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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.

Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008

On the 1st October, EU monitors began their observation mission in the ‘buffer zones’ surrounding Georgia and Abkhazia. Although Russian forces have been withdrawing from checkpoints in the buffer zones, and are due to have fully withdrawn by October 10, it is clear that the process is being undertaken to Russia’s rules. For one thing, they initially refused to allow some of the monitors to enter the border zone, citing security issues. For similar reasons, Moscow has refused the monitors any access to Abkhazia or South Ossetia itself. This is concerning, given the fact that Russia is basing 3,500 troops in each enclave and has allegedly stockpiled heavy weapons there, including SS-21 missiles which can reach Tbilisi. The EU force is therefore unable to check on Russian military build-ups or, more importantly, the situation of Georgian civilians and property remaining within South Ossetia and on the border. It is also entirely without a mandate to protect civilians from South Ossetian militias or Russian forces. Both of these are elements of the six-point ceasefire plan agreed in August. Admittedly, attempting to push the Kremlin to accept any of these sticking points would just have delayed the deployment of the force for even longer, so the current mission is certainly better than nothing, but it will certainly not tackle the roots of the conflict.

Russia has insisted that any discussions on monitoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or on future questions of status, must include the regions themselves. Evidently, this is unacceptable to Georgia and the EU, so the next step is unclear. Indeed, there may be no ‘next step’ in any meaningful sense, at least not for some time. Russia, and by implication the two provinces, hold all the cards and have no reason to change the status quo. Abkhazia and South Ossetia appear to be quite happy so far with their new status as protectorates of the Kremlin; Russia itself would have nothing to gain and everything to lose by backing down.

The possibility of using other levers, for instance gas imports from Russia or a softer line on NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, could not realistically be introduced into the discussion - such a ‘grand bargain’ may in practice be the only way to ensure some Russian compliance, but it would be an immensely difficult pact to strike. With the Bush Administration fading and the world gripped by a financial meltdown, the timing is not exactly auspicious. Indeed, the financial crisis has added a new element of uncertainty into the situation. With banks collapsing daily and the mid-term economic forecast bleak, neither Europe nor Russia is in any state to begin using economic levers on each other.

It is likely, in fact, that we will see a similar situation emerging in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as now exists in Karabakh - total deadlock. A lasting, permanent peace process in Georgia is even less guaranteed, paradoxically because of the presence of a substantial on-ground EU and OSCE mission. With the observers in place, the chances of a large-scale return to conflict are slim. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the point in September when he stressed that "any provocations from now on will be provocations against the European Union”. But the introduction of this structure into the situation will allow Georgian hopes of territorial integrity, however dim, to remain alive. The game is no longer about military capacity but diplomatic wrangling - Tbilisi will certainly prefer the latter (given the weight of international law and opinion), and the arguments will go on and on. The peace process will get tangled up in the gum of technical issues, implementation, modalities, appropriate stages, and so on; that are all too evident in Karabakh.

Georgia’s hands are tied by the international community and by President Saakashvili’s unstable domestic position - Azerbaijan’s are not. There is no permanent international monitoring force along the Line of Contact in Karabakh; monitoring of ceasefire violations or force build-ups is impossible on a long-term basis. OSCE observations are rare enough to make it onto Azeri news websites. The issue of confidence is also critical. Georgia knows all too well that Russian forces could pummel its already-damaged military in the space of a few days in a renewed encounter. However, neither Azerbaijan, nor Armenia, nor even the separatist Karabakh forces have a similar recent experience to base their capability assessments on. Azerbaijan’s huge defence budget, Armenia’s Russian hardware and Karabakh’s mountainous terrain give confidence to the three sides, and in the event of a new confrontation neither would be therefore willing to back down. In that sense the risks of war are certainly higher than in Georgia, but so, in the aftermath of any such conflict, are the chances of one side being forced to make significant concessions and draw a line under the process.

The discussions about whether Abkhazia and South Ossetia are precedents for Nagorno Karabakh obscure another point - that Karabakh is, in a way, a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The issue will dominate domestic Georgian politics, even more so than before, as is the case in Azerbaijan and, particularly, Armenia. It will generate a high level of international commitment, but one which is unable to make concrete institutional progress because of the risks of including conflict-ridden states, although admittedly neither Baku nor Yerevan has seen as much interest in NATO as Tbilisi. It will continue to skew defence budgets - this is even the case for Russia, whose vast military and nuclear arsenal did not stop Prime Minister Putin ordering a boost in next year’s defence budget to ensure strong armed forces in the light of the Georgian war. And it will continue to warp the geopolitical map as investors think twice about using Georgia as a transit route, similar to Armenia’s exclusion from the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline on political grounds.

The outlook is hardly encouraging. The Georgian peace process will be extremely difficult, in part because of the locked-in diplomatic framework discussed above and partly because for both Russia and the West the conflict is about much more than just the provinces; it is about the future of relations and the future of NATO. Getting a peace deal worked out will only happen when much bigger problems have been resolved. And even this may not be enough. Karabakh is less representative of this grand struggle between Russia and the West, and both sides seem more genuine about their efforts to solve it; but all negotiations there have failed on the rocks of the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. In this regard, there is little reason to think that Georgia will be any different.

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