing the organization to the Black Sea region will actually lead to more stability and prosperity or, by intervening in the so-called Russian “zone of interest,” instead lead to a direct or indirect military clash that will destabilize the whole post-Soviet space. Today, the West, and Western European states in particular, are not ready to be involved in such dramatic processes.

Negative effects of the NATO “small talk”

While looking at NATO’s annual “small talk” in Georgia, we need to raise another issue that deals with negative consequences. First, such harsh and provocative statements by high-rank officials create and maintain false expectations and perceptions of global political processes. Georgian society is being kept in a virtual reality where Russia allegedly has no rights and powers while Tbilisi’s NATO membership issue has been stretched over a decade due to unrealistic claims of a “lack of democracy.” Secondly, NATO has been transformed into a fixed idea, an obsession that clouds the judgement of local elites and regular citizens alike, while human resources are shifted from improving domestic challenges to the desperate effort to get that MAP. People have really started to believe that once in the military Alliance, democratic institutions will appear by default and the Russian threat will simply vanish. It’s a bitter pill that at the end of the day may lead to dramatic nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift, as happened with Turkey and its European integration dreams. Ad notam, that is why all main elitist INGOs and NGOs in Georgia tried hard to put the issue of foreign policy orientation into the new constitution. This is the third possible negative outcome of a short-sighted NATO policy.

By and large, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi is important for the country to feel the Alliance’s support. But it could have been even more positive if the organization’s high-officials had held back from giving false promises and “small talk” about granting MAP to Georgia; especially using the argument that Russia has nothing to do with NATO enlargement. These assumptions mislead local elites as well as society. Georgia has achieved a respectable enough level of democracy to appeal and to start slowly becoming an inherent part of the military bloc. But this aspiration will not be satisfied unless the Kremlin stops opposing it. Moscow does not need permission to defend its national interests; moreover, it has enough strength to do so. At the same time, NATO’s annual “small talk” has significant negative outcomes for Georgia. People are being kept in a bubble of falsehood where the basic laws of global politics are abandoned; secondly, the issue itself has become so politicized that it clouds the judgement of decision-makers on the ground who put more effort into becoming a NATO member than into building democratic institutions. And finally, the absence of real outcomes of Georgian-NATO cooperation may push for more nihilism and even to a foreign policy shift.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Georgia’s North Macedonian Dream

On March 12, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the membership of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Prominent American politician and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright re-iterated NATO’s open-door policy and assured Georgia and Ukraine that they will become Alliance members once the two countries are ready. Earlier, on June 12, 2018, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia signed the so-called Prespa Agreement according to which the latter will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia while Greece will finally agree to support its long-standing aspirations of acquiring the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Currently, the Republic of North Macedonia is on its way to joining the military bloc. The latest happenings raised new hopes among the so-called pro-NATO groups in Georgia that their state is next on the list.

Meanwhile, there are serious doubts as to whether the offering of NATO membership to the Republic of North Macedonia is a real precedent for Georgia and Ukraine. These Eastern European states face far more serious challenges attached to global politics, geopolitics and confrontation between the West and the East. At present, it is unlikely the North Macedonian experience can be readily applied.

Names Matter

The name dispute is a long-standing confrontation with old roots. Macedonia is a historical region associated with Greece and Alexander the Great. Nowadays, ancient Macedonia approximately corresponds with the modern Greek region of Macedonia and has little to do with the Republic of North Macedonia. Athens blamed Skopje of trying to assign symbols and figures that were initially perceived as part of Greek culture. Furthermore, there were fears of irredentism. Millions of Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, and officials in Athens had concerns this might lead to some concepts of so-called United Macedonia threatening the territorial integrity of the state.

So far, the case of the Republic of North Macedonia is unique and inapplicable to Georgia and Ukraine due to its comparative simplicity. The only actor that opposed Macedonia joining NATO was Alliance member Greece. No global politics was involved. Furthermore, there was only one demand that Athens had for Skopje – to change its constitutional name. Generally speaking, the whole dispute surrounded the name of the state and the main challenge was to persuade local elites to negotiate and make a deal using a “win-win” approach. Former confronting sides belonged to so-called small actors that are more vulnerable to external pressure and influence.

The Georgia Case

Whether you perceive NATO as a military bloc, democracy promoter, hybrid organization or something else, it is obvious that modern Ukraine is not ready to join the club. This lack of readiness can be seen on every level of the state build-up. On the opposite side, there is Georgia, which has by all means managed to satisfy NATO requirements; Tbilisi does not need to be ready for Alliance membership because it already is. Thus, we need to abandon this frequently-used-by-various-Western-high officials argument and be clear about the real challenges, recognizing that they are much more complicated than Athens and Skopje.

Perhaps the biggest need is to acknowledge separatism and irredentism as actually-happened facts. Georgia has two separatist regions supported by its northern neighbor, the Russian Federation. Additionally, at least some actors in Tbilisi realize that, besides the Russian factor, there are also significant issues to deal with on the ground, especially when it comes to conflict in the Abkhazia region. An even more complicated situation is seen in Ukraine, where the Crimean Peninsula was integrated by the Kremlin into the state while self-proclaimed Donbas and Luhansk on the east receive military and financial support.

We also need to consider Moscow and its geopolitical agenda. Unlike Greece and Macedonia, Russia is a “great power”. Of course, it is no match for the USSR, US and/or China, but it still possesses enough accumulated military power, backed by a vast territory and natural resources, to promote national interests and counter any other global actor. The Kremlin perceives both Georgia and Ukraine as zones of influence, “living space” and “security belt” and so the integration of these two states into NATO is a direct threat to its fundamental interests. And there is no point presenting the Alliance as a Russia-friendly military bloc: the Kremlin will perceive it as a threat while NATO prospers and Russia is not a member.

Unfortunately for Tbilisi and Kiev, their separatist regions have become battlefields between the united West and the East, meaning Russia, China and all those actors that aspire to shake the existing global political order, with the US on top. This fact makes it even more complicated to solve disputes on the ground due to their transformation from local (especially in Georgia’s case) to global: global actors are involved, and their goals go far beyond simple conflict resolution.

The reasons outlined above are real challenges that Georgia and Ukraine experience on their way to NATO membership. And while on the ground, Alliance representatives may speak about an open-door policy, but factually these “doors” will be opened only verbally.

By and large, the so-called Macedonian precedent has nothing to do with NATO aspirations for Tbilisi and Kiev. The name dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia was comparatively simple, while Georgia and Ukraine face extremely serious challenges, including separatism, irredentism, the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda and, of course, war for the future of global politics.

Thus, Georgia will need to wait a while on the list. But it is highly important for these two countries to continue state building, whether with MAP or not; officials must finally understand and accept that the ongoing build-up is not for NATO but for the prosperity of the people on the ground.

The article was initially published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

“The Decline of Europe” a Hundred Years Later (Debate), Journal «The New Past», №2, 2018

Questions for Discussion are following:

  1. Is there a “decline of Europe” as a conceptual model today? What are its characteristics?
  2. Can we talk about the specifics in the perception of the “decline of Europe” from the inside and outside? And if so, what are the differences in conceptual approaches to this problem?
  3. Can we assess the migration crisis, regionalism, identity crisis and solidarity in Europe as an “evidence of the decline of Europe”?
  4. Are the integration projects of the Eurasian Union, the New Silk Road (One Belt — One Road) a symptom of the extinction of European civilization in the post-war format familiar to us from the 1940s?
  5. Did Oswald Spengler’s forecasts come true?

Disputants:

Archil Sikharulidze, co-founder, Center of System Political Research (CSPR), editor of the Georgian Journal of System Politics (GJSP), Georgia;

Thomas Kruessmann, Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c., LL.M. (King’s College), School of Politics and International Relations of University of Kent (Great Britain), co-ordinator of the Jean Monnet Network “Developing European Studies in the Caucasus” with the University of Tartu / Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies and Senior Expert in the EU Technical Assistance Project “Strengthening Teaching and Research Capacity at ADA University” in Baku (Azerbaijan);

Rustem Davletgildeev, Doctor of Law, Academic coordinator of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in European Studies VOICES+, Vice-dean of the Faculty of Law on International Activity, Kazan Federal University, Russia;

Bryan Christiansen, Chief Executive Officer, Global Research Society, LLC, USA;

Goran Ilik, PhD, Faculty of Law, “St. Kliment Ohridski” University — Bitola, Republic of Macedonia;

Aijarkyn Kojobekova, PhD in Philosophy, Associate professor, Senior Adviser on Research, UNUM, Training, Research and Analytics Company, Kyrgyzstan.

«Закат Европы» Сто Лет Спустя/“The Decline of Europe” a Hundred Years Later

The Kvirikashvili Initiative & Georgia’s Overblown Sense of Political Self-Importance

On March 9, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on the Russian Federation to initiate constructive dialogue. Moreover, he expressed readiness to start direct talks with representatives of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. This initiative was a response of the local government to an incident involving Georgian citizen and former military staff member Archil Tatunashvili, who was arrested on February 22 by so-called South Ossetian KGB agents and transferred to Tskhinvali. He later died in the city hospital in dubious circumstances, supposedly “from a heart attack.”

Kvirikashvili’s statement had a double-effect. On the one hand, some praised it as a politically balanced and well-thought out decision while others, including the country’s leading oppositional forces, considered the call a total capitulation to the separatist forces and the Kremlin. Some even argued that the government is pursuing more of a retreat-approach than a cooperation-policy. Finally, there were allegations that direct talks with the separatist regions may lead to their international recognition and legitimization.

It is doubtless complicated to foresee the implications of the initiative in general, but the critical reactions from various actors once more prove that some members of local political, civil society and academic elites are unaware of the situation on the ground in terms of the Georgian-Russian confrontation. The critiques seem to be more political-ideological than a result of serious political analysis.

The Georgian-Russian Confrontation

First, we need to bear in mind that there is no Georgian-Russian confrontation. Mikhail Saakashvili’s grand goal was to involve the West in these inter-state relations, it being a significant political, economic and military power, in order to counter Moscow. He managed to do so and it is no secret that the so-called August 2008 War was and is still considered by Georgia’s strategic allies and the Kremlin as a confrontation between the West and the Russian Federation. Nowadays, Georgian-Russian relations are no longer considered only in the scopes of West-Russia affairs; but issues dealing with separatist regions and the unilateral recognition of statehoods of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia still fall under the West-Russia confrontation paradigm. This paradigm restrains Georgia as a political player, and its capabilities are miserable; pressed from all sides by actors whose ambitions and interests go far beyond Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Russian confrontation issues.

As yet, it is pretty questionable as to whether we can demand from Kvirikashvili’s government a “proper” reaction to the significant misdeeds done by representatives of the separatist regions and/or Moscow; questionable because Georgian officials are put simply, strangled on the ground to such extent they can be considered more as observers than members of a fully-recognized political actor. We can argue that the negative assessment of the initiative from the main local political opposition forces is merely a PR campaign, but what seems most disturbing is the inadequate reaction from civil society and academic staff members, who called for the taking of “respective measures;” this being more a reflection of lack of awareness and, of course, a perfect example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.

Modern Georgia does not possess the respective political, economic or military mechanisms to influence either the West nor the East (Russian Federation) or even the separatist regions. Generally, the game is on totally another level and the only thing that local government can do is to try and keep the existing status-quo.

The West-East Confrontation

Political processes that are in place in the separatist regions of Georgia and Ukraine (including military confrontation in the Eastern part) are crucial for the West, especially for the American establishment. This importance is due to the effect they have on the existing global political order; the fate of the international system depends on the outcomes of these processes.

It is no secret that the global world order established after the Cold War by the West is under serious assault. The Russian Federation, China, India, Brazil are countries already making significant steps to put forward their own national interests that erode the post-Cold War system and threaten its integrity and stability; furthermore, the states are working hard to finally balance America’s political, economic and military power on an international level. Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia as independent states, as well as the annexation of Crimea, are important parts of this erosion process. Moscow is trying to break crucial laws of the system established by the West and prove that it can unilaterally decide and handle global political tasks itself. In Georgia’s case, these topics deal with such fundamental principles as sovereignty and territorial integrity.

One of the main pillars of the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the undisputed nature of member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. An exception can be made if there is a consolidated decision inside a society supported by international law and with approval from the West. The Kremlin broke this sacred formula and without “approval,” crafted two new “sovereign” subjects of the international system. For the US and its allies, this is very dangerous precedent that may firmly lead to the rise of a new wave of separatism in general. But, most significant, this is an open appraisal against the system and the rules set by the West, and if Russia succeeds, the global world order’s stability and integrity will be broken and will start to unravel. Ultimately, the West will lose its privileged position and US its status of the world’s “sheriff.” The American political establishment is aware of the apocalyptic picture and will do its best to avoid this undesirable scenario.

Hence, Kvirikashvili’s initiate to start direct talks with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia will definitely not lead to recognition of the unrecognized regimes by the West and international society as a whole. This is simply impossible because the issue is not about Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity anymore; it is already about the stability of the system. And Georgia’s strategic partners will not provide us with respective triggers to make decisions that may somehow initiate dramatic developments. The West will not recognize either Abkhazia, or the so-called South Ossetia while the processes on the ground are kept out of the scopes of international law; something that will never be good for the Kremlin. At present, it matters not whether the Georgian government will have a direct or indirect dialogue with Sukhumi and/or Tskhinvali. This is another example of an overblown sense of political self-importance.

The Kvirikashvili Initiative

Basing on the judgements given above, it is questionable whether we can accuse Giorgi Kvirikashvili of treason and/or concessions. We may argue that the Georgian government is using all accessible means to handle the conflict. Moreover, it once more proclaimed readiness for open dialogue and, according to the same Western standards, showed political maturity. Kvirikashvili has opted for a pragmatic and balanced policy based on careful analysis of the power balance on the ground. By making a reserved statement, despite the painful incident with Archil Tatunashili’s death, Georgia gained the so-called ‘moral superiority’ over governments of the separatist regions and Moscow, too. Tbilisi proved that it is still the only constructive political actor in the conflict.

With regards to statements made by the United National Movement and Movement for Liberty, we should keep in mind that these oppositional parties are built around the Russian narrative. Radical opposition to Moscow is the only thing that makes them different from other pro-Western groups. Thus, they cannot go beyond this ideological platform, beyond the “Russian framework”.

Georgia’s political, economic and military powers are miserable. Nowadays, Tbilisi lacks the mechanisms to influence processes in the conflicting regions at all. Moreover, the zone of Georgian-Russian confrontation is, in practice, a field of West vs Russia rivalry where the fate of the existing political order is being handled. So far, Georgia is more an observer than an actual political power. The only thing that local government should do is to cooperate with strategic partners, remind them about its national interests and hope for a better future; and, of course, to try to maintain the status-quo on the ground. The Kvirikashvili initiative perfectly reflects these realities and is an attempt to use all accessible means to bring stability and peace to civilians.

The article was originally published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.

Empathy Lessons: Why Donald Trump’s Presidency is Good for U.S.-Russia Relations

Trump’s presidency might teach Americans a good lesson: They will understand what Russia felt during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s. Trump for the U.S. is an American version of Yeltsin, who put Washington in an awkward position before the world.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 American elections “will have consequences” and Washington will undertake new measures “in response to Russian cyberattacks,” said The White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders during the Feb. 20 press briefing. U.S. President Donald Trump “has been tougher on Russia” than his predecessor Barack Obama, she added. Her statement came after Special Council Robert Mueller accused 13 Russians of meddling in the U.S. presidential elections within the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing Russia probe.

“It’s very clear that Russia meddled in the election.  It’s also very clear that it didn’t have an impact on the election.  And it’s also very clear that the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russians in any way for this process to take place,” highlighted Sanders.

Indeed, unlike Obama, Trump conducted a tougher policy toward Russia despite his intentions to normalize the relations with Moscow. Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladinmir Putin succeeded in establishing personal chemistry during the G20 summit last summer, but it didn’t help.

“He [Trump] helped push through $700 billion to rebuild our military <…> He has helped export energy to Eastern Europe <…> He has put and upheld sanctions that the Obama administration put in place. He has upheld those. He has closed three diplomatic properties that were Russia’s, here in the United States. He has taken a number of actions against Russia and put pressure on them,” said Sanders.

Ironically, Russia’s political elites were happy with Trump’s victory at the presidential race, because they believed that the billionaire would be more pragmatic with Russia that his counterpart from the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton. Trump repeatedly called for a dialogue with the Kremlin and expressed a lot of kudos to President Putin during the presidential campaign and after it, when he moved to the White House.

No wonder, his victory was met with a big surprise and indignation by the American establishment. Trump is still facing the accusations of colluding with the Kremlin, with both democrats and republicans pointing fingers at Russian hackers, who are to be blame for having hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers.

Although the question of the “hidden Russian hand” is far from being resolved, the fact that Trump, a non-systemic politician, won presidency may teach Americans a very important lesson.

Trump’s America vs. Yeltsin’s Russia

In 2003 well-known American diplomat Strobe Talbott, a former deputy State Secretary (1994-2001), released a book titled The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy. In this work, he remembers the times of the warm relations between former U.S. President and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin. However, he pays little attention to the Russian perception of the Clinton-Yeltsin friendship.

While American political establishment saw Yeltsin and his team as a positive force, which tried to build democracy in Russia, the Russian political elites and electorate were skeptical about him. They keep viewing him as a failure and don’t approve his pro-Western reforms. 56 percent of Russians believe that the Yeltsin era brought to Russia more problems, but in December 2000, 75 percent of respondents negatively assessed his presidency, according to a 2016 Levada center poll. Only 11 percent of Russians welcome the 1990s liberal reforms in Russia, with 58 percent denouncing them.

Today journalists also write about the Putin-Trump friendship, and the rankings of the American president are also low in the U.S. As a result of the first year of his tenure, his popularity is decreasing, according to recent polls. He has the lowest approval rankings in the U.S. modern history: Two-thirds of Americans believe that Trump’s presidency significantly divided the country, according to AP’s polls. He is supported by 35-37% of the U.S. population, according to the Gallup and CNN researches.

The similarities between the Trump era and the Yeltsin era go far beyond this. More broadly, today the positions of Moscow and Washington are changed: Previously, Russian political elites talked a lot about the U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, today the American establishment is obsessively concerned with the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the U.S. internal politics. In this situation, one should take into account several factors.

First, every country tries to influence the politics in other states, which are under the realm of its national interest. In this regard, neither Russia nor America can be the exception. Take the 1823 Monroe Doctrine: The U.S. announced both Americas as the continents under its influence. Washington referred to this document to justify its interference in the domestic affairs of those Latin American countries, which conducted unfriendly policy toward the U.S. It was a matter of defending U.S. national interests. And it is normal for Washington’s current policy.

Second, the alleged attempts of the Russian hackers to get into the American servers are not new: there are suspicions that American and Chinese IT specialists also do the hacking.  Even if Russians indeed hacked the U.S. electoral system, this interference could hardly have any impact on the results of the elections.

And this factor does matter, because the key difference between Yeltsin’s Russia and Trump’s America is clear: The Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. internal politics is not yet proven, while Washington’s interference in Russia’s 1996 presidential election is a matter of fact.

After the failure to implement effective economic reforms and the military defeat in the first Chechen war, Yeltsin approval rankings plummeted below 10% in February 1995. He was about to fail the presidential elections, while the communists were taking the lead: their party won 22 percent of votes as a result of the Dec. 17 parliamentary election in 1995, with the Yeltsin-led party having garnered no more than 10 percent. Thanks to Russian business and American spin-doctors, Yeltsin won the presidency for the second time, as Times wrote.

Bitter pill

Yeltsin’s presidency was not easy for Russia. Everybody ridiculed the country at that time. Today everyone mocks the United States because of Trump: his presidency is a big embarrassment for America. And this feeling is aggravated, because Moscow laughs at Washington and its ongoing Russia probe. The fact that Moscow overtly expressed its pleasure over Trump’s election fuels the anger within the American establishment, which develops fertile soil for new McCarthyism or another Witch Hunt: The American political elites are feeling their vulnerability and the lack of confidence [in the 1950s the U.S. went through the era of spying mania, with communists or those who allegedly had links with them having been prosecuted — Rethinking Russia].

Yet even though Trump is a nightmare for a liberal America, his presidency could be a bitter, yet healing pill, that allows Washington to put itself in Russia’s shoes in order to understand it and the origins of anti-Americanism in the country. Who knows, but in the long-term this will be good for U.S.-Russia relations. It remains to be seen.

The article was initially published by analytical outlet ReThinkingRussia. It is available here.

Scapegoating Russia

Twenty years ago, when the Russian economy was in tatters during the turbulent presidency of Boris Yeltsin, few could imagine that within a period of just two decades, Russia would be in the media spotlight as one of the West’s key troublemakers. Today, many opponents criticize Russia for its perennial human right abuses, assertive foreign policy and authoritarian regime. It is natural, at least because they can score political points: Russia has become a global player that is worthwhile and politically expedient to lambast.

Without doubt, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy is very controversial, but this is not the only reason why the West has seemingly launched a crusade against the Kremlin. Some experts and politicians tend to point their fingers at Russia no matter what has happened: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hidden machinations are everywhere, his influence is omnipresent.

It remains to be seen whether it is true or not, yet this should be addressed via thorough and competent investigation and the court, not through allegations. No matter what, but one thing is clear: behind this campaign against Russia is the West’s natural need to find a real adversary who might pose an existential threat.

It is no secret that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western free and liberal world came up with the idea of “the end of history,” promoted by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama. NATO members started believing that they were invincible, with their values and views becoming more viable with every passing day. Thus, the West rigorously encouraged other countries to accept its system of values and sometimes tried to impose its rules.

The military operation in Afghanistan was only the beginning; when that was completed, it turned into another campaign – in Iraq. The West’s attempt to expand its influence in the post-Soviet space was interpreted by the Kremlin and its like-minded supporters as attempts to orchestrate a “color revolution,” be it in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) or Kyrgyzstan (2005). The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in 2011 was another stage of the West’s endeavor to spread its values abroad. Finally, the apex of the Western crusade became the attempts to overthrow the political regimes in Syria and Libya, both of which turned into bloody and never-ending civil wars.

Ironically, the West didn’t achieve its results and plans in most cases, and all its noble attempts to “export” democracy abroad only backfired. Far from becoming more democratic and stable, the countries and the region was faced with a severe crisis. It became obvious that the Western scenario could not keep up with the harsh reality. Naturally, this discredited democratic values and democracy itself (as a tool of foreign policy).

When Barack Obama came into the Oval Office, the image of the United States had been already tainted and the new president had to shoulder this burden. Yet he was not able to deal with it — he didn’t fulfill his pre-election pledges to close the notorious prison in Guantanamo or withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, regardless of his plan to shy away from an assertive foreign policy, he didn’t stop U.S. attempts to interfere into the domestic policy of other countries. This also hampered America’s reputation as well as the image of Obama’s Democratic Party in general. This created a fertile ground for the emergence of populist forces and the rise of flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump, who finally won the U.S. presidency. He promised to stop the democratic crusade abroad and focus more on domestic problems.

In this situation, oddly enough, Russia might play a very important role in returning the Western liberal forces back to power. Paradoxically, Russia has already started bringing the West’s politicians together — but not as a positive factor, but rather, as a threat. As indicated by the 2017 Munich Security Conference, the West does understand the need to unite and refute anti-democratic and populist forces.

The mainstream narrative, which is actively circulated in America, is crystal clear: Putin and, specifically, Russia’s hackers, contributed to Trump’s victory in the presidential election and Brexit; Russia’s intelligence rigged the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia to bring to power pro-Russian parties. This narrative is consistent even in the context of the upcoming elections in France and Germany: the media and pundits are mulling over a possible victory of pro-Russian candidates Francois Fillon or Marine Le Pen; they speculate about the possible failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, well-known for her tough and intransigent approach toward the Kremlin.

However, one relevant question comes to one’s mind: Did Russia really have such an impact on all these political processes? Why Russia, not China or some other country, let’s say? If Russia is so powerful and omnipresent that means that the U.S. is no longer a superpower — it has been replaced by Russia, as Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Derek Averre of the University of Birmingham ironically implied during one of the 2016 meetings with Georgian pundits, who warned about Russia’s increasing influence.

To follow such logic, only a country that is economically, politically and militarily equal to the U.S. might have an impact on America’s domestic policy. But Russia is far from this level at the moment. The hacking attacks were commonplace, they have been undertaken and they will be carried out from both sides in future. And this is natural.

Regarding Brexit and the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, these events indicated that the local political elites and their strategic partners were not able to recognize the indignation of voters as reality. In the case of Georgia, the authorities were reluctant to admit that its former President was authoritarian in his nature.

Likewise, if the liberal and politically correct forces in France and Germany fail, their defeat will be a result of the domestic political processes in these countries. For example, the refugee crisis might play a significant role: Merkel’s noble, if utopian, plan to shelter many refugees in Germany and immediately integrate them into society might backfire.

Naturally, in such an environment it is politically beneficial to lambast and point fingers at Russia. By the same token, the Kremlin is the best candidate to blame for all Western woes. The choice is rational for a good reason: It fell on Russia because the Kremlin annexed Crimea, intervened in Georgia and now is reported to be conducting subversive activity against the Western world.

Moreover, historical memory of why the West scapegoated Moscow is also important: Everybody remembers the Red Scare. Thus, it is quite easy to nurture mistrust toward Russia in such an environment by dredging up old memories. Furthermore, the West can criticize Russia without expecting serious implications for its long-term interests, because the list of its key strategic partners includes Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel and Turkey — but not Russia.

In other words, criticizing the Kremlin doesn’t necessarily undermine the West’s strategic interests. That might be the reason why Riyadh and Doha can keep bombing civilians in Yemen without expecting sanctions from the West. That might be why Israel continued to build settlements in Palestine despite the large-scale Muslim protests. That might be why Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels impunity when he lawlessly imprisons thousands of Turkish citizens throughout the entire country.

Finally, Russia is powerful enough to be a bogeyman. It can pose a threat to the West, yet it is possible to deal with. That’s why the West chooses the Kremlin, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia (which allegedly finances terrorists and has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks against America), not Hungary with Victor Orban, not Ukraine with its political disorder, not even China with its global economic clout. However, Russia is big enough and, at first glance, very strong. With its weak economy and oil addiction, it is a good target to contain.

Summing up, the West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests.

The original article was published by RussiaDirect on February 22, 2017. It is available here.

Euphoria hits the Western media

On October 9, the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the members of his political team met with president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili, marking the moment in which the Georgian Dream would take reins of power over the country, thus forcing the UNM (United National Movement) to step aside and become the parliamentary minority after governing the state for the last eight years.

The defeat of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 represented a drastic shift in the political, social and economic environment in Georgia, and at the same time it was the marked a precedent in the region when the ruling force recognized its defeat in the elections and allowed the political opposition an opportunity to lead the state.

Such dramatic events were considered by some domestic as well as foreign experts as an important step away from Georgia’s post-Soviet era towards democracy. This transition was symbolic of the positive changes occurring not only in Georgia itself, but in the whole region. Therefore, the worldwide media just couldn’t turn blind eye on the ongoing developments in Georgia. The BBC, CNN, RIA Novosti, Foreign Policy, The Times, Sunday Times – all these prominent magazines and newsmakers kept tabs on the vote itself, as well as the post-election events in the country.

Three main issues are under discussion in the international media: the reasons behind the UNM’s defeat, the incoming government, Georgia’s democratic transition and the country’s relationship with Russia.

What led to the loss?

“Indeed, defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him [Mikhail Saakashvili] and his country’s reputation,” notes James Nixey, Manager and Research Fellow, at the Russia and Eurasia Programme.

In his article ‘Georgia: Post-Election Analysis’ that Chatham House published on October 2, James Nixey concludes that the recognition of defeat was the only and the best way for Mikhail Saakashvili and his political team to “ensure that his [Mikhail Saakashvili] legacy is not entirely in tatters.” The reason behind total loss, according to him, lies in the “disappointing economic picture, the centralization of power and the small matter of partial responsibility for the August 2008 war.”

In the short paper published by the Georgian Journal on October 3, Mark Mullen, the former Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Georgia from 1997 until 2004, emphasizes two fundamental reasons behind Misha and the UNM’s decreased popularity among citizens of Georgia: “the punishment of those in Shevardnadze’s government and the amendment of the constitution on 6 February 2004.”

Defining the first reason, Mullen notes that “so many great things happened: the administrative reforms, the end of petty corruption, fixing roads and in general creating a real state. But at the same time, a large part of [that] was based on punishment. On treating people as if they were a problem to be rolled over rather than a constituent group to be listened to.”

The international media as well as local experts agree that Mikhail Saakashvili definitely played a role on improving democracy in Georgia, but the main problem of his was “accusations of authoritarian behavior masked as democracy.”

In the article ‘Democracy wins as Rose Revolution admits defeat in parliament elections,’ published in The Times Europe, Roger Boyes exclaims that “Bidzina Ivanishvili’s victory in the parliamentary elections has astonished the region.” According to the journalist, it seems that Georgia is on its way to shaping real democracy in the region where before the Rose revolution, no one could even imagine such a possibility.

In another report, the BBC’s Damien McGuinnes notes that “it is [parliamentary elections] a momentous day for Georgia– a day which strengthens the country’s democratic credentials.”

In another article published by BBC, Georgia’s election is described as “a milestone for democracy in the ex-Soviet state.”

By and large, the peaceful transition of power was welcomed by the international media; this fact has demonstrated that a Soviet country can become a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space and particularly, in a strategically important region.

Russia or the West?

Doubts about Bidzina Ivanishvili’s political orientation– which included questions of whether Georgia will replace its pro-Western orientation with a pro-Russian approach, was prominent in the minds of many during the whole pre-election campaign. Considering the international reaction, the international community expects that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition will be loyal to the old pro-Western approach chosen by the former government of Mikhail Saakashvili.

On October 3, The Sunday Times published an article by Maria Antonova entitled ‘Georgian Dream to ease, not end Russia’s nightmare.’ In it, the expert noted that there won’t be drastic changes in the political attitude between representatives of two states; the only innovations that could appear may be an attempt to more or less place the Georgian-Russian relationship in the scope of the world’s widely accepted ‘game rules’; but there can’t be agreement on the main issues such as the fate of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia.

Bidzina v. Misha

It’s no secret that personal aspects are still important when it comes to political developments in any country.

“More than 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West has become familiar with a wide variety of leaders to emerge in this space — Soviet apparatchiks, fierce nationalists and K.G.B. trained strongmen. However, Bidzina Ivanishvili nominated Monday as Georgia’s next prime minister, does not resemble any of them, not even remotely,” writes Ellen Barry of the New York Times in the October 8 article ‘Georgian Leader Emerges as an Enigma.’

According to her, “Mr. Ivanishvili provides a contrast with Mr. Saakashvili, a cosmopolitan charmer who speaks fluent English and intuitively understands what the West expects.”

In order to portray Bidzina Ivanishvili, she cites Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, as saying that the billionaire politician is a novice, and that has its pros and cons.

“The bad side is he is quite unpredictable and says some quite eccentric things. The good side is he is still learning and corrects himself. He is receptive to advice,” Thomas de Waal is quoted.

Hence, it is clear that the international media, as well as foreign experts, are in some kind of euphoria over the parliamentary elections and probable developments in the country.

And still, there are serious challenges for democracy in Georgia and the euphoria which exists in the West may further prompt opportunities for the crisis. Last time the West was in such excited state about the events in Georgia was during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Consequently, Georgia’s strategic partners overlooked some misdeeds of the former government which finally led to the crisis of democracy in the country.

By and large, Georgia expects that both the domestic and the international community will overcome its euphoric condition and begin a sober evaluation of the developments. It is up to the people to start pushing the new government to be loyal to democratic institutions and values.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

Goodbye, Mr. Bass

On July 4, the US Embassy in Tbilisi celebrated the 256th anniversary of the independence of the United States. Prominent Georgian figures including Secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia, Giga Bokeria, the leader of Christian-Democratic Movement, Giorgi Targamadze and the leader of Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, attended the reception to honor the day, which was marked by a short speech from the outgoing US Ambassador– John Bass.

The speech given by the Mr. Bass was the last in his current capacity as ambassador. John Bass officially retired from the position of the US Ambassador to Georgia after three years of hard work. He was replaced by Richard Norland who was appointed by the Barack Obama Administration on March 30, 2012.

Bass was appointed as the US Ambassador to Georgia on October 16, 2009, replacing John F. Tefft, who was an appointee of the George W. Bush administration, whose policy towards various former Soviet countries and Georgia in particular, was criticized as being pro-government, rather than pro-democracy.

In an obvious change of this policy, John Bass has been an absolutely different type of US diplomat– especially with regard to media freedom and independence, an issue which has become a headache for local and international observers over the past several years.

John Bass was the first US official who publicly noted that the main Georgian TV news channels, which are generally supportive of the government, were trying to misrepresent his speeches and comments using them for their own benefits. Beginning at the end of 2011, all of his official speeches were professionally translated and subtitled by the US Embassy so no one could change them.

At the same time, because the ambassador was worried about alternative sources of information, he supported the introduction of the ‘Must Carry’ legislation, according to which cable operators are obliged by law to include all news channels in their broadcasting.

Through protecting and supporting alternative sources of information, John Bass sent a clear message to everyone in Georgia that Georgian society must have the opportunity to obtain a wide variety of information sources in order to make a well-informed choice. In all speeches and comments given to the Georgian and foreign media, he emphasized that parliamentary elections set for October 2012 must be free, fair and democratic. He has frequently expressed concerns regarding oppression of Georgian opposition figures and parties.

On darker note however, in the spring of 2011, opposition forces united and held a series of protests against Mikhail Saakashvili’s government. On May 26, Georgian police and Special Forces forcefully broke up the rally to clear space for the ensuing military parade dedicated to Georgia’s Independence Day. John Bass noted that no one has the right to prevent the country from celebrating its independence.

As a result of the violent dispersal at the rally, one Georgian policeman and two civilians died. The former Public Defender, Sozar Subari, who now supports Bidzina Ivanishvili, attributed John Bass’ comments for providing the government a ‘green light’ to violently disperse the political rally.

The process of Richard Norland’s appointment was very interesting: in March of 2012, Republican Congressman, Jim McDermott, introduced a bill The Republic of Georgia Democracy Act 2012. According to the bill, “Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault.”

In the same period, several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland. The newly confirmed Ambassador to Georgia was forced to answer unpleasant and annoying questions regarding the issues of human rights violations, the suppression of Georgian opposition parties and media freedom. Richard Norland assured the media that he would definitely use all means at his disposal to convince and encourage the government to hold free, fair and democratic elections. Additionally, he promised to help prevent the Georgian opposition from being sidelined.

All in all, John Bass has definitely played a positive role in Georgian politics. Presently, there is hope that his successor will play an even better role in the process– especially as the country is about to embark on one of its hardest tests of democracy: holding fair and transparent elections.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

Is there a political cost to building a hi-tech military?

On April 11, after presenting the newest Georgian catapult-launched unmanned aerial surveillance (UAV) vehicle, President Mikhail Saakashvili visited the first modern Georgian military manufacturing facility Delta. The president congratulated the employees at the facility for their hard work and for building the new niche industry. “A new hi-tech field is taking shape in Georgia,” he exclaimed.

However, what are the consequences of Georgia’s hi-tech military build-up? Will there be a political cost to this new endeavor?

In June, 2009 Wikileaks released classified cables of conversation between Ambassador of the United States to Russia John R. Beyrle and US Ambassador to Ukraine, John Tefft. In a cable dated June 17, 2009, Beyrle pointed out that the US must avoid supplying Georgia with lethal military armaments. The ambassador’s view was that Washington’s assistance should be limited to providing only non-lethal military technology to Georgia, so Georgia could secure its borders, maintain stability and take on counter-terrorism steps: “From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit… It would do nothing to secure a long-term resolution of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, allowing Russia to ‘justify’ its military buildup in the conflict territories,” he documented.

On the other hand, in a cable dated June 18, 2009, Tefft counter-argued that the US must assist Georgia in restoring its military capabilities by providing it with the lethal military armaments: “Current Georgian operational thinking is that if they can defend Tbilisi from occupation for 72 hours, then international pressure will force the advance to pause. To achieve this extremely limited goal, Georgia needs sufficient anti-armor and air defense capability to stall a ground advance, which it currently lacks,” Tefft noted. “The development of this capacity is not solely equipment-based, but it will require the acquisition of new lethal defensive systems. If Georgia does not procure the equipment from the U.S., it will almost surely seek to procure it elsewhere, as it has done in the past.”

The so called ‘Battle of Johns’ includes two different foreign policy approaches: John R. Beyrle, who in light of Obama’s ‘reset’ policy with Moscow, believes the US should not provoke Russia by supplying Tbilisi with lethal and offensive-minded military technology. The opposite point of view is held by John Tefft, who emphasizes the necessity of restoring and strengthening Georgia’s military capabilities despite the provocative nature of the policy.

In the aftermath of the 2008 US elections and the launching of the ‘reset’ policy with Russian, it was assumed that John R. Beyrle’s ‘reset’ policy-oriented approach would take over. However, Georgia’s recent advances in hi-tech military technology prove the opposite.

Taking into consideration Georgia’s current political, social, and economic troubles and the small window available for developing hi-tech military equipment, it is hard to believe that Georgia could modernize the Delta manufacturing facility, produce the first Georgian light-wheeled armored vehicles (Didgori and Lazika), a multiple rocket launcher (MRL) system and a new UAV, without the intense financial, military and technological assistance from Washington.

On May 26, 2011 the appearance of the ‘Didgori’ gave rise to doubts whether the US assisted in its production or not. Now those doubts have only been strengthened, as Georgia simply couldn’t afford to build a modern, well-equipped remotely-piloted vehicle without the appropriate technology and devices.

“Only a few countries have the same technology and it is significant that possessing such technology is even more important in the further advancement of intellectual knowledge and technology,” noted Mikhail Saakashvili.

So, it can be assumed that the reason Georgia is part of the ‘few countries’ is probably due to the fact that John Tefft’s approach has prevailed in this matter.

In this scenario, even though Washington hadn’t directly supplied Tbilisi with financial, military and technological assistance, Russia will surely blame the US, and become more aggressive towards Georgia. This military assistance may damage Washington-Moscow, Moscow-Tbilisi and even Washington-Tbilisi relations. It may even place the whole notion of a ‘reset’ policy with Russian and the US in jeopardy.

Never one to miss the opportunity to disgrace and offend Russia, Mikhail Saakashvili’s harsh tone and manner of speeches only strengthen the possibility that negative consequences could result from all of this.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

Will Washington try to “go it alone” again?

How will the confrontation between The United States and Iran end? Will the Islamic Republic give way under pressure of economic sanctions? If not, how will the US react? These have been key questions for years, as those on both sides have debated whether the U.S. should strike Iran’s nuclear facilities or not. Current developments suggest that there is a real possibility that Washington will decide to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in the near future, which raises some other important questions.

Matthew Kroenig’s “Time to Attack Iran” and Colin H. Kahl’s “Not Time to Attack Iran,” both published in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine, aim to analyze this issue and shed light on this debate. The two authors represent two different approaches. After analyzing their articles, it becomes clear that the question of “Will USA go to war over Iran?” isn’t the important as the following question: Will the US try to go it alone again?

On March 1 at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Foreign Affairs representative Jonathan Tepperman, moderated a debate on the Iran issue between Matthew Kroenig and Colin H. Kahl.

In “Time to Attack Iran” Matthew Kroenig argues that based on the fact that diplomacy and economic sanctions have proved useless against the Iranian government’s wish to develop nuclear energy, it is time to force the Islamic Republic to cease work on their nuclear program and prevent Iran becoming nuclear power by launching a preventive strike on their nuclear facilities. On the other hand, Colin H. Kahl in his “Not Time to Attack Iran” says that it is too early, arguing that the possibility still exists of deterring Iran from further developing its nuclear program. According to Khal, an attack on Iran represents America’s last bad option.

The articles aren’t just two points of view, but two different policies – on the one hand, the Bush doctrine (a preventive strike) and on the other, the so-called soft policy (containment).

In describing Blair-Bush relations, a research paper entitled “British Foreign Policy since 1997” argues that “The 9/11 attacks swept away any notion that the US could ignore the rest of the world, and the administration responded with the ‘Bush doctrine”… By mid-2002 Tony Blair had concluded that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq and that Britain needed to be a partner in this exercise… Blair adopted some of the language of the War on Terror, differing from Bush in his analysis principally in that he wanted to ensure that the US did not go it alone and would as much as possible, form alliances and mobilize multilateral institutions, above all the UN.” The essence of the Bush doctrine is actually an assumption that the United State still has enough power to deal with the issue alone or to “go it alone” (example, Iraq).

The authors of Bush doctrine view the international system as unipolar, believing that through the projection of American (military) power, issues can be addressed without the support of international bodies or allies. In doing so, they have neglected UN Security Council members like Russia and China. Kroenig’s article advocates such an approach and is based on this neo-conservative ideology.

Conversely, Kahl advocates Barak Obama’s approach, of the so-called ‘reset’ policy with Moscow. This policy embraces the understanding that the international system is multilateral, and that the US needs to work with its allies and engage in international cooperation to deal with the various problems in the world. US Foreign policy issues and its relations with Russia must be settled in the scope of cooperation by utilizing multilateral organizations, alliances and containment.

Based upon the world’s economic crisis, the harsh economic recession in the EU, the positions of Russia and China, and the failure of the NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, is seems that if Washington strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities the US would be forced to “go it alone”. It would be “a unilateral preventive attack” that “would also make postwar containment more difficult and costly,” argues Colin H. Kahl. Additionally, Kahl argues that it is highly unlikely that the US will get a green light from UN Security Council.

Consequently, while Kroenig believes that some Arab states “would privately thank Washington for eliminating the Iranian threat,” Kahl thinks that “many on the Arab street”, and those within international society- particularly some of the US’s powerful Western allies, as well as Russia and China – would consider it “a breach of international law, shattering the consensus required to maintain an effective post-strike containment regime.”

All in all, according to Kahl, if the Bush doctrine prevails over the diplomatic approach and the US launches a preventive strike without evidence that “Iran is dashing for a bomb… Washington would be left to bear the costs of an attack and the resulting containment regime alone.” Kahl believes that Washington “should not choose war when there are still other options, and it should not base its decision to strike on a best-case analysis of how it hopes the conflict will turn out.” He feels that Washington must avoid making the same mistake as it did in Iraq when it followed the Bush doctrine. The voting process at the end of the debate mentioned above reflects a willingness of the public to contain Iran rather than to go with war.

However, very frequently, the willingness of the public doesn’t match the aspirations of decision-makers; therefore, it is time to re-formulate the question and rather then ask “Will the US attack Iran?” you must ask the more intriguing question of “Will the US try and go it alone again?”

The original article was publish by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.