Can Moscow bet on ‘Trump card’ in U.S.?; Obama takes Africa for a tango; Kyrgyzstan casts its lot in with Russia

RBTH presents its weekly analytical program TROIKA REPORT, featuring a look at three of the most high-profile recent developments in international affairs

1. Engaging the West

U.S. presidential race: Can Moscow bet on ‘Trump card’?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a news conference near the U.S.-Mexico border, outside Laredo, Texas, July 23. Source: Reuters

The meteoric rise of eccentric billionaire Donald Trump to become the favorite Republican candidate in the U.S. presidential nomination race has catapulted the issue of disengagement with Russia back onto the political agenda. Washington’s policy of containment toward Russia has been pushed back to the forefront of the usually U.S.-centered campaign, with Trump positioning himself as a better partner for the Russian president than Barack Obama.

The biggest surprise came at a public meeting when Trump said, on the topic of potential relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “I think we would get along very, very well.” He also rejected the neoconservative foreign-policy orthodoxy, putting to doubt the expediency of Washington’s involvement in the Middle East since the 2003 war in Iraq, and suggesting it would better suit American national interests to engage Putin’s Russia rather than alienate it and force it to search for allies elsewhere.

It was not the first time that Trump had made fine-tuned comments about Russia. In April last year, after what is seen in the West as the Russian takeover of Crimea, Trump, in an interview with Fox News, said that Putin deserved credit for strengthening the international prestige of his country. In June this year, Trump reminded that everyone in the U.S. agreed that everything should be done to avoid Russia and China coming together, yet Obama did just the opposite.

The American mainstream media mocks Trump. But since voters with a distinct pro-Republican leaning are still shopping for an acceptable candidate to run for the presidency, it does not make sense to dismiss the messages of Donald Trump as pure demagoguery. Nor should too much attention be devoted to his politically incorrect lambasting of Mexican migrants, which, while deserving the outrage with which it was met, does not constitute the essence of the alternative embodied in the figure of this flamboyant maverick.

Trump’s critical assessment of the U.S. administration’s foreign policy seem to resonate with Republican supporters. Still, what is the root cause of Trump’s appeal and current ratings? Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow (and member of the Republican Party), provided his insight into Trump’s phenomenon:

“Nobody expected that Trump can be a serious candidate… and then suddenly the public, which is supposed to make the ultimate decision, took a liking to him. Other politicians, they talk, talk, talk and promise many things but cannot deliver. Trump is the guy who can deliver. It is not easy to build a business empire worth some 9 billion dollars. He’s got property all over the place, he is well known. People are hungry for some new personality. But the Republican Party’s establishment does not want him. And what can happen, he can create a third party. We had a precedent with Ross Perot. Trump does not need fund-raising; he’s got his own money. It could be a very interesting phenomenon. The campaign was pretty boring. Now it is exciting.”

— Trump’s positive pronouncements about a dialogue with Russia have reopened the debate among the U.S. Democrats and Republicans on “who lost Russia.” Is this something that remains on the radar of U.S. politicians?

“At this point, Trump is the only candidate for nomination in the presidential race, both from the Republican and the Democratic side, who believes he can improve relations with Russia, which are now reaching a dangerous point. Almost every day we hear from an American general or a politician that Russia is the greatest threat to the United States. It might be said to score some political points. But the American people, I think, do not want confrontation with Russia. Trump claims he is the only one who can make a deal. Trump is a businessman, and business people, they want to make deals. He believes that he and Putin can make a deal.”

— Plenty of American political scene-watchers believe that Donald Trump will not secure nomination approval, let alone become the next U.S. president…

“If I were Trump or his advisor, I would definitely advise him to form a third party instead of fighting the Republican Party’s establishment. And then, who knows, a miracle could happen, and we could see not only a new face on the American political stage but also a dramatic improvement in U.S.-Russia relations.”

You do not need to be a fortuneteller to predict that Donald Trump will not last the course in this race. Yet Troika Report strongly believes that the legacy of his participation is here to stay. The final Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential race may well incorporate a good portion of the bold approach articulated by the daredevil outsider into their policy.

Moscow would dearly love to bet on this “Trump card” but his chances of making it to the top are unconvincing at best. Yet his surge to prominence serves as an indication that some Americans are seeking alternatives so desperately that they can forgive the man for his boisterous claim to become the “greatest jobs president that God ever created” and make America “great again.”

 

2. Globally speaking

Obama takes Africa for a tango as Russia looks on

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta as he departs for Ethiopia aboard Air Force One from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, July 26, 2015. Source: Reuters

Africa has once again become a much-sought prize in the geopolitical “great game.” While U.S. President Barack Obama danced the Lipala, a traditional Kenyan dance, voiced his concern over the plight of elephants and rhinos, and promoted gay marriage on a visit to the land of his ancestors last week, the proceedings were watched closely in Moscow, and especially in Beijing.

The billion dollar question was whether Obama’s trip signals that the United States is planning a drive to push aside the Chinese in Africa. Most expectations centered on the co-chairmanship of Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta of The Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Nairobi. Surprisingly, forecasts fell flat.

Obama gave himself credit for prolonging for another 10 years the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides a favorable regime for business endeavors. But apart from praising Africa as one of the most dynamic markets in the world and the tenacity of its people, Obama made no specific commitment to facilitate the continent becoming, as he professed, the “new center of global economic growth.”

Obama brought to East Africa no aid packages or social programs to be financed by the U.S. federal budget. He did not intend to steal the thunder from the Chinese, either due to a lack of available giveaways or sensing the futility of the task.

Furthermore, Obama slipped on a banana skin when pushing for gay and lesbian marriages in Kenya. “Our culture, our societies don't accept. This is why I repeatedly say that, for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue,” President Uhuru Kenyatta declared. However, this controversy did not spoil everything irredeemably, and Obama made the most out of the nostalgic visit to meet his distant relatives.

Does Barack Obama’s diplomatic offensive have the potential to challenge the dominant position of China in Africa? Andrei Urnov, ex-Russian ambassador to Namibia, and head research fellow at the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, made this comment for Troika Report:

“I can say that he has been trying, quite persistently, from the very beginning of his presidency. In 2013, Obama toured Africa, visiting three countries. Then, in August 2014 there was a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington, D.C. Today, he is pursuing this policy line to strengthen the U.S. position on the continent. He is motivated by geopolitical considerations. After all, he did declare that the United States is going to be the world leader. Yet there is a problem: competition and even rivalry with China. Most observers claim that the U.S. is losing the ‘battle for Africa’ to China. Now the U.S. is trying to re-establish its dominant position on the African continent.

“It’s unclear whether Obama will succeed but from the point of view of American interests, what he is doing is quite rational. He has scored some successes.”

— Where does Russia stand in this tug-of-war given that its predecessor, the Soviet Union, had plenty of strongholds and strong influence in Africa?

“Russia is competing neither with China nor with the United States. There are two sets of opinions in our expert community. Some say that Russia has been coming back to Africa recently. Others claim that it had never left. I am inclined to support the first opinion: We are coming back. We have a productive relationship with Egypt, among others, and with South Africa which is a member of the BRICS group. Our companies are not very persistent or skillful in opening up Africa. We are not in competition with anyone. We simply have our own niche.”

Despite not being in the frontline trenches, Russia is viewed by Washington policy-makers as an integral part of any potential threat posed by the BRICS alliance given its more articulate tension with the G7/NATO groupings.

“The major East African states of Kenya‚ Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania are orienting themselves eastward towards the BRICS”, claim analysts and frontier markets specialists at DaMina Advisors, a research and regulatory consulting firm.

The trade turnover between Africa and China has reached $200 billion compared to $73 with the United States. The threefold disparity demonstrates how far ahead China is in its courting of the energy- and mineral-rich continent.

Just one telling detail: When Barack Obama addressed the 54-nation African Union states in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, he was speaking from the podium of AU headquarters buildings built with funds provided by China.

To some extent, this fact compromises the axiom spelled out by Henry Kissinger that “foreign policy should not be confused with missionary work.” China’s missionary overtures to Africa are paying back, are they not?

 

3. Going Eastward

Kyrgyzstan dismisses U.S. in favor of Russia and China

A Kyrgyz woman performs a traditional ritual during a ceremony of the opening of a new large aircraft ramp at the US Army base, June 23, 2011, at the Manas International Airport, Kyrgyzstan. Source: AP

After a quarter of a century of independence, Kyrgyzstan, a small and impoverished nation in Central Asia, has finally chosen its strategic partners, parting ways with the United States and joining Russia and China.

Bishkek’s recent decision to declare null and void the 1993 Bilateral Agreement with the United States coincided with the finalization of Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Customs offices will be closed down in early August.

As a follow-up, Kyrgyz leaders have publicly defined other priority foreign partners: China, Iran and Germany. Not a single mention of the United States. This signal implies that Bishkek has finally sorted out its geopolitical orientation and chosen those in its geographical proximity as its patrons.

The great “chess game” around Kyrgyzstan’s allegiance was a saga in itself. The retreat of the U.S. went through several stages. From 2001 onward the U.S. had strong footprint here due to its air supply hub at Manas International Airport, near the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The base served to source Western troops with ammunition and supplies in Afghanistan during the campaign against the Taliban.

However, the U.S. air base, which was the target of criticism by local officials, some of them counting on extortion tactics in order to secure a bigger rent payment, was dismantled last year.

The sudden rupture of multiple ties with Washington was largely triggered off by the provocative move of the U.S. State Department to award a human rights prize to Azimjon Askarov, an ethnically Uzbek Kyrgyz activist who is serving a life sentence for killing a policeman and on charges of inciting ethnic hatred that led to ethnic riots and violence between the country’s Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in 2010.

The “suddenness” of the renouncement of the agreement with the U.S. was long prepared by the simmering suspicions of the Kyrgyz leadership that Washington was using NGOs and grants to selected opposition groups as part of the “regime-change strategy” critics claim it has actively pursued in a number of the post-Soviet republics.

The cancelation of the agreement with the U.S. came in the wake of a special law ratified by the parliament of Kyrgyzstan on June 4, 2015. The law, which essentially replicates controversial legislation passed in Russia in 2012, demands that NGOs which receive money from public and private sources abroad register as “foreign agents,” a politically loaded term. All in all, this represents a significant turnaround in Bishkek’s foreign policy because it has been involved in a number social and security arrangement with the United States since gaining independence in 1991.

Troika Report spoke with Alexander Karavayev, deputy director of the Center of post-Soviet space and CIS Studies at Moscow State University, asking for his take on the implications of Bishkek’s decision to abandon its time-honored equidistant foreign policy towards, in general terms, the West and the East:

“In the last 25 years, the Kyrgyz elite were balancing between several centers of global power without making a final choice on whom to join. Development trends placed Kyrgyzstan in the frontier zone between a dynamically expanding China and Russia’s attempts to rally post-Soviet republics into an economic union.

“The United States positioned itself as sponsor of social modernization in Central Asia, although these states were actually choosing between the two powerful players closer to them, China and Russia, or welcoming both of them. Kyrgyzstan went for the second option, which left no space for the third player, the U.S.”

Bishkek’s “pivot” to its neighboring major powers was driven by the economic and politically strategic benefits of this long-term alignment. The Kyrgyz economy is kept afloat predominantly by the resale of cheap Chinese commodities like electronic devices and agricultural products: Three-quarters of these “Made in China” goods are shipped further on to other Central Asian states and Russia.

While Chinese electric fans and microwaves stock local warehouses for re-export, it is Russian oil that powers and heats Kyrgyzstan. Russia accounts for nearly 34 percent of Kyrgyz imports. Together, Russia and China form a unique duo of trading partners and purveyors of energy, goods, and investment for Bishkek.

However, on Kyrgyz terrain Russia and China cannot but compete with each other for profits and influence. In particular, by joining the EEU, Kyrgyzstan will be forced to abide by certain procedures and standards, making it difficult to make extra profits from the re-export of Chinese cheap products.

The most pluralistic of the Central Asian republics, with a peculiar political class consisting of Moscow-leaning integrationists, pagan nationalists, and small-time opportunists (seeking fast profits from rich donors), Kyrgyzstan faces another serious challenge: the choice of security providers, both internally and externally.

The ruling elite are apprehensive of the dangers of dissent, both home-grown and sponsored from abroad, as well as of the ethnic hostilities, which for now have been swept under the carpet. The threat of local nascent Islamists and potential incursions by the established brands of Islamic radicals (Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, etc.) articulates the need to seek partnerships and alliances.

For these reasons, and not only due to economic rationale, Moscow and Beijing are viewed by the team in command in Bishkek as the best guarantors of peace and stability in the region.

The opinion of the writers may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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