Donald the Unpredictable:
THE WORLD

Donald the Unpredictable:

what does Trump presidency mean for the South Caucasus?

This November the United States elected 45th president of the country. Surprisingly for many the campaign was won by a Republican billionaire Donald Trump. While the world is trying to understand what will be the consequences of that choice, here is what Trump’s presidency means for South Caucasus.

Text : Mikayel Zolyan
 


Not in the headlines: South Caucasus and the Election Campaign

If there is one word that could describe Donald Trump, it is “unpredictable”. This is especially true of his foreign policy. While in case of Clinton, a former Secretary of State, her foreign policy outlook was more or less clear, Trump’s foreign policy remains a mystery. And when it comes to figuring out what the US policy would bring to the South Caucasus it is even more difficult. Obviously, the South Caucasus was very far from the priorities that defined the presidential campaign in the US. The campaign mostly focused on internal issues, and the foreign policy issues, the ones that were discussed were larger issues like China, Russia, Syria, Iran, the Pacific, etc.
Yet, ironically, this was the first US presidential campaign in which both candidates had firsthand knowledge of the South Caucasus. Hillary Clinton has been to all the three countries, in her capacity as the Secretary of State. Donald Trump has had business interests in Georgia and Azerbaijan. He visited Georgia in 2012, where a local company, “Silk Road Group” started building a Trump tower in Batumi. Moreover, during this visit he met with the then president Mikheil Saakashvili, who, as he claimed, has known Trump since mid-1990s, and has been his fan since then. Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana has also visited Georgia. Saakashvili and Trump gave a joint press conference and Saakashvili presented Trump with a state award, “Order of Brilliance”. After the elections Saakashvili published a video shot during the visit, in which Trump praises Saakashvili and Georgia. However, given Saakashvili’s current involvement in Ukrainian politics, this probably has to do more with the Ukrainian politics than with the politics of Georgia.

Also, Trump has a business connection to Azerbaijan, which became a subject of discussion during his campaign: Trump’s critics raised the issue of Trump’s cooperation with Azerbaijani businessman Anar Mammadov, who also happens to be the son of an Azerbaijani government minister. According to a July 2015 report by “Mother Jones” magazine, Mammadov is the owner of the tower and hotel in Baku that bears the name “Trump”, for which he has paid a fee of 2.5 million USD to the future US president. Though there is no indication that Trump has ever visited Azerbaijan, his daughter Ivanka has visited Baku to oversee the construction of the Trump tower there. In addition to that there were rumors that Trump’s campaign has been receiving donations from an ethnic Azerbaijani oligarch from Russia, Araz Agalarov.
Not only Agalarov knows Trump personally, but also Trump has made a cameo appearance in a video for a song sung by Agalarov’s son, Emin. In an interview to Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Agalarov himself denied the connection, though he admitted that he had been rooting for him, adding that the fact that Trump harassed women meant that he was a real man: “it would have been much worse if he tried to harass men”. However, in spite of these connections, so far there has been no indication that Azerbaijani government may have any special influence on Trump’s administration. To be fair, Clinton also had an Azerbaijani connection. According to Eurasia.net, for the last 7 years the Azerbaijani embassy has used the services of a lobbying firm the Podesta Group, established by Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. However, the link should not be exaggerated, John Podesta left the firm long time ago (it is now managed by his brother), and there is no evidence of significant Azerbaijani influence on Clinton’s team.

The Donald: a View from the Caucasus
So, how was Trump seen from the capitals of the South Caucasus? Many Armenians see the presidential elections in US president through the prism of the campaign for the recognition of the Armenian genocide. In 2008 both leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama unequivocally promised to recognize the Genocide. After Obama became president he defied his promise, though he did go further than most his predecessors: in his address to the Armenian community instead of using the word “genocide” he used the words “Mets Yeghern”. “Mets Yeghern” is the Armenian term used to describe the events of 1915, however, unlike the word “genocide”, it does not carry legal consequences. In 2012 the leading candidates on both sides avoided the issue altogether. The same thing happened this year, therefore most Armenian organizations in the US refrained from supporting any of the candidates, so most probably this year the votes of Armenian community were divided.

As for Azerbaijan, here Trump’s candidacy was viewed with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Trump’s remarks about Muslims did not create sympathy for him in this Muslim majority nation. On the other, from the point of view of the government Trump is probably a more comfortable interlocutor than the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular. Democrats are known as proponents of a value-based foreign policy, keen on “spreading democracy”, while Trump is expected to be more pragmatic and to be less concerned about the promotion of democratic values. To what extent this expectation would be true, remains to be seen. Business connections of Trump to Azerbaijan also inspired some sympathy for Trump in Azerbaijan.
For Georgia, the biggest issue is obviously the new president’s position on relations with Russia. Therefore, Hillary Clinton, who would have largely continued the previous US policy, would probably have been more preferable. Trump administration, even if it does not make any revolutionary changes in the foreign policy, would at the very least be less enthusiastic about Georgia’s membership in NATO. One of leading Trump supporters, conservative Republican Newt Gingrich once famously said in an interview that if he had been the president he would think twice about starting a nuclear war with Russia, were Russia to attack Estonia, a NATO member, which, according to Gingrich, “is located in the suburbs of St.Petersburg” and “is 40 percent Russian”. Such statements by Trump and his allies have caused serious anxiety in those post-Soviet countries that have strained relations with Russia, and Georgia is not an exception. On the other hand, the Georgian Dream government had been conducting a more pragmatic policy vi-s-a-vis Russia than its predecessor, so in this respect Tbilisi is probably better prepared to deal with the consequences of a possible U-turn in US policies than, for example, Ukraine.

Trump and the Regional Powers: Russia, Iran, Turkey

In general when it comes to Trump’s approach to relations with Russia, it is hard to make predictions (as with most other policy areas). Alleged Russian support for Trump has become one of the main topics of the election campaign. Though president Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric has been reserved, inside Russia media and politicians did not conceal their support for Trump. State Duma reacted with applause to the news of his election. The eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who, according to some Russia-watchers, often says publicly what is said in the Kremlin in private, even threw a small party with champagne for MPs and journalists. Obviously, the main cause for this support for Trump was the presumed foreign policy approach of Hillary Clinton, who has a reputation of a proponent of policies of assisting democratization, which in Moscow are usually seen as the cause for Colored Revolutions and other uprisings across the world. Besides, Trump’s assault on liberalism and political correctness is in harmony with the conservative discourse prevailing today in Russia. However, it is still hard to say to what extent this support translated into meddling in the elections, e.g. financial support or hacking of the Democratic establishment’s e-mails, remains unclear, as well as to what extent has this support played a role in determining the election outcome.
On the side of Trump things are not so obvious. Trump has praised Putin as a strong leader and said that it would be easy for him to find common ground with Putin. He also talked about readiness to cooperate with Russia in Syria against the Islamic State. In an episode widely used by his adversaries Trump even called for “Russian hackers” to hack Clinton’s e-mails to show that he has been involved in shady business. Obviously, Trump has shown little interest in supporting democracy abroad, especially in the former Soviet states. Hence, there are some hopes in Moscow that the new administration would be ready to make a deal that would actually recognize the former Soviet space as a zone of priority interests for Russia.
On the other hand, one could also imagine how US-Russian relations could deteriorate further under Trump. Apart from all the compliments about Putin, Trump also said that he would give the order to shoot down Russian planes if they flew too close to American military. Since foreign policy is not a very big priority for Trump it means that his foreign policy team will play a significant role in formulating foreign policy. And this is not exactly good news for Moscow, since Trump’s foreign policy crew will probably be recruited from conservative Republicans, including members of the Bush and Reagan administrations, many of whom have a hawkish stance toward Russia. The same goes for the Republican majorities in the Senate and the Congress, which, will have a significant influence on foreign policy. Impulsive, authoritarian traits that Trump has exhibited during his campaign may mean that his attitude to Russia may easily change under circumstances. Besides, Trump will have to overcome the image of a Russian puppet, which had been conferred on him by the Democrats and the liberal media: he will have to prove that he can be tough in dealing with foreign leaders, including Putin. In any case, US foreign policy is formulated as a result of a complicated process that involves many institutions, so even if Trump wanted to radically change the approach to relations with Moscow this would hardly be possible.
Relations between Russia and the USA are only one of the variables that could influence the situation in the South Caucasus: relations between USA and other regional players are also important. Of these, the USA-Iran relations are obviously the most explosive and potentially dangerous for the region. In the Bush years, when some circles in the US were considering a military operation to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, this was viewed as a nightmare scenario by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is highly unlikely that Trump will resort to a military operation against Iran, but he has talked about scrapping or re-negotiating the nuclear treaty with Iran. Probably, this would not be a priority for Trump, but the Republican hawks, as well as Israeli and the Saudi lobbies, will keep reminding Trump about this promise. It is hard to imagine that Trump would actually scrap the treaty, but he may embark on unfriendly steps with Iran that could jeopardize the treaty. This is especially dangerous for the process of normalization of relations between Iran and the West, as in Iran itself the deal is already disliked by many conservatives, and reformist president Rouhani is facing a difficult election in 2017. Whatever happens, it is obvious that the détente with Iran, which was seen by Obama as one of his major achievements, will not have the same significance for Trump. And if the relations between the West and Iran return to a confrontational pattern it would be bad news for the whole region.
The third important regional power with influence in the South Caucasus is Turkey. Predicting how relations between Erdogan and Trump will develop is not an easy task. There are similarities in style between Trump and Erdogan: both are anti-establishment populists with a right-wing message and authoritarian tendencies. At the same time as both are known for little tolerance for their opponents, it is hard to predict to what a possible disagreement between them might develop. And there are many issues to disagree about, from Erdogan’s insistence on extraditing his opponent Fethullah Gulen, currently a US resident, to the American support for Kurds in Syria.


Trump’s Oil policies: what that could mean for the region
Another Trump policy that might affect the South Caucasus is his promise to lift the restrictions on production of oil and gas in the USA. This would probably lead to a further downward in the oil prices globally: in fact the oil price suffered a drop immediately after the news of Trump’s victory was spread. Obviously, this is not good news for Azerbaijan, which has already suffered serious economic setbacks due to the falling oil prices. Immediately after the Trump election Business journal “Euromoney” named Azerbaijan as one of the countries with the highest level of risk of suffering from Trump policies, together with other commodity producers like Congo and Nigeria. In theory, Armenia and Georgia, as countries that do not export hydrocarbons should not suffer that much (though Georgia benefits from transit of hydrocarbons). However, they both have links with Russian economy, and Russian economy can be affected significantly by falling oil prices. Of course, this is more of a concern for Armenia, which is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and has close links with Russia, and has been receiving millions of dollars in remittances from guest workers in Russia.
The economic consequences of the falling oil prices may in turn have political consequences, which can be even more dangerous. Azerbaijan has already experienced a wave of social protests in winter 2015-2016. The April war in Nagorno-Karabakh has led to a patriotic mobilization and consolidation around the government in Azerbaijan. In September 2016 the Azerbaijani government felt confident enough to pass changes to the constitution, which expanded the powers of the president. However, further socio-economic problems may lead to domestic instability. Though mainstream opposition and civil society are weak in Azerbaijan, this can hardly be a consolation for the government: on the contrary, it means that the socio-economic difficulties are more likely to be exploited by various radical groups. As for Armenia, it has experienced both economic difficulties and internal political instability recently, and is facing elections in spring 2017. What is probably the most dangerous is that internal instability either in Armenia and Azerbaijan may lead to resumption of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many analysts think that the outbreak of fighting in April was in part caused by the desire of Azerbaijani leadership to distract the population from the internal situation. Fighting “little victorious wars” has been one of the most popular ways of governments to deal with internal problems, and this danger cannot be ruled out.

***

Trump critics both in US and abroad fear that his presidency will be a catastrophe, Trump supporters hope that it will be the beginning of a glorious new era. Most probably, it will be neither. US policy, including foreign policy, is not determined by one man, even if that man is the president and is as eccentric as Trump. Besides, Trump himself has already started to retreat on some of his campaign promises, so there are chances that he would be a more or less regular conservative Republican president, with a pragmatic and somewhat isolationist foreign policy. However, it is undeniable that the Trump presidency the world will become much more unpredictable. Even as a candidate, Trump has already created a lot of headache in US and around the world, and probably more is to follow. And while the citizens of the South Caucasus countries have had no voice in electing Trump, they may find themselves having to cope with the consequences of Trump policies.

 

The wealthiest president in history
Donald Trump was born and raised in the Queens borough of New York City and received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. In 1971, he took control of his family’s real estate and construction firm, Elizabeth Trump & Son, which was later renamed The Trump Organization. During his career, Trump has built, renovated or managed numerous office towers, hotels, casinos, and golf courses. He also lent the use of his name to brand various other products. He owned the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants from 1996 to 2015, and has made cameo appearances in films and television series. From 2004 to 2015, Trump hosted and co-produced The Apprentice, a reality television series on NBC. As of 2016, Forbes listed him as the 324th wealthiest person in the world (113th in the United States) with a net worth of $4.5 billion, which would make him the wealthiest president in U.S. history.

 

We asked two American citizens living and working in Armenia tell us why are they pro or contra to Donald Trump’s presidency


Pro
Maggie Ryan (Senior at AUA)

I’m a millennial, and I voted for Trump. It took me a while to get to make that decision. It felt like the entire population was judging Trump on his characteristics. Was he too funny? Is he a racist? Why does he talk in a funny way? He said horrible things 10 years ago, that’s why he’s a sexist. While this statements have their truth to it, I do not want to judge my future president on a few personal characteristics or scandals. I wanted to judge them based on a few factors that actually mattered, not just for America, but for the whole world. I am excited to see Trump and Putin find common ground. Two power countries working together might be a good thing. The other thing is Gun Control he talked about a lot. Like Trump, I believe that anybody has the right to bear arms. And at the end of the day, Trump represents change. Maybe he’ll be the worst president, maybe he’ll be the best. But, he is not what has been done for the past decade. He was a radical choice, but a change nonetheless.


Contra
David Bequette (entrepreneur)

This was going to be the first election that I would just watch from afar. But then Trump walked in carrying with him the bravado of a billionaire, the rage of someone who was severely disenfranchised and the speech pattern of a small child that everyone hates to love. I felt an urge to run and hide from the mere thought of the possibility that the greatest country on the Earth could take this seriously. And then it started, the uncontrolled wrath of Trumps misogyny, bigotry and hatred for anything that would improve his likability among an increasingly disenfranchised (so they claim to be) group. Trump was their savior. He could speak on their level. Trump is everything I never want to be. He is everything I grew up to fight against. Trump was and is the bully that many of us have grown to despise, and more importantly grown to not become or not let our children become. And yet we should still have faith that over 2 million more voters do not believe in this type of hate.