Setting The East Ablaze

by Nathan Hamm on 5/11/2005 · 9 comments

Bush’s trip to Georgia has not just Russian political elites upset. Robert Coalson of RFE/RL reports that China is reacting too.

At the same time, the U.S. statements have irked politicians in Russia and China, as well as the entrenched regimes in countries like Belarus. Russian analysts in recent days have been speaking more frequently about a “coordinated campaign” against Russia. Aleksei Zudin, director of the Political Science Department of the Center for Political Strategy, added that the recent comments “are undoubtedly an integral part of the pressure on Russia that began with the so-called colored revolutions,” reported on 6 May.

The Beijing magazine “Shijie Zhishi” in April published an analysis entitled “The Background Behind The Color ‘Revolutions’ In The CIS” that described purported U.S.-led efforts to “fill the political vacuum in this region.” The magazine charges that over the last decade, the United States has spent “more than $21 billion” through the Freedom Support Act to “exert influence on the political- and economic-development process in these states.” The West “is continually exerting political pressure and creating a ‘relaxed’ political environment for opposition political forces in these states,” the article charges.

Heaven forbid! A “relaxed” environment. Spooky.

The story also mentions something I’ve not seen elsewhere. A special visitor went to Tbilisi to try to meet Bush.

Belarusian opposition figure Anatol Lyabedzka flew to Georgia in the days before Bush’s visit for high-level meetings with Georgian officials, including parliamentarians and Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli. “This is a very high level,” Lyabedzka told “It indicates that Belarus is not a matter of indifference for Georgia. It is very important. People who think alike always understand one another.” Lyabedzka also hinted that he would be seeking a meeting with Bush himself.

I’m not sure that they got a chance to meet, but in the wake of the visit, it’s worth pointing out that, quite surprisingly for a small country who has lingering conflicts with Russia, Georgia is committed to pressuring Belarus for democratic reform. (Maybe not so surprisingly. Turnabout is fair play.)

Coalson also points out that the Bush administration is warning opposition movements in the region to not get too far ahead of themselves. reported on 6 May that an unnamed Bush administration source had cautioned oppositionists in Armenia and Azerbaijan — where governments have carried out elections at least as compromised as those that sparked the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan — not to interpret Bush’s support for Georgia as a call for revolution in those countries. “We welcome reforms in both power structures and beyond them,” the source was quoted as saying. “Opposition forces should be engaged in peaceful democratic processes in Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

Bush’s Eurasia policy is often criticized for what is interpreted as a lack of concern about democracy in some countries,* typically, critics argue, because of oil, gas, or security concerns. I interpret the policy more to be that the Bush administration feels it would not serve American interests well to absolutely destroy relationships with the region’s governments for the sake of opposition movements with very little popular support. The administration has, however, shown a willingness to throw its authoritarian allies to the wolves once their position becomes vulnerable.

Oddly enough, NPR picked up on this yesterday. For those who may not have heard it, during All Things Considered’s report on Bush’s Tbilisi visit, Lawrence Sheets mentioned this, if I recall, as an element of Bush’s Eurasia policy (somebody correct me if I’m wrong).

And, because these things are rather unpredictable, time will only tell how this will play out in the near future. Azerbaijan has an upcoming parliamentary election and Kazakhstan has a presidential election soon.

* Summary: The US isn’t moving worlds to launch an opposition with debatable public support into power. And there’s oil there. Therefore, oil companies must be pressuring the West to support Aliyev. See the Kaplan quotation in the middle of this post.

UPDATE: Tim Russo comments on Bush’s visit and Armenia. I don’t know what to say in response except that there certainly are competing interests at work in determining our Armenia policy. There’s the unnamed administration source referred to above that says the US position is that Armenia and Azerbaijan need reforms and that opposition groups should peacefully work for reform. And there are those who put security, stability, and resources first. I don’t think anything’s being sacrificed here.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Tim Russo May 11, 2005 at 11:38 am

Thanks for linking, Nathan.

But I disagree, I think US policy on Armenia, and conversely Azerbaijan, has been sacrificing democracy for ‘stability’ for a very long time. Armenian and Azeri lobbying in Congress has guaranteed that.

Nathan May 11, 2005 at 11:47 am

But what are we going to do? If there’s not a domestic opposition of significant strength, should we make a big flap and get our asses booted out of the country?

I’m all for taking a slower path if that’s all that’s available to us.

praktike May 11, 2005 at 11:53 am

well, isn’t the Bush administration likely to be worried about the azeri nutcases who started all that trouble with armenia coming back to power?

Nathan May 11, 2005 at 12:00 pm

If there’s anything that proves I’m not the frothing neo-con that I’m sometimes accused of being, it’s my position on this. I am an unabashed proponent of democratization, but that’s no reason to not appraise the battle before rushing in. There are plenty of competing interests and considerations, not the least of which is that there’s no credible reason to lay our cards down when there’s yet to materialize opposition groups that enjoy broad-based appeal. If they show up and appear to be genuinely democratic, I’d wager they’ll enjoy US support.

Tim Russo May 11, 2005 at 12:06 pm

It’s not about the path we take being slow or fast. It’s about the honesty in American foreign policy.

I could understand a soft touch if Armenia had any strategic importance whatsoever. It has none. No oil. No pipeline. No threats. No economy. Nothing. It is the perfect place in which to be completely honest about democracy.

But because of the Armenian lobby, American policy has simply looked the other way almost as a matter of habit. Congress just rolls over and plays dead for the sake of a few thousand in PAC contributions from wealthy Armenians. It’s utterly shameful.

The executive branch follows suit. For the American ambassador – the American ambassador! – to say that Armenia is ‘headed in the right direction’ is patently absurd on its face. How do you think Armenians feel when the US trots out this kind of nonsense?

The relative weakness of the opposition there is a direct result of American timidity on democracy. If the Americans won’t stand with us, who will? This dynamic has been in place for years. One of the consequences is that opposition parties simply die off.

Nathan May 11, 2005 at 12:17 pm

I see where you’re coming from, but like I said, I don’t think that democracy is being sacrificed. I do agree though that the situation is somewhat analagous to Belarus. We don’t have a significant relationship, so there’s not a whole lot of harm in being disagreeable.

I’m far from an expert on Armenia, but I have to have my doubts that the weakness of the opposition can so squarely be blamed on the US. I also have reservations about the US doing anything more than providing support to home-grown movements that are able to build their own network of support.

Tim Russo May 11, 2005 at 12:24 pm

I don’t blame opposition weakness squarely on the US. As I’ve blogged previously, that responsibility rests primarily on the arrogant shoulders of Armenian opposition leaders. But we do have to take responsibility for putting democracy on the back burner in Armenia, and the consequences that flow.

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