Congratulations to our readers: you made it to May! Celebrate the small victories, and do something special for yourself today (aside from reading today’s titillating conversation, of course). Some states are beginning a slow re-opening, but please continue to stay safe, especially if you’re going to be partaking in activities in which others will be near you. Maia Otarashvili and Aaron Stein are back after taking off last week, when I had a great discussion with our Black Sea Fellow Bob Hamilton. You can read that here. We’re back to discussing all things Asia, Eurasia, and the Middle East. There have been plenty of developments around the world that I know Maia and Aaron are anxious to discuss!
General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Thomas Shattuck: I wanted to start off by wishing Maia a very happy Star Wars Day; I know how much of a Star Wars fan you are and that you were looking forward to watching Rogue One. Because of that, Maia, you’re getting the first question; I know how excited you have been to talk about the fact that your Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is set to make his political comeback in Ukraine, of all places. Can you walk our readers through the saga that has been Saakashvili’s life over the last couple of years and how he is now rumored to be nominated for the job of Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister?
Maia Otarashvili: Thank you for the birthday wishes, Tom. I promise I will see Rogue One, one of these days. But even without seeing the film, I feel well-informed about its themes thanks to your once scandalous article dealing with the tough questions it provokes about what it means to forcefully rebel against an oppressive regime. Rebels and revolutionaries, they are just like the rest of us, right?
This brings me to your question about the OG revolutionary, who is not like any of us. Misha Saakashvili famously became Georgia’s president after leading the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003 and overthrowing the post-Soviet Eduard Shevardnadze regime, which, through its incredible corruption, incompetence, and sheer disregard for human dignity, had driven Georgia into failed statehood. Saakashvili was an enthusiastic, energetic, and charismatic reformer, who brought Georgia out of the dark ages. But the “honeymoon” period only lasted a few years. By 2007, his pursuit for rapid economic development had led him to cut too many corners at the expense of Georgia’s democracy. Misha centralized too much power in his own hands, seemingly in the spirit of efficient decision-making, but his authoritarian streak and his team’s abuse of power, especially in the judiciary, led to mass anti-government protests. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and Saakashvili presided over the five-day war. In 2012, his party lost the election to billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party, and Misha gave up the presidency at the end of his term. This marked the first case of peaceful transfer of power in Georgia’s post-Soviet history. As soon as it took over, the Ivanishvili team launched investigations against Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party leaders. Saakashvili fled the country in 2013 and has lived in a self-imposed exile, first in the United States and later in Europe, for seven years now. He was indicted on the charges of abuse of power and misspending of taxpayer funds, and if he returns to Georgia, he will be arrested.
Ukraine’s Euromaidan events gave a second life to Misha’s political career, who had taken a post as senior statesman at Tuft’s University, and moved to Brooklyn to write his memoir. In 2015, Ukraine’s newly minted President Petro Poroshenko, Misha’s former college-mate, appointed him Governor of Odessa. His political renaissance came at a high cost. Misha took Ukrainian citizenship, which automatically stripped him of his Georgian citizenship. Many Georgians saw this act as a slap in the face. After all, Misha never gave up his chairmanship of UNM, which to date remains the second-largest party in parliament, and the biggest opposition force against the Georgian Dream government. Since the day he left Georgia, he has been campaigning from afar on behalf of UNM and promising to return if the party regains parliamentary majority.
The Saakashvili-Poroshenko relationship quickly soured, as Misha found the deep-seated oligarchic networks and corrupt practices in the crucial port city impossible to crack without complete support from Poroshenko. After a scandalous breakup with the Poroshenko government, Saakashvili started his own political opposition party in Ukraine. Misha remained active in Ukrainian politics; outspoken and energetic, he managed to gather a significant group of supporters, but not significant enough to garner any political power. In summer 2017, he was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and forced to flee the country in an incredibly scandalous manner, fit for a rebel and a revolutionary. After a rooftop standoff with the Ukrainian special forces, threatening to jump and kill himself, Saakashvili managed to get out of Ukraine and dodge imprisonment.
Until Volodymyr Zelensky became president of Ukraine, stateless Saakashvili stayed in his wife’s native Holland, remotely engaging with his supporters in Georgia and Ukraine, leading his opposition parties in each country and actively pursuing opportunities for a political comeback in both places at the same time. Once Zelensky was elected, he reinstated Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship. Now, one year into his presidency, Zelensky seems to be ready to bet on Misha’s political act three. In late April, Misha announced he was in talks with Zelensky about becoming Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister of Reforms. However, the deal must have fallen through, because on May 6 Saakashvili confirmed that instead he will be serving on Ukraine’s National Reform Council. This is an advisory body for the president’s office, which was ironically formed in 2014 by Poroshenko. The council was mostly defunct, and isn’t well-known, but Saakashvili’s appointment indicates that Zelensky wants to revive it. So far, it is unclear what exactly Misha will do in this new capacity. He is known as a reforms guru and is still highly regarded in some circles for his anti-corruption magic touch. On the other hand, Misha can be seen as “damaged goods”—he is erratic, restless, and unpredictable. He also has some powerful enemies, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. So, he may still have some technical skills and grit for executive decision-making, both highly needed in Ukraine, but he is also a foreign affairs liability when it comes to Ukraine’s delicate relationship with Russia.
Aaron, there have been some issues in Iraq, both on the political front and with regards to the Islamic State. What has been going on?
Aaron Stein: Well, I’m afraid the ISIS news is not very reassuring. For the past few weeks and months, the analytical community has been tracking the potential resurgence of the Islamic State in parts of Iraq. While the group was territorially defeated, there are signs that it is able to operate at night in remote villages from which they can launch night raids on Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). There are signs that the insurgent attacks in Iraq are growing in complexity, with the use of night vision and suicide vest attacks. There is disagreement within the analytical community about what these attacks mean for measuring the strength of ISIS. It has become a running joke that whenever there is an attack in Iraq, there are legions of people online who will claim that ISIS is on the precipice of a big comeback. While I don’t think that this is true, there is no doubt that ISIS remains a threat, and if left untreated, it will eventually make life more miserable for local Iraqis—and eventually allow the doomsayers carte blanche to say “I told you so” when Iraq does face a more pronounced ISIS threat.
Sadly, what we need to watch for is whether ISIS will be able to replicate the tactics that earned it battlefield success in 2011, beginning with the execution of coordinated bombings during the day in different Iraqi provinces. Or will we exist in this quasi-interim period where ISIS can attack, perhaps with sophistication, the ISF at night, but not at the level before it managed to take control of swathes of territory in 2014. It is unclear and I am wary of extrapolating too much from disparate attacks, but clearly this is something that is worth watching and keeping tabs on in the weeks and months to come.
It is also something that the recently affirmed Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, will have to contend with. Kadhimi is considered “pro-American,” but pliant enough to be acceptable to Iraq’s most important neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has a lot on his plate and, as always, tricky politics to navigate. Iraq is dependent on oil revenue and, with COVID-19, oil prices globally have plummeted. Iraq appears to have managed the pandemic well, but concerns about re-opening a locked-down society are ever present. And, amidst all this, there are still issues about cabinet-level appointments, and the concurrent issues of dealing with continued protests against corruption and the aforementioned ISIS threat. Iraq is never boring, and its issues are considerable. For a deep dive, FPRI just published an edited volume about various aspects of Iraqi politics titled Iraq in Transition: Competing Actors and Complicated Politics.
Tom, there was a glimmer of hope in South Korea this past week: baseball season started!
Shattuck: By my count, Taiwan and South Korea are the only two countries in the world with professional sports (baseball, the greatest spectator sport) occurring. Taiwan’s season started on April 13, making it the first country to resume professional sporting events in the world, while Korea’s season started on May 5. For the couple of weeks that Taiwan held the professional sports monopoly, Western media rushed to write profiles of the league. The Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) even started airing English-language broadcasts of certain games due to its rising popularity. It made headlines for having cardboard cutout fans to replace the real ones, giving it both a spooky and familiar atmosphere. Now, it has competition with the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), which has inked a deal with ESPN to air its games. I am a little biased and favor Taiwan’s league because it’s the only time in my life that I caught a foul ball—despite attending Phillies games my entire life. I’ve also been to a game in Japan, and would encourage American baseball fans to watch a Taiwanese or Korean game—though the real experience that makes the games unique from U.S. baseball is fan participation. We’re in luck because Taiwan will start allowing 1,000 fans to attend games starting on May 8. I anticipate that the Taiwanese fans will bring even more energy to what is normally an intense experience, so it is definitely worth watching.
Maia, What does the Saakashvili news mean for Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky, who took the country by storm during the last election? Has he learned that campaigning for office and serving in office are two very different things?
Otarashvili: Zelensky inherited a basket case of a country. Deeply entrenched corruption, a messy economy, and lacking territorial integrity were just some of the serious issues he promised to tackle. This month marks one year in office for him, and polls have shown that his popularity is at an all-time high. A month ago, 40% of Ukrainians said they’d vote for him. He only got 30% of the votes in the first round of elections a year ago. With that said, Zelensky is far from delivering on his promises to date, and the year has been tumultuous for the 42 year-old actor-turned-president. His critics disapprove of his choices of political appointees, and most of his initiatives for ending the conflict in Donbas regularly come under scrutiny. However, Zelensky has said that he would only lead the country for one term, which should mean that he would be less interested in maintaining popularity, and more focused on delivering on his promises. He has indeed struggled to get it right when it comes to putting the right people in charge of the critical jobs in fixing Ukraine’s troubles. Saakashvili’s appointment looks to me like the desperate president is willing to try anything at this point, and Misha could be the needed wild card to reinvigorate Ukraine’s fleeting momentum for serious reforms.
What remains most troublesome is the situation in Donbas and Crimea. The peninsula remains seized by Russia, and the civil war is still raging in Donbas. The International Crisis Group published a report on April 28, urging Western actors to change their approach to Russia in order to broker lasting peace in Ukraine:
Sustainable peace in Ukraine will require a dialogue on European security and Russian relations with the West. EU members, Russia and their neighbours ought to start addressing broader European security issues, including through regional arms control discussions, to lower tensions and alleviate all sides’ security fears. These talks will neither end the war nor, in all likelihood, result in quick agreements. But they will send a signal to Russia that its threat perceptions are taken seriously and that discussions with European states offer a promising way forward.
The report further suggests that “to strengthen the case that European-Russian dialogue holds real potential, the EU also should consider making its sanctions policy more flexible. Allowing some incremental sanctions relief for Russia in exchange for progress in eastern Ukraine would be in line with sanctions best practices and counter Moscow’s narrative that they merely reflect a punitive strategy. By contrast, the current rigid, all-or-nothing approach has limited Russian incentives to change behaviour.”
Needless to say, some compromise is necessary to break the existing stalemate in negotiations over Donbas, but these are some bold suggestions, and the report has already received some scathing scrutiny. Ukraine-based European Expert Association has published a statement, suggesting that the ICG approach
aims to entrench Russia’s position in Eastern Europe for decades by creating a multilateral arrangement. This is at best a short-sighted idea, as the irrelevance of the unreformed Russian economy increases, dissatisfaction of Russians with the longest personal regime of Putin rises, tensions within Russian regions accumulate and the threats associated with China rise increase. The proposal has an adverse effect on Georgia, Moldova and Belarus – creating in essence a buffer zone as an old ‘spheres of influence’ concept.”
The statement further criticizes the ICG report for suggesting that Russia should be included in the conversation about the European security system: “Instead of punishing Russia for breaking the security system and violating international law, ICG proposes to appease the aggressor. The Report completely ignores that 14 thousand Ukrainians have been killed and 1.5 million displaced as a result of the Russian aggression in Donbas. The Ukrainian expert community aims to demonstrate false narratives promulgated by this report and expose its hidden and explicit motives.”
It’s fair to say that the ICG report reflects the sentiments of large groups of actors in Brussels and elsewhere in European capitals. The Ukrainian Expert Community’s statement is largely in-line with the preferences of Ukrainian citizens. Those two views have been at a standstill for a while, but it seems we might be at a pivotal moment. Much depends on Zelensky’s ability to balance the pressures from Russia and the EU, while pursuing a solution for Donbas that puts Ukraine’s interests first.
Shattuck: As China continues to develop its military in quantity and quality, the United States has needed to develop a response. To prevent the East and South China Seas as well as the Taiwan Strait from becoming dominated by the Chinese military, the U.S. military needs to change its current trajectory. And this threat isn’t anything new. In May 2018, Admiral Philip S. Davidson said during his confirmation hearing “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios, short of war with the United States.” Thanks to its militarization of the artificial islands in the South China Sea and pushing out almost all competition from particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, China has a significant presence there. China even announced on April 18 the establishment of two administrative districts in the region. The move serves to further cement Beijing’s control of the area by streamlining its ability to move people and supplies in and out of the islands. All of this is to say: it’s about time the United States attempts to respond.
China has the advantage of stationing missiles on its vast coastline, and has a numbers advantage with its missiles there as a result. The U.S. military is seeking to reduce that advantage by adapting to the situation in what it calls a “range war.” By creating a more mobile force, mainly through reforming the Marines (we actually have a great report by Frank Hoffman in the works on this) with more missiles, the U.S. hopes to better compete and secure the region and help its allies.
Maia and Aaron, again, thanks for the great conversation!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.