Regional Issues Index
Central Asia and the Caucasus have several long-standing geopolitical and geo-environmental issues. These often shape outsiders’ views of the Caspian Region, creating an image of conflict and ingrained problems that drown out perceptions of the region’s remarkable smorgasbord of arts and deeply rooted traditions of hospitality.
Central Asia and the Caucasus have several long-standing geopolitical and geo-environmental issues. These often shape outsiders’ views of the Caspian Region, creating an image of conflict and ingrained problems that drown out perceptions of the region’s remarkable smorgasbord of arts and deeply rooted traditions of hospitality. Most of all, they tend to exaggerate differences to serve the narratives of nation-states while underplaying the very real cultural similarities shared across national, linguistic and religious divides. Here we will attempt to give a simplified outline of what the most important issues are, then – in forthcoming articles - sketch out in a little more detail the way that each ‘side’ tends to perceive that issue. All too many sources of information are ultimately motivated by the desire to ‘prove’ that one or other side of the argument is valid. However, the reality is always one of complexity. We hope to show more even-handedly why situations are as they are and how that is perceived by different factions.
Like it or loathe it, in today’s world the nation-state is the fundamental unit of geopolitical power. Yet the idea is pretty new. Nations only started fully crystalising in 19th century Europe. The idea fostered newly articulated notions of nationalism and ethnicity. Those forces rapidly came to be seen as the source of state legitimacy, usurping the previously accepted traditions of personal loyalties to rulers and dynasties. Then, suddenly, in the 20th century, as though in a few gigantic rounds of musical chairs, the world map was fixed. And this fait accompli has essentially lasted… so far. That of course is an outrageous simplification, but the idea helps provide a prism through which to understand why many of the most abiding geopolitical fault lines have often been in places where empires suddenly/chaotically broke up, leaving a scramble for dominance and the need for swiftly reconsidered ‘national narratives’.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Caspian region, a historical nexus of three great multi-cultural empires (Persian, Russian and Ottoman), offers a particularly rich smorgasbord of geopolitical issues.
Since before the end of the USSR, there’s been a state of conflict, with massive numbers of refugees and IDPs and two full-scale wars over the Karabakh region. In 1992-3 Armenia captured and occupied a large swathe of Azerbaijani territory. This occupied area was declared as the independent Nagorno Karabakh Republic (later calling itself Artsakh). The entity was never internationally recognized. A ‘frozen conflict’ with fairly regular exchanges of fire saw the basic situation stay much the same for nearly 30 years. Then, in autumn 2020, a second war saw Azerbaijan regain all the territory it had lost in the 1990s – partly militarily, partly through a negotiated peace that brought in Russian peace-keepers.
The Karabakh issue has been politically defining for leaders of both countries since before the end of the USSR. Roots of an even longer Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict are often traced back to intercommunal violence of 1918 and 1905. There are a whole series of even older historical claims and counterclaims whose importance have been greatly amplified on both sides for political reasons over the last 35 years. However, both communities have spent far longer periods as peaceable neighbours, a situation which can hopefully dawn again in the near future.
In the aftermath of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan has begun the massive task of rebuilding hundreds of devastated settlements; many left abandoned for decades. Many ethnic Armenians have fled their homes in villages recaptured/liberated by Azerbaijani forces, putting pressure on the Armenian state. But with the tri-partite ceasefire, a window of opportunity beckons for a generous peace that could allow a return to far more amicable relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the reopening of the borders to mutually beneficial trade. We can hope.
Kerki (Az) – Legally Azerbaijani exclave near the northern tip of Nakhchivan, currently still occupied by Armenia, which refers to the place as Tigranashen.
Seven villages of Gazakh district (Yukhari Askipara, Ashagi Askipara, Seyid Ayrim, Kheyrimli, Barkhudarli, Sofulu, Gizil Hajili) (Az) – Legally Azerbaijani exclaves west of Qazax, occupied by Armenia which calls the place Verin Voskepar.
Artsvashen (Ar) – Legally Armenian exclave within the Gadabey region of Azerbaijan, occupied by Azerbaijan, which calls it Başkənd. Now essentially abandoned apart from a military post.
The Caspian Post plans a series of articles looking at different facets of the Karabakh debate. When reading any of these, we strongly suggest that you first look at our overall explanatory article Nagorno-Karabakh 101 and the accompanying notes on key definitions.
Apart from the Baltic states, no ex-Soviet Republic has had a more troubled relationship with Russia than Georgia. Many Georgians blame Soviet/Russian interference for a civil war that ravaged the country in the early 1990s and led to the breakaway of Abkhazia (a former ASSR) and South Ossetia (an AO). After a decade of geopolitical limbo, Georgia began a massive transformation. The Saakashvili regime rapidly modernized the economy and fired the whole corrupt police force but drew Moscow’s renewed opprobrium for making close relationships with NATO. In 2006 Russia banned Georgian wine imports. And in 2008, the frozen conflicts re-ignited as a futile Georgian attempt to reclaim South Ossetia backfired and led to a Russian counter-attack. Russia thereupon recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign nations. Though only a handful of other states have copied this recognition, the effect seems to be a semi-permanent absorption into the Russian sphere of those regions that are, by international convention, part of Georgia. Recent Georgian governments have walked a diplomatic tightrope in trying to balance a continuing pro-Western orientation with the need to mend fences with Russia. Occasional ‘adjustments’ of the South Ossetia border fence have been portrayed as Russia flexing its muscles against any overt signs of Georgia falling out of line. Trade between the countries re-started in 2012 and boomed for several years, but in 2019, relations soured again over a perceived anti-Russian slight in the Georgian parliament. Flight links were cut, squeezing the Georgian economy by essentially undermining the flow of Russian tourists.
For all that, it remains possible to take the spectacular Kazbegi-Vladikavkaz road between the two countries and, with a bit of planning, visitors can still visit Abkhazia’s magnificent mountain-backed beaches from the Georgian side.
The Caspian - Sea or Lake?
The Caspian Sea is a sea, right? After all, it’s in the name. Well maybe. But its waters don’t feed into any ocean, and any pub quiz will mark you correct if you give it as an answer for the world’s biggest lake. Sea or lake: does it matter? Well, yes - things become more than semantics when you realize that according to international law, national rights over a sea’s surface and bed are allotted according to the share of coastline, while for lakes, the division is into equal proportion amongst littoral states. Before 1991, the USSR and Iran (then the only Caspian countries) worked Caspian treaties on the assumption that it was a lake. These days there are five littoral states.
Understandably those with shorter Caspian coastlines – like Iran - stand to gain from keeping it classified as a lake, while others – notably Kazakhstan – would do well if it were branded a sea. This might be of minor importance were it not for the discovery of oil and gas reserves beneath the Caspian in areas whose national jurisdiction would be affected by the sea/lake issue. Fortunately, the result has not been military conflict, and in 2018, a convention was signed in Aktau between all five nations to essentially fudge the issue.
While often portrayed as a pariah state in one-sided Western media, in the Caspian region, Iran generally plays the role of a good neighbour. Much to Azerbaijan’s chagrin, Iran provides a transport and commodities lifeline for Armenia but is also developing improved trade and rail links with both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. In Iran’s multi-lingual patchwork of peoples, one of the biggest sub-groups are Azerbaijanis (often calling themselves Iranian Turks), who in fact outnumber the Azerbaijanis of Azerbaijan. Seen from Baku, the cities of Tabriz and Ardebil are integral to national history. Occasionally there have been attempts to leverage Azerbaijani nationalism within Iran as part of outside attempts to destabilize the Tehran regime. Still, discontent is mostly low-level focused on certain linguistic policies and the suffering caused by US-led sanctions – as with the country’s whole population.
Borders between Armenia and Turkey have been closed since 1993. In simplified terms, this was originally a demonstration of solidarity by Turkey for Azerbaijan. The two countries often describe themselves as “two states, one nation” and share many cultural traditions and a similar language. Turkey’s border blockade started after much of Azerbaijan’s land had been occupied by Armenian forces in the early 1990s. During the 2020 Karabakh War, however, Azerbaijan regained its lost lands, thereby sweeping away Turkey’s reasons for keeping the border closed. But things aren’t so simple. Armenia, which had long wanted to re-start trade, also intends to attach a condition that Turkey use the term ‘genocide’ for the 1915 massacres of ethnic Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the border issue has become a hot potato in Armenian politics: as Turkey unilaterally closed the border, it might soon unilaterally reopen it, leaving the Yerevan government in a difficult situation: if they close their side of the border, they’ll lose the diplomatic high ground. But if they allow trade to normalize, they could be seen to play into the opposition’s narrative that they’re in the pockets of the Turks. Recently, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said Azerbaijan would not oppose the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.
Relations are generally cordial. Large Azerbaijani communities live peaceably in Marneuli and surrounding villages, while the so-called Inghiloi are Georgian speakers living in northwestern districts of Azerbaijan. There is, however, a low-key but ongoing border delineation dispute which sometimes comes to a head at the cliff-site full of medieval monastic caves, known as David Gareja in Georgia, Keshikchidagh in Azerbaijan.
Following their unexpected independence in 1991, relations between the two most populous independent states of Central Asia muddled along for 25 years, generally without great warmth: Kazakhstan tended to want greater regional integration while Uzbekistan was often less keen. However, following the death of Uzbek’s long-term president Islam Karimov – in 2016, the situation has improved radically. Symbolically visiting Astana at the 2017 Navruz season (the spring equinox, celebrated across the region as a time of renewal), the new Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyevat announced that long-standing border demarcation issues would be rapidly settled while both countries agreed to put economic cooperation into a new, high gear. A shared problem rather than a dispute between the two nations is the fate of the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea
Those in their fifties or older might remember school geography tests in which the Aral was cited amongst the world’s top five biggest lakes. However, by the Millennium, it was, instead, one of the world’s biggest man-made ecological disasters. A Soviet-era scheme diverting the two main feeder rivers into cotton irrigation channels had meant booming crops at first. However, the Aral began to shrink at an alarming pace; its fishing fleets were left stranded miles from water as the ports dried up and the shorelines shrank. As the shallow waters evaporated, former sea beds became parched earth thickly crusted with salt. Then winds blew the salt into the atmosphere, blighting the surrounding lands, causing respiratory problems for citizens and stunting growth of the crops whose thirst the water had been diverted to slake. For a James Bond style extra twist, there was the added terror of a top-secret island laboratory where anthrax, plague and other deadly diseases were tested for use as biological weapons. The island, called Vozrozhdeniya (‘rebirth’ in Russian), was chosen as it was – in 1948 – well out to sea and far from any international border. However, in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR, the island found itself bisected by the Uzbek-Kazakh borderline. The Aral Sea’s rapid shrinkage meant that by around 2000, the island had grown into a vast peninsular. Today it has disappeared altogether, becoming just another part of the Aralkum, the salty desert that was once the south Aral Sea. Fortunately, the bio-weapons site was cleaned up and secured in 2002. And there’s a modest degree of good news in that the now disconnected northern Aral Sea didn’t dry up entirely and has started to fill up again since the construction of the 13km-long Kok Aral dam in 2005.