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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009

2008 was, without doubt, a dramatic year in the Caucasus. The sight of Russian tanks rolling into South Ossetia is the most obvious example, but the August war should not obscure the region’s other, less headline-grabbing developments. The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, the slow slide of the North Caucasian republic of Ingushetia into chaos, and the post-election bloodshed in Yerevan in early March (amongst others) were all, in different ways, very significant. Will 2009 be so dramatic? Accepting in advance the futility of predictions – hardly anyone saw the Russia-Georgia war coming in January 2008 – the Caucasian Review of International Affairs presents a tentative assessment of the year ahead.

Firstly, and perhaps most unpredictably, Georgia. The security situation in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains volatile – shootings and ceasefire violations are common. We can expect this state of affairs to settle down, but certainly not become stable in any real sense. Russia blocked an extension of the OSCE’s 16 year old monitoring mission on December 22, insisting that the organisation must maintain a separate office for the ‘independent’ region of South Ossetia. The withdrawal of these monitors, and the possible expulsion of UN observers after their mandate expires in February, will undermine the already precarious security situation and make it almost impossible to verify the military situation in the provinces. In this context, the resettlement of refugees will remain a distant prospect for most of the year.

Progress on settling refugees within Georgia itself will hinge largely on Georgian domestic politics. As previous Caucasus Updates have noted, President Saakashvili’s position is increasingly precarious in the face of gathering political opposition. He has recently made efforts to deflect accusations of authoritarianism, but calls for early elections are likely to continue. Popular anger, boosted by the worsening effects of the economic crisis, may manifest itself as large-scale street protests, raising the spectre of further state crackdowns and a new cycle of political uncertainty. A change of government in Tbilisi is a very plausible development in 2009. Amidst all this, an upcoming security pact with the US is one of the few reasons for President Saakashvili to be cheerful. However, as David Kakabadze at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes, the pact is non-binding, and therefore not enormously useful as a shield against Russia.

The other big question in the Caucasus is Nagorno-Karabakh. The Moscow Declaration of early November was arguably lacking in concrete proposals, but it was symbolically significant as the first joint declaration by the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders since the cease-fire agreement of 1994. Peace is still a long way off, but war is fairly unlikely in 2009. A continuation of the thaw in relations between Turkey - Azerbaijan’s strongest backer - and Armenia may persuade Baku to make a deal sooner rather than later, whilst international commitment remains high and it can secure a relatively beneficial resolution. To be sure, this thaw is not guaranteed, and in any case Azerbaijan may simply ignore Turkey’s change in position. Despite the opportunities provided by renewed world attention, 2009 may well be no different to 2008, or any other year since 1994. A key factor in any change will be Armenia’s domestic scene.

Political instability in Yerevan will continue to simmer, exacerbated by the world recession. The grievances of opposition figures, notably Levon Ter-Petrosian, will remain. Rapid progress towards any Karabakh resolution, or a deal with Turkey, deemed too soft by the nationalist opposition will galvanise public sentiment against the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian, already on the back foot over the post-election violence last year and a faltering economy.

As far as pipeline politics are concerned, 2009 should see some concrete progress finally being made on the Nabucco project to bring Caspian gas to Europe. The gas row between Ukraine and Russia has highlighted, yet again, the EU’s vulnerability to Russian energy policy, which should serve as a wake-up call. However, given that the hyper-energetic President Sarkozy of France could not push through a unified approach to Nabucco during his time in the rotating EU presidency, it is unlikely that Vaclav Klaus – the abrasive, Eurosceptic Czech leader and the new EU president from January 1 – will be able to. The principal obstacle will be enticing Turkmenistan into formal negotiations on supplying the project. This courtship, along with ongoing efforts to establish a supply corridor to NATO’s Afghan operations through Turkmen territory, should make 2009 President Berdimuhammedov’s year, with an unprecedented level of international attention paid to his country. Broader EU policy towards the region is likely to remain patchy. The Union’s monitoring mission in Georgia (EUMM) is due to remain until October 2009, although in light of their limited access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, their ability to keep the peace is strictly limited. A new flare-up of violence would severely test the commitment of the EU to the ceasefire in Georgia.

Turkey’s course in 2009 is likely to be similar to 2008: political and economic deadlock at home, an increasingly successful foreign policy abroad. In 2009 and 2010 Ankara will sit on the UN Security Council (with a chairmanship in June 2009), where it is expected to push for greater dialogue in the Middle East and also, perhaps, the Caucasus. It will vocally lobby for its Caucasus Stability and Co-operation Platform (CSCP), a suggested dialogue mechanism which may be formally signed in early 2009. One should not expect too much from the Platform. If any progress is made on Karabakh it will be through the Minsk Group; on Georgia, through the EU and potentially the US. CSCP’s main role will probably be to institutionalise the Turkish-Armenian thaw.

However, a diplomatic breakthrough here risks provoking a nationalist backlash at home, which could feed into the wider struggle between secularists (represented by the army) and the ruling ex-Islamist AK Party. Any such backlash would force the government to slow down the process – it is entirely conceivable that Turkish-Armenian relations could fall back into deep freeze in 2009. On the economic front, the International Monetary Fund is expected to approve a $25 billion loan to Ankara in early January. This will help to stabilise the economy somewhat, although the country will remain highly vulnerable to further financial shocks.

Drawing a tentative conclusion from the above, we can predict a year of problems (potential disorder in Georgia; rising nationalism in Armenia and Turkey) and opportunities (Nabucco; Turkey’s CSCP). In truth such predictions are shots in the dark. Focusing on the core issues leads one to exclude possibilities which at the time seem remote and implausible – state collapse in Central Asia? Secessionism amongst Iranian Azerbaijanis? A surge in regional terrorism? As is so often the case, the region’s only certainty is its uncertainty.

Next week’s Update will look forward to the biggest issue of the year – the America-Russia-Iran triangle. 2009 looks to be a make-or break year in the Moscow-Tehran axis, and the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House could radically change the rules of the geopolitical game.



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PREVIOUS ISSUES

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
  China and Central Asia, CU Issue 33, May 19, 2009
  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
       
 
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