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What can the Caucasus expect in 2023? Our readers and staff give their takes

13 January 2023

At the beginning of the year, we asked both our staff and readers to give their predictions of what might happen in 2023.

From Georgia’s Western integration aspirations to the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict to political upheaval in the North Caucasus — many of our predictions this year were informed by Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. 

The monumental impact of the Russian aggression was not something we fully grasped last year. You can hear how we think we did in last year’s staff predictions in the latest episode of the Caucasus Digest podcast. 

[Listen and subscribe: Podcast | How did the Caucasus fare in 2022?]

Staff predictions

Robin Fabbro, editor-in-chief

Armenia will embrace the West. Since the Velvet Revolution, relations between a more democratic Armenia and an increasingly authoritarian Russia have become strained. Armenia stuck with their alliance with Russia because of the security guarantees it appeared to provide. With these ‘guarantees’ having proved worthless, Armenia will have little to lose in ditching Russia and embracing the West. This could include Armenia leaving the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and — as happened in Georgia in the mid-2000s — the removal of Russia’s military presence in the country. Looking to capitalise on Russia’s weakness, the West will be only too happy to oblige.

Georgia will slide further into authoritarianism. Georgian Dream will continue along a path forged by the likes of Hungary and Poland before them, with the key difference of not being integrated into Western institutions to hold them back. As a result, the country will once again be denied EU candidate status, setting the stage for messy parliamentary elections in 2024.

Ani Avetisyan, staff writer

Economic hardships in Armenia will persist in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war and the massive influx of Russians in the country will continue to contribute to skyrocketing inflation that will push more people to the brink of poverty.

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Anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia will grow. The country will keep looking to the West but have little chance of curbing the Kremlin’s political influence and military presence in the country.

Border tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan will persist and likely turn into a new war. The demarcation process between the two countries will fail and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will continue to loom over the region as the local Armenian population faces more pressure to accept Azerbaijani rule. The standoff in negotiations might push Baku to take what it wants by force.

Ismi Aghayev, staff writer

Armenia and Azerbaijan will not enter another full-scale war. But despite the ongoing peace talks between the two countries, the two countries will continue to engage in diplomatic spats and intermittent border clashes in 2023.

Baku’s internal and external policies will depend on the Turkish presidential elections. Turkey’s presidential elections in June will dictate the next steps the Azerbaijani government will take, including on long-awaited oil and gas projects.

The Azerbaijani opposition will become more active. Opposition groups will become more active as economic hardships beset the country. This will manifest online on social media and through street protests demanding freedom of expression. As a result, more and more people will be imprisoned for their political activities in the country.

Shota Kincha, staff writer

No change in the UNM’s leadership. Nika Melia will be reelected as chair of the opposition United National Movement this year despite mounting challenges within (and from outside) the party.

Saakashvili will receive treatment abroad. The imprisoned former president will, one way or another, eventually be allowed to leave Georgia to recover his health.

EU candidacy is on the horizon for Georgia. Despite a lack of progress on implementing key reforms demanded by the EU, the EU will not risk frustrating Georgians with another refusal: Georgia will get EU membership candidacy.

The government will double down on hydropower. The Georgian government sounds more determined than ever to building more large-size hydropower plants, much to the chagrin of environmental activists, who will protest the power plants. In some cases, like before, I expect the protests to be met with a harsh government response.

Shota Kincha will quit smoking. This despite scepticism and outright mockery from his editor-in-chief!

Tata Shoshiashvili, staff writer

Levan Khabeishvili will be the next to chair the United National Movement. As the UNM, Georgia’s largest opposition party, goes through internal divisions, Levan Khabeishvili, a UNM MP, will likely unseat the party’s current chair, Nika Melia.

A Pride March will not be held in Tbilisi. Tbilisi Pride will once again opt not to attempt to hold a public march in fear of possible violence from the ultra-conservative and pro-Russian group Alt-Info.

Imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili will not be pardoned. Saakashvili’s health condition has been open to speculation for months now, with his defence team seeking to have his sentence postponed or lifted in order to receive treatment abroad. Some have called on President Salome Zurabishvili to pardon him, but I believe that neither she nor the court will do so.

Mariam Nikuradze, co-founder and co-director

President Zurabishvili will rebel against the government. We might actually see Zurabishvili pardoning former President Saakashvili to spite Georgian Dream. If she does, then the ruling party will not be quick to forgive her.

The state of media freedom will further deteriorate in Georgia. The government will continue to exert legal and financial pressure on opposition-affiliated and critical media. The perpetrators of the 5 July 2021 violence against journalists will remain free and unpunished, and we will see more attacks on journalists in the streets.

Tbilisi–Kyiv relations will remain awkward and tense. Meanwhile, anti-western sentiments will deepen, from both the government and Georgian Dream officials. The ruling party will voice controversial takes and field problematic bills through the ‘departed’, a group of Georgian Dream members who supposedly left the party in order to ‘speak more freely’.

Salome Khvedelidze, project officer

Georgia will not get EU candidate status in 2023 either, and it will come as no surprise. The Georgian government is lagging behind in implementing key reforms set out by the European Commission, which will likely impede the country’s goal of attaining EU candidacy yet again.

Georgia will see more protests after the government fails to obtain EU candidate status. Despite the protest fatigue that engulfs Georgian society, the EU membership bid was able to unite Georgians from all walks of life in the biggest demonstrations in the country’s recent memory. This will be true once again.

Dominik K Cagara, co-founder and co-director

Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov will reorient towards independence. Capitalising on the long-time dream of independence among the population of Chechnya, Kadyrov will increasingly orient his republic towards self-determination as political and social tensions mount in the Russian Federation. This way, he will hope to avoid any civil war that could be sparked by a weakened Kremlin and steal legitimacy from the exiled Ichkerians.

Moscow will support the integration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan in order to maintain its foothold in the South Caucasus. The Kremlin has no interest in supporting Armenia; on the contrary, a weak and desperate Armenia might be easier to control. Nevertheless, public support for the EU and NATO will continue to grow in Armenia.

Yousef Bardouka, editor

Anti-Kremlin sentiments will deepen in the North Caucasus. The war in Ukraine will act as a catalyst for decolonisation movements and dissident activity in the region, as evidenced by the anti-mobilisation protests of 2022, and Kyiv’s direct recognition of an independent Chechnya.

Ukraine will recognise the Circassian Genocide… eventually and to no avail. Even as Ukraine pushes for deeper ties with the people of the North Caucasus, the Circassians, the majority of whom live in the diaspora, will remain politically and socially polarised and will not make use of Kyiv’s recognition of the 19th-century genocide.

Abkhazia staff writer

The fiercely-contested Pitsunda agreement will be ratified, even if it sees some amendments. The handing of this Soviet-era state dacha to Russia will cause a wave of anger in the opposition and civil society, but they won’t be able to change much. ‘Vertical of power’ in Abkhazia is strong, and besides, the authorities ensured the highest physical security for themselves by enclosing the complex of government buildings with a high fence and installing armoured doors at the entrance to the Presidential Administration and the Cabinet of Ministers.

Abkhazia will entirely depend on Russian energy. Abkhazia struggled to address a pressing energy crisis this year, and has instead relied on Russian energy. The high-voltage line connecting Abkhazian cities and settlements to the Enguri (Ingur) hydropower plant will remain inoperative and under repair.

No more volunteers will go to war in Ukraine. The war has become less and less popular in Abkhazian society. At the same time, there is increasing public concern that Georgia might open a ‘second front’ against Russia by starting hostilities in Abkhazia. 

Abkhaz-Georgian relations will maintain their status quo. Since in Abkhazia, this issue is so politicised,  no new moves will be discussed either by society or the authorities. 

Reader predictions

As the first weeks of 2023 began, we asked our readers what they thought the year ahead might bring for the Caucasus in our first-ever reader prediction survey. 

Our readers are a diverse group, including academics, activists, journalists, as well as those just living in or connected to the Caucasus, and the answers we received reflected this breadth of perspectives and knowledge. Questions covered subjects including conflict, local politics, economics, and specific national and regional issues. 

Conflict

In 2022, conflict loomed over the Caucasus. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated news internationally, it also had a direct impact on the North Caucasus, where mobilisation prompted both personal losses and public protests. It also indirectly, but dramatically affected the North Caucasus, which saw waves of Russian immigration drive soaring costs of living and reshape public life.  

Later in the year, an attack by Azerbaijan on Armenia led to a major military conflict outside Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Our readers had mixed opinions on how that and other conflicts would take shape in the year to come. 

Regarding the possibility of military escalation in the Caucasus, our readers were more optimistic than not, with 58% believing that there would not be a large-scale military escalation in the region while 42% believed that one would take place before the end of the year. 

Readers were also divided on what 2023 would look like for Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. 

Around half of respondents (52%) believed that the December 2022 status quo would be maintained. However, 42% believed that Nagorno-Karabakh would have become a territory under Azerbaijan’s control, with 26% believing it would not have autonomy or special status, and one reader suggesting that Azerbaijan would gain more territory in the region. 

Despite a split regarding the details of the arrangement, three-quarters of readers believed that transport would be possible between western Azerbaijan and the country’s autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan. Over half thought that there would be a dedicated road connecting the two regions — 27% believed the road would be under Azerbaijani control, rather than Russian (16%) or Armenian (9%).

Most readers (82%) believed that Russian peacekeeping forces would remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, while there was an even split between those who believed that a European Union monitoring mission would remain on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border at the end of the year. 

Readers overwhelmingly expected that there would be no change to the status of Abkhazia (86%), South Ossetia (91%), and Chechnya (91%), although a couple of readers expected Abkhazia to have become an independent state recognised by a significant number of UN member states by the end of the year. 

Local politics

While 20% believed that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan might be out of office before the end of 2023, very few (3%) thought the same was likely for Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Over three-quarters (77%) believed that Georgian Dream would remain in power in Georgia. 

Similar levels of consensus were reached regarding Ramzan Kadyrov remaining head of Chechnya, with only 12% believing he might leave power after almost 16 years at the head of the republic. 

Readers were, however, significantly more divided on other issues, with 57% believing that former Georgian prime minister Mikheil Saakashvili would not be in prison in Georgia by the end of 2023 versus 43% believing that he would.

Similar proportions believed that Nakhchivan would lose its official autonomy (41%) and that the Armenia-Turkey border would be opened (45%) by the end of the year. 

Readers were split 50-50 on whether Abkhazia would finalise an agreement to transfer the Pitsunda dacha to Russia, an issue that has dominated Abkhazian politics in 2022.

They were, however, significantly more united in their expectations that no major changes were to be expected regarding Armenia’s membership of the CSTO, Georgia’s lack of EU candidate status, and Azerbaijan remaining outside the Eurasian Economic Union, with, respectively, 66%, 75%, and 82% believing that 2023 would end with the countries in the same positions as they began the year.

Economics

Our economics section included one trick question, which few of our readers spotted unlike the lari, dram, and rouble, Azerbaijan’s manat is pegged to the dollar, at a rate of 1.70. Over half of respondents thought that the value of the dram, lari, manat, and rouble would fall in relation to the value of the dollar, with 20-30% believing their values would rise. 18% of respondents recognised that the manat exchange rate was likely to remain unchanged. 

Other

Over half (63%) of readers expected Azerbaijan’s land borders to reopen, which have remained closed since their closure during the first wave of COVID-19. 

Similar proportions expected Reporters Without Borders to assess press freedom in the South Caucasus as having decreased (59%), with 34% expecting the average score to remain the same. Only 7% thought that the average score might increase in 2023. 

Readers also expected another wave of Russian immigration to the Caucasus, with 68% believing Georgia and Armenia could expect another large influx of Russians in the year ahead. 

In Georgia, readers expected that the kidnappers of Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist abducted in Georgia in 2017, would not be identified. They were divided on whether Tbilisi Pride would (44%) or would not (56%) hold a public march in 2023. 

Reader suggestions

Finally, we gave readers the stage, and let them suggest what specifically they expected to take place in the Caucasus. Readers suggested both that Erdogan would lose elections, prompting a fall in Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, and that Azerbaijan would invade Armenia following an Erdogan victory. Others suggested that Putin would be deposed, Russia’s war in Ukraine would end, a conflict might arise involving Iran, and Dinamo Batumi would ‘win the league this year’. 

But one reader, who’d evidently had enough of the survey, summarised many of our feelings when they said ‘No more predictions. Let’s hope that 2023 will be better than the past two years…’.

Read in Armenian on Civilnet