October in the Caspian Region
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
While relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia remain ice cold, some hints of a possible thaw emerged during October, starting with the re-routing of regular Baku-Nakhchivan flights through Armenian airspace. Now, as the anniversary of the end of the Second Karabakh War approaches, an air of modest optimism has begun to grip observers with hopes that early November might see the announcement of a breakthrough towards a more permanent peace settlement. One possible scenario that has been mooted is that there’ll be a formal face-to-face meeting between the countries’ presidents sometime before Christmas. Indeed, some sources believe that such a meeting has already been timetabled in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin as moderator – an idea neither confirmed nor denied by the Kremlin Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov.
Assuming the leaders do meet, it is hoped that they will agree on a series of measures leading to border demarcation and on unlocking trade and transportation interconnections prevented by closed borders for decades. Azerbaijan is especially keen to gain a hassle-free road link to its disconnected exclave of Nakhichevan: currently, getting there from Baku requires flying or a circuitous route via Iran. Meanwhile, Armenia is pushing for a complete opening of trans-border routes. What would be most economically helpful for Yerevan is the opening of its western border to Turkey. In this, too, there are promising signals. On October 26, the Anadolu News Agency reported Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying that as long as Armenia was sincere, he could see "no obstacle to the normalization of Turkey's relations with Armenia." Turkey is a strong supporter of Azerbaijan, and in the past (notably 2009), Baku had pressured Ankara not to soften its stance towards Yerevan. This time it could be different. Re-opening the Turkey-Armenia border in the near future would bring an economic reward to Yerevan for committing to a fuller peace deal.
At the start of October, Georgian cities held mayoral elections that were seen by many as an unofficial referendum on the legitimacy of the ruling party, Georgia Dream (GD). Hoping to sway the vote towards his opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, former president Mikheil Saakashvili made a dramatic reappearance in the country after a long period of self-imposed exile, hoping that his presence might galvanize voters to swing away from Georgia Dream. Saakashvili’s almost immediate arrest all seemed to be part of the media stunt. That didn’t stop GD polling 46.7% of the vote overall, comfortably above the 43% - a number once suggested as a threshold below which new general elections would be triggered.
However, 20 of the 64 races had small enough margins of victory that no outright winner could be declared. As a result, a second round of runoff elections was held on October 30, including one for mayor of Tbilisi, which became the second-best ambition for the opposition. From prison, Saakashvili kept up the media pressure by launching a hunger strike. Many large rallies were held in Tbilisi in support of the ex-president, whose state of health sometimes appeared to become more of the story than the elections themselves. Saakashvili apparently hoped to get a court hearing before the runoff, presumably using the courtroom as an alternative political platform. However, those hopes were dashed as the government let him continue his hunger strike - simply telling him that he could commit suicide if he wanted. In the end, the runoffs gave 19 of the previously undecided 20 mayorships to GD. An opposition candidate took only the relatively obscure city of Tsalenjikha near Zugdidi. The OSCE who observed the polls suggested that they had been well administered, though pointed to an unfair playing field in terms of media coverage and the unfortunate focus on national issues in what were supposed to be local elections. Disputing the results, several opposition MPs renounced their mandates in protest, and further demonstrations are planned, continuing Georgia’s political polarisation. Meanwhile, Saakashvili, who has received blood transfusions to keep him going, appears to be continuing his hunger strike well into a fifth week.
Attempts to get the JCPOA (nuclear sanctions talks) back on track seemed to have gone relatively quiet in October after months of accusations, gestures and verbal barbs, which appeared to be worsening in late September. However, with attention focussed more on Afghanistan, perhaps October’s calm was just what was needed. On October 27, Tehran’s nuclear negotiator Bagheri Kani tweeted that Iran had now agreed to restart the Vienna talks in November.
had a very serious & constructive dialogue with @enriquemora_ on the essential elements for successful negotiations.— علی باقریکنی (@Bagheri_Kani) October 27, 2021
We agree to start negotiations before the end of November. Exact date would be announced in the course of the next week. https://t.co/0A7BOPZh8f
A week later, a date for the restart (November 29) was agreed.
Tempers also appeared to calm between Tehran and Baku towards the end of October after several weeks in which undiplomatic accusations had snowballed into significant military exercises along each other’s borders.
Meanwhile, Tehran hosted a regional get-together of foreign ministers to discuss Afghanistan (see below) as well as the annual International Islamic Unity Conference, which notably called on the Taliban to moderate their approaches in order to gain recognition.
Central Asia & Afghanistan
Uzbekistan's presidential elections saw reformist incumbent Shavkat Mirziyoyev re-elected for a second five-year term with a landslide vote of over 80%. Analysts considered that the president’s popularity was genuine while reflecting on an ‘old style’ election in which there was no substantive alternative. The OSCE also questioned the genuine competitiveness of the poll and noted many irregularities. However, given the circumstances, it suggested there were some encouraging signs in the overall slow shift towards more pluralism.
Working out how to approach the new regime in Afghanistan continues to be a serious concern for neighbouring countries. At the same time, the city of Termez in Uzbekistan gears up to be a logistics and distribution centre for international humanitarian aid destined for the Afghan people. Uzbekistan’s foreign minister went to Kabul on October 7 to ascertain whether plans for a new railway and power lines would still be viable in the new circumstances of Taliban control. Turkmenistan also sent an economic delegation to Kabul for a two-day series of meetings which, most significantly, appeared to result in an agreed-upon resumption of the highly strategic TAPI pipeline construction project. If completed, TAPI would allow Turkmenistan’s natural gas to be exported directly to Pakistan and India across Afghanistan. Having the Taliban in power rather than as a destabilizing force might make constructing the pipeline a more viable option than in previous years.
The latest in a series of off-beat photo-ops for Turkmenistan’s President saw Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov swap riding a white horse for driving a giant Kamaz lorry. The president-turned-trucker photoshoot was part of the publicity for a new multi-lane motorway between Ashgabat and Tejen, the first stage of a US$2.3 billion upgrade for the600km M37 highway that connects the Turkmen capital via the oasis city of Mary to Turkmenabat (Chardzhou) on the Uzbekistan border.
Multi-lateral neighbours’ meetings brought together high-level officials in Tehran on October 27 and at a ‘Moscow Format’ meeting in Russia on October 20. The countries surrounding Afghanistan stopped short of recognizing the Taliban government but did accept that they would all accept the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The most vocal of the neighbours in its opposition to the Taliban is Tajikistan who sees itself as a voice to Afghanistan’s large ethnic Tajik population. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s anti-Taliban stance is popular at home. Still, it has led the Afghan Deputy Prime Minister to warn that “anything could happen” if Tajikistan interfered in his country’s internal affairs. Several large-scale military exercises combining Russian and Tajik forces have been held near the Tajik-Afghan border, including one in mid-October, lasting nearly a week. China has also been playing a role in helping Tajikistan improve its border defences in some remote regions.
Meanwhile, on Tajikistan’s northern borders, the fall-out from the Fargana Valley border spat of April 2021 means that Kyrgyzstan continues to block the passage of most Tajik citizens across the countries’ mutual frontiers. Kyrgyzstan has also been beefing up its border security forces with orders placed for new-generation drones, partly as a move to pressure Dushanbe into speeding up the resolution of border demarcation disputes that have dragged on since the end of the USSR.