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Russia and Nato ‘actively preparing for war’

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Welcome to the Caspian Daily, where you will find the 10 most important things you need to know on Caspian Sea Region. We appreciate ideas, reports, news and interesting articles. Send along to Caspian[at]moderndiplomacy.eu or on Twitter: @DGiannakopoulos

1The increase in the scale and number of military exercises by Russian and NATO is making armed conflict in Europe more likely, a think tank has warned. Ian Kearns, director of the London-based European Leadership Network, said that war games “are contributing to a climate of mistrust” that has “on occasion become the focal point for some quite close encounters between the NATO and Russian militaries.”Kearns is a co-author of a study which looks in detail at two military exercises held this year by Russia and NATO, which are deeply at odds over Moscow’s interference in Ukraine. He found signs that “Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.”The exercises “can feed uncertainty” and heighten the risk of “dangerous military encounters”.The ELN study said NATO is planning around 270 exercises this year, while Russia has announced 4,000 drills at all levels.

2Iran’s frozen funds: how much is really there? Iran’s portfolio of foreign assets is diverse, and the segment that has been frozen as a result of Western and international economic sanctions is spread among several countries and dates from different times. The freeze date for some goes as far back as the 1979 Islamic Revolution.The conflicting estimates about the value of assets to be released within a year of the deal’s implementation are partly due to the fact that there are different types of assets: some will be very easy to recover, while others will likely remain tied up. Details are murky.In general, the value of all Iranian assets blocked since 1979 most likely exceeds $100 billion. Nader Habibi for the Fortune.

3How much will the Iran deal really affect the U.S. dollar? President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry argue that if Congress doesn’t approve the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. dollar will fall from grace. Recently, Kerry and Obama have argued that if the Iran deal doesn’t pass, the U.S. would be forced to slap sanctions on anyone doing business with Iran going forward. That could be some of the world’s largest banks or even our allies in Europe or China if they forge ahead with the deal and America doesn’t. That would not go down well. The fear is that these nations and banks might retaliate by ditching the dollar as their currency of choice.

4Azerbaijani and Turkey’s military officials have exchanged views on the military situation in the region.Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov met outgoing military attaché of the Turkish Armed Forces to Azerbaijan Hasan Nevzat Tasdeler on August 11, the Azerbaijani defense ministry said.They stressed the importance of high-level reciprocal visits, and exchanged views on the military-political situation in the region, military-educational issues.The sides emphasized the necessity of solving the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, saying this will help establish peace and security in the region.

5The foreign trade turnover of Kazakhstan with the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) (Russia, Belarus, Armenia) declined by 21 percent and amounted to $7.806 billion in January-June 2015 compared to the same period of 2014, according to the State Statistics Committee under the Ministry of National Economy of Kazakhstan.Kazakhstan’s exports to the EEU countries decreased by 26.8 percent and amounted to $2.351 billion in the first half of 2015. Kazakhstan’s import from Russia, Belarus and Armenia decreased by 18.2 percent and amounted to $5.455 billion. Kazakhstan’s main trade partner in the EEU is traditionally Russia. Some $2.323 billion of Kazakhstan’s exports and $5.221 billion of Kazakhstan’s imports accounted for this country in the reporting period.

6The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project has recently become much more popular. The problem is that security in the transit countries, which the pipeline should cross, i.e. Afghanistan and Pakistan, is at a very low level. Blowing up infrastructure in these countries is commonplace. For the years since the emergence of the idea of the TAPI gas pipeline, the situation has not improved. On the contrary, with the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the terrorist threat in the region only increased. Under these conditions, in case of the project implementation, its participants will have to take huge risks, without any guarantee. The question arises: is it worth it for Turkmenistan to take such a risk? Elena Kosolapova for Trend.

7President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Almaty city on August 9, shortly after the city’s mayor was changed. Nazarbayev spoke about the progress achieved by Akhmetzhan Yessimov, the former Almaty Mayor. The latter took the office of Almaty Mayor in 2008 and only days ago was appointed Chairman of Astana EXPO-2017 National Company, the company steering Kazakhstan’s preparations for the EXPO. He explained that Yessimov’s experience was needed for organization of the upcoming EXPO-2017 in Astana. “EXPO-2017 is our future. Construction exhibition venues is just one part of this task. Another part, a more important one, is its content. EXPO-2017 is supposed to boost Kazakhstan’s transition to a new technological level based on alternative energy. The steering company needs an experienced leader capable of working with the government and regional akimats (local authorities) as well as with dozens of countries to attract investments and new technologies,” Nazarbayev said.

8Azerbaijan, the only Caucasus country with significant prospects for comprehensive development, is keen on diversifying its national economy, in particular the non-oil sector.A successful energy policy pursued by the government has enabled the South Caucasus country not only to stand on its own feet, but also to decrease dependence on petrodollars.Nariman Agayev, the Chairman for Research on Sustainable Development Center, believes that Azerbaijan can develop its non-oil sector by investing in the agricultural sector.He told local media that after three years, this sector of the national economy will bring significant revenues to the state budget.

9Saudis Looking for A Life of Problems. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham said on Tuesday that remarks by al-Jubeir in a joint press conference with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin on Monday showed that the JCPOA, which is aimed at ending an “unnecessary crisis,” has incurred the Saudi official’s “irrational wrath”.“When the senior representative of a regional government is infuriated to such extent by the political settlement of issues in the region and at the international level, it leaves no doubt that he has chosen a life of problems and crisis,” she said.She expressed regret that the Saudi minister’s remarks about the JCPOA were an “echo of the Zionist regime’s stance.”

10Ereymentau Wind Power has kicked off tendering to build a 50MW wind farm in Yereymentau city, Kazakhstan.The developer intends for prequalified firms, joint ventures and consortia of any nationality to tender for the turnkey project.Subsequent phases could push total project capacity up to 300MW.Funding sources for build include part of a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Clean Technology Fund and the client, EWP.

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine.

Human Rights

COVID-19: Education replaced by shuttered schools, violence, teenage pregnancy

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A culture of “safety, friends and food” at school has been replaced by “anxiety, violence, and teenage pregnancy”, with remote learning out of reach for millions, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, said on Tuesday.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “more than 600 million children in countries not on academic break are still affected by school closures”, James Elder, UNICEF spokesperson at a press conference at UN Geneva.

In countries such as Uganda, this has led to a “20 per cent spike in the last 15 months in teen pregnancies, or pregnancies of 10-24-year-old girls, who were seeking antenatal care. Across the globe in all continents we’ve seen child helplines, a good precursor to understanding kids who are reporting violence, seeing often triple-digit increases,” said Elder.

COVID-19 school closures

In nearly half of countries in Asia and the Pacific, schools have been closed for around 200 days. Latin America and the Caribbean have seen some of the longest closures ever with 18 countries and territories affected by either full or partial closures.

As of today, the UN agency estimates in Eastern and Southern Africa that 40 per cent of all children aged 5 to 18, are currently out of school. 

Elder added that if these figures “did not resonate with those in power, then a World Bank report estimates a loss of $10 trillion in earnings over time”, for this generation of students.

Remote learning ‘out of reach’

Equally alarming is the fact that the solution of remote learning is “simply out of reach” for at least a third of the world’s schoolchildren, the UNICEF spokesperson continued. In East Asia and the Pacific, “80 million children have no access whatsoever to any remote learning.

In Eastern and Southern Africa, Uganda school children have gone more than 300 days out of school, while home internet connectivity “is the lowest on the planet there at about 0.3%”.

‘Situation cannot go on’

In a call for action, UNICEF appealed for five main steps: Schools should reopen as soon as possible; governments and donors must protect the education budget; enrolment should be extended to children who were already out of school pre‑COVID‑19 – by removing financial barriers and loosening registration requirements – and cash transfers to the most vulnerable, must be increased. 

“Everything needs to be done to bring an end to the pandemic,” Mr. Elder said, starting with making vaccines available everywhere by sharing excess doses and financing to support the roll-out of vaccines.

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Human Rights

Six months after coup, Myanmar’s political, rights and aid crisis is worsening

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It’s been six months since the military coup in Myanmar where there’s grave concern over the widening impact of the deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis affecting the country’s people.

Speaking to UN News, the organisation’s top aid official in Myanmar, Acting Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator Ramanathan Balakrishnan, described how people have been severely impacted across the country since the junta’s power grab on 1 February.

“The situation in the country is characterized now by instability and a deteriorating socio-economic and security situation and to add to that we have a raging third wave of COVID-19,” said Mr. Balakrishnan in an exclusive interview.

Highlighting the ongoing nature of armed resistance to State security forces “in several ethnic minority areas” including in the states of Shan, Chin and Kachin, the UN official said that more than 200,000 people had been uprooted from their homes there to date.

Displacement swelling

In Rakhine state before the coup, the UN Humanitarian Response Plan pointed to some one million people including internally displaced people in need of urgent assistance, but “this number has only swelled”, Mr. Balakrishnan insisted.

More widely, “following the coup, an additional two million were identified as those in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and those were largely in the urban areas of Yangon and Mandalay”, he said, adding that the intensification of clashes and the worsening socio-economic situation was pushing “tens of thousands of people” into a humanitarian space” every day.

Echoing concerns over rights abuses by UN Children’s Fund UNICEF and others, Mr. Balakrishnan condemned the ongoing and widespread use of lethal force by the military against civilian protesters.

Rising hunger

Looking ahead, the UN’s priorities include ensuring that millions of people do not fall further into hunger, the aid official said. “There has been an increase in the price of basic commodities for many people…this has also resulted in a reduction of the nutrition value of the food basket that people usually take as they substitute their regular food with cheaper, more readily available items.”

Turning to Myanmar’s health system, which is facing extreme pressure because of the coronavirus crisis, as well as attacks on medical personnel and facilities in Myanmar – and a civil disobedience movement by some health professionals – Mr. Balakrishnan warned that even basic services had been disrupted across the country.

Standing with Myanmar’s people

In a message of solidarity, the top aid official insisted that the UN remained committed to respecting the will of the country’s people.

This was despite limited access to parts of the country linked to security concerns and disruption to the banking system, which limited the UN’s ability to transfer funds to humanitarian partners responsible for delivering aid.

The UN will continue to call out human rights violations and is committed to stay and deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar, in addition to sending in the COVID-19 response,” Mr. Balakrishnan said.

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Health & Wellness

Delta variant, a warning the COVID-19 virus is getting ‘fitter and faster’

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Cases and deaths resulting from COVID-19 continue to climb worldwide, mostly fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, which has spread to 132 countries, said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday.

Almost 4 million cases worldwide were reported last week to WHO and the agency expects the total number of cases to pass 200 million, in the next two weeks.

“And we know this is an underestimate”, underscored Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus during his regular COVID-19 briefing.

Infections have increased in every region of the world, with some even reaching 80 per cent more in the past month. In Africa, deaths have increased by 80 per cent over the same period, the official warned.

Overwhelmed

Tedros blamed the rise of cases on increased social mixing and mobility, the inconsistent use of public health and social measures, and inequitable vaccine use. He said “hard-won gains” are in jeopardy or being lost, and health systems in many countries are increasingly overwhelmed.

“WHO has warned that the COVID-19 virus has been changing since it was first reported, and it continues to change. So far, four variants of concern have emerged, and there will be more as long as the virus continues to spread”, he underscored.

A higher viral load

Lead WHO epidemiologist and COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, explained that the Delta variant has certain mutations that allow the virus to adhere to human cells more easily and that experts are also seeing a higher viral load in individuals infected.

She called Delta “dangerous and the most transmissible SARS-CoV-2 virus to date”. 

“There are some laboratory studies that suggest that there’s increase replication in some of the modelled human airway systems”, she added.

In terms of severity, Dr. Van Kerkhove highlighted that there has been an increase in hospitalizations in certain countries affected by the variant, “but we haven’t yet seen an increase in mortality”.

The WHO expert reminded that although there is some data that suggest that people vaccinated can get infected and transmit the variant, the likelihood is much reduced after the second dose has been administered and reached full effectiveness.

She also clarified that Delta is not specifically targeting children as some reports have suggested, but warned that as long as the variants are circulating, they will infect anybody that is not taking proper precautions.

Continuing to evolve

“It’s in the virus’s interests to evolve, viruses are not alive they don’t have a brain to think through this, but they become more fit the more they circulate, so the virus will likely become even more transmissible because this is what viruses do, they evolve they change overtime”, Dr. Van Kerkhove warned, echoing Tedros’ remarks.

We have to do what we can to drive it down”, she added, reminding that public health and social measures do work against the Delta variant, and that the vaccines do prevent disease and death.

Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies, said that even with the virus getting “faster and fitter” the gameplan does not change, but It needs to be implemented more efficiently.

“Delta is a warning that this virus is evolving, but it is also a call to action before more dangerous variants emerge”, he said.

Shots for Africa

Last month, the WHO chief announced the setting up of a technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines In South Africa as part of WHO’s efforts to scale up production of vaccines and their distribution in Africa.

“Today we have taken another step forward, with a letter of intent that sets out the terms of collaboration signed by the partners in the hub: WHO; the Medicines Patent Pool; Afrigen Biologics; the Biologicals and Vaccines Institute of Southern Africa; the South African Medical Research Council and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention”, Tedros explained.

He added that WHO’s goal remains to aid every country in vaccinating at least 10% of its population by the end of September, at least 40% by the end of this year, and 70% by the middle of next year.

“We are a long way off achieving those targets. So far, just over half of countries have fully vaccinated 10% of their population, less than a quarter of countries have vaccinated 40%, and only 3 countries have vaccinated 70%”, Tedros warned.

The WHO head reminded that the global distribution of vaccines remains unjust, despite expert warnings and appeals, and said that all regions remain at risk, “none more so, than Africa”.

“On current trends, nearly 70% of African countries will not reach the 10% vaccination target by the end of September”, he cautioned.

New tool to fight Delta

Tedros also announced that on response to the Delta surge, the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator is launching the Rapid ACT-Accelerator Delta Response, or RADAR, and issuing an urgent call for 7.7 billion U.S. dollars for tests, treatments and vaccines. 

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