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Monday, May 29, 2006

Will a Revamped GUAM Offset Russia’s ‘Grand Slam?’

With the recent summit in Kyiv, a counter-CIS caucus that owes its acronym to Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova finally seems to have ventured past the beta stage. Started in 1997 and initially called the GUUAM, this quasi-organization has lied dormant most of the time, convening annually in the spirit of ‘all talk and no action.’ Kuchma simply kept the GUUAM handy in his ‘multivector’ foreign policy portfolio just in case Russia gave him a rougher ride than his ego could tolerate.

But as the winds of democracy grew stronger, propelling the peaceful retirement of Shevarnadze and Kuchma himself, Islom Karimov of Uzbekistan became all the more estranged. In the fifteen years of his tenure, the Central Asian fiefdom of 27 million, known as the world’s second-largest producer of cotton, has hardly consumed any democratic calories. To muffle criticism of its medieval human rights record, Tashkent had eagerly hosted a US airbase, once Washington had plunged into the war on terror. However, Karimov’s hospitality did not interfere with his loyalty to the Tashkent Pact, the cornerstone CIS agreement on security.
Last year, when Uzbek authorities brutally suppressed an Islamist opposition rally in Andijan, Ukraine joined the West in condemning the massacre. By that time Uzbekistan had already announced its complete withdrawal from the GUUAM.

After Uzbekistan had sailed back for a safe harbor in Russia’s orbit, the name sharpened to the GUAM. A sharper brand name certainly communicates a sharper sense of purpose. Among pundits, the GUAM creates a strong association with Guam, a major US military base in the Pacific. The GUAM summits have customarily enjoyed participation by US and EU representatives. In this regard, they provide a nexus for the pro-Western administrations in Ukraine and Georgia in their pursuit of NATO and EU membership.

The Kremlin, unable to control its allergic reaction to the ‘colored’ revolutions in these countries, slapped them with a flu of self-styled sanctions. Ukraine, for instance, swallowed a steep increase in natural gas prices plus a ban on its meat and diary products in Russia. As for Georgia, this tiny state encountered gas supply disruptions and has had its beverage exports wiped out from the Russian market.

Moldova and Azerbaijan, albeit untouched by ‘colored’ revolutions, still can’t escape having frictions with Russia.

Moldova’s soft Communist regime wrangles with Russia over the breakaway region of Transdniesteria, to which Russia funnels support. As the Kremlin stirs ferment in Moldova’s backyard, cratefuls of Moldovan wine get bulldozed in front of the cameras during hatemongering binges in Moscow. So goes the archetypal two-in-one approach popular in the Kremlin’s geopolitical distillery.

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian oligarchy may not want to risk its oil business in another bloody territorial dispute with pro-Russian Armenia. But that sort of live-and-let-live axiom doesn’t save the Azeri community in Russia from being the subject and victim of bigoted campaign ads and violent xenophobic attacks.

In fact, Armenian immigrants hardly fare any better.

Carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, the four presidents met in Kyiv to ease their regional burdens by giving the GUAM another try. They set out to upgrade it to a full-time organization called the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development. The counter-CIS concept dwells on one simple idea: leverage. That’s exactly what the Kyiv quartet looks forward to — building an organization that will provide the leverage needed to prevent Russia from imposing its will on weaker neighbors.

Shortly after arriving in Kyiv, Georgian President Saakashvili, a graduate of the School of International Law at Kyiv State University, moved into position. He rushed to the Georgian Winefest, where he drew crowds in a heartfelt endorsement for his country’s key industry. Russia, which used to be Georgia’s major market, claims that the ban aims to stop the flood of counterfeit shipments from Georgia. While accepting some of the blame, Georgia insists that most of the counterfeit shipments originate from outside Georgia and that the ban has little to do with trade practices in the first place.

Now that Georgia hemorrhages red wine in a cold war with the Kremlin, the Wine of Liberty, as the Georgian marketers brand it, may become the hottest issue among politically savvy connoisseurs. Saakashvili reassured Ukrainian wine producers that Georgia poses no competitive threat to their business, obviously alluding to the higher price points commanded by Georgian brands. The most virulent critic of Russia and the most vivacious communicator, he epitomizes the kind of leader who walks the walk. The only of the four presidents to have studied on both sides of the Atlantic — and perhaps the only foreign leader to think of Kyiv as his stamping ground — Saakashvili arguably has Eurointegration even higher on his radar screen than Yushchenko.

Speaking at a press conference, Moldovan President Voronin welcomed soon-to-be EU members Rumania and Bulgaria to join the club. It was he who suggested rebranding the ‘GUAM’ to the ‘Organization for Democracy and Economic Development,’ in a bid to bolster enlargement.

Unwilling to further strain relations with Russia, Azeri President Aliev glossed over the ODED not being an anti-Russian organization. Still, he stated that his country had reviewed its energy policy for a more favorable outlook toward the ODED. Such equilibristic assertiveness may indicate that Azerbaijan, with its vast Caspian oil reserves and the backing of Western oil companies, positions itself to fill a niche in the European market. At a time when oil reaches record high prices and Russia raises reliability concerns, Azerbaijan could shake the rust off the Odessa-Brody pipeline.

President Yushchenko, who, compared to Saakashivili, remained more of a dove on the CIS, stressed the idea of a free trade zone within the ODED. What remains to be seen is whether the ODED will live beyond the bureaucracy. Will it become just another toothless paper tiger of nothing more than confetti value? Or will it become a vehicle for advancing common interests of real counter-CIS value?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Cheney Chews out Energy Empire

Vice President Dick Cheney grabbed the Russian bear by the balls, in what sounds like the most vicious and delicious diatribe ever from the Bush administration’s Russian cuisine. As a guest speaker at a geopolitical get-together in Vilnius, Lithuania, Cheney made headlines by dishing out hot potatoes on the Kremlin’s conduct of foreign policy. Describing Russia’s current state of affairs, he used the words backsliding and blackmail.

Cheney, who has a background in the energy sector, elaborated on Russia’s decreasing democracy coupled with its increasing role as a global energy supplier. That the vestiges of the evil empire keep protruding themselves in Russia’s self-proclaimed vision of an energy empire breaks no news. Many of the Black and Baltic Sea leaders who assembled in Vilnius had long solicited Washington’s concurrence on their diagnosis of Moscow’s condition. The forum attracted not-so-big countries with not-so-small problems. Indeed, counties like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine seek prosperity through preserving the fruits of democracy from the fungi of Russian despotism.

Vice President Cheney became the third top-level conservative to speak openly against Russia’s blackmail-thy-neighbor behavior. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds the lead for having vented her view on Moscow’s gasmanship. Senator John McCain has repeatedly reflected on the Russian issue and has urged President Bush to boycott the July G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Experts believe both Rice and McCain will run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008.

Dick Cheney, a controversial figure loathed by liberals, still deserves respect from a purely Ukrainian point of view. In the late 80s, then-Congressman Cheney visited Chernobyl. He avidly supported Ukraine’s independence when the USSR could no longer support itself. As Secretary of Defense in the Senior Bush administration and a major hawk, he helped a chicken Kiev gourmet Bush see the forest for the trees.

The Kremlin and the conservative camp seem all the more at odds. In the gung-ho days of the GOP’s rodeo on terror, Bush and Putin used to ride together. We all remember that Kodak moment when Dubya looked into Puttie’s eyes and got a sense of his soul. It was a wedding ceremony where Condi, a distinguished Sovietologist and then-NSC adviser, played the maid of honor. With the honeymoon in full swing, Moscow made no big fuss when Washington withdrew from the ABM treaty.

Being Bush’s staunch ally supplied Putin with the geopolitical currency needed to buy Washington’s silent stamp of approval on Moscow’s imperial designs in the near abroad. One version has it that, while the US went after the axis of evil, the Kremlin framed the Kuchma regime to put Ukraine into its wheel cart. Much to Putin’s gastronomic advantage, on the eve of Operation Shock and Awe, the Kolchuha scandal set off shock waves on both sides of the Atlantic, portraying Kuchma as Hussein’s accomplice and casting Ukraine into monthlong isolation.

Thanks to the relatively low US Army casualties, lack of trophy evidence of the Kolchuha transfer, and the dispatch of 1,600 Ukrainian troops to Iraq, Kuchma redeemed some of his political value. That didn’t help his successor strategy, though. The rest is history — and something Russia can’t reconcile with.

In addition to Ukraine, Russia’s hit list also includes Georgia and Moldova. Russia has banned wine imports from these countries, apparently trying to strangle their chief source of earnings. Meanwhile, Russia continues catering to the separatist enclaves in these countries. Georgia’s Abkhazia, Adzharia, and South Ossetia, as well as Moldova’s Transdniesteria, operate as Russia’s pet geopolitical subsidiaries.

Whether it’s American crusaders or Russian regionalists, the tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow has not ceased. The Bush administration is credited with record budget deficits and tax cuts for the rich. America often behaves like a bull in a China shop. Likewise, Cheney is no saint, but when it comes to Russia he calls a spade a spade. Ukraine stands to benefit from the balance-of-power effects that stem from the Cold War instincts of his cohort.

Babysitting fledgling democracies requires no troop deployments. As the West counters Russia’s predatory posture diplomatically, it will help Russia reinvent itself and become a reliable partner.