First there was the election in Bulgaria on 5 July which
brought a new party to power -- Boyko Borisov�s Citizens for European
Development of Bulgaria.
Borisov, or Batman, as he is affectionately called, was a
Communist era policeman who subsequently established a prosperous private
security business and has been the mayor of Sofia since 2005. He campaigned on
the usual -- to fight corruption and secure a better economic future. The
Batman bragged in an interview with Der Spiegel of receiving �letters of
accolade� from the CIA and FBI, presumably for his battle with the dark forces.
One of the first things he did as PM, however, was to suspend the existing
energy contracts with Moscow, both the South Stream and a nuclear power plant
This triumph of �democracy� has �made in USA� written all
over it. In 2005, Moscow laid out two alternate pipelines, bypassing Ukraine
and Poland -- the North Stream under the Baltic Sea into Germany, and the South
Stream under the Black Sea into Bulgaria and on to Europe. The government in
Sofia, though a member of the EU and NATO, nonetheless signed energy agreements
with Moscow in 2008. This and the gas crisis between Ukraine and Russia in
January 2009 made regime change in Bulgaria essential, and the services of the
US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy -- they helped overthrow
the Bulgarian government in 1990 -- were clearly made excellent use of. Just a
week after elections marred by vote buying (despite or due to the NED?),
Bulgaria�s new PM cancelled the Russian deal.
Borisov went to Ankara a week later to sign on to the EU
Nabucco pipeline. Democrat Richard Morningstar, US special envoy for Eurasian
energy, and Republican Senator Richard Lugar (note the bipartisanship) joined
him in Ankara on 13 July for the signing ceremony. If all goes according to
plan, the Nabucco project will upstage South Stream, bringing gas from the
Caspian region and Middle East to Central and Western European markets, with
possible suppliers Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Iraq.
Senator Lugar said, with a straight face, the Nabucco
agreement signed in Turkey �is a signal to the rest of the world that partner
governments will not acquiesce to manipulation of energy supplies for political
ends. It also has the potential to build new avenues for peaceful cooperation.�
Obama served up more such tripe during his �Moscow speech� on 7 July: �In 2009,
a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonising other
countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a
chess board are over.�
However, Azerbaijan may have problems providing enough gas
to make Nabucco feasible, as it initialed a deal in June with Russia�s Gazprom
for gas from the Shah Deniz field -- the same field Nabucco needs for its
pipeline. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is caught in this competition
between Russia and the West, with a bottom line -- who will pay the highest
price? Even if Nabucco strikes a deal to buy Azeri gas at the price already
agreed with Gazprom, according to F William Engdahl, there just ain�t enough to
go around. And there are problems with all the other potential suppliers as
Senator Lugar told the Senate, again, with a straight face, �Ideally,
in the way of the world, the natural gas -- and maybe in due course oil
supplies -- coming out of a united Iraq might provide this kind of capital,
which would be a miraculous happening and a wonderful ending to a very tragic
period in their history.� If, of course, Iraq acquiesces to its US-client
status. Even so, Iraqi gas to Turkey would pass through Kurdish areas, a hotbed
of separatism against both Turkey and the current Iraqi government. The other
main source of gas would be Iran.
For all the Obama hype, his advisers are really playing the
same geopolitical game as Cheney and Bush. It is a clash of �civilisations,�
with the US the so-called civiliser and everyone else the to-be-civilised. But
Iran and Russia are not as easy to �dominate or demonise,� to borrow a bit of
Obama-speak, as certain other countries. It will take an invasion of Iran to
change Washington�s dynamic with that country. And all the hot air coming from
Washington will not dissipate the Russian cloud of suspicion caused by the
missile bases and NATO�s vow to swallow Ukraine and Georgia.
The degree of �civilisation� in the latter two countries is
far from clear at present. The Georgian opposition continues to call for
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili�s resignation in the wake of his
disastrous war against Russia last summer. Counting on Georgia in its present
mess as a key link in the Nabucco pipeline project is quite a gamble.
In Ukraine, opinion polls reveal something quite remarkable.
�If we were to fantasise, and pretend that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin would run for the post of Ukrainian president, then, according to opinion
poll results, he would win right off,� says Alexei Lyashenko, an analyst at
Kiev�s Research & Branding (R&B) polling institute. �His only serious
competitor would be Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.� This is not new
according to Lyashenko. Putin�s rating was over 50 percent even during the 2004
�Orange Revolution.� Opinion poll results published in May indicate that 58 percent
of Ukrainians have a positive attitude toward Putin, and 56 percent approve of
Medvedev. The pro-Russian head of the opposition Party of Regions Viktor Yanukovych
currently enjoys a 30 percent approval rating, and Prime Minister Yulia
Tymoshenko 15 percent. A shade more than 5 percent of Ukrainians would vote for
the anti-Russian President Viktor Yushchenko in the upcoming elections in January
According to Kiev International Institute of Sociology
(KIIS) President Valeri Khmelko, �The main reason why Medvedev and Putin score
so high is the endless conflicts and score-settling in Ukrainian politics,
which make the Russian politicians look good.�
�The Ukrainian preference for Russian state-controlled
television and the desire for strong leadership in the times of crisis also
play a role,� said R&B�s Lyashenko.
A KIIS poll found that 25 percent want full unification with
Russia, and 68 percent want an EU-style border-free regime with Russia, with
Russia and Ukraine being �independent but friendly states� without a visa
regime or custom controls. Polls consistently show more than half of Ukrainians
are opposed to joining NATO, for which a referendum must be held in any case.
�Over 90 percent of people in Ukraine have a positive
attitude toward Russia, and it has become even better over the past year,� KIIS
President Valeri Khmelko noted.
Nor do Ukrainians have much sympathy for Yushchenko�s friend
Saakashvili. According to Lyashenko, 45 percent have a negative opinion of
Saakashvili, and only 11 percent have a positive one.
Washington is still officially supporting NATO membership
for both Ukraine and Georgia, as Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Georgia
and Ukraine this week. �Our efforts to reset relations with Russia will not
come at the expense of any other countries,� Biden�s national security adviser,
Tony Blinken, said. �Our hope is these leaders will live up to the promise of
the revolution and make the hard choices to work together,� Blinken said,
referring to Ukraine�s Orange Revolution. He said the Obama administration --
like the Ukrainian people, we might add -- was concerned about the �political
paralysis� in Kiev. Concerning NATO, he said it was up to Ukraine and Georgia
to decide whether they wanted to join the alliance. Given US reliance on Russia
for transit of its troops and arms to Afghanistan, Blinken�s less than ringing
rhetoric -- and Obama�s virtual silence -- suggests that this will not happen
any time soon.
Yes, it�s clear now that Obama must have winked at Putin at
the Moscow summit when the subject of Ukraine, Georgia and NATO came up. That
was the only way he could get his troops through Russia to the killing fields
in Afghanistan. But the Nabucco pipeline success surely irks Russia, as do
continued NATO �exercises� in the Black Sea and the close ties between NATO and
all the Black Sea countries -- except Russia. And Poland has boldly announced
its first missiles are expected this year.
Faced with these games, Moscow will have to be sure not to �blink�
first, avoiding any diplomatic faux pas which could provide fuel for Washington
hawks. In any case, Obama�s senior Russian adviser Michael McFaul�s derisive �We
don�t need the Russians� prior to Obama�s Russian summit is simply not true.
Washington�s Bulgarian-Ukrainian-Caucasus intrigues could easily unravel -- in
the twinkling of an eye.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at ericwalberg.com.