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Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak lies at the heart of the mysteries surrounding ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. (Sputnik)

He’s served as the Kremlin’s man in Washington since 2008.

But only now has Sergey Kislyak, the low-key Russian ambassador to the United States, started making headlines as the person no one in the Trump administration seems to remember meeting.

It’s not a crime for a sitting US senator to meet with the ambassador of a country that sits on the UN security council, even one that’s sometimes , like Russia. It might not even, as a technical matter, be perjury, that US attorney general Jeff Sessions ‘forgot’ about the two conversations he is now reported to have had with Kislyak in 2016 at the height of the presidential election campaign.

So who is the old Russian hand at the center of a controversy that’s already claimed the resignation of Mike Flynn, the retired general who is no longer national security advisor, and might claim Sessions as well?

Kislyak is a longtime career diplomat who speaks fluent English and French. In contrast to Russia’s long-serving foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the burlier and less polished Kislyak mostly avoids the spotlight. If reports are true, Kislyak is already a lame-duck ambassador — Moscow is reportedly readying a more hard-line figure, deputy prime minister Anatoly Antonov, to replace Kislyak.

One of the mysteries of the current brouhaha over the Trump campaign’s ties to Kremlin officials is the disconnect in December between Kislyak’s initial anger over the outgoing Obama administration’s additional sanctions (related to increasing indications that Russia attempted to use cybertricks to interfere with the US election) and the Kremlin’s more relaxed response a day later — after nearly a half-dozen calls between Flynn and Kislyak:

The concerns about the contacts were cemented by a series of phone calls between Mr. Kislyak and Michael T. Flynn, who had been poised to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. The calls began on Dec. 29, shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions. Mr. Kislyak was irate and threatened a forceful Russia response, according to people familiar with the exchange.

But a day later, Mr. Putin said his government would not retaliate, prompting a Twitter post from Mr. Trump praising the Russian president — and puzzling Obama White House officials. On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

So who is Kislyak and how did he come to be the Kremlin’s envoy to Washington for a decade?

Continue reading Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

What if Abkhazia held a presidential election and no one cared?


Last Sunday, the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia elected a new president.Russia Flag IconabkhaziaGeorgia Flag Icon

But Abkhazia’s new leader, former opposition leader Raul Khadzhimba (pictured above), didn’t receive the traditional cascade of congratulatory telephone calls from world leaders. Instead, he’ll face a world almost wholly united in non-recognition of his victory. None of NATO, the United States, the European Union nor Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili consider the elections legitimate.

That’s because only four countries currently recognize Abkhazia’s sovereignty: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. Nicaragua and Venezuela are governed by socialist presidents friendly to Russia. Nauru, an 8.1 square-mile island northwest of Australia with just over 9,000 residents, established diplomatic relations with Abkhazia in 2009, allegedly after demanding from Russia $50 million in funding for economic and social projects. 

Since the 2008 military showdown between Russian president Vladimir Putin and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, Abkhazia has existed in a state of international limbo, essentially occupied by Russian soldiers and governed by separatists.

But the cause of Abkhazian independence goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union when Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, wanted its own state and when Abkhaz separatists fought and won a bloody 13-month war in 1992 and 1993 against the newly independent Georgian state.  Continue reading What if Abkhazia held a presidential election and no one cared?

Shevardnadze’s legacy to Russia, to Georgia and to the world


Depending on your age, your nationality and your perspective, you’ll remember Eduard Shevardnadze, who died three days ago, as either a progressive reformer who, as the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister, helped usher in the period of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev that ultimately ended the Cold War, or a regressive autocrat who drove Georgia into the ground, left unresolved its internal conflicts, and ultimately found himself tossed out,  unloved, by the Georgian people after trying to rig a fraudulent election in a country was so corrupt by his ouster that the capital city, Tbilisi, suffered endemic power outages.Georgia Flag IconGSSR

Both are essentially correct, which made Shevardnadze (pictured above) one of the most fascinating among the final generation of Soviet leadership. It’s not just a ‘mixed‘ legacy, as The Moscow Times writes, but a downright schizophrenic legacy.


His 2006 memoirs, ‘Thoughts about the Past and the Future,’ have been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months — I ordered the book from a Ukrainian bookstore, and I hoped to find a Georgian language scholar to help translate them. I would still like to read an English translation someday, because I wonder if his own words might offer clues on how to reconcile Shevardnadze-as-visionary and Shevardnadze-as-tyrant.

Gorbachev and Russian president Vladimir Putin had stronger praise for Shevardnadze than many of his native Georgians:

Gorbachev, who called Shevardnadze his friend, said Monday that he had made “an important contribution to the foreign policy of perestroika and was an ardent supporter of new thinking in world affairs,” Interfax reported. The former Soviet leader also underlined Shevardnadze’s role in putting an end to the Cold War nuclear arms race.

President Vladimir Putin expressed his “deep condolences to [Shevardnadze’s] relatives and loved ones, and to all the people of Georgia,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on Shevardnadze’s passing, saying the former Georgian leader had been “directly involved in social and historical processes on a global scale.”

Even Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after Georgians ousted Shevardnadze in 2003’s so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ had somewhat generous, if begrudging, words for the former leader: Continue reading Shevardnadze’s legacy to Russia, to Georgia and to the world

Margvelashvili wins Georgia’s presidential election, but all eyes are on Ivanishvili


It wasn’t a surprise that Giorgi Margvelashvili won such an overwhelming first-round victory in Georgia’s Sunday presidential election.Georgia Flag Icon

Preliminary results showed that Margvelashvili, a relatively little-known academic and most recently Georgia’s minister of education and science, won 63.82% of the vote — an incredibly strong result for Margvelashvili and the coalition he represents, Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება).

But the real transition of power won’t be from outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili to Margvelashvili — rather, it will be from the office of the presidency to the office of the prime minister.

Under constitutional reforms adopted two years ago, Margvelashvili will hold a vastly less powerful presidency.  When Saakashvili leaves office, many of the duties of the presidency will pass instead to the head of government — prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition, which took power after winning the October 2012 parliamentary elections.  Georgian Dream won 85 of the unicameral parliament’s 150 seats, and it’s won over a few more Saakashvili supporters in the past year.

That means that the result of the presidential election isn’t as important as the fact that, upon Margvelashvili’s inauguration, Georgia will essentially transform from a presidential republic into more of a parliamentary republic.  While Ivanishvili and Saakashvili have held power jointly for the past year with a divided government, Ivanishvili will now control Georgia’s government in its entirety.

But it doesn’t mean Margvelashvili’s victory is meaningless — it’s a vote of confidence in Ivanishvili and the current government.  Georgian Dream won 54.97% of the national vote last year, so its win in the presidential election is a significant increase in voter support.

The bottom line is that the real transition from the Saakashvili era to the Ivanishvili era is only about to begin — and no one really knows what that entails, because there are more questions than answers at this point.

The first question is whether Ivanishvili will actually stay on as prime minister — he’s indicated that he would prefer to step down and appoint another individual to succeed him.  Ivanishvili is Georgia’s wealthiest businessman, and he came to frontline politics only last year after falling out with Saakashvili.  But if he steps down, he would do so at exactly the moment when the office of the prime minister is set to become the most important office in Georgia, and it’s hard to believe he would do so unless he could install a relatively pliable replacement.  There seems to be little doubt that Ivanishvili will continue calling the shots, either as prime minister or behind the scenes, and he will remain by far the most important political figure in Georgia due to his massive wealth and his role in founding Georgian Dream.

The second question is whether Georgian Dream can truly govern as a united force.  The coalition is an unwieldy melange of nationalists, liberals and populists and it includes both pro-Western and pro-Russian forces.  During the 2012 campaign, and even over the past year in parliament, opposition to Saakashvili was sufficient to keep its disparate elements mostly united.  But when Saakashvili is no longer in power, and Georgian Dream is responsible for coherent policymaking, it may prove more difficult to maintain that unity.  That could be especially difficult if Ivanishvili steps down as prime minister.  Continue reading Margvelashvili wins Georgia’s presidential election, but all eyes are on Ivanishvili

Ivanishvili set to consolidate power in Georgia with presidential election


Georgians go to the polls on October 27 to elect their new president — almost exactly one decade after the ‘Rose Revolution’ swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power.Georgia Flag Icon

But while everyone expects the candidate of the Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება) coalition, former education and science minister Giorgi Margvelashvili, to become Georgia’s next president, Georgian are really waiting to hear the next move of Georgian Dream’s leader and Georgia’s prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili (pictured above, with Margvelashvili in background).

That’s because under the reforms passed by Saakashvili in 2010, many of the significant powers of Georgia’s presidency will be transferred to Georgia’s parliament.  So when Saakashvili hands over power to his successor, his successor will be more of a figurehead and the prime minister will become the key figure in Georgia’s government.

That will give Ivanishvili political control over Georgia’s government, ending the divided government that’s ensued since the October 2012 parliamentary elections, when Georgian Dream won 85 seats to just 65 seats for Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM, ერთიანი ნაციონალური მოძრაობა) in the 150-unicameral Georgian parliament.  (In addition, 13 deputies have bolted the ENM since last year, leaving the ENM with just 52 seats today).

Over the past year, Saakashvili retained the power of the executive branch (the new reforms don’t take hold until after the new president is sworn in), while Ivanishvili has controlled Georgia’s parliament.  Though one of the highlights of Saakashvili’s decade in power was his graceful concession that his party had lost the 2012 legislative elections, Ivanishvili called on Saakashvili to resign shortly after the election, establishing the tit-for-tat aggression between the two leaders that’s dominated the past 12 months.

Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest businessman, long ago supported Saakashvili.  But a falling-out between the two led Ivanishvili to create his own opposition coalition in 2012 and even Ivanishvili’s dominant win in last year’s election hasn’t brought much in the way of reconciliation between the two.  Earlier this week, Ivanishvili said that Saakashvili may be prosecuted after he leaves office — it’s a real possibility, especially considering the imprisonment of Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in recent years.

In the best-case instance, the past year would have provided Saakashvili and Ivanishvili time to coordinate the full transfer of power that will take place following this weekend’s presidential election.  But the poor personal relations between the two leader means that Georgia’s transition hasn’t  gone as smoothly as possible.

The race for the presidency

Margvelashvili, like Ivanishvili, was a newcomer to high-level Georgian politics in 2012.  Margvelashvili came to government from the academic and nonprofit sector.  With a doctorate in philosophy from Tbilisi State University in 1998, Margvelashvili served twice as the rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, a joint Georgian-American institute, from 2000 to 2006 and from 2010 to 2012, after five years with the well-known US-based National Democratic Institute.  Saakashvili, missing no opportunity for a snide remark, compared Margvelashvili’s to Caligula’s horse (of all things!) in May:

“I will say nothing specifically about this candidacy [of Margvelashvili], but generally speaking, when the Roman Emperor decided to demonstrate his dominance over the Roman society, he appointed his horse to the senate,” Saakashvili told journalists in Poti where he attended opening of a new Orthodox church.

Recently, Margvelashvili (and Ivanishvili) has claimed that he will end his candidacy if the election goes to a second round (i.e., if no candidate wins a 50% majority of the votes).  As Bret Barrowman at The Monkey Cage explains, that seems like less of a sacrosanct promise than either an idle threat or bluster meant to to maximize Margvelashvili’s support.

One helpful goalpost is the previous 2012 election, when the Georgian Dream coalition won 54.97% of the vote nationwide.

While polling in Georgia remains somewhat imprecise, a September NDI poll shows Margvelashvili with a wide lead of 39% to 18% over the UNM’s candidate, Davit Bakradze, a Saakashvili ally and a former foreign minister in 2008 who tried to negotiate a settlement with the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the situation escalated into confrontation with Russia.  Bakradze subsequently served as speaker of Georgia’s parliament from 2008 to 2012.  In third place with 7% is Nino Burjanadze, a former Saakashvili ally who served as speaker of the Georgian parliament from 2001 to 2008, when she formed her own opposition party.

Whither Ivanishvili?

But a more baffling question is why Ivanishvili has been talking about stepping down as prime minister shortly after the presidential election — it’s all the more baffling given that after the presidential election, the prime minister will have most of the powers previously held by Saakashvili: Continue reading Ivanishvili set to consolidate power in Georgia with presidential election