By Joshua Kucera*
When Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili visited Washington in early May and met with United States President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other senior officials, it was billed as a reaffirmation of the US’s strong support for Georgia from the new administration.
“We received strong assurances of positive partnership from the US in every direction,” Kvirikashvili said on May 9. “The US, as Georgia’s major strategic partner, will continue supporting Georgia, and these relations will only grow stronger.”
But behind the scenes, the White House was preparing a budget that would slash spending for that partnership by more than half. According to budget documents released on May 23, funding for US State Department programs in Georgia would be cut from $80.6 million this year to $34.1 million in 2018. Nearly all of Georgia’s military aid would be cut; programs under the rubric of “Governing Justly and Democratically” would be reduced by 60 percent; and those under “Economic Growth” by 37 percent.
Georgia is not the only country to be so affected: if the proposed budget were to pass, spending on the Caucasus and Central Asia would be slashed by more than half, from $218.1 million in 2016 to $93.1 million in 2018.
The budget must be approved by Congress, and several members have already expressed alarm at the deep cuts – which affect not only Eurasia but much of the rest of the world as well – and so the final budget will likely restore many of the White House’s proposed cuts. Nevertheless, the proposal provides a vivid view of the new administration’s intentions, which are being closely watched around the region.
“It’s not good for the region, it’s not good for US relations with the region,” said Paul Stronski, a former State Department and White House official dealing with Eurasia and now senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC, think tank. “This is a time when China and Russia are both very active there, and it looks like we’re disengaging,” Stronski told EurasiaNet.org.
Kyrgyzstan, the second-largest recipient of US programs in the region behind Georgia, would see its programming cut from $48.4 million to $17.5 million. Programs in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan would be almost completely eliminated.
In the scope of the total $37.6 billion foreign affairs budget, the amount cut for the Caucasus and Central Asia is “peanuts,” said Luke Coffey, Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Washington, DC, think tank The Heritage Foundation. “Even so, this aid often provided good bang for the buck for US interests in the region,” Coffey told EurasiaNet.org. “At a time when countries like Russia, China, and in some cases even Iran, are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, it is very shortsighted for the US to slash spending in the region in such a draconian manner.”
Some of the largest cuts would come in military aid. The Foreign Military Financing program, through which the US gives money for countries to buy American military equipment, is eliminated for nearly every country around the world, cutting about $900 million in aid. (The exceptions are the four largest recipients – Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Pakistan – who will receive $4.85 billion from the program.) Under the proposal, the State Department would have a new program to replace FMF money with a budget of about $200 million to use at its discretion for countries around the world.
Georgia was the largest recipient of State Department military aid in 2016, receiving $30 million in FMF funding, which would be reduced to zero in 2018 under the proposed budget.
“Cutting funds of course is not a good thing, particularly on bilateral military programs,” said Batu Kutelia, former Georgian ambassador to the US and now vice president at the Atlantic Council of Georgia. But he said he is waiting for more information to determine the potential impact, “particularly if these cuts are or will be compensated by some other bilateral arrangements (on economy, defense and security, or democracy),” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Military aid programs operated by the Pentagon, however, appear to be relatively untouched in the new budget, and it is those programs that have provided the bulk of military aid in countries like Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The only country in the region to see an increase in State Department funding would be Uzbekistan, where the budget would grow slightly, from $10.1 million in 2016 to $10.6 million in 2018. “There’s a new government in Uzbekistan and I think there are some expectations here in the United States that it is more reform-minded, and more willing to work with its neighbors,” Stronski said. “So it’s a more hopeful time for Uzbekistan.”
Stronski said that the proposed budget was of a piece with the apparent disinterest in the region by the new administration. “I don’t think we’re seeing a whole lot of strategic thinking about this region. That shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s never been a priority region for the US,” he said. The US is still unclear about its policies toward greater foreign policy priorities, most notably Russia, and policies toward the Caucasus and Central Asia are likely to follow from that. “When we know what the policy toward China is, toward Afghanistan is, toward Iran is, toward Russia is, then we’ll have a greater sense of where this region is,” Stronski said.
*Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet.org, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul.