Russia’s energy control appears to be soon coming to a halt as Caspian members, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, plan on gaining control over vital areas of the Caspian Sea. Ongoing deliberations over assigning specific demarcations to the five outlying regional members of the Caspian threaten to impede on Russia’s years of energy control within the region and across the EU.
Peaceful discussions amongst Caspian members display a warm and sentimental approach towards an issue that can easily impact Russia’s economic and political success. Although Russia has gone on record to demonstrate public support of sea demarcations, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan’s leaders appear to be fueling Russia’s agenda in Ukraine, providing a warning to the possibilities of a successful Trans-Caspian Pipeline initiative that does not offer Russia a significant role. The building of Caspian alliances communicates a desire for dynamic partnerships that are dismissive of one dominant player. Russia’s public support of a unilateral decision-making power is being quickly outvoted as plans carry forward toward more innovative models that would elevate the economic and political influences of neighboring countries.
Beginning almost twenty years ago, plans to come to an agreement have been continuously stalled over explicitly defining regional access to the Caspian Sea, mostly due to the abundance of natural oil and gas reserves under its waters. Out of the five neighboring countries Russia’s interests are the least benefited by the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP). “Big countries, especially, have found it easier to make private deals with President Vladimir Putin’s government. And that has done little for Europe’s most vulnerable economies, whose infrastructure is designed only to take in supplies from Siberia.” (Klapper & Lee) Russia continues to strictly maneuver its agendas amongst EU nations, by manipulating energy distributions as a form of reprisal for ill-approved political advancements concerning the Ukrainian crisis. The attitudes toward the TCP proves not only a demonstration against long-term Russian constraints on the EU but also the possibility that such a plan could prove effective to relieving future economic and power crises amongst EU countries.
Locally, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have been joined by Azerbaijan, all of whom are openly leading TCP initiatives, as support by the EU grows stronger. EU positions are in favor of the TCP with hopes to break away from Russian-imported gas supplies. “The Kazakh-Turkmen maritime demarcation deal strengthens Turkmenistan’s claim on rights to use its sector for whatever purposes it wishes — building a pipeline, for example — without consulting the other littoral states. Turkmen and Azerbaijani authorities have already said if both countries agree to build such a pipeline there is no need to seek approval from the other three coastal states,”(Ovozi). Such actions have tried to basically oust Russia, pushing its government to oppose progress on the TCP, citing implications of negative environmental effects and even resorting to possible threats against its diplomatic relations with Caspian members.
Russia’s sentiments seem to be shared by Iran in the disadvantages of the TCP in that it also cannot take part in the main spoils. “The current standing of the two countries in the summit indicates that Russia and Iran — at least in this phase — can capitalize on their common concern…According to the Itar-Tass news agency, the countries agreed to increase Russian corporate participation in the development of Iranian oil and gas deposits (such as the South Pars gas field), as well as to cooperate in marketing policy in oil and gas exports and setting up capacity for producing, storing and exporting natural gas in Iran,” (Berti). However the burdens of Iran’s woes are very much different from Russia’s in that Iran may have the ability to change its own fate on the Caspian issue. With relations with the west easing and talks of years of sanctions being lifted, it appears that opportunities for Iran’s recruitment to join the alliances of the TCP are alive and present. “Iran still says that the Caspian and its resources must be subject to joint supervision. Analysts however say that Tehran could moderate this position in exchange for greater involvement in oil and gas export routes. Tehran has been presenting its own pipeline network to the Persian Gulf as the cheapest and shortest export route for Caspian oil,” (MacWilliam). Should Iran decide to change its mindset, the TCP could present an amicable solution to its own economic instability. As a partner in the TCP, Iran would attain the political advancement that could rebuild its geopolitical reputation.
For the U.S., concerns over developing the TCP demonstrate an ulterior motive against its longtime rival, Russia. “Pipelines, ports and power plants are the weapons of what could prove a generation-defining conflict between the U.S. and Russia over how Europe heats and electrifies its homes. Success, U.S. officials say, would mean finally “liberating” former Soviet states and satellites from decades of economic bullying by Moscow.” (Klapper & Lee) Not only would the success of the TCP aid in the demilitarization of Russian economic presence over the EU, it would also push alliances toward EU countries to bid against Russian energy provisions and rely on American counterparts for alternative energy solutions.
Hence, though plans for the TCP continue to remain the excitement of media reports and offstage political meetups in the region, the world’s major power players – Russia and the U.S. – appear to be stacking their chips in a political game of poker. Though initial discussions for the TCP really only involved Russia and its Caspian neighbors, its longtime rival to the far west has found comfort in trying to diminish Russia’s influence. The building of the TCP would mark for the first time a remarkable union between East and West that would see the U.S. try to use it as a “debunker” of Russia’s longtime natural resource coercion within the region and further out amongst EU states. The TCP could even provide some political relief for the crisis being witnessed in Ukraine as it may make Russia more pliable in its negotiations. However, history also demonstrates that Russia tends to not be so eager to lay its concerns to rest and doesn’t stay backed into a corner very long.
Berti, B. (2007) “Iran Strengthens Its Role in the Caspian Sea and the Central Asian Regions,” The Reut Institute. November 6 http://reut-institute.org/en/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=2652 > accessed 06/21/15.
Klapper, B. & Lee, M. (2015) “U.S., Russia at Odds Over Energy, Cold Ware Style Conflict,” The Washington Times. February 24 <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/feb/4/us-russia-odds-over-energy-cold-war-style-conflict/?page=allaccessed> accessed 06/20/15.
MacWilliam, I. (1998) “World: Analysis The Caspian’s untapped mineral wealth,” BBC News. July 6 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/analysis/127670.stm> accessed 06/20/15.
Ovozi, Q. (2015) “Kazakhs, Turkmen Divide Caspian Spoils Despite Demarcation Doubts,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. May 27<http://www.rferl.org/content/caspian-demarcation-oil-kazakhstan-turkmeinstan/27039904.html> accessed 06/20/15.
Preventing Violent Extremism through Education in Central Asia
The UNESCO Almaty Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and UNESCO Headquarters, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), held a Sub-regional workshop on the prevention of violent extremism through education on 13-15 November in Almaty.
UNESCO’s approach to preventing violent extremism through education is related to its work on Global Citizenship Education (GСED). Based on its long-standing commitment to peace and human rights education, the GCED strives to foster respect for all, create a sense of belonging to humanity and help students become responsible and active citizens. Thus, the GCED creates conditions for strengthening students’ commitment to renouncing violence and peace and creating conditions for protection from hatred, discrimination and violent extremism.
The workshop was organized within the framework of the partnership of UNESCO and UNODC on “Education in the spirit of global citizenship in support of the rule of law”. It strengthened the capacity of education stakeholders to implement educational measures and approaches to prevent violent extremism in an effective and appropriate manner. More specifically, the workshop provided a common discussion platform for a clearer understanding of the issues of violent extremism in the Central Asian region, as well as discussed new tools and innovative approaches and drew up a plan for further action to prevent violent extremism through education in Central Asia.
During the workshop, the participants also had a chance to visit the Nazarbayev Intellectual School and Almaty State College of Tourism and Hospitality Industry and observe open classes on global citizenship education and values.
The workshop brought together education stakeholders from all over Central Asia, including representatives from the ministries of education and community development, universities and research institutes, as well as youth organizations and civil society. International experts from France, UNODC, UNESCO as well as other UN agencies and international organizations also took part in the event.
Developing the IT sector will make Central Asia more united and independent
This September marked the second anniversary of the death of Islam Karimov, the former President of Uzbekistan, and the de-facto accession to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who was later officially elected to the presidency in December 2016).
In record-breaking time President Mirziyoyev solved border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which had previously been considered unsolvable, significantly strengthened relations with Kazakhstan, conducted sweeping economic reforms, and opened Uzbekistan to foreign investments.
The activity of the new reformist president led to positive changes not only in Uzbekistan itself, but in the region as a whole. The change of power in Uzbekistan – the most highly populated Central Asian country, located right in the middle of the region – marked the beginning of the Central Asian Spring, which, in contrast to the Arab Spring, has been characterized by gradual reforms and, above all, economic liberalization.
In March 2018, for the first time since the beginning of the 2000’s, a summit of the Central Asian countries’ leaders took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It was attended by presidents of every country in the region (except Turkmenistan which was represented by the Chair of the country’s parliament). This summit, along with a notable strengthening of connections between the two most prominent countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – laid the ground for talks regarding the creation of a new regional union, the goal of which would be to strengthen the economic independence of the Central Asian region, and later its political independence as well.
The first attempts at economic unification of Central Asian countries date back to the mid-1990’s, and were being undertaken as late as the mid-2000’s. However, each time those attempts were beset with insurmountable obstacles – the position of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov who basically isolated Uzbekistan from any foreign influence, the border conflicts between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the personal ambitions of the Central Asian countries’ leaders.
It is rather ironic that Uzbekistan – which for а long time halted the process of regional integration – is today, along with Kazakhstan, its primary moving force. Riding the wave of “the Uzbek thaw,” and highlighted against the backdrop of problems associated with the functioning of the Eurasian economic Union, for the first time in many years the conditions for the creation of a regional union are favorable.
For now, the countries of the region are treading very carefully when it comes to this idea. There have been too many unsuccessful attempts at unification in the past, and interstate contradictions are still too strong, as well as the differences in the countries’ approach to issues. Besides, such unification may not be well liked by the “Big Neighbors” of the region – Russia and China – who may put forth efforts to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent regional player.
The geographic location of Central Asia also provides its opponents with an advantage: each country individually (and the region as a whole) is landlocked, and as a consequence the operation of logistical and energy chains is fully dependent on the goodwill of the “Big Neighbors.” Only fundamental changes to the very structure of the regions’ economy can help overcome this dependence. Such changes are now underway.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are striving to abandon the natural resource-dependent model and develop innovations. An example of that is the “Astana Hub” – a financial and technological center which has the capabilities to speed up the technological upgrading not just of Kazakhstan alone, but the entire Central Asian region.
The simultaneous development of an IT ecosystem of innovations in the countries of Central Asia will create new possibilities for regional collaboration, as well as for collaboration of the Central Asian IT sector with global centers of the IT industry.
Central Asia’s old economic model relied on each of the countries having different and separate economic relations with its “Big Neighbors” and – facilitated by those “Big Neighbors” acting as intermediaries – with countries of the West. The new Central Asian model envisions the five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – being integrated into a common economic market and having direct connections with Western markets, bypassing the intermediary function of the “Big Neighbors.” As shown through the success of the European Bank’s ‘Investing in Central Asia’ forum which aimed to highlight opportunities for business expansion into the region, Central Asian countries will become integrated into the world ecosystem both in the information and economic realms.
However, in order to implement this plan both the Western business world and the political decision makers have lots of work ahead of them. As the new “IT tiger,” Central Asia may be interesting to the world industry’s giants only as a united region, and they must view it as such already, by extending a certain credibility to the new economic initiatives originating in that region. This means opening regional offices in the local IT clusters and entrusting them first with outsourcing and then with R&D, serving as evangelists of the new economy in contacts with representatives of the Central Asian countries’ governments, and considering the possibilities of investing into local startups jointly with governments. Western policymakers will need to get ready to provide the most favorable environment to the IT industry for any trade and economic relations with countries of the region.
As energy exports are the foundation of economic well-being for the majority of the region’s countries, it places those countries in the position of competitors who are dependent on their neighboring states, above all Russia and China. Developing advanced technologies, attracting Western investments and Western experience, and creating a Central Asian IT market will serve a dual purpose: in reducing the Central Asian countries’ dependence on their neighbors, and in becoming the catalyst for unification processes in the region.
Turkmenistan, the heart of the Silk Road
Over 140 years have passed since Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geologist, geographer and traveler and the president of the Berlin Geographical Society, coined the term Silk Road. Several more decades had passed before scholars in different countries became seriously interested in this phenomenon of the antique and medieval world and began to study specific routes of caravan trade where Turkmen land had an important place. The Silk Road era, which lasted for more than 15 centuries, has left thousands of monuments and landmarks along the entire route from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Many of them are located on the territory of Turkmenistan.
In the modern era, the legendary route is being restored in a new quality, carrying the idea of revitalizing and strengthening trade, economic, humanitarian, and cultural ties between states and peoples. In his book, “Turkmenistan, the Heart of the Silk Road,” Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, citing facts of national history, ancient tales and legends, as well as events and developments from the country’s modern life, notes that a fundamental role in the evolution and active use of the Silk Road, each of its branches being on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, belongs to, among others, the Turkmen people.
Thus, as our state carries out major transport projects of the century, a modern history is being written and the idea of restoring the Silk Road – the heart of which is independent and neutral Turkmenistan – is being revisited.
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran transnational railway line that has been put into operation can carry up to 10-12 million tons of cargo and makes it possible to connect to transport infrastructure in the east and south, gaining access to dynamically developing markets. Turkmenistan believes it is essential to focus efforts on ensuring that the opportunities for Central Asian and Caspian states arising in connection with these major transit projects be used to the maximum degree possible.
Convenient and safe international corridors using rail, motor, air, and water transport ensure the sustainable development of the entire region, foster neighborly relations between nations, strengthen cooperation, expand the volumes of trade turnover and help address a number of social issues. As a strategic goal defining the contours of a new, large-scale format of cooperation on the continent, they help create wide-ranging and promising geoeconomic configurations. In this context, it is important to note that an international sea port in the city of Turkmenbashi is due to be put into operation in the very near future.
The state invests heavily in modernizing the material and technical base of the transport sector and improving management through modern technology. High priority is given to developing sea and river transport infrastructure. Active work is under way to improve passenger and cargo transportation, develop ports and port facilities, and streamline state oversight over the safety of shipping and navigation.
Central and South Asia is a space for active international cooperation. Ancient trade routes passed across these territories for centuries, bringing Asia and Europe closer together. At present, countries in these regions play an important role in expanding global economic partnership. The implementation of projects in these areas opens up great prospects for the optimization of transport, energy and cultural ties in the Eurasian space. Therefore, as Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov noted, our region is emerging as a major link in the formation of a new trade and economic partnership model on the continent, which, in turn, opens up opportunities for creating a platform for more wide-ranging cooperation. This is a vivid example of deeply innovative thinking in the global geoeconomic configuration and a vision of strategic perspectives for its development.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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