August 2021 in the Caspian Region – A Recap
The Caspian Post team looks back at key developments in the region over the past month.
Helping you see the Caspian region from a whole new perspective. Image: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, Public domain
The ‘not-quite-peace’ that has followed the 2020 2nd Karabakh War continues to see cross-border incidents, some linked to disagreements over border demarcation. There were a few casualties from sniping crossfire at Heydarabad-Yeraskh, and reports of skirmishes on the Zod/Sotk Pass around the controversial gold mine that straddles the border. Later in the month, tensions rose a notch higher as Azerbaijani forces, responding to an earlier incident, cut Armenia’s main north-south road by blocking points at which that road cuts through small sections of Azerbaijan. The situation was resolved in less than two days, but the incident highlighted Armenia’s vulnerability to similar closures in the future.
All this came during an unusually hot summer. While less devastating in the Caucasus than in fire-ravaged Turkey, the heatwave resulted in a shortage of drinking water in some cities, most notably Khankendi. Meanwhile, fears of a Caucasian arms race grew as Baku announced a significant increase in military spending while Yerevan received Russian promises of help to rebuilt Armenia’s armed forces. More hopefully, there was a lot of hinting over possible moves towards the reopening of the Armenia-Turkey border that’s been closed since 1993. At a cabinet meeting on August 27, the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said that Armenia was receptive to such moves, but as yet, the ‘signals’ have yet to be transformed into actions.
In Georgia, August saw a slight calming of internal tensions after the tumultuous events of July - the violent end to Tbilisi Pride and the apparent collapse of the Michel Accord that had painstakingly tried to de-escalate the country’s political polarization. However, those problems remain unresolved. Towards the end of August, the EU hinted that a major aid package might be dependent on the Georgian government following through with promised reforms – a bargain that the ruling party seemed unable to make.
Dominating the news throughout the month was the capitulation of Afghanistan to the Taliban, with chaotic scenes at Kabul airport and neighbouring states of Central Asia bracing to see what would come next. Azerbaijani and Turkish troops were amongst those securing that airport, staying on well after the Taliban takeover. The 120 Azerbaijanis finally flew safely home on August 27. Meanwhile, Covid-19 cases were near peak levels in many countries of the region, with Turkmenistan still claiming that the country remains free of the virus despite all outward indications. That country remains largely sealed to outsiders as part of its Covid strategy, although an exception was made on August 6 when the heads of state of all five ex-Soviet Central Asian nations had a rare 5-way meeting in Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea resort-town of Awaza.
Meanwhile, relations between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seem to have improved following the bloody events of April, with work continuing on border demarcation and 36 new houses built for the families of those who died during the clashes. In Kazakhstan, a fatal explosion in a military base led to the defence minister’s resignation. However, in what might be considered a milestone for the economy’s diversification or simply a case of outsourcing by China, the country has shot to third place worldwide in the ‘mining’ of crypto-currencies.
August was change-over month for the Iranian government. Out went the team of President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif who had been seen as ‘pragmatics’ by Western observers. They had been behind the 2015 JCPOA – which (briefly) ended international sanctions in return for nuclear concessions. In came Ebrahim Raisi, considered a ‘conservative’ and already sanctioned by the US. The new Iranian government remains keen to end sanctions but with similar terms to the 2015 original deal. Throughout August, even finding agreement over the terms for re-starting Vienna talks appeared to be hitting snags. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be buffeted by accusations of attacks on maritime traffic in the Middle East's busy shipping lanes. Tehran has suggested that these have been false-flag provocations, perhaps aimed at creating more conciliatory bargaining positions, or quite the contrary – designed to prevent the talks from continuing at all.
Bridging the end of August and beginning of September, the Tokyo Paralympics saw gold medal hauls for Azerbaijan (which finished tenth overall), Iran and Uzbekistan that significantly bettered their showings at the main summer Olympics. Concurrently in Moscow, both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan came in the top four of the Tank Biathlon – an odd ‘sport’ for army vehicles.
 The JPCOA essentially collapsed when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement.