A Year of President for Life and Bird Poop

In the South Caucasus, another uncertain new year beckons. Although 2009 wasn’t scarred by another senseless war, it wasn’t a year to confound the pessimists either.

One of the region’s few stories in 2009 that made international headlines was widely assessed as positive: the potential rapprochement of old foes Armenia and Turkey after decades of enmity caused by the mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century.

But while Armenians argued among themselves about whether establishing diplomatic relations and opening their border with Turkey was such a good idea, their neighbors in Azerbaijan appeared to be completely relaxed about offering their strongman leader, Ilham Aliyev, the opportunity to become president for life. Unsurprisingly, the referendum on the issue gave Aliyev the right to choose how many times he will run for president. Not long afterward, in the authorities’ latest move against independent media in the country, two young activists who had been using the Internet to build support for pro-democracy movements were imprisoned for “hooliganism” after a highly dubious trial.

The energy-rich Azeri regime appeared to be genuinely bemused by the widespread global condemnation of the prosecution and the subsequent glorification of the jailed activists as noble champions of free speech. And somehow, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and a self-appointed “democracy promoter,” omitted the mention of the country’s civil rights violations when he made a speech in Azerbaijan — reportedly for a $100,000 honorarium — on behalf of a chemical company.

In Georgia, the opposition staged an all-out attempt to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili, blockading the parliament and his flashy new presidential palace for several months with imitation prison cells. But the opposition leaders simply couldn’t convince the politically exhausted Georgian people to join them on the streets in large numbers. The opposition’s challenge ended in debilitating failure. After Saakashvili deftly outplayed them with a hands-off approach, their protests simply shriveled up.

Nevertheless, despite seeing off his challengers at home, it wasn’t exactly a triumphant year for Saakashvili. Russian troops remained at their positions within swift striking distance of Tbilisi, in violation of a cease-fire agreement that ended the Georgia-Russia war in 2008, while a European Union-commissioned investigation accused both the Saakashvili government and the Kremlin of violating international law during the conflict. Meanwhile, a report from Transparency International suggested that the media in Georgia is now less free than before the Rose Revolution that swept Saakashvili to power, despite six years of what the government has hailed as “democratic transformation.”

In the Caucasus, truth is often stranger than fiction. Nauru, a minuscule Pacific island, became the fourth country to recognize the Russian-sponsored rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Nauru once made money by selling phosphates derived from guano, the bird excrement that coats its 21 square kilometers of territory. But when that resource ran out, destitution beckoned. The Nauruan regime reportedly decided to recognize the two Caucasus enclaves after demanding $50 million of aid from Moscow. It was described as “guano diplomacy,” but in a region characterized by opaque maneuvering and conspiracy theories, this time at least, everyone’s motives were clear.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.