How do you do foreign affairs when nobody recognises your country? Plus: why the US is in the year of the infallible mayor.
“Some American senators recently invited me to a breakfast with president Donald Trump,” says Abkhazia’s foreign minister Daur Kove. “But then the State Department rejected my visa.” For most senior diplomats this would represent a major international incident. But for the foreign minister of a separatist region in the Caucasus, visa denials come with the territory.
Abkhazia broke away from Georgia during a brutal conflict in the early 1990s. Aged 13 at the time, Kove volunteered in a hospital to treat the wounded and then watched his country disappear into isolation as the international community imposed sanctions. The picturesque Black Sea territory was formally recognised by Moscow in 2008. The western view of Abkhazia is that it’s a Russian-controlled puppet state; while the minister is dismissive of the idea, he concedes that Russia is overwhelmingly his government’s primary partner.
Kove’s wish to transform partial recognition into actual statehood is no easy task. Many Georgians fled Abkhazia during the conflict and allege that ethnic cleansing took place; the war is frozen rather than over. Meanwhile, Russia has several thousand troops posted close to Abkhazia’s capital and western politicians decry the Russian “occupation and militarisation” of the region, as then-US secretary of state John Kerry once put it.
Many foreign ministries won’t talk to Kove and his team. So Abkhazia has to be creative about diplomacy: cultural exchanges and exercises in image-building. Since assuming office last year, Kove has been lobbying for recognition. But his budget remains limited, dependent on Russian aid. “I travel economy,” says the minister.
Bill de Blasio will be fighting hard this month to stay in office. The mayor of New York has been surrounded by corruption scandals, has squabbled with his state’s governor and presided over a series of mass-transit failures. Yet on 7 November he is likely to win a second term by a landslide.
Similar dynamics are at work in Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, where city hall appears to be insulated from the anti-establishment attitudes roiling US politics. In LA, mayor Eric Garcetti won more than 80 per cent of the vote this spring against token opposition. First-time candidates may be rushing to run for Congress, while celebrities and Fortune 500 CEOs speculate about running for president, but most big-city bosses should waltz to easy re-elections. “Why take on someone who still has a strong base of support and who isn’t patently unpopular?” says Jason McGrath, a pollster who worked for Chicago’s two-term mayor Rahm Emanuel. “The price for guessing wrong can be enormous.”
As the US economy shows mixed results and violent-crime rates tick upward, few mayors are getting the blame. Instead many are seeing their fortunes rise by contrast with Donald Trump, who may give voters second thoughts about electing outsiders.
Days after Trump boasted that “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”, Pittsburgh’s mayor Bill Peduto joined nearly 100 other mayors who pledged to stick with the Paris Climate Accord goals even if the White House withdrew. This month, as he seeks a second term, Peduto will be the only candidate on the ballot paper.