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2008 In Review: War, Peace, And Football Diplomacy In The South Caucasus

Russian tanks move through Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, soon after Russia's August war with Georgia.
The gloves came off in Georgia. An olive branch came out in Armenia. And the prospect of a peace settlement beckoned in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia, which had seen its influence in the South Caucasus wane in recent years, roared back with a vengeance to stake a claim in a region that Moscow has long seen as its natural sphere of influence.

From the bitter August war between Russia and Georgia to Tbilisi's stalled bid to join NATO to Armenia's surprising overtures to archrival Turkey, 2008 was a year of geopolitical tremors, high-risk maneuvers, and great-power jockeying in the restive South Caucasus.

And analysts say this strategically vital region is on the brink of still more turbulence as Russia continues to reassert itself and the uneasy post-Soviet status quo -- with its unsettled "frozen conflicts" in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh -- comes unraveled.

"I think what we are seeing is the unfreezing of situations that had existed since the breakup of the Soviet Union or shortly thereafter in the early 1990s," says Lawrence Sheets, a Tbilisi-based analyst and Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group.

"You saw that with the increasing frustration among the current Georgian leadership with the situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Sheets continues. "In terms of the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I think we are obviously seeing some sort of movement and that movement is the result of external factors."

'Strategic Normalcy'

This was also the year that Western dreams of promoting democracy in the South Caucasus were dealt setbacks across the board.

In Armenia, Serzh Sarkisian won the presidency in February in an election that the opposition and international observers claimed was flawed. After the vote, the authorities violently suppressed opposition demonstrations. Approximately one thousand people were arrested and 10 were killed in the immediate postelection violence. Some 67 opposition figures remain in custody.

Elections in Azerbaijan were not seen as free or fair.
The authoritarian regime of President Ilham Aliyev in energy-rich Azerbaijan, too, tightened its vise-grip on power. Aliyev won reelection in October with 87 percent of the vote in a poll that observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said did not meet international standards. Baku has also faced international condemnation for the jailing of opposition journalists.

And Georgia, which the United States has tried to hold up as a beacon of good governance in the region, continued to backslide on the democratic promise of the 2003 Rose Revolution.

Lincoln Mitchell, a Columbia University professor and the author of the upcoming book "Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution," says the domestic politics of the three countries in the region are returning to what he calls "strategic normalcy."

"Azerbaijan and Armenia are settling into [being] secular illiberal regimes that are really what we have in most of the former Soviet Union," Mitchell says. "Georgia is a Western-oriented secular illiberal regime. And that causes it some problems. But in fact, the states look more similar now than they did five years ago."

Watershed Conflict

If the South Caucasus is indeed entering a new period of increased Russian influence and democratic retrenchment, the watershed event will clearly be the five-day war between Georgia and Russia in August.

Since coming to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili had infuriated Moscow by moving his country closer to the West and seeking to join NATO.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, called the war a defining moment.

Bryza has condemned Moscow's actions in Georgia.
"It is a watershed because Russia demonstrated that it is willing to be a belligerent and use force against smaller neighbors," Bryza said. "In fact, against a neighbor with a military that is maybe 1/100th of its size. That act has sent some powerful signals reverberating through the Caucasus."

The conflict began on August 7 when Georgian forces entered the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, claiming that separatist forces were shelling Georgian villages. Russia responded with a massive retaliation with its forces thrusting deep into Georgia.

Russia pulled its troops out of most of Georgia proper following a French-brokered cease-fire. But Moscow continues to keep a large contingent of forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Moscow breakaway Georgian province. Russian troops also continue to occupy a so-called "buffer zone" around the two regions.

Following the conflict, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but only Nicaragua has followed suit.

And the war resulted in a much larger Russian footprint in the region. "There is a bigger Russian role in the region because now they [Russians] formally control South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Lincoln Mitchell says. "There's a bigger Russian role in the region because the only anti-Russian voice in the region just got its hat handed to them by the Russian military."

Russian Realpolitik

And although Moscow faced harsh international criticism for what many in the West called a "disproportionate" response, it was able to weather the storm.

The European Union suspended talks on a Partnership and Association Agreement, but decided in December to renew negotiations. The NATO-Russia Council was also suspended, although at a foreign ministers meeting in December the alliance decided to revive informal high-level meetings with Moscow.

At the same foreign ministers meeting, NATO declined to grant Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans (MAPs), a key step to membership, setting back Tbilisi's goal of joining the alliance quickly. Eight months earlier, at NATO's summit in Bucharest, facing fierce lobbying from Russia, the allies also declined to give Georgia and Ukraine MAPs. The alliance did, however, promise eventual membership for the two countries.

Apparently, many Western countries believe that the costs of alienating or isolating Russia are just too high, and Moscow is aware of this. "Moscow has quite skillfully weaved its way through this situation. Western countries are faced with a conundrum, and that is choosing between Georgia as a strategic ally, or Russia," Lawrence Sheets says.

"Russia is a country of 150 million people with massive energy resources and nuclear weapons. Georgia is a developing country of 4 million people," he adds. "I think inevitably realpolitik becomes part of it and the Russians see that the price to be paid is often short-term and one of rhetoric, and doesn't boil down to much that is concrete."

Georgia's leadership also did not help its own case in its NATO bid. Saakashvili came under heavy criticism for what diplomats and analysts describe as an ill-advised move to try to resolve the South Ossetia conflict by force.

Moreover, Georgia's reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region began to wane in November 2007 when Saakashvili cracked down on opposition demonstrations in Tbilisi and temporarily closed down independent media outlets.

Saakashvili won reelection as president in January. And his party, the United National Movement, won a decisive majority in parliamentary elections in May, albeit amidst allegations of voter intimidation and bullying.

Hopes For Karabakh Peace

If Georgia was preoccupied with war, the focus in Armenia and Azerbaijan turned to resolving the region's other frozen conflict -- Nagorno-Karabakh.

On November 2, following Russian-mediated talks in Moscow, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed the first joint statement by Yerevan and Baku since the 1994 truce that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Despite the tensions in U.S.-Russian relations over Georgia, Bryza stressed that Washington welcomed Moscow's efforts on Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic-Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan that broke free from Baku's control in the early 1990s in a war that killed an estimated 30,000 people.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's "meeting on November 2 made an important contribution. So I want to be fair here. When Russia is being unhelpful, we've got to call it like we see it. But Russia is being quite helpful on Karabakh."

The Moscow Declaration mainly reiterated previous positions, committing the two sides to resolving the conflict peacefully, according to international law, and under the auspices of the OSCE's Minsk Group comprising Russia, France, and the United States.

Nevertheless, analysts took it as a sign that there could finally be movement on what has been a long-stalled peace process. "Basically we have had a situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia that has not changed in 15 years for the most part," Sheets notes. "And I think we are beginning to see the situation change. It is changing through external dynamics in regard to Armenia and Turkey and in regard to Russia's role in the region."

Armenia also made strides this year in improving its long-strained relations with Turkey. In a move dubbed "football diplomacy," Sarkisian invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to Yerevan to watch an international soccer match between their national teams in September.

The two held an extended closed-door meeting before heading off to the match, which Turkey won 2-0.

Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Armenian independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But when Armenian forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions, Ankara broke off diplomatic ties with Yerevan and closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with its ally Azerbaijan.

Moreover, Yerevan's claim that the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I constitutes genocide is angrily rejected by Turkey and continues to be a major roadblock in normalizing relations.

With its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey closed, Armenia seeks to normalize relations with Ankara in hopes of facilitating greater trade and investment.

2008 In Review

2008 In Review

RFE/RL looks back at the stories that shaped 2008. More