Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, March 25, 2013

Foreign Policy Risk and Opportunity in Ivanishvili’s Georgia


Photo from Ivanishvili's official Facebook page.

In October, 2012, the Georgian electorate gave Bidzina Ivanishvili, regarded by many as being a pro-Russian politician, a mandate as the country’s new prime minister. At the time, the election was hailed as the first successful transfer of power in Georgia under democratic auspices, as well as a break with the past under the pro-Western Mikheil Sakaashvili. The election may mark, in the eyes of some Western observers, a plenary turn by Georgia away from the West and back toward Russia. This is especially the case considering the previous Georgian leader was unabashedly pro-Western and sought integration with the EU and NATO.

Yet the election of an ostensibly more pro-Russian leader in Georgia need not signify a total change in policy, and relations with the West need not suffer. That said, a leader who professes to maintain friendly ties with the West while working with Russia may open Georgia up to even greater geopolitical conflict than before.

While Georgia has not had diplomatic relations with Russia since the war in 2008, the country’s stability depends on its ability to work with Russia. There is no way that Georgia can completely turn away from the large power to its immediate north. Georgia’s geopolitical orientation, however, need not be a zero-sum game between Russia and the West: in fact, it is simply not practicable, seeing as Russia currently holds on to parts of the country’s territory and industry, necessitating some sort of conciliatory action on Georgia’s part with its larger neighbor. Georgia’s geographical proximity to Russia, specifically to the North Caucasus, inevitably makes Georgia vulnerable to Russian pressure. Before the Rose Revolution, Russia cited the presence of Chechen terrorists hiding in the Pankisi Gorge as a possible pretext for invading Georgia in an alleged counter-terrorist operation.

Ivanishvili’s assertion that he will work for greater rapprochement with Russia should not be seen as kowtowing to Russia at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty, but rather an act of realpolitik on the part of the new Georgian leader. A parallel can be drawn with Poland’s strongly pro-American defense minister Radosław “Radek” Sikorski, who has also been accommodating and cooperative toward Russia on account of his country’s security vulnerability toward the latter.

Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Institute, states that after the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia realized that as long as Sakaashvili was in power, Georgia’s chances of joining NATO were “equal to none," and that Sakaashvili was from thence regarded as an unreliable partner by the West. It is logical that if Western states are not be more protective of or active in Georgia, Georgia would be subsequently forced to cooperate with Russia to a larger extent than under Sakaashvili.

In terms of economics, it makes sense that Georgia would actually continue to seek closer ties with the EU. Russia has essentially become a petrostate, and while the price of oil may serve the Russian economy well in the short term, in the long term Russia will be forced to diversity its exports. A wise Georgian leader would realize that strengthening the country’s economic integration with Europe is essential for its economic survival. While Russia may be able to subsidize parts of the Georgian economy in the short term, it is imperative for Georgia to maintain economic ties with the EU.

Support for an explicitly pro-Russian foreign policy is not a way for a Georgian politician to ingratiate himself with the electorate, nor is it something that comes easily or is a simple matter of changing direction. No Georgian leader thus far has found it easy to have smooth relations with Russia, and a pro-Russian foreign policy is a politically punishable act in Georgia. Ivanishvili himself was quoted by the Russian press shortly after meeting with Russian Prime Minister Medvedev as saying that “Georgia’s strategy isn’t changing” and that he would continue to seek closer ties with the EU and with NATO from a security standpoint, but that “relations with Russia must also improve.” He went on to say that he understood that it would not be easy to seek integration with these Western structures while seeking rapprochement with Russia, but that he considered integration with the West to be the “primary question.”

In February, 2013 When members of Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement called on Ivanishvili to amend the constitution to make Georgia’s pro-Western stance legally binding, Ivanishvili refused, but stated that it was “unimaginable” for Georgia to turn away from the West. The refusal to legally bind the country’s orientation shows recognition of the need for flexibility and agility in ensuring Georgia’s security.

Ivanishvili has thus far maintained a pro-Western rhetorical stance, but he still is the political opponent of Saakashvili, and did make his fortune in Russia. There remains a risk that Ivanishvili’s flexibility may actually lead to an increase in geopolitical tension and conflict. Under Saakashvili, no one had any illusions about where Georgia stood in terms of its geopolitical orientation, and so strongly felt was the threat of Georgia leaving Russia’s orbit completely that the latter used military force to ensure this would not happen. Yet now, Ivanishvili’s openness may entice Russia and the West to heat up their tactics. The West may perceive a risk of losing Georgia, while Russia may see an opportunity to regain the country’s loyalty. A specifically pro-Russia party was recently created in Georgia, and it will be interesting to see if, and how many, seats it gains in parliament during the next election. It was specifically created to counterbalance pro-Western parties in Georgia, and may prove to be a useful tool for Russia to exert its influence in the country.

Georgia’s selection of Bidzina Ivanishvili as its next prime minister should not be regarded with alarm in the West as a turn back toward Russia, but rather a level-headed realization of Georgia’s dependence on and vulnerability toward Russia. Georgia has every reason to continue its path toward greater integration with Europe. But for security reasons as well as historic political and social ties with Russia, combined with the refusal or failure of the West to take a more active role in Georgian affairs, Georgia will also need to be less antagonistic and more cooperative with Russia. It remains to be seen to what extent Ivanishvili will stay true to this course, but it should not come as a surprise to the West, nor should it be a cause of undue fear.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Russia’s Uncertain Position in post-Chávez Venezuela

The domestic and regional implications of the death of Hugo Chávez are numerous and wide-ranging, but unique to Venezuela is the reverberations the death of its leader will have in faraway Russia and Eastern Europe. With the passing of “El Comandante," it’s possible that Russia’s geopolitical influence in Latin America may weaken and that it’s arms exports will decline, directly affecting Russia’s economic growth. Much of this depends on who succeeds Chávez and what sort of relationship his successor pursues with Russia.
In the 21st century, Russia has had a tendency in its foreign policy to pursue relations with smaller, less powerful, but in many cases very central, states in regions around the world (i.e. Serbia in the Balkans, Syria in the Middle East, etc.) in an effort to increase its own role in the so-called “multi-polar” world. While Russia’s major ally in Latin America is actually Brazil, Russia has found Venezuela to be a willing partner in supporting Russia’s own foreign policy, with Venezuela even going so far as to (hypocritically) recognize South Ossetia’s declaration of independence from Georgia while opposing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia because of the “bad precedent” it would set. Venezuelan vice president Nicolás Maduro said that "the unipolar world is collapsing and finishing in all aspects, and the alliance with Russia is part of that effort to build a multipolar world."
Russia’s ties with Venezuela as its Latin American partner was a perfect match- Chávez was an outspoken critic of the United States and his country controlled vast reserves of energy, which gave Russia an excellent opportunity to exert its influence in the country and counter American power in the region, namely, by combining mutual feelings on U.S. influence abroad with the capacity to develop Venezuela’s energy industry.

Venezuela was billed as a regional leader for Latin America. For while Chávez’s leftist administration was one of several that proliferated throughout the region, his had been by far the most vocal (it is not uncommon, in fact, for Latin American governments to be relatively aligned on the right-left spectrum, with rightist governments predominating in the 1970’s and 80’s). Chávez carefully developed relations with Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and the two most recent Argentine administrations, that of the late Nestor Kirchner and his wife Crisitina Fernández (who succeeded her late husband in 2007). His flamboyant anti-American rhetoric was occasionally balanced out by Brazil’s center-left president Inácio Lula da Silva and Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Nevertheless, Venezuela provided a beacon through which Russia was able to exert geopolitical influence in a region far beyond its periphery.

One of the biggest areas of cooperation between Russia and Venezuela is the energy sector, a fact recently underscored by Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Igor Sechin, CEO of Russia’s state owned oil company Rosneft, as a special presidential envoy to Hugo Chávez’s funeral. Venezuela has the largest proven reserves of crude oil in the world, but the oil is in need of a more intense refinement process than most other crude supplies around the world. Russia has the technological capabilities Venezuela needs to refine its heavy crude, and Russian energy companies are active in several aspects of the Venezuelan energy industry.

Russian companies plan to invest $17.6 billion in Venezuela by 2019 and multiply energy output fourfold in an attempt to expand cooperation to offshore areas and oil services, according to Reuters. Sechin has said Rosneft will finance production with loans from Russian banks and credit lines from international banks. Because the Venezuelan economy is currently in shambles, it is highly likely that the Russian-Venezuelan energy cooperation will continue, with the possibility that if a government friendlier to the United States should take power, existing contracts with Russian companies would continue, but that American companies would be invited to participate in new ventures.
The situation in Venezuela may actually effect Russia’s energy relations with one of its Eastern European neighbors- Belarus. Belarus has had a rather unique relationship with Russia, and is part of a “union state” with Russia. Yet since 2007, the one thorn in the side of Belarus-Russia relations has been energy, mainly because of a dispute which emerged when Russia accused Belarus of siphoning Russian gas transported through Belarus and selling it at world market prices (Belarus had enjoyed Russian gas at a discounted price). When Russia refused to meet Belarusian quotas for energy imports, Belarus turned to Venezuela for energy imports starting in 2010, with energy shipped via tankers from Venezuela to the Ukrainian port of Odessa, then up to Belarus through a pipeline.

Belarus has sought 23 million tons of oil from Russia for 2013, but Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has stated that if Russia will only sell Belarus up to 18 million tons (as it has stated) and it will import energy from Venezuela and Azerbaijan. Yet if Venezuela for any reason suspends its sales of energy to Belarus, this may give Russia more leverage over Belarus as it (Belarus) will have lost a valuable supplier of alternative energy. This situation seems unlikely since Venezuela can only benefit from the influx of cash, but is still an example of how far reaching the implications of the upcoming transfer of power in Venezuela really are.
After energy, Russia’s most valuable export is armaments and military hardware. Chávez constantly feared a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, and had been engaged in a long-standing dispute with neighboring Colombia over the presence of U.S. troops in Colombia (these U.S. troops including most notably the U.S.’s élite Special Forces, whose purpose is to assist with counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency). This, in principle, was the basis for his decision to enter into contractual agreements with Russia regarding arms sales.

Venezuela is the second-largest customer for Russian military hardware (after India), and as Russia’s economy is famously lacking in diversity of exports outside of energy, a willing market for arms is greatly welcomed (a situation only enhanced by the instability in another major importer of Russian arms- Syria). In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of a possible arms race between Colombia and Venezuela.
Since 2006, the gross income for Russian military sales abroad has doubled, and Russian arms sales are now almost exclusively handled through state-owned company Rosoboronexport. Chávez’s death, however, could reduce Russia’s client relationship with Venezuela in the arms industry, depending on how the succession plays out. It would be easy to assume that Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s vice president, would succeed the late Chávez, yet Venezuela’s opposition is relatively strong. The Venezuelan economy, despite the strength of the country’s crude reserves, is not entirely healthy, and if the Venezuelan opposition ends up in power they may decide that it is not economically viable to have such contracts arms with Russia. Viachelav Nikonov, deputy chair of the Russian Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, has stated that he does not believe a new Venezuelan administration would be able to opt out of currently existing contracts, but future contracts may not be pursued.
Given the fragile state of Venezuela’s economy, Russia will most likely remain a major player in Venezuela’s foreign relations, because even if the opposition were somehow to come to power, Russian participation in the country’s energy sector is still largely necessary for it to be able to produce energy in adequate amounts and at sufficient levels of refinement. Yet Russia may lose a large part of its customer base in the armaments industry, and if a right-wing administration comes to power, or at least a Chávez lieutenant who seeks to improve relations with the United States, Russia may also find itself with less of a partner in the geopolitical arena of countering U.S. influence in Latin America.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What's Next for Venezuela

Having spent the last few months in a Berniesque state, Hugo Chavez was finally declared dead today. Thus the question: what will is next for Venezuela?

First, similar to almost every dead autocrat, Chavez did not leave strong institutions, or anyone politically strong enough, for that matter, to maintain his legacy. The reason is simple: strong institutions or popular politician/leaders could become rival bases of power that threaten his power and influence. As a result, Chavez relied on his cult of personality to maintain his power, while at the same time, providing ample bread and circuses through pillaging PDVSA, Venezuela's national oil company, and terrible economic policies (plus generous loans from China).

True, Chavez did install a heir, Nicolas Maduro, to maintain the flame of the Chavismo revolution. Still, it is very doubtful that this former bus driver, while still leading in a recent survey, can maintain his popularity or his political alliance among Chavez's lieutenants: Diosdado Cabello, the leader of Venezuelan military, Jorge Giordani, the Minister of Economy and Finance, and Rafael Ramirez, who controlled Venezuelan energy sector and thus the PDVSA.

The piper will have to be paid. With the economic crisis looming on the horizon, the current alliance of Chavez's lieutenants might be unraveling. Up to now, Chavez's charisma was the only thing that prevented the poor from rebelling. While the government made bad economic policies, for the people, what was really important was that Chavez, who they believed cared for them, was in power. As the Economist stated:
Mr Chávez’s supreme political achievement was that many ordinary Venezuelans credited him with the handouts and did not blame him for the blemishes. They saw him as one of them, as being on their side. His supporters, especially women, would say: “This man was sent by God to help the poor”. He had llanero wit and charm, and an instinctive sense of political opportunity. He deployed these talents each Sunday on “Aló Presidente”, his interminable talk show. He had the skills of a televangelist, as Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera, two Venezuelan writers, put it in a revealing biography.
It is very doubtful whether Maduro can maintain this illusion. He might be Chavez's successor, but he is no Chavez. Once Maduro grows unpopular, the alliance will unraveling. His allies will try to scapegoat him, feeding him to the masses while attempting to gain the throne for themselves.

Cuba might try to spend considerable capital to keep Maduro in power. The question, however, is whether Cuba will maintain the political will to do so. Like it or not, Cuba has an interest to ensure that Venezuela is led by anyone friendly enough to Cuba. It is simply stupid to keep trying to prop up a very unpopular leader, risking the ire of Maduro's eventual successor. It is a much better idea to cut loose the ties and cultivate the next potential leader.

Therefore, the irony: the perilous economic conditions of Venezuela could actually keep Maduro in power, as none of his ally will attempt to seize power, for now, because they know that whomever is in power will be saddled with the blame should the economy finally collapse.

Once the economy collapses, however, it is highly possible that Cabello, with strong support in the Venezuelan civil service and contacts in the military, could end up taking the reins.

What about the opposition? It is still possible for the opposition to rise up to power. They can't do it alone, though. Chavez's lieutenants are far too entrenched in power now, and with Chavez gone and given their precarious positions, expect more crackdowns and vilification of the opposition. Already, Maduro declared that Chavez's cancer was a part of conspiracy against Chavez by both the opposition and the United States.

It is possible that the rest of Chavez's lieutenants or even Cabello himself, who was reportedly "the man most hated and vilified by the opposition and not much loved by Chavistas," could make a Faustian bargain with the opposition to create a national unity government to keep other Chavezites out of power. If that's the case, then Venezuela might follow the Spanish democratization model.

Otherwise, expect to see either a brutal military dictatorship or a civil war. Both options are not appealing, but with decades of damage under Chavez, the future does not look bright for Venezuela.

Nuclear Politics: American Engagement with North Korea and Iran

Toward the end of my last blog post, I posed a question: is my proposal for the U.S. to diplomatically engage with North Korea applicable to Iran? After all, Iran is another country with which America is involved in a nuclear diplomatic standoff with no end in sight. My answer is simple and to the point: no, I don't foresee my recommendations as particularly relevant to Iran, considering present-day world politics and American domestic politics. In short, Team Obama has a freer hand to step up its engagement with North Korea than with Iran.

Engagement with Iran would be complicated and face huge obstacles. In fact, currently, the attendant political costs of directly engaging with Iran, in a bilateral setting, would likely be very high for Team Obama. Remember, Barack Obama came into office with talk of extending a diplomatic olive branch to Iran, and that went nowhere. Sure, Iran was wary of Obama's offer, believing he wasn't sincere, that it was a half-hearted attempt to satisfy the American left before he put the hammer down on Tehran. Perhaps, as there's probably some truth in that assessment.

But more importantly, by 2010, Obama received significant blowback from a host of actors, including those inside America and overseas. Many American conservatives, American Jews (regardless of political persuasion), American moderates and independents, Israeli lobbying groups, and Sunni Middle East countries, notably Saudi Arabia, were at critical of the idea of directly engaging with Iran. They saw Obama's planned overtures to Iran as a strategic blunder, a violation of American national interests, and, simply put, pointless. Moreover, it was clear that these actors saw the engagement idea as an indictment of Obama himself: namely, his weak leadership, lack of a moral compass, and an absence of courage to stand up to bad guys in the world.

Because of these harsh criticisms, it just didn't make much political sense to keep engagement as a centerpiece of America's Iran policy. Plus, given the regional reaction, particularly from Washington's allies, the U.S. would have likely gone alone on this Iran endeavor, which would have caused major problems, such as jeopardizing the sustainability of talks with Iran.

The North Korea issue has a different set of domestic and international factors in play, making bilateral engagement less risky and costly for Obama and American foreign policy more generally.

On the international front, while Japan might be cool to the idea, South Korea and China and Russia would likely support a bilateral diplomatic push from Team Obama. Of course, there are limits to China's enthusiasm, however. Beijing certainly wouldn't want the U.S. to pull North Korea into its orbit. But considering where Washington and Pyongyang are right now, that's a whole long way from happening, and not a strong concern of China's.

Domestically, there would be resistance from the political right, which would protest any moves from Obama to engage with a tyrannical, aggressive, perhaps unstable, Kim regime. But if talks led to a marginal opening up of the North Korean state, which is unlikely but possible, then Obama's initiative would effectively blunt a considerable amount of domestic opposition. Moreover, keep in mind there's no anti-North Korea lobby, at least that I know of, that would pose severe domestic constraints on Team Obama.

So why hasn't he broached the idea of engagement with North Korea? At this point, without much concrete evidence, it's purely conjecture, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Obama hopes other countries, such as China, will take the North Korean threat seriously and do most of the hard work for America.

2. He overstates the political costs of dealing publicly, repeatedly with North Korea.

3. Obama is too pessimistic. It's possible he thinks there's no point of engagement, that North Korea won't deal, or if they do, a deal will be broken. There are problems with this logic, though. For instance, without a negotiated deal to end the nuclear standoff, the crisis on the peninsula continues and war remains a possibility.

4. Perhaps he doesn't take the threat posed by North Korea seriously enough, as the American right believes is his standard practice in approaching and dealing with the world's bad guys.

5. Team Obama doesn't have the right people in place, either at State or at the NSC, to guide, implement, and follow though on North Korea policy, including "remarkably few Korea experts at the top of its Asia policy team."

Whatever the case, let's hope Team Obama gets its act together on North Korea. There's way too much at stake in terms of world politics and human security. Furthermore, given Obama's very publicly stated interest in and commitment to denuclearization in the world, his reputation is on line, whether he realizes it or not.

Hence, the Obama administration needs to move beyond silence on this issue, abandoning its so-called policy of "strategic patience." It's time for the U.S. to exercise its leadership here. Think about it: it's Pyongyang that's setting the agenda while U.S. acts bemused, if not downright befuddled, on the sidelines. The main American diplomatic mover and shaker on North Korea, at the moment, is Dennis Rodman, the wild-haired, crazily-behaved former pro basketball player. That's a pretty damning statement about Team Obama, isnt it?