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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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