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Bush administration’s Georgia ties complicate possible Baku appointment

Bush administration’s Georgia ties complicate possible Baku appointment

Two Washington Russia hands tell The Cable that a senior State Department official who liaised intensively with the Georgian leadership, including during the Russian-Georgian conflict last summer, is being recommended by supporters as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan.

They express some concern that the appointment of Matthew Bryza, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs, as Washington’s man in Baku might potentially put a wrinkle in Obama’s efforts to "reset" relations with Russia and send mixed signals about the kind of relationship he is trying to build.

But an associate close to Bryza says it is inaccurate that Moscow would perceive him as hostile or too close to Tbilisi, and noted that Bryza has strong and positive relationships with Russian officials. Bryza has a strong record in pressing the Georgian government hard not to even think about using force, the associate said on condition of anonymity. 

Bryza, a career Foreign Service officer who previously served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, was an NSC director on Europe during Bush’s first term, and served as the deputy to Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Daniel Fried during Bush’s second term. The two Washington Russia hands said they were told that Fried, now the U.S. ambassador at large on Guantánamo detainee issues, was recommending Bryza for the Baku envoy appointment, and had recently raised the matter with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Fried and Bryza declined to comment.

Clinton "makes her own decisions and not based on any single person’s recommendation," an administration official said on condition of anonymity.

Bryza was seen as having gone "beyond what someone in his position would usually do" in showing support for Mikheil Saakashvili in the run-up and during the Georgian-Russian conflict last summer, a former senior Clinton administration official said. "Not so much by what he said," but with "frequent public demonstrations that he was" close to the Georgian president.

But Bryza was also representing the preferences of the administration he then served, the former official acknowledged. "A lot of people in the U.S. government have responsibility for the aggressiveness of Georgia last summer and the mistaken belief there that the U.S. was going to come to their support" more than it did, the former official said.

Among the concerns would be the potential scuttling of a Russian-proposed plan for U.S.-Russian cooperation on a radar site in Azerbaijan, the former official said. Azerbaijan carefully modulates its behavior toward Moscow, tilting toward the West while taking care not to provoke Russian ire.

"He is very close to the Georgians, even for our administration," a former Bush administration foreign-policy hand said of Bryza. "It wouldn’t surprise me if he was paying a price now for his service during the Bush administration."

It would be a mistake to pick officials based on whether it pleases Moscow, the current administration official countered. "We should not make choices about ambassadors to third countries based principally on Russian sensitivities," he said, on condition of anonymity. "They don’t own their former empire. We don’t conduct our relations with Baku through Moscow. We have to work with Russia and understand their concerns. But to understand is not to give them veto power over other countries or [over] our relations with other countries."

Sources worried about Moscow’s opinions on the Baku appointment, he continued, "obviously don’t understand what Obama is trying to do with Russia. There is no Russian sphere of influence that we will recognize."

In other former East bloc appointments, current U.S. ambassador to Georgia John Tefft is in the mix for U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. And the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, Nancy McEldowney, is going to be named principal deputy assistant secretary to Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon. Both career FSOs are very well regarded, the former Clinton administration official said.