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What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009

On August 8, it will be a year since the fighting around South Ossetia intensified into a full-out war between Russia and Georgia. With the anniversary of this geopolitical earthquake approaching, what has changed in the Caucasus since?

Surprisingly, not much. Certainly, not a lot considering the predictions that many commentators made at the time: The conflict was the biggest threat to world peace since the end of the Cold War. It was “the week that buried the new world order”, as the first attempt to change borders in recent European history (The Guardian, August 31 2008). The Caucasus had become “the new battleground between world powers” (a point of view which seemed to ignore the past few hundred years (The Times, August 30, 2008)). The motif that recurs most often is that of a crossroads, a rupture, an irrevocable break in relations between Moscow and the West.

A year later, it would be fair to say that business as usual has been resumed between Russia and Western leaders, in both Brussels and Washington. Tensions persist, but most of these points of contention were there before the August war. NATO expansion had been a source of irritation to Vladimir Putin for years: so had ballistic missile defences in Eastern Europe, and oil and gas routes which bypassed Russian soil. In fact, as the Economist argued in early July, the 2003 war in Iraq was “the real breaking-point” in US-Russia relations (Economist, July 2), demonstrating America’s willingness to act unilaterally without even consulting Russia.

So problems in the Moscow-Washington relationship (and much the same can be said of the EU) were not new; neither was the need to work around them. President Obama’s visit to Moscow was just the most obvious example of ‘resetting’ ties with the Kremlin. This may have pained pro-Western leaders in Kiev and Tbilisi, who were slightly reassured by Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent blunt messages, but the need to secure Russian assistance on Afghanistan and Iran was far more important than Ukraine or Georgia. After the initial fury over the August war had died down, who could be surprised by this?

In Georgia itself, few would have thought a year ago that President Saakashvili would still be in power, still trading barbs with the Russian leadership and still insisting that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be re-integrated (RFE/RL, July 26). He owes his survival to, chiefly, the incompetent and divided opposition movement, as well as the calculation by Russia that overthrowing him would be too much trouble. Constant tension in the border zones around Abkhazia and South Ossetia – both sides traded accusations of shelling in late July (Bloomberg, August 1) – should not detract from the lack of any major clashes since the end of the war. This miracle is attributable, firstly, to Russia’s lack of interest in a new war; secondly, to the much-maligned EU observers there. Even if the monitors have been powerless to influence Russia and its local proxies, they have certainly helped to hold back Saakashvili. This should be recognised.

Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states was expected to open a hornet’s nest of ethnic separatism in the North Caucasus, as secessionists demanded the same treatment given to their cousins just across the border (NY Times, September 10 2008). A year on, this has not happened. The insurgency in Chechnya and Ingushetia remains brutal and unmanageable, but there is no serious indication that Russia’s actions in Georgia are responsible. The violence there is no longer much of an independence struggle, but part of a wider religious battle, fuelled by poverty and repression. It continues on its downwards spiral, regardless of the outside context.

Armenia and Azerbaijan remain locked in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Here, as elsewhere, the last year has been marked by inactivity. The war in Georgia, demonstrating Russia’s willingness to militarily intervene if war broke out in the South Caucasus, appeared to make both sides more wary of a new round of fighting. Although there has been no large-scale fighting, this is hardly progress from the previous stalemate. The high-profile Moscow Declaration, in November, was portrayed as a success for the Kremlin’s strong-arm diplomacy: it turned out to be hot air. Subsequent meetings between Presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev have made achingly slow progress towards a resolution, the broad outlines of which had been known for some time before the August war. The diplomatic traffic between the two sides has increased over the last year, to be sure, but there has been no breakthrough.

Much of that traffic is attributable to Turkey’s drive to thaw relations with Armenia, a drive which began in early September 2008 and culminated with rumours of a ‘road map to peace’ in April. Although planned in advance of the August war, the ‘football diplomacy’ which began the rapprochement was part of a wider post-war attempt by Ankara to reduce regional tensions. Improved relations with Armenia seem closer than ever before – this progress, a direct result of the August war, should not be underestimated.

But for now, the border is still closed. Turkey’s much-hyped ‘Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform’ has failed to materialise in any meaningful way. There have been some technical meetings of experts from the five countries involved (Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia), but these have not achieved much. It is fanciful to argue, as one Turkish analyst connected with the Platform did recently, that the initiative has triggered an acceleration of the Karabakh peace process (Sundays Zaman, August 2). Disputes between Baku and Yerevan, and Moscow and Tbilisi, still cripple any multilateral peace-building efforts.

There are other longstanding dynamics in the Caucasus which have not significantly changed. The Nabucco project is still struggling, although keeping it alive at all has been something of a miracle. The Caspian has still not been satisfactorily divided up between the littoral states. Turkmenistan’s renewed claims to certain oil fields in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea create additional obstacles for the Nabucco project. Iran’s warm relationship with Armenia and the latest intensification of the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have contributed to arguments between Baku and Tehran.

The August war was indeed a geopolitical crisis on a rare scale. But any long-sighted analysis of the region reveals that the conflict did not come out of nowhere. It was merely the low point of the festering relationship between Russia and Georgia, which has been worsening since 1991 (if not earlier). In this regard, the lack of subsequent change in the Caucasus is not surprising. The region’s volatility is, ironically, the one reliable constant. Most of the disputes are so deeply ingrained that a short, bloody war was simply not enough to remove them. In another year’s time, it is worth betting that most of the conflicts and rivalries will still be rumbling along.

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