Friday, June 02, 2006

Geo-politics

Stephanie has a cousin in Tblisi, Georgia. Her cousin has a friend from the UK. This friend from the UK became my friend last week when he came to visit Yerevan.

His name is William, and he has a degree in post-Soviet studies, and now works in Tblisi as the editor of an English language weekly newspaper. While we were strolling through Yerevan and chatting I gave him my opinions and various insights on the country, which are generally illicited from me by visitors as I am their de-facto expert resident.

I pointed out where the old US embassy was and mentioned that with the completed construction of the new Embassy compound, Armenia houses the 2nd largest embassy in the world second only to Iraq. I mentioned that per capita, Armenia receives more US aid per capita than almost any other country, probably thanks to the strong Armenian lobby that exists in the United States. The aid money is an achievement (or perhaps consolation prize), even though the US continues to avoid recognizing the Genocide because of it's friendly relationship with Turkey. We discussed the fact that because of Armenia's closed borders with Turkey, it has forged good trade relations with Iran. We discussed Armenia's good relations with Russia (Russian troops help patrol some of Armenia's borders)- manifested most recently by the results of Euro-vision song competition where Russia gave it's highest votes to Armenia and Armenia likewise gave its highest votes to Russia.


As it turns out, it's true that you never know what seeds you have planted. Little did I know, that the journalist in William was taking mental notes that evening. See the op-ed William wrote which was printed this week:


Armenia: having their cake and eating it too
By William Dunbar

Outside every public building in Georgia the flag of Europe flutters awaynext to the five crosses of Georgia - a testament to the nation's westernambitions. But Georgia is paying a price for its occidental inclination; thedrive west has incurred the wrath of the northern neighbor, and with everystep Georgia takes towards 'Euro-Atlantic structures' a reprisal is issuedfrom Moscow. Be it visa regimes, embargoes on wine and mineral water, orincreasingly vocal support for the separatists in Abkhazia and SouthOssetia, Russia-like a jealous lover-seems determined to punish Georgia forgetting too friendly with the west.

The Georgian authorities are at pains to point out just how far the countryhas come on the road to western integration, and significant progress hascertainly been made. Inclusion in the new European Neighborhood Policy(ENP), the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the solidarity shownGeorgia by Dick Cheney at the recent Vilnius summit of Baltic-Black Seanations-not to mention last year's Bush visit, and the praise he heaped onthe ' beacon of democracy'-all of these are achievements the Georgiangovernment can be proud of.

However, each of these achievements has been accompanied by deterioration in the relationship with Russia. Both the Russian and Georgian authorities aretrapped in a lose-lose situation. They each see influence in Georgia as being like a cake: if the West gets more cake then Russia gets less, there is only so much cake to go round, after all. This 'zero-sum' thinking is economically and/or tarnishing their international image, and it seems it can only get worse.

Yet there is a prime example to the south reminding us that influence doesn''t have to be like a cake at all. Armenia is living proof that you canhave it both ways. Armenia-a small, impoverished and landlocked country of some three million people-is home to the second largest US embassy in theworld (Iraq is number one). Little Armenia receives more US government aid per capita than or almost anywhere else (including Georgia), it is also signed up to the ENP and the MCA. And how are Armenian/Russian relations? Well they're just peachy. No visa regime, no trade embargoes, no fiery rhetoric, and Armenian cognac is still readily available in Moscow.

The historical hatred they continue to bear towards their Turkic neighbors notwithstanding, the Armenians are quietly getting along with the realpowers that be; they even manage to have friendly relations with Iran and still get a huge slice of military assistance from the US. Armenia should be a lesson to both Russia and Georgia, politics doesn''t have to be a zero sumgame, and everyone can be a winner. You really can have your cake and eat it too.

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