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Hugo Chávez’s Pattern Recognition

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is known for his erratic behavior, but his latest move to extend official recognition to Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia during his visit to Moscow is a bit of a head-scratcher.  In theory, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, as probably the strongest predictor of Chávez’s future behavior is anything perceived to be contrary to U.S. interests.  That includes sometimes illogical policies and relationships, such as red carpet welcomes for Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, cooperation with Iran on missile and nuclear technology, hugs for Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, and tea parties with Coronel Muammar Qaddafi. 

What is strange is that Chávez waited a whole year before joining up with his surrogate state Nicaragua in recognizing the Georgian enclaves.  Consistent with the Russians, the Venezuelan leader stoutly refused to recognize Kosovo back in February 2008, and one could sense that Chávez was eagerly interested in throwing a monkey wrench into Washington’s efforts to challenge Russia’s self-proclaimed sphere of influence.  He also welcomed Moscow’s naval war games in the Caribbean and offered other bellicose rhetoric to his country’s largest trade partner and principal oil refiner.   Comparisons have been drawn between Russia’s presence in Venezuela and Washington’s cooperation in Georgia (though as an imperfect allegory, the provocation largely failed).

So why now do the recognition?  A number of factors have come into play to change the equation, which include Bolivia, Iran, arms, and some big business for state-owned energy companies.


The fact that the Kremlin had only convinced little Nicaragua to endorse the recognition is often cited by observers as evidence of failed diplomacy, weakness of influence, isolation, or paucity of close allies.  I don’t agree with this characterization at all.  For someone like Chávez, this shouldn’t seem like difficult diplomacy, and it some respects, it is a rare expression of restraint that he didn’t just improvise the recognition off the top of his head during one of his all-day Sunday TV programs.

There is the theory that Russia had actually specifically asked Venezuela, Belarus, and company not to extend recognition at the time.  During my last visit to Washington I spoke with a Georgian diplomat who commented that contrary to popular belief, the Kremlin loves law – and if the aim is to eventually formally annex these territories, than it is necessary under Russian law that they become independent states first.  This would explain why Sergei Lavrov sharply rebuked the South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity like an incompetent employee when he said that his brand new country was ready to become part of the Russian Federation.  However, the diplomat told me, there is disagreement within the Kremlin as to what to do about annexing their stolen territory.  Some of those within the power hold have a strong nostalgia for the rebuilding of its physical empire, while others have other visions for the manner in which the new Russia will project its influence.  If Moscow is indeed not interested in annexing the territories in the short term, than the isolation serves them just fine, as by default they gain monopoly access to the economy and coastline of Abkhazia (a fact that the fellows in Sukhumi are not too happy about).

For many other nations, the reluctance to extend recognition to the territories may be based on diplomatic requests from the United States and Europe (in addition, of course, to the whole war and legal precedent issue).  But for Venezuela, this would be a laughable explanation for why Chávez waited a whole year – he is actually specifically looking for different ways to damage relations with his necessary enemy.  Some colleagues of mine who work on these issues in Washington say that the Obama administration’s efforts to reach out to Chávez have been rebuffed, and that the short-lived thaw following the handshake and Galeano book gift-giving at the Summit of the Americas has slipped away.

Again, here is another trend that Caracas shares with Moscow:  both governments see more benefit in the maintenance of tension and conflict with Washington at this juncture to increase their regional leverage.  They don’t want to reset relations just yet.

A more compelling argument about why Venezuela has waited to recognize the enclaves would be that Miraflores was concerned about the political survival of Evo Morales in Bolivia, who has been struggling with his own separatist movement in the region of Santa Cruz.  Much political violence and wide ranging discontent had been flaring up in Bolivia over the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009 related to the country grinding poverty, zero economic growth, and failure to settle questions over the distribution of profits from the natural gas trade.  There was even the bizarre incident of a Bolivian special forces team bursting into a hotel and shooting dead (in their sleep) an Irishman, a Romanian, and a Bolivian of Croatian descent accused of an assassination plot.  The term “civil war” has been used frequently in describing Bolivia’s political troubles in recent years.  However following some controversial crackdowns against separatist leaders combined with the chaotic disorganization of the opposition, Morales is sitting in a much stronger position now as he moves to enact the new “plurinational” constitution and prepare for elections this December.

In the past, there has been talk over how deep or how shallow relations really are between Russia and Venezuela.  Is this a genuine and growing alliance which poses a threat to the Western hemisphere, or just a short moment of convenience and handshakes.  In some respects, the countries are aiming to instrumentalize each other, and could likely leave the other in the lurch is the proper opportunity came up (such is the comparison to Georgia, with Moscow imagining a backroom deal from the U.S. that they pull out of the Caucasus in exchange for Russia pulling back from Venezuela).

Chávez knows this, and it is possible that he held back on the South Ossetia and Abkhazia recognition, seeing it as an ace up his sleeve to play to play for maximum concessions:  herein comes the arms and energy deals.  One day before making his announcement, Russia announced that it would be signing a deal to provide Venezuela with 100 T-72 and T-90 battle tanks for a total of some $500 million.  This transaction is nothing new for the two countries:  Venezuela’s arms purchases have increased by 900% over the last five year period up to a staggering $4.4 billion from Russia, making them the #1 customer. 

However these deals to Venezuela have come under highly increased scrutiny ever since the Swedish government declared that Miraflores had violated its end user agreement of an arms contract, when several Swedish-made AT-4 rocket launchers which had been sold to Venezuela were discovered in a raid on a FARC camp in Colombia.  Over the course of the summer, Chávez’s support for and cooperation with the rebel group has become an open secret, which is tilting at the delicate balance between being an international annoyance and goofball, to becoming a real threat that people need to pay attention to.

Add this trend to the increasing concerns over Venezuela’s close relationship with Iran, and we have the motive and means for a global arms trafficking network generously funded by three petrostates.  In a powerful and important opinion article published in the Wall Street Journal this week, the Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau argued that policies need to be urgently developed to counter an emerging threat from the Venezuela-Iran axis.  His article, which was extensively well informed, points to Venezuela’s role as a banking conduit, uranium provider, and critical manufacturing hub to help Tehran reach its goals. 

The Washington Post ran an editorial the following day, which argues that the U.S. government is not on the same page:  “Mr. Morgenthau’s report was brushed off by the State Department, which is deeply invested in the Chávez-is-no-threat theory.

So withthis relationship in mind, many dots could be connected behind Venezuela’s ploy on the Georgia territories.  Let’s recall the case of the fake pirate attack on the allegedly smuggling freighter The Arctic Sea, which was widely assumed to be carrying illegal arms from Russia to Iran (though that story is far from clear cut).  Then we had the mysterious secret visit of Israeli PM Bejamin Netanyahu to Moscow (just a few days before Chávez arrived) to lobby the Russians not to deliver the S-300 missile system to Iran.  The visit looked like it backfired, as Russia vocally objected to any sanctions or measures against Iran, while Chávez went fishing for more Arab support by calling Israel a genocidal state (read more here about the rise of state-sponsored antisemitism in Venezuela).

Lastly, Chávez’s long, magical mystery tour, which wrapped up in protests today in Spain, was largely about disrupting energy markets.  Although Venezuela boasts 174.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gasreserves, the largest in South America, oil is its main game, and it has never been a big producer (they even import from Colombia).  Nevertheless, Chávez appointed himself as one of the lead organizers of the emerging gas OPEC, making stops in major supply countries such as Algeria, Libya, Iran, and Turkmenistan.  Upon meeting President GurbangulyBerdymukhammedov, the Venezuelan president excitedly proposed that Turkmenistan join up in the gas cartel as soon as possible.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that the Venezuelan leader concluded his tour by announcing that an offshore gas field that had recently been discovered along with Italy’s Eni and Spain’s Repsol may contain some 8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

Before leaving Moscow, as may have been expected, Venezuela and Russia wrapped up with a large raft of energy deals.  The state firm (and personal piggy bank) PDVSA doled out production licenses to TNK-BP, Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, and Surgutneftegaz for 235 billion barrels in the Orinoco Belt.  The deal had the fingerprints of Rosneft Chair and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin all over it, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Venezuela, practicing his Spanish from his KGB days in Africa.

So perhaps we had better not overthink.  Perhaps more important than friends in Bolivia, poking Obama in the eye, or power moves on the global stage is the simple cost of doing business.  With the soaring level of mutually interdependent corruption going on between these two corporate-oriented governments, recognizing these territories may have just been the simple cost of doing business.  Sechin may have finally called in his favor.

All I can tell you is that the actual issues at stake inside Georgia, or the legal precedence of separatism, is one of the only things not factoring in consideration here.

Photo credit: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) hugs Russian Premier VladimirPutin on September 10, 2009 at Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow,during their meeting. Chavez was to discuss major arms and energyagreements with the Kremlin after he kicked off his trip to Moscow witha trademark anti-US tirade. Chavez said his country would immediatelyrecognise the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetiaas independent. (Getty Images)