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What "The Russia Thing" Is All About: The Case of Georgia

With the much ballyhooed "Rose Revolution" of 2003 spluttering onward to its (frankly foreordained) ignominious and inglorious denouement, it might be worthwhile, by means of a little study in contrasts, to examine the bottom line of that Eurasian Hegemony which is the grand object of American foreign policy. To consider, that it is say, the point where the truncheon meets the skull of the dissident.

To foreshorten a long story involving indigenous post-Soviet political corruption, State Department and Soros-funded NGOs, and the pipeline politics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, suffice it to say that November of 2003 witnessed Georgian parliamentary elections, in which the party of then-incumbent president Eduard Shevardnadze initially claimed victory. This result was contested, by means of alternative ballot counts and exit polls, media campaigns, and street demonstrations, by the opposition, unified, per United States direction, around the candidacy of Mikhail Saakashvili - himself an American-trained lawyer. In the intervening four years, Saakashvili has assumed the authoritarian mantle that so disenthralled Georgians and - superficially at least - the United States with this predecessor.

But this is only part of the story. The backstory is much more interesting than even this (at least for those of us with a strange fascination for the politics of the region).

The fuss over the (Georgian) elections, including American support for the opposition, was stunning to anyone who had paid attention to Azerbaijan's presidential race, which had taken place in October 2003, just two weeks before Georgians went to the polls. There, Heydar Aliev, the strongman who had run the Muslim state since it was a Soviet republic, suffered a heart attack just thirteen days before the vote, creating a sudden power vacuum. Into the gap stepped Aliev's son, Ilham, with little political experience.

But to the West - and to Western oil firms in particular - Ilham's succeeding Heydar meant continued stability and a predictable business environment. Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan as one of the most corrupt countries on the planet year after year (124th out of 133 countries in 2002), but the elder Aliev was the one who had negotiated the $7.4 billion "deal of the century" that gave BP, Exxon Mobil, Total, and other Western oil majors access to the Caspian Sea reserves.

So, though opinion polls ahead of the election favoured opposition leader Isa Gambar, the official result gave Ilham Aliev almost 80 per cent of the vote. When the opposition took to the streets two days later - some of them carrying iron bars and smashing shop windows - they were met by truncheon-wielding police, who also used dogs, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Two protesters were killed. The repercussions from the West for the crackdown were nil. The Alievs were seen as pro-American and therefore tolerated as a "force for stability"... Shevardnadze, however, was seen as increasingly unpredictable, weak and beholden to Russia. In September 2003, the U.S. administration made it plain it was finished with him. (snip) On September 24, barely five weeks before the parliamentary elections, Thomas Adams, a State Department Official responsible for aid-related issues in the former Soviet Union, announced that the aid taps were being turned off, citing corruption and a lack of commitment to reforms. One key detail he mentioned said much about the motivation for the sudden reversal of policy: a$34 million package to refurbish hydroelectric stations and other energy-related projects would be immediately cut. The U.S. government wasn't forgiving Shevardnadze for ousting AES (An American-backed energy company that had acquired Tbilisi's energy grid during the murky days of primitive accumulation privatization, and which was integral to the American strategy of securing the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the sole purpose of which is to shut Russia out of the regional energy picture.) and welcoming Gazprom. (Mark MacKinnon, former Globe and Mail Moscow bureau chief, and author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections, and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union)

My purpose in bringing these things before readers of W4 is not to expose the hypocrisy of the American foreign-policy establishment, which pays only lip service to the nostrums of democracy (except where they might actually be destructive, as in the Muslim world, but that is another issue), inasmuch as this hypocrisy is already well known, and I abjure the notion that the spread of democracy as an instrument of global policy is licit, let alone possible. No, my point is merely to substantiate that, as Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in the volume of his linked above, one of the principle purposes of American strategy is to keep the nations of the region in a state of dependency and vassalage, and to prevent other nations (whom he terms "the barbarians") from coming together to prevent or oppose this strategy. And, as I've argued previously, this sort of hegemonism is illicit, as it is a perversion of patriotism that strives to deny to others the same goods that it perverts domestically.

Hegemony, oil, economic dependency - these are the objects of the bogus revolutions American money foments in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the constants that explain the twists, turns, spirals, and contortions of American policymaking, such as who gets "democracy" and who gets the truncheons of authority. Fie on it all.

Comments (8)

"the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the sole purpose of which is to shut Russia out of the regional energy picture"

This characterization of the BTC project is extremely tendentious and misleading, and could have been written by a Kremlin propagandist. The idea that the BTC line could in any way succeed in "shutting Russia out of the regional energy picture," while Gazprom et al own practically every inch of energy export infrastructure in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and has a virtual monopoly on energy supply to the Baltics, South Eastern Europe, and increasingly even central Europe, is just ludicrous. In some quarters, I find that every move by the US to diversify energy supplies and prevent an absolute continent-wide lock-down on energy by Russia is painted as somehow monopolistic, while no amount of hard ball on the part of the Kremlin even registers more than a shrug.

I don't reject the basic premise of your entry here, regarding the role energy plays in American grand strategy. But the idea that the US is the regional meanie trying to freeze out the rest of the world is an inversion of the truth. Breaking a nascent monopoly isn't necessarily the same thing as trying to carve one out for yourself, and nobody--nobody--in the US foreign policy establishment thinks we are in a position to lock down Eurasian energy markets all to ourselves--all we can do is desperately try to place little cracks and fissures in the existing monopolistic trends, and in this way, US policy across Eurasia is actually anti-hegemonic.

This characterization of the BTC project is extremely tendentious and misleading...

Taken as an isolated piece of evidence, yes, it would be tendentious and misleading, about which more anon.

..and could have been written by a Kremlin propagandist.

How very original. I would that the same standard of evaluation be applied to apologists for Ukrainian kleptocrats such as Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, Georgian jackboots such as Saakashvili, Azerbaijani dictators such as Aliev, not to mention the president-for-life autocrats of such benighted countries as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and the British government, which protects exiled Russian mafiya oligarch Boris Berezovsky - who amassed his fortune by means of various frauds, thefts, and even assassinations.

while Gazprom et al own practically every inch of energy export infrastructure in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and has a virtual monopoly on energy supply to the Baltics, South Eastern Europe, and increasingly even central Europe..

The reason is simple: geography. One would think that American strategists would not be so obtuse as to declare facts of geography and geology injustices that must be reversed by means of geostrategy, but one would be mistaken. Consideration of the maps of existing and proposed pipelines discloses a critical reality, which itself ultimately entails a hegemonist policy on the part of any global power concerned to prevent Russia from remaining central to the energy picture of Eurasia: pipelines must either be routed north, into Russian territory, south, into the wilds of the Muslim Near East, or West, through the unstable lands of the Caucasus. The first option is unacceptable to our political and financial establishment, because it cedes too much 'control' over energy supplies to the (mythical) Soviet Union Redivivus. The second option entails some degree of manipulation and management of political outcomes in the Near East, whether this involves bogus colour revolutions or the propping-up of autocracies, even connivance with Islamist regimes (remember, the establishment, in the mid-nineties, supported the Taliban in Afghanistan for precisely the reason that they were deemed the force most likely to bring stability to that beleaguered nation, stability being requisite to the security of energy transit). The third option has entailed the manipulation of political processes in Georgia, and the propping-up of the hereditary dictatorship of Azerbaijan. In either of the latter instances, or the combination of the two, de facto hegemonist policies are indicated as the means of achieving American policy objectives.

Finally, as I've argued elsewhere in this forum, American geostrategy has as objects more than merely minimizing the Russian presence in Central Asian energy markets, but actually aims at weakening the Russian state and conniving at the separatist movements which operate along the volatile southern flank of the Russian Federation. American strategists both encouraged and exploited the shock-therapy privatization to establish favourable terms with the oligarchs who primatively accumulated the energy resources of Russia - majority shares in some instances, minimal royalties in all, and a debilitated Russian state incapable of exercising authority over the proceedings - and winked at (ie. Committee for Peace in Chechnya/Caucasus) the separatist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan, among others - because existing pipelines transit these territories, meaning that independence, or even substantial autonomy, for these rump republics - dominated by Wahhabists, but that's another complicating factor - the precedents for which already exist in the form of the American-imposed political settlements of the Balkans, would deprive Russia of existing pipeline routes.

Breaking a nascent monopoly isn't necessarily the same thing as trying to carve one out for yourself...

Theoretically, these things are distinct; however, in practice, breaking that alleged nascent monopoly involves hegemonist policies.

nobody--nobody--in the US foreign policy establishment thinks we are in a position to lock down Eurasian energy markets all to ourselves...

Perhaps not any longer, hence all of the caterwauling - unfounded, in addition to being shrill - concerning the New Russian Authoritarianism, the New Cold War, and the Reemergence of the Soviet Union. However, attempts toward that end were undertaken, throughout the Nineties, as Western energy firms, backed by their respective governments and supported in the last resort by the United States, attempt to secure concessions in virtually every major nation and energy field in Central Asia.

all we can do is desperately try to place little cracks and fissures in the existing monopolistic trends, and in this way, US policy across Eurasia is actually anti-hegemonic.

In a sense, all the United States can do is endeavour to create little cracks and fissures; what should be borne in mind is that this is merely applied hegemonism, and that "cracks and fissures" in Central Asia and the Caucasus often imply instability and violence. If partisans of American geostrategy in the region wish to argue for wars of resource acquisition, or wars for oil, let them do so; but let's not indulge the cynical fiction that America is acting on behalf of noble principles or even the peoples of the region - rather, America is pursuing hegemony because it, and its allies and dependencies, are geographically disfavoured in the allocation of energy reserves. America arrogates to itself the "right" to ordain political and economic outcomes because her establishment cannot suffer the thought that her power and influence are actually constrained by geography and geology.

There should be a comma before "...and the British government", inasmuch as the British do not yet suffer from autocracy.

Maximos, you're too busy ranting about American geostrategy and wars for oil to notice that I never said anything to indicate I think "America is acting on behalf of noble principles or even the peoples of the region." America's activity in the present case is entirely cynical. No kidding. What I objected to is the hyperbolic, hysterical characterization of American policy as an attempt to literally freeze Moscow out of the Eurasian energy complex, as though anybody is so stupid as to think that's even remotely in the cards. That's what I found overwrought and propagandistic--poor, poor Russia, watching their last drops of oil and LNG being drained away by...uh, the BTC line. It would be much simpler to just admit that's an overwrought piece of prose than to launch into a diatribe against American hegemony.

Your condescension isn't necessary, either--I understand the geopolitics of the situation just fine ("Wait--you mean Russia is in ASIA???? Well, never mind then!"). You're preaching to the choir, but you don't realize it. I'm writing a Master's thesis on the subject that essentially agrees with your point of view on America's objectives (I've studied geopolitics and grand strategy the last few years, and I'm no "partisan" for American geostrategy in the region). I do think that American strategy is to prevent the emergence of any land-based hegemon that is able to dominate the politics of both Asia and the European peninsula, and is in this sense anti-hegemonic. That's not to say that America is not attempting to behave as a hegemon, but maybe that distinction is too kind to America for your tastes. Better to just write it all off as evil imperialism and call it a day.

I'd just add that most of the "establishment" with whom I've had contact is perfectly aware that American power is constrained by geography. I've read no end of U.S. strategy papers that acknowledge this obvious fact. Again, American policy makers aren't as droolingly stupid as you seem to think. I say this as a traditionalist that positively loathes our foreign policy establishment.


Nice to see you over in these parts. I've enjoyed your many comments over on View From the Right. I extend my sincerest apologies for any apparent condescension, the appearance of which in my blogging is never intentional, for, in point of fact, I am under no illusions that I have even a rump of a choir to preach to. Remarks upon the inveterate foolishness of neoconservatives as regards Islam might elicit some agreement, but discussions of American geostrategy and its hegemonist cast typically elicit responses along a spectrum running from incomprehension to overt hostility. Hence, the tone.

I've already conceded that the specific phrase concerning BTC was tendentious and misleading, and we might as well throw hyperbolic into the indictment while we're at it. However, the general argument was that BTC was but one component of an overarching strategy that sought to minimize Russian power and influence, and sought to accomplish this, in part, by means of a variety of maneuvers in the Asian energy sector. Assuredly, had Western multinationals been more successful in securing energy concessions during the Yeltsin era, and had Putin's policies represented a continuation, more or less, of the chaos of the Yeltsin era, such that resource extraction by those multinationals left only meagre royalty payments to the Kremlin, with the bulk of the profits going to the bank accounts of numerous oligarchs and Western shareholders, the Russian state would be weaker and less stable, and the unalterable geographic fact of Russian control over pipeline infrastructure would have been less consequential. Had some of Russia's existing pipeline infrastructure been prised away, along with Chechnya and other sections of the Caucasian patchwork of ethnic republics, Russia would have been weaker still.

So yes, Russia could never be wholly excluded from the regional energy situation, unless she simply ceased to exist; but Russian prominence in that picture could have been dramatically diminished, and that to such a degree that Russian governments would have been hard pressed to negotiate more favourable terms with the West. This was the point. As you say,

...American strategy is to prevent the emergence of any land-based hegemon that is able to dominate the politics of both Asia and the European peninsula...

This is anti-hegemonic with respect to the regional powers themselves, but, again, as you suggest, it entails America itself behaving as an hegemon. It isn't that I fail to grasp the distinction in play here, it's that I consider hegemonism both illicit and imprudent, productive of yet greater evils than those it purposes to prevent, and do not believe, in any event, that Russia is intrinsically hegemonist or anti-Western itself, such that American policymakers have no options but to impose constraints upon her in order to preclude the emergence of a Eurasian hegemon. In my estimation, therefore, American policy in Eurasia is at once cynical and morally dubious, imprudent and likely to engender blowback, and exquisite in its pointlessness - hence, my condescending attitude towards the foreign policy priesthood, who are not so much droolingly stupid as in thrall to various ideological nostrums or locked down in path-dependent realpolitik.

Jeff, Russia spent the whole of the nineties tripping up its former colonies to the south. While I was based in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russia nearly dismembered Georgia, helped Armenia to carve out a huge swath of territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh for its kin, and strangled the economies of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

By the set of ethics laid out in your pieces, a big nation might never come to the aid of a smaller one because of the unfortunate motives attached. Yes, the United States wanted something out of the pipeline deal. Still, the backing it provided for Baku-Ceyhan helped give Azerbaijan and Georgia some economic and political breathing space from a Russia that had established a record of subverting their independence and economic lifelines.

I don't regard the U.S. action as cynical. Rather, the post-Soviet U.S. policy has generally been shrewd -- put facts on the ground so that, when Russia got back on its feet, it could not so easily expand back into its traditional colonial backyard. Given the two-decade-long Russian record of territorial expansion, the resulting decisions to expand NATO and support Baku-Ceyhan were prudent. Russia naturally will continue to pursue its best interests. But there is more of a level playing field for the eight republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Your analysis fits the Middle East like a glove. It's inaccurate, however, when applied to Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Steve LeVine, author
The Oil and the Glory (Random House)

Correction: that should be two-CENTURY-long Russian record of expansion. Steve

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