In this series of articles, we intend to present an overview on the Caspian countries, their history, their changing politics and economy in order to offer a complete analysis on the late panorama in this part of the world.
As a macro approach, political and economic relations juxtapose when it comes to the development plans of the Caspian Five and their expectations. Geographically close and sharing a basin with abundant natural resources, some of those countries have maintained relations since before they became independent, the prime example being an agreement on the region signed in the early 20’s between the then called Persia and the former Soviet Union. The current five littoral nations – Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – still struggle to tackle a solution for a fair division, while coping with external influences from Eurasian partners, the American pressure for businesses and omnipresence of the European Union.
Who moved my sea?
Russia is intrinsically connected to all the other Caspian countries, be that for its historical role as the most important player in this side of the world map or for its actual importance for being the region’s economic life belt. It is unarguably the member with the greatest incomes that also pushes the economies in the Balkans, and it physically controls the access routes to the said sea. One is in the country itself and one in the newly accessed Crimea, a ‘conquest’ that cost Russia many sanctions from the not-so-far West, nevertheless local relations in this occasion remained untouched.
Lately, the recession in the Russian economy also hit its Caspian partners, especially the independent former provinces, whose main economical sources are, not surprisingly, fossil fuels. The crisis was also responsible for Putin’s dream of a common currency in the Eurasian Economic Union (in which the only nation from the Caspian Sea is Kazakhstan) to disappear into thin gas.
Even so, the negotiations about the rights of exploitation for the countries in the area, which have lasted for more than a decade, made a clear progress in their last configuration, but show that the theme is still very sensitive for all of the members.
On the last meeting, in 2014, it was agreed that no nations apart from those that surround the sea would be allowed to have military forces there, under the pretext of maintaining regional security – and the message between these Cyrillic and Arabic lines is clear: keeping the American forces away from the Caspian waters. And although it was also settled that there would be a balance between those regional forces that does not show the slightest level of the complicity the referred countries will still be expected to cultivate before coming to the thorniest issue on the agenda that has already resulted in gunboat diplomacy.
The Achilles’ heel in the Caspian epic politics is how to divide the basin. Whereas Iran defends it must be equally divided into five parts, thus supporting the stance Caspian water plateau is a lake, Russia and the others support that it is a sea and the division should be proportional to the extension of the margin, by defining a total of 25 miles in the surface for exploitation and keeping an area for common use, which was supposed to relief tensions between the participant countries. As a third factor, it must be taken into account the difference in the legal status of the sea and lake. Whereas Iran strongly supports the lake solution, as mentioned before, the other Caspian countries argue that the Caspian is a sea. Accordingly, under this solution, the Caspian Common Force would need to observe the strictly defined rules of conduct under the UN Law of the Sea.
While the international community anxiously awaits a solution in the next meeting, expected to take place in 2015, the rich Caspian region remains untouchable for the countries who are not part of the Caspian Five and also for some of this group, since the agreement reached so far, in 2003, is trilateral (between Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan). Those resolutions, therefore, play a primordial role in the maintenance of a cooperative environment in the region.
A Vodka-Maotai tidal bore
The ex-Soviet republics, which had a previously shy importance to geopolitics, now gain recognition for the encounter of two distinct poles of influence – Russia and China.
Because of their political objectives, both nations share influence over the countries in Eurasia and, whilst Russia’s Look East policy aims to develop a common market and deepen its power in the area, China’s Go West counts greatly on the Silk Road Fund promises of an Economic belt through the funding of infrastructure in the same region, somewhat competing with funds cost by the US.
While the dual influence is beneficial for the region, once it foments local development in the main economic activities and physical integration, it is to say that both countries are willing to raise their controlling power, which might eventually have impacts in their relation.
The Casper Sea
Composed mostly of young nations, the Caspian region still has a long way to go both in diplomatic and democratic aspects. As a rich, yet discreet region, it counts with political regimes that are indisputably organized, but still making progress.
Both Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan rely on a traditional political system, which is characterized by a great conversion of roles in a strong leadership figure. That is to say that the government itself is prone to engage in a multiplicity of duties, such as keeping the local order, informing and communicating with the civilians, revealing high centralization of the available means in the administrative sphere.
The latest news in Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is not centered in communication. The country has anticipated elections on the verge of an economic crisis, choosing President Nursultan Nazarbaiev, locally referred as a ‘father’, with over 97% of votes, for a fifth successive term, against two opponents that actually supported the current government. Even though variety could be an option, it seems to not have been taken into consideration by the citizens, either because of great leadership performed by the president or an unexpressive opposition campaign.
Moreover, those countries are a pool of ethnicities, gathering many distinct peoples that have historically offered the governors extra difficulties in keeping a political unit. The main question is whether or not those governors will be able to deal with them all in an era where information flows faster and wilder than the waters in their sea.
Have we seen it oil?
To sum up, the promising Caspian region is full of opportunities for development in different aspects – economical, by the convergence of plenty of investment, political, because of the advances in international negotiations and, finally, humanitarian, with the exposition of the internal politics as a chance of putting the governmental system on the spot and making it better.
We will scrutinize all of them in the next weeks.