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Trump Or Biden? Eurasia Waits And Watches

A Georgian demonstrator, known for his affinity for the U.S. flag, attends a 2014 anti-Russia rally in Tbilisi, Georgia.
A Georgian demonstrator, known for his affinity for the U.S. flag, attends a 2014 anti-Russia rally in Tbilisi, Georgia.

As they watch the final tussle over votes in the U.S. presidential election, countries throughout Eurasia who face their own political conflicts appear to be keeping their heads down and hedging their bets about the vote’s outcome.

Out of this group, Russia, which faces U.S. sanctions in areas ranging from election interference to its armed intervention in Ukraine, appears to have been the most forthright. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has condemned as “absolute hatred of the Russian Federation” Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden's position that Russia poses “the biggest threat” to U.S. “security and our alliances.”

Should the former U.S. vice-president be declared the winner of the November 3 vote, however, Russian foreign policy specialist Andrei Kortunov sees little likelihood of dramatic differences with the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.

Without a change in which parties control the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Russia can be “much calmer” about the presidential vote than would otherwise be the case, said Kortunov, who heads Moscow’s Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank created by presidential decree.

“In all likelihood, our relations with the U.S. will remain complicated and, basically, confrontational,” he predicted in a November 4 interview with Current Time.

Georgy Kunadze, who served as a Russian deputy foreign minister in the 1990s under the late President Boris Yeltsin, agrees. Biden, if elected, is expected to continue U.S. sanctions against Russia for its armed interventions in Ukraine.

Another foreign-policy professional, however, sees an opportunity.

“The Democrats always were much more about negotiating, even in regard to disarmament, in regard to treaties that now need to be prolonged,” said Aleksandra Filippenko, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.

She cited the 2011 New START Treaty, which restricts nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers, as an example. The treaty, signed when Biden was vice-president, expires on February 5, 2021.

Though Russians have “always traditionally loved the Republicans more,” Filippenko noted, “All the key treaties about disarmament that we now need to renew were all concluded during a Democratic presidency.”

If Donald Trump remains president and Mike Pompeo remains secretary of state, it will be “more complicated to predict how the negotiations will go,” she said. Though Trump has “very good relations” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he “makes no compromises” and is “rather tough in negotiations.”

The constant changeover of officials at the Trump White House and State Department also could hinder any negotiations, she added. By contrast, Biden is seen as more associated with established international-relations scholars and career diplomats.

Filippenko conceded that Vice-President Biden “criticizes the Russian administration” and “is against North Stream,” the gas pipelines from Russia to Germany that might be sanctioned by the U.S. But his becoming president “can play into [our] hands,” she predicted.

“We simply understand what to expect from a Democratic administration.”

While Russian officials scrutinize the vote to be ready for any change, Kunadze observed that ordinary Russians are taking a “sporting” interest in the U.S. vote “because in Russia, as is known, there are ‘elections’ with no choice.”

“And precisely for that reason, it’s very interesting for Russian citizens to see how elections work in a [inaudible] democratic country,” Kunadze said. The generation that grew up under President Vladimir Putin, he added, “can’t even imagine” such an event.

Mainstream Russian TV, however, is not emphasizing how democracy works in the U.S., but, rather, the fact that some stores in major U.S. cities have boarded themselves up in anticipation of street violence.

Many in Belarus, which has regularly experienced violent clashes between police and protesters since its disputed August 9 presidential election, likely can relate to that state of unease.

In a November 4 interview with Current Time, Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya commented that she would like “democratic countries to pay still more attention to how human rights are being violated in Belarus, to the violence taking place in our country; that they would talk about this and take all the possible appropriate measures.”

The United States, which has not recognized Lukashenka as Belarus’ elected president, sanctioned an additional 25 Belarusian officials in October for alleged falsification of the presidential vote and human rights violations. Twenty-four individuals have been banned from entering the U.S.

Talk of dispatching a U.S. ambassador to Minsk for the first time since 2008 has quieted since Belarusian demonstrations against the vote results began.

In a phone call with Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka in late October, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called for the release of detained Belarusian-American political strategist Vitali Shkliarov and stressed U.S. support for Belarusians’ “democratic aspirations,” according to the U.S. State Department. Skhliarov left Belarus on October 28.

Lukashenka, again closely allied with Russia, has accused both the U.S. and E.U. of staging the protests in Belarus, but has not commented officially on the elections. He stated this week that Belarus will continue to pursue a “multi-vector foreign policy.”

Tsikhanouskaya, whom supporters believe is Belarus’ actual president-elect, told Current Time that she would work with either Trump or Biden “as with any leader of any other country,” but emphasized that “responsibility for Belarus lies only with Belarusians themselves.”

Biden, who has condemned what he termed the Lukashenka administration’s “appalling human rights abuses,” has expressed support for the 38-year-old opposition leader, pledged to work with U.S. allies on “a plan of economic support for a truly sovereign, democratic Belarus.”

Like ex-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Kunadze, who predicts Biden would adopt former Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s interest in advancing international human rights, some Kyrgyz observers also believe rights issues could prove Biden’s bailiwick.

If Biden wins, greater emphasis could be put on human rights, freedom of speech, and strengthening democracy, predicted former Kyrgyz Ambassador to the U.S. and Canada Kadyr Toktogulov at a recent roundtable, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported. By contrast, the Trump administration has preferred to emphasize economic cooperation and security issues, Toktogulov noted.

Kyrgyzstan, which, in October, underwent its own election uncertainty after disputed parliamentary polls led to the government’s resignation, had proposed a cooperation agreement with the U.S., but former President Sooronbai Jeenbekov had not released these proposals before he resigned last month.

Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov, the acting president, does not appear to have commented on the U.S. vote, but has pledged to “hammer down” the country’s foreign policy if he is elected president in January 2021, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

Like Kortunov and Kunadze about Russia, some Kyrgyz, though, believe that little will change for Kyrgyzstan, no matter who becomes the next U.S. president. Washington, D.C.’s overall policy toward Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan has been “rather stable,” commented Toktogulov.

Both Belarus and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region likely consume more of the U.S.’s attention than Kyrgyzstan, Max Hess, a Central Asian fellow at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute, commented in an October 19 online discussion.

Like their counterparts, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are waiting and watching before embracing either candidate. The United States hosted ceasefire talks in late October between the two countries.

Ahead of the talks, on October 23, President Trump, describing the U.S.-based Armenian diaspora as “very good people,” told a briefing that “we’re going to help them.”

“We’re working with Armenia,” Trump said. He did not mention Azerbaijan, where his company, The Trump Organization, together with individuals linked to President Ilham Aliyev’s administration, had once planned to open a five-star hotel. The project was later dropped.

In an October 31 interview with Al Arabiya, however, Armenian President Nikol Pashinian skirted embracing President Trump’s promise.

“[M]ore detailed proposals” and “proposed actions” need to follow Trump’s remarks before they can be evaluated, Pashinyan said. “[W]hat exactly the actions and support will be from the United States for this process remains to be seen.”

The Armenian leader does not appear to have commented about the election to international outlets.

In an October 25 English-language interview with the pro-Trump U.S. broadcaster Fox News, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was similarly cautious.

In mid-October, Biden urged the U.S. to inform Azerbaijan that “a military solution” to the decades-long conflict is unacceptable and to tell Armenia that it cannot occupy the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh “indefinitely.” He also called for Washington to stop “coddling Ankara,” Azerbaijan’s main ally.

But President Aliyev only described Vice-President Biden, with whom he met at the 2016 Nuclear Summit, as “deeply involved in the [sic] regional issues” and likely “very aware” of “the Nagorno-Karabakh track.”

Though he believes the United States’ “very large” ethnic Armenian diaspora is trying to influence the Trump administration, Aliyev termed U.S. policy on Karabakh “balanced” and urged Washington to remain a “neutral” mediator.

Other countries have mirrored Aliyev’s diplomatic reserve.

Azerbaijan’s neighbor, Georgia, which both Biden and Trump visited under former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, has kept largely silent. Arguably Washington’s closest ally in the South Caucasus, Tbilisi now faces a parliamentary boycott by opposition parties who allege fraud in Georgia’s October 31 parliamentary elections. (Officials deny the charge.)

Some Georgian commentators have emphasized the need to adhere to a “bipartisan” approach to the U.S. election and avoid alienating any one side; both of whom as they see as supportive of Georgia’s territorial integrity. In August, the United States Agency for International Development announced a $64-million package for promoting democracy, the Georgian economy, and “countering malign influence.”

The need for such support also plays a role in Ukraine, which played a prominent role in Democrats’ 2019 impeachment of President Trump. The country is now beset by a potential constitutional crisis over a senior court’s attempt to rollback anti-corruption measures.

Noting the U.S.’ bipartisan support for Ukraine in its struggles with Russia over Crimea and breakaway territory in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last month refused to say anything about the Trump-Biden race.

“I'm not playing these minor games which could influence the outcome of the elections in the United States and which in the future might influence what is going on in my country,” he told the BBC.

Other Eurasian leaders would likely agree.

-With additional reporting from BelTA, Bloomberg, Interpressnews, and Reuters