Sergey Markedonov: Donald Trump is known for his unpredictability: what does it mean for the South Caucasus?

The U.S. presidential election is over. The result of this election was a surprise for many ordinary people, as well as for experts and politicians.

Different scenarios of Donald Trump’s presidency are being discussed. We, together with Sergey Markedonov, Assistant Professor of the Russian State University for the Humanities, an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council and the Gorchakov Foundation, tried to predict what the US policy will be under the rule of Trump.

In the US, not only the president but also the ruling party has changed. How do you think, what will be the Trump administration’s policy towards the South Caucasus?

I think that dividing American politicians to Republicans and Democrats when we talk about the US foreign policy in general and in the South Caucasus in particular, is not quite correct.  The point is that among both democrats and republicans we can find the supporters of the value approach, as well as the realists, which rely on the need to consider the balance of power, resources and interests. Among the members of both parties there are interventionists, who believe that the US must spread American values all over the world, and there are conditional isolationists. Not in the sense that they say that the US should not influence any processes in the world. But they believe that only a critical situation should compel the United States to intervene, that it is necessary to involve the resource of allies, that it is necessary to work actively to push partner countries themselves to solve critical problems. Instead of all becoming freeloaders, and the United States solving problems. At the moment, it is too early to say which group will dominate.  We need to look at the names that the future president will name as Secretary of State, National Security Advisor. Also, much depends on the dialogue between the President and Congress. If, say, in our post-Soviet countries, the parliament does not play a significant role, although there are a couple of exceptions, such as Georgia and Moldova, the US case is different. Congress plays a very important role, and lobby groups can add their voice, as well as different influential senators and congressmen. Therefore, it is too early to make any broad assumptions. In some post-Soviet countries there is a conviction that Trump is a creature of Putin, which is not true. Of course Putin must be flattered that they are turning him into some kind of “kingmaker”, especially of a world superpower.  So it seems that half of the US population plays Putin’s game.  It seems to me that the situation is far from that, and people that voted for Trump – war veterans, who fought for America, generals, intelligence, businessmen, diplomats and so on – those are people who believe that the United States must play an important role.

If we talk about the South Caucasus, this region is not an absolute priority for the United States. This does not mean that it is not important, but in comparison with the Middle East, Latin America, this region is not that interesting. It is considered in several contexts, the Caucasian plot pieces are being fitted into larger puzzles. Those are the issues of energy security. What are they? For example, the Americans believe that the critical dependence of Europe on Russian energy is unacceptable, and promote what they call “energy pluralism”. Hence the support for various energy projects, either with a small Russian participation, or even without Russian participation. From the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, to TAP and TANAP project and so on. There is a big bet on Azerbaijan and Turkey, these countries are quite important for the United States, hence, to put it mildly, the restraint of the States on the issue of human rights and democracy in Azerbaijan. I think that Georgia would never be forgiven for even one-tenth of what Azerbaijan is being forgiven for in this context.

The next plot is Russian-American relations. Russia is seen, if not as the second USSR, then as a country that is trying, along with other actors, China, Turkey, and Iran to be some kind of a challenging country for the US. And that’s why Russian intentions towards Georgia and the unrecognized republics are considered as a certain challenge to American dominance. Americans believe that after the collapse of the USSR, in Eurasia there should be no active competitors. And Russia for them is the “problematic country”, hence such a tough reaction to Russia’s support of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this is not because Americans are so interested to go into the nuances of these conflicts, let’s just say that they see the “Great Russia” behind all that.

An important context that influences the Caucasus is Iran.  For a long time it was perceived as an enemy by the United States and from here as well, by the way, emerged an interest to cooperate with the Caucasus states located next to Iran, which in certain situations can lend a helping hand. And again, here we can recall Azerbaijan and courting of the Azerbaijani leadership in the context of the Iranian problem, or support of a dialogue between Israel and Azerbaijan, it is important to Americans.

 The Turkish question. For the United States, Turkey has long been considered the most important Muslim ally. Taking into account the problematic perception of the US in the Islamic world, in the Arab countries, Turkey is important. But Turkey is a rather obstinate partner. The partner that often does not agree with the US approach.  Here we can recall Iraq in 2003, and further up to Syria. On the one hand, Turkey seems to want Assad gone, but on the other hand it is strongly against advances and cooperation of the West with the Kurds. Even, if this cooperation is against the “Islamic state”.  In addition, there is some criticism from the Turkish side, against the American intervention in the internal processes, support of the same Fethullah Gülen who is in the United States. And here, the instruments of pressure on Turkey become, in a way, relevant. For example, the problem of recognition of the Armenian genocide is used here. I cannot say that this is the only argument. The outgoing President Obama for example, promised the recognition of genocide. Clinton, who lost the elections, even if this topic was not part of her election campaign, but when she competed for the Democratic nomination she also appeared with similar slogans. And there are fans of this decision among her supporters. That is, if we talk about the Caucasus, the Caucasus for the United States is not the same, that it is for Russia. Russia borders with two of the three Caucasian states. Armenia is a military and political ally. Therefore, it is a very important region for Russia, which is linked by many threads with the internal dynamics of the situation in the North Caucasus. For example, Georgia is the Pankisi Gorge. Abkhazia has a “bundle” with the Adygeyan movement, North Ossetia with South, and so on. For the US, these are much more distant plots, which, as I said, fit into a variety of puzzles. Therefore, if we talk about Russia and the United States, we have asymmetrical attitudes towards the Caucasus. For the US, these are much more distant plots, but by virtue of their political weight they manage to turn even this little attention and influence into a problem for Russia, Turkey, Iran, and for all players, who live directly in the neighborhood of the Caucasus.

How will Trump’s not very flattering remarks about Muslims be perceived in the Caucasus, including in the South? It’s one thing when a presidential candidate says it, although it is also not good, and it is another thing when it’s a person who is elected president of the world superpower.

I would still separate the campaign rhetoric and the practice. This applies not only to the US; this applies to more or less all countries. I have already given the example of Obama with his promises, and why we think that Trump will somehow change this tradition? Trump talked about the factor of Islam, first of all in the domestic American context. He said that, for example, immigrant influx is undesirable.  In the future, he can say that he did not mean the US relationship with partners, including Islamic, whether it is Turkey, Azerbaijan or Saudi Arabia. That is, it was about uncontrolled migration. It is always possible to somehow beat the situation. Of course the United States as a global power has huge interests in the Islamic world. I think Trump is in no position to take any ill-considered actions. If we recall the story of George W. Bush, all that preceded the Afghan operation was called a “crusade”.  After all, in the Muslim world, the term “crusade” has a certain connotation. I understand that Bush once tried to repeat Eisenhower, who spoke of a “crusade” to Europe in 1944 (that is actually against Nazi Germany), but it anyway came out ambivalent. Nevertheless, this did not deter Bush from continuing cooperation with Saudi Arabia and with other partners.  I think certain adjustments will be made. From my point of view, Islamophobic slogans were mostly for the domestic audience. And outside, there will be, of course, more accurate assessment, separating Islam, as a religion from some kind of perversion of Islam, based on radicalist interpretations.

In your opinion, can Trump just walk away from the post-Soviet space and recognize it as area of exceptional strategic interests of Russia?

I, in any case, do not think that such a decision will be issued in the form of a Helsinki-2 or Yalta- 2 with solemn memorandums and communiqués. The two presidents will meet and make a blood oath that Trump leaves the post-Soviet space. I believe that certain pragmatization of these relations can be seen as a more likely scenario. It can be some informal agreements that, say, some internal difficulties in the post-Soviet countries, or splits in opinion, for example, take Moldova, will not be used by the Ukrainian scenario by either side. I think a certain pragmatization of relations is possible. It is not predetermined, but there is a chance. The same goes for Georgia, obviously Trump will not say that “we recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia” and will not enthusiastically support the Putin approach. But he and his team may agree not to exploit some subjects. For example, Moscow will not press the issue of accession of South Ossetia, and Trump and his partners will be quite skeptical about the idea of Georgia’s membership in NATO, will not excessively promote this idea. In any case, the recognition of the post-Soviet zone of special Russian interest is unlikely to be done, as in American culture after the Cold War there is the idea that they are the first.  And if they recognize Russia’s sphere of influence, then why not of China? China can say, we want a sphere of influence here, and then Turkey, India and someone else can do the same. Americans are Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Saxon law is precedential, if they will create a precedent with Russia, then why wouldn’t India, China, Turkey or Iran ask for their own spheres of influence. I think there are such spheres of preferences, it is not necessarily the sphere of influence, I would call them a sphere of special interests, spheres of particular concern. Maybe some agreement will be reached here, well, or compromise on the rules of the game, how to play carefully in this glass house to avoid getting hurt. This option seems preferable to me. But it is difficult to say if it is possible. Today, no one is immune from relations between the US and Russia or the US and Turkey following the negative scenario. Donald Trump is known for his unpredictable nature and personal impulsiveness. Therefore, this situation holds great dangers and risks, but there are chances and opportunities as well. How will the politicians take advantage of it, it’s difficult to predict, they can lose everything, or there may be some positive moves. Today we stand at a crossroad.



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