Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Manas no más (no more)

Kyrgyzstan delivered an eviction notice for the U.S. Manas air base to the embassy in Bishkek last Friday, Feb. 20.

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The Kyrgyz parliament supported President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's announcement on Feb. 3, 2009, that the U.S. would no longer be allowed to use the airport to support operations in Afghanistan.

Saban Kardas, of the Jamestown Foundation, wonders if closing Manas will strengthen U.S.-Turkish relations?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dateline Tbilisi gets new direction

Dateline Tbilisi is refining its purpose, and taking a slightly new direction. The blog began as a way to complement my reporting from Tbilisi this past fall. However, the blog is now embarking on a more ambitious path.

In the interest of encouraging a deeper, more diverse understanding of Georgia and its place in the 21st century, Dateline Tbilisi will publish news analysis, commentary and policy analysis and recommendations. To help in this endeavor, I have invited several friends, colleagues and mentors to contribute to the blog. Some are in Georgia, while others are in the U.S. Each contributor brings a valuable experience and insight to the community of people interested in Georgia, the Caucasus and U.S. relations with the area.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Time for Obama to step up

It is time for President Barack Obama to get serious about stepping up operations in Afghanistan, a key promise of his campaign platform.

U.S. and coalition forces fighting Afghanistan's resurgent Taliban are in danger of losing a critical support facility -- the Manas airbase in nearby Kyrgyzstan.

Recently, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said the base would be closed. The announcement came while he was in Moscow, which said it would be giving the impoverished Central Asian country $2 billion in a credit package, greatly trumping the nearly $170 million the U.S. sends to Kyrgyzstan every year ($20 million for the lease on Manas). It isn't difficult to see who was pulling the strings.

Now is not the time for the U.S. to simply hit the "reset" button on relations with Russia, as Vice President Joe Biden suggested at the Munich international security conference.

Losing Manas will hurt U.S. and coalition forces' ability to make good on Pres. Obama's promise to American voters and Afghanistan to subdue a reinvigorated Taliban.

The base near Bishkek is a transfer point for supplies and U.S. and European troops moving into Afghanistan. U.S. and French tankers fly refueling missions to aircraft fighting in Afghanistan. Spanish transport planes also use the facility. The U.S. had planned to expand the fbase when the announcement came.

In 2008, U.S. tankers flew nearly 3,300 refueling missions to over 11,400 aircraft above Afghanistan. More than 170,000 coalition personnel passed through Manas going to and coming from Afghanistan, along with 5,000 short tons of cargo, including uniforms and spare parts.

Now is not the time to let Russia buy off Kyrgyzstan.

The Pentagon has said it is negotiating with Bishkek, and a compromise is possible. Bakiyev made a pragmatic decision, and might reconsider it for more money. But the U.S. cannot think it can simply buy its way out of the problem, because it is about more than simply money.

Geography is a real factor in the matter. Find Kyrgyzstan on a globe. Russia is much closer to it than the U.S. What good can an ally half-way around the world do for a landlocked country in Russia's shadow? The U.S. showed its shortcomings this past summer when it was unable to help Georgia.

Overreach is partly to blame. As operations in Iraq are scaled back, the U.S. will recover some tactical flexibilty to respond to pressing issues. But a deeper issue is that the U.S. does not have a clear idea of its relationships with would-be allies in Russia's "Near Abroad."

Moscow knows exactly what are its expectations for its relations with those countries, and what it is prepared to do to preserve its influence in the "Near Abroad." Russia is the only country in the world that has such a clearly defined sphere of influence, which it wants the U.S. out of.

However, despite the many wrinkles in U.S.-Russian relations, the two could find common ground that would allow the U.S. to remain in Manas - counter-terrorism. It would mean the U.S. might have to condone or turn a blind eye to some of Russia's very questionable behavior classified as "counter-terrorism." And it is a longshot.

Regardless of what happens with Manas, the U.S. must a clear idea of what its goals are and what it is prepared to do to achieve those goals whenever it engages a country that Russia considers to be in its backyard.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Opposition agrees on ousting Saakashvili but not much else

Twelve opposition parties called for Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation, but there appears to be little concerted momentum behind their declaration.

Civil.ge reports Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader New Rights (Conservative) Party, said all parties were united behind removing Saakashvili, but their tactics might vary.

As a friend of mine once said: "Even if all Georgia wanted to throw Misha away, how would they agree on a date?"

Nonetheless, the concensus among the opposition is that Saakashvili will be gone by year's end. However, they don't seem to know how it'll happen.

Many believe U.S. Pres. Barack Obama will help by tying aid to democratic reform.

"Maybe it will take a year or two, but I am sure these reforms (media, electoral code, law enforcement agencies, human rights) will lead to the resignation of Saakashvili, because he can't act under free political environment," Kahka Kukava, leader of the Conservative Party, wrote in an e-mail to me recently.

Also, Kukava wrote, as Obama tries to restore America's standing abroad, he will not tolerate allies who might undermine his efforts, such as Saakashvili.

Of course, this assumes that the Obama administration believes Tbilisi (and especially Saakashvili) was responsible for starting the August war.

On the other side, as talks about Nabucco come up again, the U.S. will want stability above all else in Georgia, be it from Saakashvili or someone else. Saakashvili has appointed former-PM Lado Gurgenidze to lobby for Nabucco. Gurgenidze was very successful in attracting foreign investment to Georgia.

Joshua Kucera at Eurasianet.com reports that Turkey (and Russia, of course) might be a roadblock to U.S. energy policy (including Nabucco) in the Caspian Basin.

On another note:
The recent alliance between the Republican Party and New Rights Party was somewhat surprising. Both certainly want to see Saakashvili go, but the Republicans have focused more on institutional reform while Gamkrelidze has focused more on changing the head of state. Of course, the New Rights Party has a bigger support base.

Friday, January 9, 2009

US-Georgia sign charter before Bush departs

Israel isn't the only country attending to its agenda in the waning days of the Bush administration. Georgia and the United States signed a strategic partnership charter today, reiterating U.S. support for Georgia's territorial integrity and NATO membership aspirations.

“The U.S. supports and will always support Georgia’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, as well as its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice said, according to Civil.ge.

The charter is non-binding, but emphasizes US security and economic ties with Georgia. Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze stressed the importance of these connections during a teleconference with international press this morning.

The military ties seem to shift U.S. support towards more traditional military aid. Prior U.S. aid had focused a great deal on training Georgian troops to serve as peacekeepers in Iraq, which was not very useful during fighting in South Ossetia in August. The charter pledges U.S. support to helping Georgia increase its self-defense capabilities to NATO standards.

Vashadze did not specify what form the aid would take. In the past, the U.S. has not given Georgia some of its most advanced defensive weapons system, such as Stinger ground-to-air missiles or Javelin anti-tank missiles.

While the charter is non-binding, Vashadze said "military cooperation [will begin] in the very, very near future."

No doubt Georgia's leadership was eager to sign the charter before U.S. Pres. George W. Bush leaves office later this month. Pres.-elect Barack Obama has indicated he is less willing than his successor to send U.S. military aid overseas.

"The charter was agreed upon with the incoming administration," Vashadze said, but he declined to specify which officials from Obama's administration were involved.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ossetian activist accused of ties to KGB

Lira Tskhovrebova is an unconventional woman. In South Ossetia for over a decaed, she has brought Ossetian and Georgian residents, mostly women, together in conflict-resolution workshops. After the war in August, she sought to engage the Georgian diaspora in conflict resolution. This month she traveled to Washington, DC, to directly take on the United States' support of Georgia and Pres. Mikheil Saakashvili. But Ms. Tskhovrebova might have ties to South Ossetia's KGB, according to materials The Associated Press received from the Georgian government.

Senior US State Department official Matthew Bryza canceled a meeting with Ms. Tskhovrebova after the AP asked him about the allegations. The State Department is trying to set up another meeting, according to the AFP.

The Georgian government gave the AP transcripts of intercepted calls between Ms. Tskhovrebova and Vasily Guliyev, deputy director for counterintelligence for the South Ossetian security agency still known by the Soviet-era acronym KGB.

Ms. Tskhovrebova said she talked regularly with Mr. Guliyev, who she told the AP is a family friend.

The AP's video of their interview:

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Head of Russian Church's death rocks Russia

Alexiy II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, died this morning in his Moscow residence, leaving many across Russia in mourning.

Elected in 1990, Alexiy II steered the church through the chaotic years following the Soviet Union's collapse, when the church saw a resurgence.

This fall Alexiy II sought to live up to the idea that blessed are the peacemakers, or at least blessed are those that don't instigate, when he kept the Russian Church out of the conflict in Georgia. Following the August war between Georgia and Russia, Georgian Orthodox churches in South Ossetia asked to come under Moscow's jurisdiction. But Alexiy II said the church would not get involved in a political issue.

Georgia's own patriarch has been ill lately, and had to receive major surgery recently.