Sunday, January 02, 2011
By Nicholas Clayton
Happy New Year, Caucasians, Eurasians and otherwise envious Earthlings!
Like any good journalist knows, as the new year approaches, tradition dictates a warm look back at the year gone by and remember the good times and the bad that defined this notch on history’s timeline. This is done principally for two reasons: 1.) it’s an opportunity for journalists to take up the mantle of chroniclers of our times and 2.) it’s an easy way to fill space as we all take time off for the holidays.
And so, without further ado, I present the Best and Worst of the Caucasus 2010:
Best step towards peace and stability- Georgia’s unilateral non-use of force pledge towards Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia. It is unfortunate that the Georgian leadership waited so long to make such a pledge. Critics will say this plays into Russia’s hands, but it’s not like the policy of isolation and occasional attempts at seizure by force have brought Tbilisi any closer to resolution of its internal conflicts over the past 17 years. This agreement, accepted in principle by both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, puts the ball in their court and can begin the long journey of unwinding the deep mistrust between ordinary citizens on both sides.
Worst step towards peace and stability- Border skirmishes and blustery statements between Azerbaijan and Armenia undermined peace in Nagorno-Karabakh throughout the summer. Despite peace summits in St. Petersburg, Russia and Almaty, Kazakhstan, bullets continued to fly along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the de facto border of Nagorno-Karabakh. Just 24 hours after the Russia-hosted summit, Azerbaijan mounted an incursion into Armenian-held territory that left five soldiers dead and that the OSCE deemed “an attempt to damage the peace process.”
Worst use of development cash- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s various vanity projects of questionable need and function continue to multiply. Of the various development projects Georgia needs in order to take a step forward in the world, fountains, monuments and footbridges to nowhere (see below) are not among them. The new futuristic glass-and-steel structures in the heart of Old Tbilisi are peculiarities at best and disfigurements at worst.
Best use of development cash- Luckily, due to Saakashvili’s astounding ability to charm international donors, Georgia had money to spread around for useful purposes as well. Georgia’s streamlined border agreement with Turkey coupled with significant national and regional development in infrastructure could turn one of Georgia’s weaknesses into a strength. Georgia and Turkey now have a modern customs agreement modeled the border process between France and Switzerland. In addition, significant investment in upgrading Georgia’s road and rail infrastructure coupled with tax-free offers to corporations interested in opening warehousing developments could have a big impact on Georgia and the Caucasus becoming a regional logistics hub — logistics services could potentially grow to 15-20 percent of Georgia and Azerbaijan’s national economy.
Worst news- Violence continued to surge in the North Caucasus, and it appears nearly everyone from the Kremlin to think tanks and NGO’s seem out of ideas on how to stop the bloodshed. Bombings and shootings claiming dozens of lives in North Caucasus republics are once again a daily occurrence, with most of such events going totally unreported. High-profile attacks like a pair of bombings in the Moscow subway by Chechen militants and an assault on the Chechen Parliament have brought attention back to the tragic North Caucasus, but to little avail.
Best Karma- Amid the death and chaos in the Severnyi Kavkaz it is not only the innocent that are punished. In August 2008, former head of security for the Autonomous Republic of Ingushetia, Ibrahim Evloev shot opposition politician and journalist Magomed Evloev (no relation) in the head in the back of a police car shortly after arresting him at the Nazran airport. Of course, according to the official police version, the whole thing was an accident. Oops. After initially being sentenced to two years in prison for the obvious assassination, he was pardoned and released three months later. This August, while sitting at a cafe, Ibrahim was shot dead himself. I am no fan of the death penalty, but if someone had to catch a bullet that day, it may as well have been the murderer of a journalist.
Best/Worst elections- 2010 was another “good, bad and ugly” year for elections in the Caucasus. Along with its regular local elections Tbilisi elected its mayor for the first time in a century. NGO’s said progress in electoral transparency and fairness had been made, but every single election monitor I spoke to laughed when asked about the legitimacy of the process and the results they witnessed. Still, they were probably the freest elections the region has seen in, well, ever. Azerbaijan found creative ways to keep any international attention away from its (probably rigged) parliamentary vote, and Armenia released some, but not all political prisoners it has been keeping since its 2008 crack-down on opposition protesters following an election denounced as unfair by numerous countries and organizations.
Best potential for positive press- In addition to the planned 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup and it is highly likely that Sochi will host some a portion of the 2018 matches in its shiny, new Olimpiyskiy Stadiyon. Georgians won’t be happy about any of it, but provided that Russian authorities will be able to prevent violence from breaking out at these two events, they will bring some much needed international attention to the Caucasus for a reason other than mass death, instability and hardship.
Best reversal from profanity to reform- It has long been known among the foreign press in Tbilisi that nothing pisses off Saakashvili more than questioning the freedom and independence of the Georgian press. When responding to a question at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles April 27, Saakashvili called complaints about media freedom in Georgia “total bullshit.” True, the majority of Georgia’s broadcast media (by far the biggest information source to most Georgians) is independently owned. The problem is that no one knows who owns them — most are officially run by shady offshore companies that have nothing but mailing addresses abroad and no details about their management. To boot, nearly all of such channels lazily repeat the government line on the news of the day, leading most to suspect that both the state and private media are operated by buddies of the president. But, the Georgian Parliament has now proposed a total ban on offshore ownership of media companies, which would in theory expose the men and women behind the curtain of the great and powerful Oz. We shall see.
My New Year’s Resolution- Aside from dropping a few pounds, I’d like to see the a genuine and honest dialogue emerge between the players involved in the “frozen conflicts” of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Enough grandstanding and sabre-rattling. I also hope that the Kremlin begins to see North Caucasus violence as not only unique economic or social problem but rather as a comprehensive politco-social-economic priority that Russia needs to entirely rethink in order to grapple with it properly. A few more displays of sober public policy and development spending are also welcome.
Obviously, there is much more that happened in this fascinating region, and I want your input on what I missed. What do you think was the Best or Worst thing to happen in the Caucasus this year, and what is your resolution for the region going into 2011?