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The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009

It is customary to assert that the past year – in any context - was turbulent and uncertain. But in much of the Caspian region, 2009 was not particularly either of these. Dramatic incidents, such as the Mukhrovani rebellion in Georgia and the Nazran suicide bombing in Ingushetia, were significant but have not affected the region’s course.

A relatively ‘quiet’ year in the Caucasus should not detract from the serious changes that may lie ahead in 2010. The most notable is the triangular relationship between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Next year will be critical: a common refrain ever since the 1994 ceasefire, but this time justified. There are serious implications for the domestic politics of Armenia, and to a lesser extent Turkey. Ankara faces its own challenges with the Kurdish issue, and Georgia must deal with the increasingly permanent reality of South Ossetian and Abkhazian secession.

The rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey has reached critical mass. The protocols which would open the border between them, establish diplomatic relations, and address ‘the historical dimension’ of their relationship are being considered by both countries’ parliaments.

The process is currently in deadlock. Ankara insists that Armenia make progress on withdrawing from the occupied regions of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh, and Yerevan claims that it will not ratify the protocols unless Turkey does so first, within a reasonable timeframe and without linking the ratification to Karabakh (APA, December 24).

There are several possibilities. Armenia may concede that linking the two issues is inevitable, and commit to a full or partial withdrawal pending a full settlement. Turkey itself is unlikely to break the link. Senior officials have spent most of the autumn frantically trying to reassure Baku that the motto of ‘one nation, two states’ still holds true. Reneging on these promises would be politically very difficult.

Ratification may fail, or – less likely - Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian may withdraw from the process under intense domestic political opposition. So far, the opposition has failed to rally around Levon Ter-Petrosian, ex-president and the one man capable of seriously challenging the government. This is unlikely to change: the suspicion with which the nationalist parties regard Mr Ter-Petrosian is too great.

Although regional geopolitics would revert back to their familiar pattern in the event of failure, the amount of political capital invested and lost by the Turkish and Armenian governments would make them look weak internationally. On the other hand, it would shore up their domestic positions if they could blame it on the other party, particularly for President Sarkisian. As the initiator of the thaw, Turkey would have its image as a regional peacemaker damaged, but not irreversibly.

International mediation efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may finally break the deadlock, but the prospects are not encouraging given the Group’s track record in the current process. The only member with the ability to use leverage is Russia, whose geopolitical intentions regarding the rapprochement are still unclear. The most likely outcome is a Russian-led settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under Minsk Group auspices, working closely with Turkey, but there is no guarantee that this will occur in 2010.

The resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will again dominate the foreign political agenda of the government in Azerbaijan, which is obliged to manoeuvre among major regional and global players in order to achieve a conflict settlement that would guarantee the territorial integrity of the country. However, 2010 could offer certain challenges for Azerbaijan’s balanced foreign policy.

Stronger pressure from the West (especially from the US), to acquiesce in the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border without any significant progress on Nagorno-Karabakh, or to make greater concessions on the conflict’s resolution, would inevitably lead to the increased reorientation of Azerbaijan towards Russia. In this case an augmented level of cooperation with Russia, especially in the energy field, could be expected. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan’s participation in certain planned energy and transport projects directly involving Turkey, such as Nabucco and the BTK railway, would be undermined.

Turkey faces the ongoing Kurdish question, which has exposed deep divisions within the ruling elite. After the government made some significant progress on reaching out to the disaffected Kurdish population, the Constitutional Court banned the Kurdish Democratic Society Party, alleging it of links with the militant Kurdish PKK and fomenting separatism. This will severely test the government’s attempts to engage with Kurdish moderates and increase the gulf of suspicion between Turks and Kurds. 2010 may see the failure of the government’s efforts and a return to large-scale violence by the PKK.

For Georgia, 2010 will see the first vote since the war with Russia in August 2008, the Tbilisi mayoral elections. They will be a litmus test for the popularity of President Saakashvili’s UNM party; recent polls indicate that the UNM would lose, explaining its insistence on a new electoral law which requires the winning candidate to gather just 30% of the vote (RFE/RL, December 7). Inevitable splits in the opposition vote will probably guarantee victory for the UNM’s probable candidate, incumbent Gigi Ugulava. Some protests may follow, but – as in Armenia – the opposition is still too divided amongst itself to seriously challenge the government. President Saakashvili will see out 2010 in office.

His more serious priority is re-evaluating Georgia’s approach towards Russia and the ‘independent’ states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This year’s policy, of loud hostility towards Moscow and the regimes in Tshkinvali and Sukhumi, is already fading. The new draft strategy for Tbilisi’s policy towards the separatist provinces is subtitled “Engagement Through Cooperation” and prioritises ‘soft’ measures such as cultural projects and people-to-people contacts (Civil.ge, December 25). This suggests that Tbilisi is gradually coming to acknowledge the loss, despite official rhetoric.

A softer approach towards Russia is also coming into focus, with the re-opening of the land border between the two countries and the possible resumption of direct flights (AFP, December 24). This thaw is set to continue in 2010, although it is probably too optimistic to anticipate a return to diplomatic relations. Russia is confident that Georgia’s NATO ambitions are dormant, partly because it knows that President Obama values Moscow far more than Tbilisi, and therefore has no reason to turn up the pressure for now.

The North Caucasus may become even more violent in 2009 if recent events are any guide. Last year saw the apparent re-activation of the Riyadus Salikhin suicide battalion by the self-styled Emir of the Caucasian Emirate, Dokku Umarov, which has been responsible for several high-profile terrorist attacks. The insurgents are also believed to be behind the attack on the Nevsky Express in late November, which killed 27. This sophisticated out-of-area operation may indicate a planned return to the wave of attacks on metropolitan targets which shook Russia in the early 2000s, which would herald an equivalently violent Russian response.

Next week, this column will address the role of the Euro-Atlantic community in the Caspian region next year, as well as the biggest unknown: the future of Iran.

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