September in the Caspian Region
Our monthly roundup of key developments in Eurasia.
Helping you see the Caspian region from a whole new perspective. Image: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, Public domain
A year after the Second Karabakh War, Armenia and Azerbaijan seem to have eased off the cross-border sniping a little but instead have begun a pair of matching legal battles. At the same time, PACE (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) called on both sides to thoroughly investigate any allegations of war crimes and pressed Armenia (article 10.3) to “release without delay” the landmine maps of de-occupied areas that remain in its possession.
The Hemicycle, Strasbourg: Home of PACE (The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe)
On a positive note, in an interview with France 24, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev said that his country was keen to move towards lasting peace talks – suggesting that the Minsk Group might be a useful channel to get such negotiations started. The interview also set the record straight in stating unambiguously that Baku’s recent fashion for using historical/Azerbaijani names for places in Armenia did not imply any kind of territorial claims, despite the speculation of media analysts.
In the slow process of regenerating Azerbaijan’s de-occupied regions, Agdam City was, at last, declared free of landmines, while in the famously cultural city of Shusha, Azerbaijani performers symbolically celebrated ‘Music Day’ to a backdrop of as-yet-unrenovated landmark ruins.
Meanwhile, there were hopeful signs that the important issue of reopening the Armenia-Turkey border was being discussed more seriously than at any point in the last decade.
During September, Georgia held its breath in the run-up to the mayoral elections of early October. Although the issues for candidates in such polls would typically be local, this year, many would see the vote as a referendum on the legitimacy of the ruling Georgia Dream Party, with various parties accusing one another of pro-Russian leanings – largely considered a vote-loser in Georgia.
Before this, however, the Georgian Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, had made some interesting international moves. At the UN, he reiterated Tbilisi’s determination to work towards EU and NATO membership and met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where he underlined Georgia’s hopes at encouraging a more lasting regional peace in the South Caucasus. Back in June, Georgian mediation encouraged by the US had already been credited with facilitating the first maps-for-prisoners swap between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In September, Garibashvili met both Armenia’s Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev in a further series of explorative talks with the neighbours. For now, however, the optimistic idea of a peaceful, trade-maintained Caucasian ‘Benelux’ remains a distant dream.
Seemingly interminable attempts to restart talks on a renewed JPCOA nuclear/sanctions deal saw plenty of moves, including Tehran’s decision to allow UN watchdogs to maintain camera surveillance of Iran’s nuclear facilities. At the UN, Iran claimed that a resumption of talks was close, but Israel’s virulently anti-Iranian prime minister continued to pressure the US president to maintain a hard-bargaining approach and the equally anti-Israeli Iranian president reiterated his distrust of any US promises.
Meanwhile, existing tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan grew during the month following the arrest of Iranian truckers for unauthorized passage across a stretch of de-occupied Azerbaijani territory en route to Armenia. This spat was seen as one of the factors behind a later build-up of Iranian military forces along the Azerbaijani border, though according to some sources, the war games for which they were gathered had been announced well in advance.
At the end of the month, Iran’s bid to join the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) was finally approved after a 15-year wait. The SCO includes Russia, China, India and most Central Asian countries, representing a combined economy that’s almost 25% of global GDP. Though the accession process might still take a couple of years, the move underlines Iran’s frustration with Europe’s lack of support in the years since the US unilaterally resumed the sanctions that had officially been dropped in the 2015 JPCOA nuclear agreement.
Central Asia & Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, the world keeps watching to see how far the Taliban regime will revert to its ‘bad old ways’ of the 1990s. As yet, no world government has formally recognized the Taliban regime. After an attempt to find a common response through an unusual online ‘neighbours meeting,’ most of the countries that border Afghanistan appear to be finding ways to make the best of the new situation. However, things are proving more difficult for Tajikistan, whose support for ethnic Tajiks south of the border has led to an increasingly tense war of words between Dushanbe and Kabul. Russian and Tajik military manoeuvres appear to suggest a real fear that cross-border conflict might be a possibility. A military parade, therefore, dominated on the country’s 30th anniversary, although a colourful display by some 30,000 residents of Dushanbe saw a more celebratory style of commemoration. Turkmenistan also celebrated its 30th anniversary with a giant military display of its own, the event culminating with President Berdymukhamedov riding on one of his beloved white horses in what some analysts saw as a way of counteracting rumours of poor health.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov rides a horse at a parade marking the Independence Day in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan September 27, 2021. REUTERS/Vyacheslav Sarkisyan
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan faces difficulties preserving power capacity over the coming winter, with a lack of water in the reservoirs threatening hydro-electrical production. The knock-on effects of power outages are liable to have serious economic and political reverberations.