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Analysis & Opinion
12.07.10 The Caucasian Rope Walker
Comment by Sergei Markedonov

Hillary Clinton’s short but intense visit to the Southern Caucasus, which took place on June 4 to 5, was being widely discussed in political and expert circles way before it began. Such substantial interest had serious grounds. Firstly, the U.S. secretary of state went on her east European tour (besides Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia she also went to Poland and Ukraine) soon after Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama met in Washington, and the spy scandal made headlines. The latter two events provided a concrete topic for discussing the difficulty, inconsistency and incoherency of the Russian-American “reset” announced 18 months ago.

Clinton’s visit to such “problematic countries” for Russia as Georgia, Ukraine and Poland was meant to answer the question of which direction the pendulum of bilateral relations was going to swing in. Yet one has to note that while the state secretary’s east European tour provided many answers, it also broached quite a few new, pressing questions.

Secondly, Clinton’s visit was accompanied by talks about the fact that Washington has recently lost interest in the Caucasus region. Certain voices have even appeared in the American press saying that the United States has surrendered Transcaucasia to Russia for the sake of making the “reset” more dynamic. Some even thought Obama’s team to be indifferent toward the needs of Washington’s geopolitical allies (primarily Georgia’s). This argument was supported by the minimal contact that the new administration has had with Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, the de facto freezing of the North Atlantic Alliance’s activity in the region, and the stalling of the Armenian-Turkish normalization process. An editorial piece in the influential Washington Post, published on July 7, tellingly called Clinton’s visit a “compensating tour.”

Thirdly, the actual format of the tour itself is important. In July of 2010 the American state secretary visited all three countries in the region without dividing them up into those where American interests are a priority and those that spell trouble. She tried to find a special key to unlock each one.

During her Transcaucasian “inspection” Clinton made many very important announcements. It is possible to try to summarize the main theses in order to understand how much and why the Caucasus region is important for American foreign policy. Unlike Russia, Iran and Turkey, the United States doesn’t care as much about the geopolitical dynamics surrounding the Caucasus. For Russia, any disruption in the Southern Caucasus can lead to a “defrosting” of the already unstable North Caucasus region (and this creates internal political problems for Moscow). For Turkey, the Caucasus is largely a litmus test of the success of its new foreign policy doctrine, which experts define as “neoosmanism,” and for Iran it is the potential threat of external interference (not necessarily of the military kind, “soft power” is enough) near its borders.

But to Washington, the Caucasus is valuable as a testing ground, where some important political processes are developing that are not necessarily local. For example, what is Georgia? It is a country that American politicians view as a “weak link” on the territory of the former Soviet Union, which Russia can use as a tool to establish a dominant role in the whole of Eurasia. Meanwhile, in the United States this dominance is perceived as part of the plan to reintegrate the former Soviet space. This reintegration itself is seen as a challenge to the United States and almost as a return to the times of the Cold War. Whether we like it or not, the American political and expert circles link Moscow’s increased geopolitical activity in the “near aboard” with the solidifying authoritarian tendencies within Russia itself. According to this approach, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is viewed not as the ethno-political self-identification of the small groups of peoples of the former Georgian Soviet Republic, but as a precedent for totally reconsidering the borders established between the former allied republics before 1991. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these borders became interstate. This leaves us with a paradox. While detesting communism, Washington is prepared to defend the boundaries established by the Bolsheviks with Stalin’s personal participation. At the same time, an obvious notion is being ignored: Moscow’s passivity in Eurasia could lead to increased nationalistic and anti-Western sentiments within Russia proper, while the United States’ acquiescence to Russia’s leading role in the CIS could actually advance the “reset” quite a bit.

So what do Armenia and Azerbaijan mean to official Washington? Taking a step back from the traditional techniques of diplomatic rhetoric, it should be acknowledged that these two countries play a role in the larger context of American Middle Eastern policy. Having an extremely low (if not negative) rating among the Islamic countries, Washington is extremely interested in strengthening its connections with Azerbaijan’s high society. It certainly won’t replace Turkey (which has in recent years noticeably distanced itself from the United States), but it can still be used as a certain counterweight to Iran and as a successful ideological example. This is where the rhetoric that Clinton used in Baku comes from. The main priority is partnership in the energy and military-technological fields. As for human rights, the American state secretary sees “enormous progress” in Azerbaijan.

Today Washington views the Armenian factor as a way to put pressure on stubborn Ankara, which has turned away from Israel and is watching Iran with interest. In this regard, Clinton’s visit to the memorial of the victims of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan was hardly accidental. The relevant State Department services could probably foresee the reaction of the Turkish authorities. If talking about the inveterate Karabakh conflict between Baku and Yerevan, then here, unlike Georgia, Washington sees extensive opportunities to cooperate with Moscow, which is again advantageous for its larger-scale goals (Afghanistan and Iran, where Russia’s support is quite important). And truly, unlike the conflict knots in Georgia, the Russian policy in Nagorno-Karabakh is aimed at mediation, and not one-sided support of the unrecognized republics’ governments. Perceiving no threats of Soviet reintegration here, Washington is prepared to share the responsibility for resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani standoff with Moscow.

Thus Clinton’s visit shone new light on things that are already known. Washington is interested in the Caucasus. But this interest is not connected to any one place, it is part of larger external political projects, be they a “reset” in the relations with Russia, a resolution of the problems in the Middle East in general, or the problems of Iran and Turkey in particular. In this sense it is possible to speak about the certain asymmetrical perceptions of the Caucasus in Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara on the one hand, and Washington on the other. Therefore, in order to be more successful, the Eurasian powers (primarily Russia) should overcome their “local thinking” and learn to resolve the more sensitive Caucasian challenges likewise within wider geopolitical contexts.

Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic an International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, Washington, DC
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