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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.

Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008

This week the Caucasus was still feeling the aftershocks of the Georgian war, and the temptation to assess all recent events in the context of the conflict is unavoidable. Insofar as it has shaken up (although not redrawn) the geopolitical map, this temptation is also generally justified.

On September 6, Turkish President Abdullah Gul made a diplomatic breakthrough when he visited Armenia to watch a football match between the two countries in Yerevan. The decision heralds a thaw in relations between the two states, which have had no diplomatic ties since the 1990s as Turkey closed borders as a protest against the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenia. Turkey’s insistence that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 did not, as Yerevan claims, constitute genocide, and the following campaign of the Armenian diaspora worldwide to pass legislation in the parliaments of different countries recognizing the said mass killings as genocide have also contributed to the frozen relations between the two states

Although the World Cup qualifier had been planned in advance, and it had been speculated that President Gul would attend, his meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian was nonetheless auspicious in its timing. The Georgian war highlighted the fragility of the Caucasus and emboldened Turkey to propose a ‘Caucasus Stability and Co-operation Platform’. Scepticism about the project may fade in light of the determination, expressed in a joint statement by their respective foreign ministers, to restore Turkish-Armenian bilateral relations.

Nonetheless, hopes should not be raised too much. A thaw in bilateral relations would not solve the problems of the Caucasus at a stroke, even if it managed to bypass domestic opposition in both states - much will continue to depend on Azerbaijan’s approach to the issue and Ankara’s policy regarding its ally in Baku. Azerbaijan’s official reaction to Turkey’s diplomatic moves has been muted; the visit to Turkey was simply described as a ‘domestic matter’. President Gul intends to travel to Baku in September, and Turkey has been careful to reassure Azerbaijan that the visit to Yerevan does not alter its approach to Karabakh. This will necessarily put limits on any regional security platform, and indicates the difficulty Turkey will face in balancing its desire to develop its relations with Armenia with its obligations to Azerbaijan‘s security. Ankara’s plan for détente is very unlikely to alter Baku’s policy on Karabakh whilst the energy wealth is still rolling in.

Azerbaijan’s confidence was boosted further this week by the visit of US Vice President Dick Cheney. Baku was the first stop on Cheney’s tour of US allies in the region, intended as a show of Washington’s support in the face of what he called Russia’s “brute force”. Cheney declared that America was strongly committed to the security of Azerbaijan, a statement which refers in large part to Washington’s interest in regional energy security. The Georgian war has illustrated for America the fragility of the system which brings Caspian oil and gas to the West, even if the system managed to survive the conflict intact.

Vice President Cheney hinted that Washington would commit itself more thoroughly to a trans-Caspian gas pipeline when he said that “we must work with Azerbaijan and other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia on additional routes for energy exports”. A trans-Caspian pipeline would be stridently opposed by Moscow and Tehran, neither of which would be happy to see Central Asian energy bypassing their territory. More pressure from Washington on the project would probably be unwelcome in Baku as well, which is already attempting to balance itself between America and Russia and, so far, succeeding quite well.

Cheney’s next stop was to Tbilisi, where he reiterated US support of Georgia and its eventual membership of NATO. The day before (September 3), President Bush had authorised an additional $1 billion of aid to Georgia, and US warships continued to dock at the country’s Black Sea ports to unload humanitarian assistance not far from Russian troops. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stated that there “will be an answer” to NATO’s naval buildup, although it is unclear what this would involve.

None of this is anything markedly different from previous weeks. The US continues to pour aid in, Russia withdraws at a glacial pace whilst denouncing the Georgian government, and the EU essentially prevaricates. Its September 1 emergency summit on Georgia achieved a limited show of unity by condemning Russian actions, but stopped short of imposing even token sanctions. Moscow’s refusal to fully comply with the six-point ceasefire plan devised by President Sarkozy (acting as head of the EU) has frustrated Brussels, and has led to the suspension of talks on a new EU-Russia pact, but this has not caused much concern in the Kremlin. President Sarkozy will travel to Moscow on September 8 in an attempt to persuade Russia to withdraw its troops, but it seems clear that Russia will not be persuaded to act to any timetable except its own.

The EU should, perhaps, take lessons in unity from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a security grouping comprising seven former Soviet states which, on September 5, issued a unanimous statement heavily criticising Georgia (it, and Azerbaijan, are not members, although Armenia is) but essentially ignoring Russia’s role in the crisis. Armenia has so far been muted on the Georgian war, since it relies heavily on Georgia as an access route to the outside world. Therefore the fact that it fell in line with other CSTO members and adopted the statement speaks more about Russian leverage - over both Armenia and the CSTO - than it does about Armenia’s serious hostility towards Georgia. Yerevan has its own problems to worry about. It is unlikely that it would want to undo the benefits of its ‘soccer diplomacy’ by making an enemy out of Georgia - especially since, despite the newly improved relationship, the Turkish blockade is not going away anytime soon.

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