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2005 In Review: Conflicts In Caucasus Still Characterized By Gridlock

Armenian President Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Aliyev actually met face-to-face in Kazan in August (AFP) Little visible progress was made in 2005 toward resolving any of the Caucasus's seemingly intractable ethno-territorial conflicts. On the contrary, some of the protagonists are making substantial increases to their military budgets for 2006.

Prague, 12 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh saw little movement in 2005. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group has sought since 1992 to mediate a settlement to that conflict. The group met on four occasions (in January, April, June, and December) with the two countries' foreign ministers, Vartan Oskanian (Armenia) and Elmar Mammadyarov (Azerbaijan).

Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, met in Warsaw in May and Kazan in August to discuss points on which the foreign ministers had reportedly reached provisional agreement.

Nagorno-Karabakh, an exclave within Azerbaijan, is predominantly ethnic Armenian. The local Armenian population asked the Soviet leadership in February 1988 to transfer the region to Armenia, triggering an exodus of the Azerbaijani population.

Following the unilateral 1991 declaration of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan, hitherto sporadic fighting escalated into a full-fledged war in which Armenian forces took control of swathes of neighboring Azerbaijani territory.

The three sides -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic -- signed a cease-fire agreement in May 1994.

The exact details of this year's talks have been unclear, despite leaks and subsequent denials. The most contentious issues are the final status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the timeframe for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the regions of Azerbaijan bordering the republic, and, in the event of a troop withdrawal, what countries or organizations could provide peacekeepers to be deployed on those territories.

The Minsk Group has repeatedly warned that any peace agreement will inevitably require major concessions from both countries.

However, with parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan in November, the Baku authorities were understandably reluctant to agree to any concessions.

Neither side is slowing down on defense spending, either.

Azerbaijani President Aliyev has stressed repeatedly that Baku reserves the right to resort to military force if it proves impossible to reach a negotiated end to the conflict. On Army Day, 25 June, he told military cadets that Azerbaijan's defense spending had increased from $175 million in 2004 to $300 million in 2005. And meeting in early September with residents of Lenkoran in southeastern Azerbaijan, he announced that defense spending would double in 2006, to $600 million.

Yerevan was apparently neither intimidated nor impressed by such threats. Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian commented in October that the Azerbaijani leadership gives the impression of being "drunk on petrodollars." But Armenia has nonetheless factored an increase in defense spending into its budget for 2006.

With the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan over, and no national election due next year in either Armenia or Azerbaijan, mediators are more optimistic at the prospects for a Karabakh peace settlement in 2006.

South Ossetia

The impasse in Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia has also continued. The region is widely regarded as a hotbed of smuggling and other criminal activities. Currently, Russia, Georgia, and North and South Ossetia jointly police the conflict zone under the aegis of the OSCE.

On 29 September, the region erupted into violence when unidentified perpetrators subjected the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, to mortar fire from a neighboring Georgian-populated village, injuring 10 people.

Georgia in 2005 unveiled three successive revisions (in January, August, and October) of the peace plan for South Ossetia that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili first presented to the UN General Assembly in September 2004.

But the leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia rejected all three overtures.

Tbilisi is now seeking to secure a greater role for the international community, which has expressed support for Saakashvili's peace proposals, in monitoring the situation in the South Ossetia.

Tbilisi has accused the Russian peacekeepers deployed there of turning a blind eye to abductions and arms and drug smuggling. Moscow and the South Ossetian leadership, however, have rejected Georgia's proposal to include the United States and European Union into the existing peacekeeping arrangement.

While Saakashvili has concentrated his diplomatic offensive primarily on forcing a solution to the South Ossetian conflict, it has been left largely to the United Nations to continue the search for a solution to the Abkhaz conflict.

The Abkhaz minority on Georgia's Black Sea coast complained for decades of discrimination at the hands of the Georgians, who sent troops into the region in August 1992, triggering a war in which Russia backed the Abkhaz. After 13 months of fighting, the Georgian military retreated, and most non-Abkhaz, including some 250,000 Georgians, fled Abkhazia.

In August, the UN mediated talks in Sukhum between Georgian and Abkhaz government officials on security issues for the non-resumption of activities and confidence-building measures in the conflict zone.

Sergei Bagapsh, who was elected Abkhaz president in a repeat election in January, has sent mixed signals. He has repeatedly stressed that Abkhazia's self-proclaimed but unrecognized independence is not negotiable. And he has said he regards Russia as Abkhazia's key ally and partner.

At the same time, Bagapsh has signaled a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach to economic cooperation with Georgia. He has also seemed willing to put in place security measures that would expedite and facilitate the return to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion of the Georgians who fled the district during the war.

In recent weeks, however, Bagapsh has toughened his position, insisting that Georgians who return to live permanently in Gali must adopt Abkhaz citizenship.

Most observers attribute the periodic hardening in the positions of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz leadership to pressure from Moscow, on which Bagapsh in particular depends for support in the face of increasing pressure from the Abkhaz opposition.

Moscow will almost certainly continue to use Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2006 to exert pressure on Georgia in retaliation for Georgia's high-profile campaign to secure a formal invitation, possibly as early as 2006, to join NATO.

And, despite having assured NATO that it would slim down its armed forces, Georgia is reportedly engaged in a massive military buildup. Unconfirmed reports suggest Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili has ordered the acquisition of primarily offensive weapons such as battle tanks, along with tens of thousands of machine guns to arm reservists.

Prigorodnyi Raion

Another conflict in the region grabs fewer headlines but is similarly caught in a state of deadlock. There are few prospects for resolving the simmering dispute between Ingushetia and the Republic of North Ossetia over Prigorodnyi Raion.

The raion was transferred from Ingushetia to North Ossetia in the wake of the 1944 deportation to Central Asia of the entire Ingush people. Thousands of Ingush who returned to their former homes in the late 1950s fled Prigorodnyi Raion for Ingushetia in November 1992 during bloody fighting between the two ethnic groups.

Most do not dare go back, as those families who have done so are subject to constant harassment.

Moscow is currently preoccupied by the escalation of violence in other parts of the North Caucasus, most recently in Kabardino-Balkaria in October. And the embattled Ingush opposition is increasingly reluctant to make an issue of the republican leadership's disinclination to make its case more forcefully with the Russian leadership lest Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov seize on that criticism as a pretext for further reprisals.

Eyes On Kosovo

How far separatist leaders and groups choose to push their agendas in 2006 could depend on Serbia and Montenegro's province of Kosovo. Talks could be held on the disputed province in early 2006.

Neither the Armenian nor the Karabakh leadership is likely to settle for less than independent status for Karabakh unless or until a final decision is made denying Kosovo independence.

If Kosovo does finally win independence, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are likely to adduce that victory as setting a precedent that should also be applied to them -- regardless of the very real differences between those conflicts.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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