Wednesday, 10 December 2014 20:49

Georgia: Another Target in Russia's 'Near Abroad'

European Affairs

`Perspectives: Georgia—Another Target in Russia’s “Near Abroad”   

Svante E. Cornell, Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program

Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, in a manner that, at least with the benefit of hindsight, appeared a trial run for this year’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Russia has stirred trouble in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and as far as the Baltic States, while bankrolling right-wing extremist parties in European Union countries. It is remarkable, however, that after the 2008 war, Georgia seemed off the target list.

Does that mean Moscow had given up on Georgia? Far from it. Moscow may have adopted a more gradual and sophisticated approach, but the objective remains the same: subjugating Georgia and thereby asserting Russian hegemony over the Caucasus region, thereby blocking Western access to the Caspian basin and Central Asia.

In recent months, Russia has again turned more overt attention to Georgia.

Setting the Scene

The 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia was an opening shot in a new geopolitical battle in Eurasia. Not only did it bring to power an assertively pro-western government in Georgia; it also injected an element of ideology into regional geopolitics. Before Mikheil Saakashvili’s supporters walked into the Georgian parliament carrying roses, the domestic affairs of Eurasian countries had not been a key issue in their foreign policy alignments. Indeed, the most pro-American former Soviet state in the 1990s was arguably authoritarian Uzbekistan. But the Rose Revolution realigned matters. Suddenly, with George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, authoritarian regimes had reason to fear that the West would seek to unseat them; and Russia moved in to pose as their protector. The following year, the Ukrainian revolt brought in another government deeply suspicious of Russia, leading Vladimir Putin to conclude that democracy in Russian neighbors was not only a threat to Russian interests in the neighborhood, but also a potential threat to his own regime’s hold on power. After all, if Slavic Ukraine would become a normal European state with accountable leaders, why should Russians continue to accept the corruption of Putin’s Russia? As a result, Georgia and Ukraine became serious targets. It is no coincidence that the only two countries Russia has invaded in the past decade are those two Orthodox Christian countries.

In Georgia, this logic led to a gradual escalation, culminating in the Russian invasion of August 2008. Subsequent research has made it clear that Russia planned the war as early as 2006, and Putin has publicly admitted as much. War was launched after a sequence of events, beginning with the western recognition of Kosovo’s independence in February and the ill-fated NATO Bucharest summit in April that denied Ukraine and Georgia NATO Membership Action Plans. The war led to Russia’s occupation of the two breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian-monitored cease-fires had kept an uneasy state of no war, no peace, following conflicts Moscow helped instigate in the early 1990s.

Yet that war was followed two months later by the global financial crisis, which shook Russia’s economy to the core. Moscow suddenly put on a conciliatory face to the world, particularly indicating a willingness to compromise on a variety of issues with the West. The sanctions on Russia resulting from the Georgian war were soon dropped, and the incoming Obama administration rewarded Russia with the now notorious “Reset” policy, which effectively relegated disagreements on issues like Georgia to the backburner.

As much as U.S. officials would reject that notion, Russian leaders clearly interpreted the Reset policy as a license for Russia to re-establish its “sphere of exclusive interests” in the former Soviet space. In 2010, Russia directly triggered a coup against the government in Kyrgyzstan, helping unleash ethnic violence in the country’s south that killed close to a thousand people. Sensing western weakness, Putin also put in overdrive his project of Eurasian integration, beginning with a Customs Union and leading to the Eurasian Economic Union, due to be formally created next month. Officials from a variety of countries in Eurasia from Moldova and Azerbaijan to Tajikistan began reporting to western interlocutors the contents of increasingly threatening conversations with Russian officials, involving demands to join that Union. But remarkably, Georgia was largely absent from these considerations. The Russian security services have been credibly linked to a series of terrorist attacks in Georgia in 2009-11, including one targeting the perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi. But apart from that, aside from cementing its control over the two occupied territories, Moscow kept a low profile in Georgia.

Ivanishvili Arrives

In 2011, Georgia’s politics were rocked by the entry into politics of the country’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili had made his fortune of around $6 billion in Russia from interests in metals and banking in the 1990s, but had left the country soon after Putin’s ascent to the presidency. An eccentric and reclusive person born in poverty in the mountains of western Georgia, Ivanishvili had been a supporter of Saakashvili’s, bankrolling many of the new initiatives launched after the Rose Revolution. For reasons that are not yet fully understood, Ivanishvili parted ways with Saakashvili at some point after the war, and eventually decided to confront his former ally. Saakashvili and his allies immediately branded Ivanishvili a Russian stooge; but the accusations never got traction either in Georgian society or abroad, possibly because Saakashvili had a record of overusing that accusation. Ivanishvili also made a point of recruiting as his main political allies the most pro-western politicians that had parted ways with Saakashvili at some point in the last seven years. That provided him with the necessary legitimacy to emerge as a credible challenge to Saakashvili’s party, and his coalition – dubbed Georgian Dream – won the October 2012 parliamentary election.

Ivanishvili’s victory was based on domestic concerns, including large-scale violations of property rights in Saakashvili’s last three years in power and a prison abuse scandal that undermined the government’s credibility. But he also pledged to take a different approach to Russia: Saakashvili had been too rash, and unnecessarily irritated Moscow, he argued; the new government would approach Russia without illusions, but with less emotion. Ivanishvili pledged continuity with the policy of EU and NATO integration that Saakashvili (and his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze) had followed; but claimed he could simultaneously improve relations with Russia. The Georgian people liked the sound of that, and so did many of Georgia’s western allies.

Russia decided to combine carrots and sticks. On the one hand, it removed its embargoes on Georgian wine and mineral water, and went along with Ivanishvili’s attempts to improve economic relations. On the other hand, while Moscow increasingly focused its energies on Ukraine, it began a multi-pronged effort to undermine Georgia’s pro-European stance, in what then appeared a slow, gradual policy to veer Georgia away from the West. That policy assumed that the 2008 war had created enough of a deterrent effect on the West to ensure that Georgia would not be provided with concrete opportunities to join the EU or NATO anytime soon. Besides, Georgia’s economy was not excessively linked to Europe’s, as Moldova’s was. The Georgian fruit could, for now, be allowed to ripen on the tree, while Moscow tended to other business.

Upping the Ante

But recently Moscow decided to speed up the process to bend Georgia away from the West. First, the Kremlin unleashed hundreds of operatives of various shades and types, mostly Georgians that had been on their payroll during the Shevardnadze administration, but lived in exile in Russia during the Saakashvili era. Some managed to get appointed to senior positions in the interior ministry and prosecutor general’s office; most were deployed in civil society, to create NGOs supporting “Eurasian” ideas and the like. A former Georgian cabinet minister in June 2014, told this author that he had counted at least 17 different Russian-created NGOs popping up like mushrooms across Georgia.

Second, the Kremlin poured money into pro-Russian political parties. The chief beneficiary was Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament under Saakashvili, who had twice served as interim president. After falling out with Saakashvili, Burjanadze established her own party, moving into radical opposition and overtly establishing ties to Putin’s United Russia party. Burjanadze made a half-hearted attempt at orchestrating a coup in May 2011, but was caught in a wiretap released by Georgian authorities to discuss the prospect of Russian spetsnaz forces helping her overthrow Saakashvili. Lately, her Democratic Movement party has been buoyed by what one observer aptly termed “an enormous influx of vaguely sourced money” that everyone assumes to be of Russian origin.

Against this onslaught of Russian subversion, Georgian counter-intelligence has made zero arrests. In 2006, Saakashvili’s government’s very public arrest of Russian spies generated an economic embargo by Russia, suggesting the current government may have reason to be cautious. But for over two years, it appears that the Georgian interior ministry has done very little, if anything, to counter the very visible efforts of the Russian special services to undermine the country’s sovereignty. By 2014, this had become a sore point in the government, with pro-western forces arguing for action, while Ivanishvili’s loyalists refused to act.

Not limiting itself to subversion, Moscow also began to engage in military shows of force, and to tighten the screws in the occupied territories. In March 2013, Russia conducted unannounced naval exercises off Georgia’s Black Sea coast, coinciding with U.S.-Georgian training drills conducted the same week. Beginning in 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service began building barbed wire fences on the administrative boundary lines separating Georgia from South Ossetia. In March 2014, Moscow orchestrated the overthrow of the leadership of Abkhazia, which – while having little love lost for Tbilisi – had sought to maintain a modicum of independence vis-à-vis Russia. In its place, Russia ensured the election as President in a special election of Raul Khajimba, Moscow’s closest ally in the territory for a decade. And in November, Moscow announced new bilateral “treaties” on the further integration of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russia.

These developments, and especially the simultaneous Russian invasion of Ukraine, gradually exacerbated the built-in contradictions in the Georgian government’s approach to Russia. Clearly, the aim of simultaneously pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration and improved relations with Russia was no longer realistic. This deepened the rift in the Georgian government between forces leaning toward appeasement of Russia, and those insisting on further integration with NATO and the EU. The political divide was made worse by the fact that Ivanishvili had left the government in December 2013, retreating to private life and entrusting the premiership to his loyal confidant, 31-year old Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. Yet it remained common knowledge that Ivanishvili would still be consulted for every political decision of some importance.

In September 2014, the NATO summit in Wales did not provide Georgia with a coveted Membership Action Plan; but it did agree on a substantial “package” for Georgia, which included the opportunity for the country to finally procure defensive weaponry from NATO countries, something the alliance had long been reluctant to do. Defense Minister Alasania seized on this opportunity, for which he and his ministry had long been preparing: among others, Alasania cultivated close ties with the French Ministry of Defense, including coming to Paris’s aid in effectively rescuing the French-led peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic. As Le Monde reported in April this year, it was Georgia’s decision to commit 150 soldiers to the mission, which other European countries were reluctant to commit to, that made it viable.

By late October 2014, Alasania had concluded negotiations with the French defense ministry and French defense industries to purchase one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems: the Aster-30. This system, consisting of vertically launched surface-to-air missiles, is designed to counter a broad range of targets, ranging from high-flying aircraft to sea-skimming cruise missiles. Crucially for Georgia, it would be capable of defending Georgian airspace against the Russian air force – which immediately took command of Georgia’s airspace in the 2008 war – as well as against the Tochka-U (SS-21 Scarab) ballistic missiles that Russia deployed in South Ossetia after the war, within range of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi 60 miles away. The deployment of the Aster-30 system would effectively deny Russia the advantage of control over the airspace in the case of a renewed conflict, and thus make any new invasion of Georgia a much more complicated operation.

This proved too much for Moscow. While the procurement had been agreed on in the Georgian government, a glitch emerged at the last minute. Multiple sources in Georgia independently confirm that Alasania received a phone call from Tbilisi an hour before the signing of a memorandum of intent, from a subordinate of the prime minister, urging him not to sign the agreement. The sequence of events suggests that the decisive factor in this development was an external pressure rather than any domestic rivalry. Indeed, it is fairly clear that that the Kremlin managed to bring to bear its levers of pressure on Ivanishvili to rein in his pro-western defense minister, thereby potentially stopping Georgia from the a historic opportunity to provide for the defense of its territory.

When Alasania (who reportedly tried and failed to reach the prime minister personally) signed the agreement on the basis of the authority he had received, Georgian prosecutors the next day launched two separate judicial proceedings against the Defense Ministry, arresting several high civilian as well as military officials. Within days, Alasania had been fired from the Defense Ministry along with his deputies, and the leading pro-European ministers responsible for foreign affairs and European integration resigned in solidarity. Following this crisis, Georgian politics and foreign policy are in flux – the government continuing to voice its rhetorical commitment to European integration and to NATO. Credibility on that score, however, has been strongly damaged. A key indicator will be whether Georgia follows through on the air defense agreement with France.

In Russian strategic thinking, the Caucasus occupies a place second only to Ukraine, and from the Yeltsin era to the present, it is in the Caucasus that Moscow has been most assertive in its efforts to maintain its sphere of influence and to deny western presence. As the situation in Ukraine moves toward a stalemate, it is clear from the developments over the past year that the Kremlin is once again refocusing its attention on Georgia and the South Caucasus. Aside from the events in Georgia, Moscow in September 2013 succeeded in pressuring Armenia to drop its attempts at an Association Agreement in favor of joining the Eurasian Union. The same year, but with less clear results, it drastically increased its pressure on Azerbaijan to desist from a pro-Western foreign policy. Worse, in August 2014, Moscow was very likely involved in triggering the largest escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict since the cease-fire in 1994.

The Kremlin appears to be calculating that any successor to the Obama administration, whether Democratic or Republican, will be a tougher adversary – and it is thus plausible that Moscow will want, once and for all, to finish its unresolved business in the South Caucasus in the next two years. How exactly this will happen, and what instruments Moscow will be using, is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that Georgia will figure prominently in these plans, for Moscow still views Georgia as the weakest link in the east-west corridor connecting the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.


Read 9738 times Last modified on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 20:56





  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...