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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States last week was welcomed around the world as an end to the unpopular Bush presidency and the chance to rebuild America’s standing in the world. Expectations are, of course, going to be disappointed, both domestically and internationally. For all the significance of a US president with a Kenyan heritage and a Muslim middle name, President Obama will still have to face tough and unpopular decisions in the world.

On November 5, the day after election day, Moscow announced that it would deploy a number of short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland, as a means to ‘neutralise – if necessary - the planned US missile defence system in eastern Europe. The decision was announced by President Dimitri Medvedev in his first state of the nation address, and was a clear warning that the Kremlin will not be appeased by a mere change of occupant in the White House.

Is it viable to expect a significant shift in policy towards Russia and the Caucasus once Obama is inaugurated? It is unlikely. Much has been made of John McCain’s hard-line policy approach to dealing with Moscow, and Obama’s relative inexperience in the area, and it is true that domestic opinion in the region tended to favour McCain, especially in states nervous about Russian adventurism such as Georgia and Ukraine. But in reality the room for maneuver will not allow a radical departure from the Bush administration, for both a general reason and a number of specific ones. The exception might seem to be Nagorno-Karabakh.

The general reason is that, for all the talk after the Georgian war of a new (albeit ‘19th-century’) geopolitical order in Eurasia, the relationship with Russia is not the incoming administration’s top priority. The economy is a far more pressing concern. And even within the sphere of foreign affairs, negotiations with European and Chinese leaders on the world financial crisis will take up a lot more time than Russia and the Caucasus. Much will of course depend on President Obama’s personnel selection, in particular the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, but for a while at least we are likely to see policy towards Eurasia as a secondary concern.

The specific reasons vary, but boil down to the fact that there is only so much that the US can do without breaking its prior commitments or undertaking a major volte-face on its whole foreign policy front which Mr Obama has neither the experience nor the desire (despite his commitment to multilateralism) to countenance. Firstly, the missile defence shield. By November 7, Mr. Obama had spoken to Lech Kaczynski, the Polish President, affirming his commitment to the project, which includes interceptor missiles based in Poland. A telephone call whilst President-elect, of course, does not equate to a policy whilst President. But it is nonetheless difficult to imagine Mr. Obama withdrawing from the missile shield project during his tenure, although it may be modified to make it less unpalatable to the Kremlin.

Secondly, Georgia. Mr Obama criticized Russia’s invasion of the country in August and called Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “deeply troubling”. He has warned Moscow that a failure to abide by the ceasefire will lead to difficulties in its attempts to gain membership to the World Trade Organisation, as well as dialogue frameworks such as the NATO-Russia Council. So far, so orthodox. He has expressed support for Georgia and Ukraine in their NATO aspirations, and declared in September that Tbilisi was ready for a Membership Action Plan, although it will be interesting to see how far he is willing to push it. He may be less willing to antagonize European leaders by insisting on this explosive issue than President Bush (or indeed Mr. McCain), especially if he has been cooperating closely with them over the financial crisis.

Thirdly, Nagorno-Karabakh. The clearest sign of a presumed change here could be Mr. Obama’s relationship with the huge Armenian diaspora in the United States: during his election campaign he welcomed their support and promised to find a resolution to the Karabakh conflict that is based upon “principles of democracy and self determination”. He has also expressed strong support for formally recognizing the so-called “Armenian genocide” of 1915, a notoriously controversial issue, and has stated that he will seek an end to the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades of Armenia (imposed on Armenia by the latter after the Armenian forces occupied the territories of Azerbaijan in 1992-1993). Vice President-elect Joe Biden is also known for his strong support of Yerevan. It is now to be watched how far Obama as a president will be able to go to keep his promises in this regard.

On the ground, Turkey’s recent moves to thaw relations with Armenia will be looked on favorably by the Obama White House, which must try and keep the momentum going. However, if Obama’s administration chooses to lean on Armenia, it could prove detrimental to the détente process currently taking place in the Caucasus (Turkey has already warned Obama of breaking off the rapprochement process with Armenia in case if the US recognizes the “Armenian genocide”) and grant Russia a perfect opportunity to gather disaffected players to itself. In particular, in case of obvious US support for Armenia, Baku could find the warm relationship it has fostered with the Bush Administration cooling somewhat and find that its interests are better served by Moscow. Russia has already started taking important steps in that direction making use of the “lame-duck situation” in Washington. By holding a trilateral meeting of presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan last week in Moscow as a result of which a declaration on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process (first time since the cease-fire agreement of 1994) was signed by the presidents, Russia, frequently accused of wishing the continuation of frozen conflicts in the region, has intended to send a signal of its “good will” in the Caucasus, thus aiming on the one hand to rectify its damaged image after its invasion of Georgia, and on the other hand to have an upper hand in case of an ultimate settlement of the conflict. It is noteworthy that the only international mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – the OSCE Minsk Group (including beyond Russia, US and France as well), paralysed after the Georgia war, was totally excluded from the above-mentioned meeting. Russia’s attempts to pose itself as a mediator being capaable to produce “tangible results” (e.g. the above-said declaration) cannot but cause great suspicions and concerns in Washington.

If Moscow exploits the opportunity further and begins to push for a resolution which emphasizes territorial integrity above all others (as unlikely as this may be), and if President Obama keeps his above-mentioned promises, we could begin to see a serious alteration of the Baku-Washington relationship which could potentially introduce significant changes to the present geopolitical order in the region. So if the new administration wants to avoid heightened tensions, it must try to balance regional interests and avoid alienating key players as the Bush Administration has repeatedly done. President Obama must attempt to find a solution to the problem that satisfies Turkey, accommodates Azerbaijan and Armenia, and circumscribes Russia.

We should not expect a new era under Obama. The Russian bear is not about to abandon its suspicion of the American eagle just because of a new face, and the feeling is mutual. The Georgian conflict was a significant rupture in relations and has created a potential for the emergence of a new geopolitical situation in the region. Despite his pre-electoral calls for a Russia policy based on “cooperation instead of confrontation”, Obama will have to continue the US support for the pro-American government in Tbilisi, no matter how much Saakashvili might have bothered him. It is obvious that if Georgia is gone, it will not last much till the region will be gone as well.

In the Caucasus, as elsewhere, it looks as if President Obama will have to start lowering expectations.



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