December in the Caspian Region
Azerbaijan & Armenia
Despite shots fired on December 8 and 9, reports of Azerbaijan-Armenia border clashes reduced noticeably in December. That was in contrast to the major flare-ups of November 16. After that, renewed diplomatic efforts between the fractious neighbours seem to have borne at least some fruit. November 26’s Sochi meeting between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was the spur for another maps-for-detainees swap, allowing 10 Armenian servicemen to go home on December 4 in return for more landmine maps. The two leaders had further chances for conversation in Brussels on December 14 & 15 during meetings with EU Council President Charles Michel and French President Emanuel Macron, after which new commitments were made to expedite railway links between their countries.
These meetings came just days after the first so-called 3+3 Format meeting, designed to address peace and regional cooperation issues between the South Caucasus countries along with Russia, Turkey and Iran. Due to Georgia’s refusal to join in, the format has so far proved less than optimal. Still, it does give further opportunities for off-record talks between Turkey and Armenia, countries with no formal diplomatic relationship.
Just before (Western) Christmas, Prime Minister Pashinyan raised hopes for more supple peace negotiations when, in a lengthy press interview, he acknowledged that Armenia might have to accept that former Nagorno Karabakh might never be independent (or a part of Armenia) as part of a long term deal with Azerbaijan. While that fits with global geopolitical realities and widespread opinion, it was considered almost treasonous by some Armenian diaspora and opposition groups.
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 28, 2021: Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Kyrgyzstan's President Sadyr Japarov, Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (L-R) pose during a photo op at an informal CIS summit at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS.
On December 28, nine heads of state of former Soviet nations met at an ‘informal’ CIS summit meeting in St Petersburg. The event kicked off with the leaders standing side by side for a photoshoot in front of their national flags, arranged in (Cyrillic) alphabetical order. The result was that Pashinyan of Armenia (Ар) got to stand between Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus (Бе) and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan (Аз). Many observers looked for clues in the faces of the leaders as to whether there was a new rapport between Aliyev and Pashinyan following their encounters earlier in the month. However, the latter self-consciously brushed his tie rather than make small talk. Behind the scenes, however, there might have been further opportunities for talks.
On December 1, the crash of a training helicopter mission of Azerbaijan’s border patrol led to the death of 14 soldiers in the country’s Xizi Region.
In the tit-for-tat legal cases between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the International Court of Justice gave a provisional judgement on December 7, essentially telling both parties that they should tone down ethnic discord. On December 14, Azerbaijan’s parliament had its first reading of a controversial new law on ‘development’ of the media. This was widely seen as being overly restrictive in a country that already rates poorly by global standards of press freedoms, and there were some protests in Baku. The latest, on December 28, reportedly resulted in one of the female demonstrators suffering a broken leg when police broke up the small group.
In Armenia, a year of official boycotts against Turkish products came to an end with the New Year. Supposedly introduced to punish Turkey for supporting Azerbaijan in the Second Karabakh War, in reality, the measure proved to be of limited efficacy and had a significant negative effect on inflation. On December 30, the decision was made not to extend the embargo.
In the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, power issues and the mishandling of the Covid pandemic led to further protests on December 21-23 against the de facto authorities in Sukhumi. Unrecognized as a country, except by Russia and a handful of other states, Abkhazia has lurched through a year of instability in 2021. That’s despite a re-run ‘presidential’ election in March, which brought to power opposition candidate Aslan Bzhania amid promises of compromise: January 2021 elections had been so dubious that they’d sparked mass demonstrations.
In Georgia ‘proper’, long overdue moves to soothe severe political polarization were reiterated on December 16 by President Salome Zurabishvili, stressing the need to move away from restrictive preconditions. The remarks were described as brave by incarcerated former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Though somewhat out of the limelight since ending his 50-day hunger strike in November, Saakashvili made the news again on December 30 when he was returned to prison from the Gori military hospital where he had been recuperating. He had resisted such a move two days earlier.
In Vienna, talks resumed on December 27, seeking to restore the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal and thus remove crippling sanctions against Iran. This was the eighth round in a seemingly endless succession of meetings. Iran remains understandably nervous that – even if the US were to agree on a deal – a future American president might renege on the agreement just as Donald Trump did unilaterally in 2018. At round seven, earlier in December, Iran’s new government had threatened to cancel concessions made at previous sessions, leaving EU teams wondering whether restarting talks would be pointless. However, just before Christmas, Iran announced that it would not refine Uranium above 60% enrichment levels even in the case of all talks failing. Though such a pledge is hard to enforce, it has led to a greater sense of optimism that progress is now possible.
On December 1, Kazakhstan celebrated its 30th national day with a flag-raising buzz at the one-year-late ‘Expo 2020’ in Dubai. At the end of the month, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a legal amendment that formally ends the death penalty in the country, bringing Kazakhstan into line with the majority of the Caspian Region countries in banning capital punishment.
At that stage, there was no hint of the massive demonstrations that would break out in the first week of January 2022 and knock the whole Kazakh establishment for six.
Uzbekistan, already a regional transportation leader with Central Asia’s only high speed railway service, continued to improve infrastructure. A spectacular ‘book-shaped’ new international terminal is nearing completion at Samarkand Airport, which reopened on December 10 after the completion of newly upgraded runways.
Gas-rich, Covid-denying Turkmenistan continued investigating ways to sell its products, including a novel low-cost approach to a trans-Caspian route. Meanwhile, the country still dreams of pushing forward the TAPI natural gas pipeline to Pakistan and India. Though first proposed in 2008, in November the project had appeared to flounder when a Pakistani minister described all work as being on hold. However, December saw a new flurry of diplomatic activity with Ashgabad’s foreign minister shuttling to Delhi and twice to Islamabad within the space of a few days.
The ongoing tension between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over long-term border issues in the Fargana Valley was not necessarily helped by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s call to rename the small western town of Isfana as Razzakov. The move was portrayed simply as a populist way to celebrate Iskhak Razzakov, the first-ever ethnic Kyrgyz head of the Kyrgyzstan Communist Party (1950-1961). However, most observers see a nationalist subtext in changing the name from Isfana, which is of Tajik etymology.