A year ago, The Bug Pit predicted that the two most likely conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia would be between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or in Tajikistan. The region did escape full-blown conflict in 2012, but those two situations did get significantly tenser: Azerbaijan/Armenia over Baku's pardoning of Ramil Safarov, and Tajikistan during heavy fighting in Khorog over the summer. If we look ahead at 2013, those would still seem to be the most likely conflicts, in the still unlikely event that one were to break out in the region. (The third most likely conflict scenario from a year ago, an interstate conflict between Uzbekistan and either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, didn't come to pass, and 2012 did seem to see a decrease in the number of border skirmishes, troop movements, etc. that raised tension in 2011.)
A year ago, there seemed to be some possibility of civil unrest, or worse, in Georgia over the hotly contested elections there in the fall of 2012. That didn't come to pass and there, too, conflict seems less likely than it was a year ago, given that the country proved it could carry out a peaceful transition of political power, and that the potentially erratic President MIkheil Saakashvili will be kept in check by an opposition government.
So what will be the issues to watch in 2013 on The Bug Pit's beat? Armenia and Azerbaijan, as always; Azerbaijani analyst Razi Nurullayev tweeted that because both countries are holding presidential elections in 2013, "Armenia & Azerbaijan will prefer war rhetoric this year & no bilateral negotiations expected on high level." As always, though, the state of high tension on the line of contact in Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and war rhetoric create conditions where a miscalculation or accident could spiral out of control.
And while the risk of conflict in Georgia is diminished, the country could be going through some geopolitical tumult, as Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's hope of maintaining good relations with the U.S. and NATO while improving ties with Russia is likely to be tested this year (most likely by the Kremlin). That could provide some fireworks.
The International Crisis Group, as it did last year, lists "Central Asia" among its "10 Conflicts To Watch in 2013." Under that rubric it includes Tajikistan, a succession crisis in Uzbekistan, socioeconomic tension in Kazakhstan and the ethnic divide in Kyrgyzstan. I wouldn't go as far as ICG in predicting that these could lead to a conflict, but they are all obviously troubling dynamics.
In Central Asia, the major theme of 2013 will be bracing for 2014, when U.S. and coalition forces start to withdraw from Afghanistan. No one quite knows what that is going to look like, but states in the region are worrying about instability from the south. Most of them don't have the wherewithal to deal with external threats, however, a vacuum that Russia is trying to fill with the Collective Security Treaty Organization. With 2014 looming, this is the year for the CSTO to prove that it is a legitimate tool to deal with insecurity rather than, as it's seemed thus far, mainly a talk shop.
In 2012, the region dodged some bullets (literal as well as figurative), most notably in Tajikistan and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Does that prove that these situations, while tense, can bend without breaking? Or were the events of 2012 instead an addition to the instability, setting the stage eventually for some catalyst to start a full-on conflict? Let's hope 2013 isn't the year we find out.