Pink protest hats were not the only piece of clothing to mark US President Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration. He did, in fact, receive a chokha, a traditional wool coat from the Caucasus for men, usually worn with a dagger.
Little suggests that Trump will soon cut a dash in the bandoliered, cinched-at-the-waist costume from a Tbilisi apparel shop. But its offering symbolizes the regional hope that he will not overlook the Caucasus.
Even before Trump’s calls for “America First,” local analysts believe that American foreign policy had become introverted under Barack Obama, with the Caucasus fading fast on Washington’s radar.
So far, expectations are not high that Trump will reverse that trend. Aside from two defunct hotel projects, he has never shown a personal interest in this geostrategic crossroads.
Nonetheless, mulling the Trump future and the Obama past, the South Caucasus closely watched the new American leader’s swearing-in. Some in Tbilisi even opted to take part in a local Women’s March.
Yet Trump’s divisive flamboyance is not what counts in this part of the world. What does is Washington’s actual role in global and regional affairs.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, some observers say that Obama was the least concerned with post-Soviet affairs of any US president in memory. And when the US takes a step back, it can only mean one thing in these parts: Russia steps in.
“Armenian dependence on Russia has dangerously increased during this period,” commented Richard Giragosian, the American-born director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan. In 2015, Armenia became the region’s only country to accede to the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led counterbalance to the European Union. Washington did little to push back.
Similarly, it stayed hands-off last year when Moscow acted as negotiator-in-chief during what became known as the Four-Day War between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
As for Azerbaijan, its ties with the US seesawed between “static and setback,” and did not go beyond a “reflexive” exchange of views on Baku’s democratic record, said Rovshan Ibrahimov, an Azerbaijani analyst and professor of international relations at South Korea’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Nor did Washington effectively lobby for democratic progress within Armenia, Giragosian said. Back in the US, the Armenian Diaspora was disappointed by Obama’s failure to meet his campaign promise to recognize Ottoman Turkey’s massacre of ethnic Armenians as genocide.
The early Obama administration did get actively involved in the 2009 attempt to restore relations between Armenia and Turkey. But that effort fizzled and, critics say, so did US interest in the region.
This was perhaps the biggest blow for Georgia, which long relied on US tutelage in its effort to get out of Russia’s fold and into the Euro-Atlantic family. For Tbilisi, the early Obama administration’s Russia-restart policy was a bad start.
“It was American idealism, writ large. They thought Russia could be the place they hoped it to be,” said Nodar Kharshiladze, a senior fellow with Tbilisi’s Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. Moscow, exploiting what it saw as a weak US, strengthened its regional and global positions, accordingly, he added.
The US campaign in Libya, withdrawal from Iraq and support for rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made for "[b]ig mistakes," Kharshiladze charged. "All that allowed security challenges to grow [in the Middle East] and was grit for Moscow’s mill.”
With the US focused on ISIS and terorrism, opposing Russia over its military moves in Ukraine or schemes elsewhere in Eurasia was not a top priority.
When Washington wised up to Moscow’s game, it was too late, Kharshiladze said. Russia was already all over Ukraine and Syria.
Kharshiladze believes that the main reason why Vladimir Putin made his bet on Trump was that the Russian leader knew that under Hillary Clinton there would be no more room for restarts between Washington and Moscow.
Clinton, who served as secretary of state from 2009 until 2013, had dealt with the Russians long enough to know better than to offer the Kremlin more opportunities to score strategic victories.
The prospect of Trump’s America trying to counterbalance Russian meddling in the South Caucasus -- or elsewhere, for that matter -- doesn’t look too promising, though.
“If Trump does not care about hostile foreign activity on US soil… it is reasonable to assume he will be even less bothered about aggressive Russian activity elsewhere,” Alexandra Hall Hall, the UK’s last ambassador to Georgia, predicted recently for the Atlantic Council.
Giragosian further believes that Trump, given his stance on Russia, is likely “to seek to ease, if not lift US sanctions on Russia,” effectively accepting the Russian annexation of Crimea, undermining Western support for Ukraine, and giving Putin a free hand to further increase influence over its neighborhood.
He anticipates “a new period of US benign neglect” of the South Caucasus, with the region being marked down to “a strategic afterthought at best.”
Kharshiladze, however, is willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on Russia. “We’ve seen a succession of American presidents trying to start out on friendly terms with Putin’s Russia -- [George W. Bush] saw Putin’s soul and all that, Obama offered the reboot button --but it all deteriorated eventually. And I expect to see more of the same.”
Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly – as yet, the only two confirmed Trump Cabinet members – “are known for their hawkish stance on Russia and that will also play a role,” Kharshiladze predicted.
But even then, the chances look slim that the new US president will focus on the South Caucasus or put on that Georgian chokha.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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