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American Interests in the Caucasus, by Sergey Markedonov

Polit.ru (Американский интерес на Кавказе)

[Translated by Lyndon Allin for www.scrapsofmoscow.org]

The immediate reason for writing this article was my telephone conversation with a correspondent of the Voice of Russia radio station. The journalist for the state-owned station was interested in an article by Alexander Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell, two American specialists from Columbia University. The political scientists’ article, subtitled “Action Memorandum” and addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, concludes that a serious reformatting of America’s foreign policy toward Georgia and Abkhazia is necessary. You read correctly, Cooley and Mitchell consider Abkhazia as a separate policy actor (and not just an object of policy), with which a constructive relationship should be developed, without, however, formally recognizing Abkhazia’s independence. “Engagement without recognition” is the formula used by the Columbia University specialists. It is also worth noting that their piece was published under the heading “Off the Beaten Path” in the influential publication The American Interest. [1]

Certainly it is pleasant to see a state-run radio station that broadcasts overseas taking interest in foreign intellectual discourse. One can only welcome the familiarization of Russian journalists with the opinions of their foreign colleagues, without which an adequate understanding of the expert and policy community in the U.S. and Europe would be impossible. But I was puzzled by the tone of the question: “Does this signal a change in American policy priorities in the Caucasus?” What can we conclude from this question? That Russian journalists and experts (and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a question) genuinely believe that any article by an American professor or consultant represents an expression of the American government’s will. In the post-Soviet republics people take a similar approach toward the statements of Russian experts. In both cases such assessments are far from the truth. But the situation with Russia merits a separate article, and here we will focus on the American situation in greater detail. Especially since the understanding of it in our country is of practical significance. Failing to fully understand (or to understand at all) how the American government, decision-making systems, and academic community function, we make quite substantial mistakes in our foreign policy.

For example, in 2007, there was a lively discussion in the U.S. about American participation in the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Kars railway project. The Bush Administration was interested in this project, and no less a luminary than Matthew Bryza of the State Department (who was responsible for the South Caucasus) spoke about it as though it were a done deal. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress was against the plan because it was opposed to increasing the international isolation of Armenia, an American ally. This topic was the subject of a representative roundtable discussion in Russia, where highly placed political analysts close to the government with utter seriousness asserted that Washington would support the project because the Administration was in favor of it. Attempts to explain to my colleagues that Congress is not the “voting department” of the White House were unsuccessful. To the contrary, they met with responses along the lines of, “But in Russia the Duma would never go against the Kremlin.” The whole point is that the American Congress is not the Russian Duma, which is why the ambitious railway plan was ultimately not supported by Washington. But a lack of understanding of the decisionmaking process in the U.S. created an inaccurate “picture” of the prospects of this particular project.

Unfortunately, those [Russians] who attempt to elucidate American foreign policy actions in the Greater Caucasus also fail to fully understand the debates among American specialists about this unsettled region. Aside from the association of political scientists with American passports en masse with the positions of the U.S. State Department, Russian experts and journalists suffer from an additional affliction – one that is, alas, quite widespread. They try to simplify the positions of American political scientists regarding the “Five-Day War” and its aftermath by presenting them as patently pro-Georgian. This leads to not entirely sensible actions. For instance, in the summer and fall of 2008 our politicians and journalists talked of practically an “informational conspiracy” against Russia during the hot August days in South Ossetia. Then in the fall of 2009 the same people expressed their surprise at the “balanced report” of the E.U. expert commission headed by Heidi Tagliavini. In the first case the incorrect assessment led to an extremely and unjustifiably inflated anti-Western hysteria, in which our mass media played into the hands of hawks in Washington and Brussels by portraying the events of 2008 as a confrontation not with the Georgian leader but with a “combination attack” of the Western world arrayed against “a Russia rising from its knees.” In the second case our surprise was again misplaced, because Tagliavini’s “balance” was suggested long before the official publication of her commission’s report. Quite simply, there was nothing to be surprised at.

To be clear, of course there are some American writers who are genuinely sympathetic to President Mikhail Saakashvili and view him and Georgia under his leadership as a “beacon of democracy.” Ronald Asmus, a well known and influential student of transatlantic security issues, devoted his entire book to this idea. In A Little War that Shook the World (published and widely presented in January 2010), the author states that “the origins of this war do not lie in the details of local ethnic rivalries between Georgians on the one hand and Abkhaz and South Ossetians on the other, or even the future status of these provinces.” In Asmus’s view, at the root of the events of 2008 lay “Tbilisi’s desire to break free of what had been a quasi-colonial relationship with Moscow and to become part of a democratic West.” (pp. 8, 216). As a matter of fact, this is the methodology used to construct [Asmus’s] assessments of the situation in the Southern Caucasus during the period leading up to the tragic events of that hot August of 2008. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are viewed not as independent figures but solely as instruments of Russia’s “offensive policy” and barriers to Georgia’s movement towards the West (pp. 54, 63-64). Russian policy toward the two formerly rebellious autonomies is regarded as a “creeping annexation” of Georgian territory, and “passportization” is seen as a politico-ideological justification for Georgia to cause “damage” (p. 42 [sic]). The introduction to Asmus’s study was written by Strobe Talbott, also a well known personality in contemporary American policy and analytical circles, the president of the Washington-based Brookings Institution who served as Deputy Secretary of State in 1994-2001: “I can even imagine [this book] will have resonance in Moscow, where thoughtful but well-connected and in some cases well-placed Russians are – quietly and cautiously – pondering the lessons, consequences and implications for the future of their government’s constant troublemaking in the Caucasus and, in particular, its mauling of Georgia in August 2008.” (p. xi). Thus, the introduction immediately indicates the book’s frame of reference for the reader: Russia is the “bad guy” and Georgia is the “good guy.”

However, judging all of American political science based on a single book (although quotations from it were eagerly posted by Russian websites) is a thankless task! Admittedly, it’s a thankless task in general to talk about a “unified Western approach” to the Five-Day War. On August 11, 2008 (while the fighting was still taking place), in an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, prominent Caucasus expert Charles King of Georgetown University said, “I think it's very simplistic to see this as the Russian autocratic bear trying to snuff out this small beacon of democracy. There are bigger issues…that are at stake here as well.” That same day Prof. King, in an article in the Christian Science Monitor (the publication with the second-largest circulation in the U.S. [sic]) appropriately headlined “Russo-Georgian conflict is not all Russia's fault,” wrote, “Russia must be condemned for its unsanctioned intervention. But the war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force. Saakashvili's larger goal was to lead his country into war as a form of calculated self-sacrifice, hoping that Russia's predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up.” Several lines later King concludes, “For Georgia, this war has been a disastrous miscalculation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now completely lost. It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario under which these places – home to perhaps 200,000 people – would ever consent to coming back into a Georgian state they perceive as an aggressor.”

Subsequently King examined these points in greater detail in his academic publications. Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine (who by the way works with Talbott at Brookings), told the Los Angeles Times on August 13, 2008, that “Saakashvili gave the Kremlin an opportunity when he sent troops into the separatist region of South Ossetia last week in an effort to reassert Georgia's sovereignty.” Nikolai Petro, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an assistant on Soviet issues in the State Department under George H.W. Bush, published an article in May 2009 entitled “The Legal Case for Russian Intervention in Georgia,” in which he asserts that practically all aspects of Russia’s operation in the Caucasus in August 2008 were consistent with international law and with Russia’s mandate as a peacekeeper. And in 2008 Lincoln Mitchell, who we mentioned at the beginning of this article, published a book with the telling title “Uncertain Democracy [the word “uncertain” can be translated [into Russian] as “dubious,” “unstable,” “unreliable” – S.M.]: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’.”

Therefore, we should not oversimplify the American expert community’s understanding of Russian motives and actions in the Caucasus, especially if we are mindful of the anti-Russian phobias and fears that are present in American society (which we should ourselves be working much more actively to break down). Only then will we avoid unexpected surprises and discoveries and minimize inappropriate actions.

In any event, Cooley and Mitchell’s article is valuable not only in the overall context of American political science. It proposes some interesting arguments which deserve serious attention. The authors start by pointing out that since August 2008 the U.S. and the E.U. have consistently refused to accept Russia’s decision to recognize Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence. And this policy, in their view, has failed, while there has been no success in developing an acceptable relationship with the two disputed regions. Cooley and Mitchell assert that “these territories are almost certainly lost to Georgia, possibly for decades,” and that Russian influence there “has increased rapidly and substantially.” Thus, “[u]nless the United States changes its approach, the Russian Federation will soon completely absorb Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” In order to prevent such a scenario, the Americans together with the E.U. must “urgently…end the current policy of isolation with respect to these territories and replace it with one of ‘engagement without recognition.’”

What methods do Cooley and Mitchell propose for this? In the section of their article subtitled “Abkhazia First” they discuss the serious differences between the two de facto states on Georgian territory. In their opinion, Abkhazia already has certain “attributes of statehood” while sparsely populated South Ossetia, “landlocked between Georgia and Russia,” is difficult to imagine as a full-fledged state. Consequently, the American specialists suggest that Abkhazia should be the first priority in terms of building bilateral (multilateral, if we take into account the U.S., E.U. and other Western integrative structures) relations. But what about Georgian territorial integrity? In Cooley’s and Mitchell’s opinion, Georgia’s territorial integrity has a “specific meaning”: this concept is correctly applied to describe the Georgian SSR, but not contemporary Georgia, since in reality such “integrity” “simply does not exist.” The authors do not seek to toss the project of “restoring Georgian territorial integrity” overboard, but they note in a politically correct way that this is a long-term project. And although such a resolution of the conflict would be “ideal,” it would not be constructive and doesn’t make sense to discuss it in terms of specific time frames. 

The alternative proposed by Cooley and Mitchell consists of several elements. First, “engagement” without a guarantee of formal legal recognition. By this the American political scientists mean introducing a practice of issuing entry visas to Abkhazian officials (even those traveling on Abkhazian internal passports!) for them to participate in conferences, seminars and forums. The treatment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) could serve as a precedent for such a policy. “Even though Washington does not recognize the TRNC as a sovereign state, it recognizes TRNC passports for the purpose of travel and visa applications.” The second element is a diversification of Abkhazia’s economic ties. Here Cooley and Mitchell propose activating the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey and other Western countries. Third, the American authors propose using a familiar mechanism: non-governmental structures and civil society. “Engagement without recognition is the only policy realistically able to prevent Abkhazia’s full absorption into the Russian Federation, thus preserving a chance for the territory to be restored to Georgian sovereignty. The more coordinated that policy is between the United States and the European Union, the more efficacious it will be,” conclude Cooley and Mitchell.

One cannot help but see several of sensible and realistic assessments in their framework. Among these is an understanding of the relative nature of Georgian “territorial integrity” and the impossibility of its restoration in the short term (and of its complete restoration in general). The authors also rightly point out the difference between Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and in fact at the outset these two projects were developed to pursue different policy goals). Cooley and Mitchell do not forget to mention the ethnic excesses in Abkhazia (the expulsion of the Georgian population) but also add that stronger demands for refugee return from Georgia only serve to turn the current population of Abkhazia more resolutely against Tbilisi. Their arguments might force not only theoreticians but also policymakers in Russia to stop and think about how it might be possible to accommodate both Russian interests in Abkhazia and Abkhazia’s own foreign trade interests. Otherwise even without the interference of any “third parties” friction and conflicts are inevitable.

But Cooley and Mitchell’s main point (one might even call it their matrix of reasoning) raises a number of questions. The authors present their concept (a more detailed version is to be published separately later) as a mechanism for combating Russian ambitions in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia, even though they understand that Georgian sovereignty in these areas is problematic and mention it more as a nod to tradition than anything else. But does a naval base in Ochamchire or an air base in Gudauta (both of which still haven’t been properly outfitted) threaten any U.S. interests? Today there are many experts in the United States and in Europe who smugly accuse Moscow and Beijing of seeking to play a “zero-sum” game. Cooley and Mitchell’s position, however, is in essence precisely a call to play that old, familiar game. It turns out that a strengthening of Russia in Abkhazia automatically strikes a blow against America’s standing. But where, in what part of the world? In Georgia, where the U.S. today has total support, or perhaps in Ukraine or other corners of Eurasia? Or in the Middle East? And if not, then is it really worthwhile for Washington to focus so much on Tbilisi’s support? Especially when it has so many shared strategic interests with Russia (e.g., Afghanistan and Iran).

Meanwhile, the Cooley-Mitchell approach loses the thread of the Georgian-Abkhazian game itself. After all, Russia’s relationship with the West in this area of international politics is a function, and not the foundation, of Abkhaz-Georgian relations. And today’s Abkhazian elite is much more radically disposed toward Georgia than Russian embassy officials in Sukhumi or the people responsible for Abkhazia in the presidential administration or in the [Russian] White House. And even if we can imagine a break between the Kremlin and the Abkhazian elite, and a growth of the latter’s interest in the West (which is happening even in an atmosphere of good relations with Moscow), this would not mean an increase in their affinity for Georgia. At the same time, American experts (even those who genuinely seek to figure out the tangled web of politics in the Caucasus and don’t believe in Saakashvili’s inherent democracy) for now admit the following fact only through gritted teeth: Abkhazian Georgia-phobia and Abkhazian nationalism have their own roots, bases and traditions, including ones not connected with Moscow and with Russian “imperial” policy. Even if Abkhazia were to befriend the West instead of the Kremlin, friendship with Georgia still wouldn’t be in the cards, at least not in the context of a relationship within the formal legal boundaries of a single state. As a neighbor, Abkhazia will inevitably sooner or later reach a stage of constructive and perhaps even friendly relations with Georgia. 

And of course Abkhazia can simultaneously be “with us and with them.” This alternative didn’t occur to the American specialists (or perhaps they forgot about it?). There could be a mutually beneficial partnership with Abkhazia along the lines of “engagement without recognition, but also without contraposition” (to Russia, of course).

Attempts to unilaterally isolate Russia (or “contain” it) are inconsistent with American interests. Unless, of course, one understands those interests in the traditions of the Cold War.


[1] The American Interest (AI) is a bimonthly magazine published since 2005. It was founded by several members of the editorial board of another well-known American publication, “The National Interest,” who disagreed with that publication’s editorial policy. AI is devoted to issues of international policy, world economy and security. The chairman of the magazine’s executive committee is philosopher Francis Fukuyama; the chief editor is Orientalist professor Adam Garfinkel, who was a speechwriter for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the George W. Bush administration.

Source: Scraps of Moscow - Translated by Lyndon Allin

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