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2011: The top stories across the Caucasus

The regional identity of the South Caucasus remains a tricky question, and thus choosing stories with a “regional” character is not always easy


25/01/2012

2011 was a year that destabilized many of our global perceptions, notably with regard to the developments in the Middle East, which demonstrated the transience of the “status quo” and the power of the people to stand up against tyranny and injustice.

The media has heralded the unfinished revolution in the Middle East as a digital or leaderless revolution, but it is more hesitant to discuss the further implications of this lack of stability in terms of a revolutionary leader. Bets are off on what should be considered the great story of 2011, which has seen historic revolutions, their turbulent aftermath and fierce debates.

But looking to a more regional focus in the context of the Caucasus, we find other stories of equal local significance. For Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, 2011 marked the 20th anniversary of regaining independence from the Soviet Union. I have picked out the top 10 stories from the region, both successes and failures. In no particular order, these are:

1. Azerbaijan's secured temporary seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), from Jan. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2013. Azerbaijan's Oct. 24 election as a non-permanent member of the UNSC was important news both within the country and across the region. Over the course of the two-year term, Baku will have a responsibility to debate and vote on matters of international security, war and peace in the world's pre-eminent international forum. The continued Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh will remain the key challenge, and the UN platform will help Azerbaijan to gain more international support for the diplomatic resolution of the conflict. Baku will not hurry this process -- rather it will look strategically to the best possible future outcome, also thinking about the post-UNSC period, maximizing this diplomatic success.

2. “The bolshoi (big) dance in the energy opera.” This year, Azerbaijan discovered new gas reserves in the Caspian Sea, and the year has since seen intense discussions concerning the “energy opera”: Nabucco. The major development was the signing of an agreement by Turkey on the construction of a new joint gas pipeline project, the Trans Anadolu pipeline, which will stretch from Turkey's eastern border to its western border, with the aim of exporting Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe. 2011 showed that Azerbaijan has fully emerged as a critical player in regional energy politics. The real challenge will be whether “Nabucco” can become best known as a groundbreaking gas pipeline rather than classic opera music.

3. The region engaged in cultural and scholarly dialogue at a higher level. In 2011, Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest and hosted several high-profile events. In 2012, due the Eurovision Song Contest, there will be an influx of tourists to the region, boosting its international profile. The International Humanitarian Forum in October, held in Baku, was another key platform for discussions of ethnic and religious differentiation across the region, unresolved conflicts and resulting high-running tensions.

4. The continuation of unresolved conflicts: It has become almost tradition in the region to say “next year the conflicts will be resolved.” But this year has seen more diplomatic activity toward the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, although the statements and efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries' (the US, France and Russia) presidents ultimately failed. Now, hopes for 2012 are dwindling. Furthermore, no progress has been made regarding the South Ossetia and Abkhazian conflicts -- in both areas the separatist authorities held elections. In August, after the untimely death of President Sergei Bagapsh, extraordinary presidential elections in secessionist Abkhazia elevated Aleksandr Ankvab to the position of president of the breakaway republic. In November, secessionist South Ossetia held a presidential election, which saw Alla Dzhioyeva as the surprise winner over a Kremlin-backed candidate in the elections, which were annulled by a South Ossetian court.

5. Georgia declared its aspirations to join NATO, which has brought Georgia closer to NATO and intensified the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region's countries. NATO's Bucharest Summit promise in 2008 to eventually allow Georgia into the military alliance was declared frozen following the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war, but 2011 saw NATO officially name Georgia as an “aspirant” country in its communiqué after the foreign ministers' meeting in December. Georgia is eager to see a common position formed on the country among the alliance member countries at NATO's Chicago summit on May 15-22, 2012.

6. This year marked Georgia's relinquishing of its veto of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the only one of the 153 WTO to do so. Now Georgia has signed an agreement with Russia facilitating the conclusion of Russia's 18-year efforts to get into the world trade club.

7. “Stop feeding the Caucasus”; a huge wave of ultra-nationalist rallies under this slogan demanded a stop to the Russian financing of the North Caucasus. This year, the situation in the North Caucasus also became less stable. Also, this year, there was an ethnically motivated movement in Moscow against workers from the Caucasus.

8. Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have been tense for years, but things got especially difficult this year. Indeed, Iran's fear or paranoia of military strikes from the US or Israel -- set against Azerbaijan's weakening trust of Iran has pushed it to strengthen its relationship with Armenia. These developments indicate that Iran will feel “in check” next year too, which will pose challenges for Azerbaijan, as a member of the UNSC.

9. Georgian-born billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who wants to form and head a major political opposition party in Georgia and hold a 2012 parliament election, is a real challenge to the current government after the Rose Revolution, but Georgian authorities revoked his citizenship. Anyway, announcement of Ivanishvili to go into politics came as a surprise for many politicians in Georgia.

10. In Armenia, the opposition has become more influential, Levon Ter Petrosyan, the main opposition leader and ex-president has got real leverage, and due to this, the government appears more open to dialogue with the opposition. Moreover, the former president of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, who said shortly before leaving office in 2008 that he did not intend to become “Armenia's youngest pensioner” signals a political comeback ahead of Armenia's next presidential election due in 2013.

The regional identity of the South Caucasus remains a tricky question, and thus choosing stories with a “regional” character is not always easy. But what is clear, as is repeated many times by experts, the most discussed and most significant issues of 2012 will be the elections in Armenia and Georgia, as well as in the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs.

Zaur Shiriyev
z.shiriyev@todayszaman.com

Baku

World time


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