Weekly Highlights: Looking Back to 2018 & What Expects South Caucasus In 2019
What is the year 2018 best remembered for the South Caucasus nations in terms of the socio-political and socio-economic processes and events and what will 2019 be in comparison with last year?
Hopes for a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict faded at the end of 2018 despite statements in late December 2018 by the Azerbaijani foreign minister that the parties to the conflict – Baku and Yerevan - agreed to go ahead with contacts in an effort to find ways for the resolution of the protracted conflict in the South Caucasus.
As we entered 2019 with this and other hopes, it is gratifying that for Azerbaijan 2018 became quite successful in implementing several high-priority mega projects. In 2018, Baku achieved great success in bilateral relations with important players not only in the region, but also in the world.
First, important geopolitical projects TANAP, a key element in the system of the Southern Gas Corridor, was commissioned along with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
Although the railway is not fully busy on daily basis, three cargo trips between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are carried out weekly via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway. As of October 1 of 2018, since the start of the operation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, 100,000 tons of cargoes were transported.
In addition, Azerbaijan strengthened its relations with regional states that are members of the Russian-led military bloc – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Separately, Azerbaijan’s relations with the CSTO countries are better than of those member countries with Armenia, which is important at a time when the Karabakh conflict remains unresolved. We should bear in mind that for many years Yerevan has been manipulating Baku with this particular military-political organization. The year 2018 will also be remembered for the strengthening of relations between Azerbaijan and Russia.
There is also a growing understanding of political issues between Moscow and Baku. In just one year, the president of Russia and Azerbaijan met six times. The leaders of the two countries have established excellent relations and it is the Moscow– Baku alliance that is the guarantor of the regional stability which considerable geopolitical players want to destabilize.
The outgoing year also saw improvement of relations between Azerbaijan and Western countries. At the same time, for Azerbaijan, 2018 was successful in deepening ties with the West. In July, in Brussels, the European Union (EU) and the government of Azerbaijan initialed the priorities of the partnership.
As is known, today the bilateral relations between the EU and Azerbaijan are regulated on the basis of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 1996 and entered into force in 1999. The new agreement should replace the partnership and cooperation agreement of 1996, which will make it possible to take more account of common goals and problems that the EU and Azerbaijan are facing today.
The Azerbaijani-Israeli relations also saw further development in 2018. We witnessed the strengthening of the alliance between Azerbaijan and Israel. Recently, mutual visits of officials of Azerbaijan and Israel have become frequent. Of course, not everything in this area is made public. The public knows a very small part about bilateral relations. On the agenda are very serious issues. Baku receives a wide range of weapons - from defensive to offensive, and thus the ability to equip the army with modern weapons systems.
Also at the end of 2018, the new US administration began to get acquainted with the situation in the South Caucasus. Considering that traditionally relations between Baku and the Republicans are warm, hopes are high that in the New Year we will see more intensity and stability in this direction.
In domestic politics, the year 2018 for Azerbaijan is undoubtedly remembered by the presidential elections, which can be called a landmark event in shaping the country's political landscape in the coming years.
Elections and the formation of a renewed composition of the government, together with structural reforms in the executive power system, drew a line under the institutional reforms launched several years ago, the purpose of which was to bring the entire executive power system into new social and political realities.
In foreign policy, one can observe the process of adaptation of Azerbaijan under the conditions of the rapidly changing geopolitical agenda, which in our region is determined by the rivalry of both regional and extra-regional powers and their situational interaction.
At the same time, Azerbaijan is becoming an increasingly desirable partner for various centers of power, seeking to consolidate their interests in the region, through the development of common approaches to regional security with Baku.
Structures such as CSTO and NATO, which see the future of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia in different ways, are nevertheless interested in maintaining the predictability of Azerbaijani foreign policy, since they are building their plans on Azerbaijan that Baku is trying to turn into its own benefit. It seems that in the near future the situation will not undergo any special changes.
For Russia and the whole region as well as for almost the entire world, the main source of anxiety will be problems in Syria and Ukraine since the world moved in 2019 with the problems that existed in previous years. The confrontation between the main regional and superpowers continues in Syrian and Ukraine.
Two other republic of the South Caucasus - Georgia in 2018 saw the presidential elections and Armenia the change of power. In general, no major changes in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus were outlined last year. On the account of 2019, the year will be dynamic as the past year created all the conditions for this.
In Russia, Putin's election, continuing rapid decline in the economy, living standards of the population, terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus, fire in the Kemerovo shopping center, the renewal of the governors, introduction of national projects are what happened in 2018 and we will feel just in 2019, the growth in social activity, a drop in all ratings of the authorities, the anti-people rhetoric of minor officials, which brought them serious problems, an active, open introduction to the state and business structures of the children of officials.
In the North Caucasus: the massive resignations of local top officials, the change of the head of the KBR, the presidential envoy for the North Caucasus Federal District Vasilyev became the head of Dagestan, the activation of the fiscal system, the introduction of national projects - also in 2019, falling living standards, rising outflow of population, an international convention on the Caspian Sea was signed, the export of Russian children and women from Syria and Iraqi prisons began, the growth of agricultural indicators, the increase in interethnic tension, changes in the borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia, fire and closure of a poisonous plant in Vladikavkaz, permission for entry to foreigners to North Ossetia.
In 2019: ideas and realities of national projects, rising prices, the population decrease, increasing censorship, further economic decline, new sanctions, terrorist attacks, agricultural growth.
In the North Caucasus, tension increased accompanied by terrorist attacks and security problems. Chechnya will go into an economic breakthrough, as far as possible, will fight for leadership in the region, fight for a special role in international relations. Ingushetia will live a difficult period, inkling on security, protests, conflicts, but without coups, although the transfer of Yevkurov to another post is quite possible. The KBR will continue to adjust the laws to the federal and continue the path of Dagestan.
Dagestan itself will grow on the tax base, due to the whitening of the economy, but there will be no miracle, as in the KBR. The situation will be steadily tense, but without war or improving the lives of ordinary people. There will be, of course, a tangible outflow. Stavropol governor Vladimirov’s term of governorship expires, the region has a multi-billion dollar debt, the elites are torn apart by politics, and they will continue to live. North Ossetia is increasingly involved in international relations and this has become very clear on 3/3 of 2018.
It is possible to wait for the development of tourism; of course, the growth of agriculture, in this region the social situation will be rather good. But the KBR will be filled with security forces. It is there that in 2018 one can add that the new officials in the Caucasus are predominantly former siloviki.