November in the Caspian Region
On and around November 8-10, Azerbaijan celebrated the anniversary of the end to the Second Karabakh War. The mood was contrastingly despondent in Armenia, with some anti-government protests reported. Despite considerable media hype, an anticipated meeting for rumoured talks aimed at longer-term peace between heads of state Pashinyan and Aliyev did not occur on cue.
Indeed in the following days, tensions grew as Armenian troops reportedly “amassed” near the Lachin border on November 9 and 14, and both sides accused the other of “provocations.” On November 15, tensions grew further with reports of new restrictions on Armenian traffic at Azerbaijani checkpoints on the Goris-Kapan road, which snakes awkwardly to and fro across the Azerbaijan-Armenia border. The most deadly confrontation since 2020 saw at least half a dozen deaths on both sides as Azerbaijani troops captured two Armenian combat positions. These were in an area of the border zone that Baku claimed was disputed territory, though Yerevan insisted the Azerbaijani manoeuvre constituted an incursion into Armenian territory.
Whatever the reality of such claims, the sudden spike in violence concentrated minds and led to a rapid re-engagement of political dialogue. Late on November 16, a ceasefire was declared, and three days later, leaders of both countries agreed that they would meet in December at the margins of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit. Meanwhile, at the invitation of Russian premier Vladimir Putin, Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev agreed to meet face to face even sooner than that, convening a tripartite summit on November 26 at the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The meeting seems to have been reasonably successful, with both sides giving positive messages following a re-affirmation of the terms of the November 9/10 agreement from 2020 that ended the Second Karabakh War, notably on border demarcation and transport links.
The saga of Mikheil Saakashvili’s hunger strike was a continuing focus of the news for much of the month, accompanied by a series of “free-Saakashvili” demonstrations in central Tbilisi, some drawing crowds estimated at up to 40,000. By November 8, the fasting ex-president was in a prison clinic, reportedly partly staffed by convict paramedics who were likely to have been amongst those jailed by Saakashvili’s earlier anti-crime campaigns, so hardly wishing him well. However, despite dire warnings of this and his deteriorating health, clinic photos appeared to show the ex-President looking lively and with a still prominent belly. On November 10, the European Court of Human Rights rejected Saakashvili’s case demanding his transfer to a civilian hospital. Instead, the court called on him to end his hunger strike. That finally came on around the 50th day when he reportedly collapsed and, by agreement, was transferred to a military hospital at Gori on November 20. Saakashvili used the publicity to outline through international news outlets his gripes about what he and the opposition see as an anti-democratic government in Tbilisi. On November 29, Saakashvili, at last, was given an opportunity to put forward a defence in court. He reiterated claims that charges against him were politically motivated and launched into an “expansive” evocation of his time in power. However, the charges against him still stand, and Georgian politics seems ever more polarized.
TBILISI, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 19, 2021: Activists stage a rally, demanding that Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili be transferred from his current prison’s intensive care unit to a civilian hospital.
Talks in Vienna finally restarted this month on finding a compromise that would allow an end of international sanctions against Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) was unilaterally broken by ex-US President Donald Trump in 2018. This was the former agreement under which Iran had made nuclear promises to end earlier sanctions. Other major signatories of the JPCOA, China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK, began a new round of talks with Iran on November 29, hoping to restore a form of the agreement. The EU chairperson of the talks, Enrique Mora, was initially upbeat about the results, but many journalists didn’t share this optimism.
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria December 3, 2021. EU Delegation in Vienna/Handout via REUTERS
As the US was responsible for breaking the agreement last time, Iran considers that it should provide suitable assurances that no such problems would recur. However, Iran’s arch-rival Israel continues to press world powers against any generosity of spirit in negotiations, claiming that the Tehran regime is a danger to both Israel and to its own people.
Meanwhile, the covert, undeclared cyber-war between Israel and Iran continues to intensify, notably with an attack that essentially knocked out Iran’s nationwide fuel distribution system for nearly two weeks. Public discontent in Iran over water shortages also continued while some reports suggested that environmental campaigners had been detained by the authorities for reasons as yet unclear.
Water shortages are also looking problematic for Kyrgyzstan, in part because so much of the country’s power comes from hydroelectric sources. Politically, the country has had a turbulent 14 months since protests lead to the annulment of the 2020 elections. A referendum in January confirmed a new presidential-based system of government, and on November 28, a snap election for MPs in a reduced-sized parliament was described by the OSCE as “the last step towards a more centralized form of governance.” Though the vote was considered well run and competitive, observers noted that “a stifled campaign and overall voter disillusionment hindered meaningful engagement.” Some opposition parties have challenged the results. The Green Party of Kyrgyzstan (KZhP), whose share of the vote plummeted, claimed that their poor showing was because the party’s name had been written on ballot forms in a completely unfamiliar linguistic formulation such that voters found it unrecognizable.
In the Fergana Valley, where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share notoriously complex borders, Sokh (one of several disconnected exclaves) gained a new transport lifeline in the form of a small but very welcomed new airport.
Further east in Tajikistan’s rugged Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, the death of a local resident at the hands of law enforcement officers led to demonstrations. Attempts to suppress these demos reportedly led to another two deaths.
In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov hosted a meeting on November 27 with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For the press, what was more newsworthy than the official discussions was the fact that the presidents posed with their respective wives. While that might seem normal enough, especially in a place whose name translates loosely as the “city of love,” this was thought to have been the first time that Mrs. Berdimuhamedova has appeared in an official photo during her husband’s tenure of nearly 15 years.
Turkmenistan and Iran appear to have ironed out some of their economic disagreements with the announcement of a small but politically notable three-way gas swap arrangement with Azerbaijan. The westward transfer of Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves in far greater quantities should become more manageable if the novel new plan goes ahead. The hope is to link up its sub-Caspian fields with those of Azerbaijan’s, cutting out the Iranian transit and providing a climate-helping way of saving gas which is currently wastefully flared.
No, not SPECTRE but the ECO Council of Ministers.
Turkmenistan was the host of the “25th Meeting of ECO Council of Ministers,” bringing together the foreign ministers of most Caspian-region countries along with Pakistan and Turkey to discuss economic relationships. While some observers expressed profound skepticism over its eventual implementation, the meeting resulted in an unusually pro-active “Ashgabat Consensus” of proposed ventures to restore the region’s historic ‘Silk Route’ role as a significant player in world trade.