Friday, October 10, 2008

Briefly: Cheney's last hurrah? Pro-Azeri rhetoric and aid to Georgia

First published in September 6 Armenian Reporter.

Washington Briefing
by Emil Sanamyan

State Department officials tout Armenia relations

The United States hopes that Armenia would contribute to its efforts to “knit” the Caucasus “back together” following the Russian-Georgian military confrontation, U.S. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns said in remarks just prior to a swearing-in ceremony, held on September 2, for the newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch.

Mr. Burns went on to praise Armenia’s “humanitarian efforts in support of Georgia,” according to video of the remarks released by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

The State Department’s third most senior official described the various areas in which the United States and Armenia have cooperated and said that the bilateral relationship is based on “shared values.”

Mr. Burns also called Armenia the “model of economic reform in its region.”

Referring to fighting over South Ossetia, Ms. Yovanovitch argued, “especially after the events of the last few weeks, it is clear that ending Armenian isolation in that region must become a priority.”

She said normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey would help in achieving a peaceful settlement with Azerbaijan.

Ms. Yovanovitch praised President Serge Sargsian for “bold leadership” in both efforts, while also promising to help the Armenian government to “restore democratic momentum” following the post-election crisis earlier this year.

The recently confirmed Ambassador also had good words for the Armenian-American community, which she said “is in so many ways a foundation and strength of our bilateral relationship.”

U.S. seeks to encourage “endangered” Azerbaijan

On a regional tour that aims to shore up U.S. influence badly damaged by Russia’s military incursion into Georgia, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne arrived in Baku on September 3 for one day of talks with Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, local U.S. embassy staff, and Baku-based representatives of Chevron and the company formerly known as British Petroleum.

Mr. Cheney’s priority in Azerbaijan was to make certain that Caspian oil and gas continues to be exported via Georgia, as it has been for the past several years, rather than through Russia. The Russian route would help Moscow control supplies from its Central Asian competitors.

Clearly wary of antagonizing Russia, Mr. Aliyev made no clear public commitments. Azerbaijani officials have instead commented on a possible revival of the cross- Russia route while they also refused to criticize Russia’s treatment of its “strategic partner” Georgia; Mr. Aliyev avoided mention of that country in his joint remarks with Mr. Cheney.

Earlier, Azerbaijan rebuffed persistent lobbying by former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld to expand bilateral military cooperation against Iran. It is unclear whether Mr. Cheney had renewed a military cooperation offer this time around.

In remarks cited by, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse said, “many in the region are afraid now that [Russia’s recent] actions are directed not only against Georgia, but against all of those who have democratic aspirations”; she was apparently referring to Ukraine and Azerbaijan, even though Azerbaijan has not exhibited such aspirations.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried described Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine as “three of the most endangered countries” in the region.

In comments released by the White House and apparently crafted to entice Azerbaijan’s sympathies, Mr. Cheney told Mr. Aliyev, “America strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. We are committed to achieving a negotiated solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – a solution that starts with the principle of territorial integrity, and takes into account other international principles.”

The United States, together with the two other lead mediators, Russia and France, has for the past decade supported a settlement formula that formalized Karabakh’s
reunification with Armenia. With France now mediating between the United States and Russia over Georgia, the future of the mediating troika’s role in the Karabakh conflict has been put into doubt.

A former energy sector executive, the vice president has had a long personal history with Azerbaijan, including through his past affiliation with the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, the country’s Washington-based lobby.

Although Mr. Cheney became the most senior U.S. official ever to visit Azerbaijan, Baku has uncharacteristically played down the visit’s importance. According to “local reporters were barred from having access to the US vice president.”

In a symbolic display at the Heydar Aliyev airport, the Cheneys were greeted by Deputy Prime Minister Yaqub Eyubov, who has traditionally handled lesser assignments for Mr Aliyev and his late father, the former president.

Bush pledges $1 billion in Georgia aid

The United States will provide more than $1 billion in economic aid to Georgia, President George W. Bush announced on September 3, as Vice President Dick Cheney was about to arrive in Tbilisi.

The $1 billion figure was reportedly first suggested by Sen. Joe Biden, who has since become the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee. Of the amount $570 million is proposed to be allocated before the end of the Bush administration.

The proposal would make Georgia one of the largest U.S. aid recipients in the world, after only Iraq, Israel, and Egypt, and on par with what war-torn Afghanistan has been receiving recently. Since Georgia launched its failed attack on South Ossetia on August 8, the United States has already provided Georgia with $30 million worth of humanitarian aid, dispatching naval vessels and military cargo planes to deliver the assistance.

More supplies are due to be delivered by the flagship of U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, USS Mount Whitney, which on September 3 was crossing the Turkish straits.

Although members of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign have called for military aid to Georgia to counter Russia, the Bush Administration has not taken a public position on whether it would continue or expand its existing military programs in Georgia.

Nonetheless, the massive foreign assistance program will help Georgia free up even more funds for its already large military budget, which stood at $1 billion in 2007 and was expected to reach a similar amount this year. Russia this week said it will seek to prevent Georgia’s re-armament.

In addition to U.S. assistance, the International Monetary Fund announced that it would open a $750 million credit line on which Georgia could draw.

In other news, members of the European Union met on September 1 and limited the EU’s threats to Russia to a possible postponement of talks on a new treaty with Moscow unless Russia sticks to the cease-fire agreement mediated by France. The decision was given a positive spin by both the United States and Russia.

On a visit to Uzbekistan, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that "by and large common sense prevailed" at the EU summit and argued that Russia was complying with the cease-fire. But he also criticized the EU for failure to condemn Georgia’s attack against South Ossetia that sparked the war last month.

Republican presidential candidate selects running mate

In a surprising development, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), who this week officially became the GOP’s nominee for the White House, selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Ms. Palin was elected governor less than two years ago. Prior to that she chaired the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2003–2004 and between 1996 and 2002was mayor of Wasilla, an Alaskan town of 6,000.

She has no known record on Armenian issues.

—Lusine Sarkisyan contributed to this week’s briefing.

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