Recently, I came across an interesting outlined roadmap for Caspian countries, written in 2010 with predictions for 2025. 5 years down and 10 years to go, let us review the scenarios and elaborate on which one is the most eligible for the future of the Caspian Sea region.
It is year 2025 and the Caspia Inc. is in formation. We are witnessing a multi-polar global world order with multiple regional power- centers, where economic competition is much more highlighted than the old geopolitical one, sort of reminiscent of the cold-war era. Great powers of the world are cooperative instead of competitive in the world affairs. Caspian Sea region is a globally recognized and significant oil and gas exporting region while Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are enjoying the most FDI- friendly profile and a semi- democratic regime. When it comes to foreign interest in the region, Western and Russian entities are dominating over the others.
Apart from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, geographically and resource- wise Turkmenistan is also a significant part of the Caspian Sea region. Due to the long, dark years of authoritarian regime and isolated style of governing, the country is unable to attract significant FDIs and stretch its outreach of influence. Another troubling sign are the instabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, having a spillover effect on other Central Asian border countries. The regime in Turkmenistan is weak and with practically no popular support, therefore susceptible to social uprisings. The opium trade, originating in Afghanistan, is booming.
Russia is still the biggest power in the region, but showcases no interest in reinstating its former control over Central Asia. The most prolific trading exchange is still between Russia and Kazakhstan, although relations with the EU are also at the highest level. Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey are now all member states of the EU and integrated in the European common market. Apart from Russia, another major force in the region in China, serving as a trading partner for the Central Asian authoritarian regimes, including Turkmenistan. Same goes for Iran which is not actively involved in the region, apart from gas collaborations with Turkmenistan and occasional cooperation with Armenia. The US is less important than the other outlined players.
Trans- Caspian pipeline has not (yet) been constructed. Azerbaijan is mostly capitalizing on the BTC and the new Nabucco pipeline, also pumping Russian gas. Turkmenistan is mostly transiting its gas to China, although Russia and its Gazprom is also still an important partner. Kazakhstan is mostly reliant on the CPC pipeline and the gas pipeline to China.
Because the world economic crisis has been combated on every level with much international cooperation in the global community, there are no negative effects and over-politicizing of economic and other affairs. China and India are the main generators of growth. Oil price is stable and the LNG market has expanded to the level that makes gas an increasingly global commodity. Henceforth, geopolitical competition has become obsolete; however, there is still competition at the company level.
In this overview, the world in 2025 in my opinion looks like the scenario everyone pacifistic and optimistic at heart dreams of, but not something that is likely ever to happen, let alone in 10- years time.
Realistically speaking, the most viable part of the forecast, judging from the current situation in international politics, is the part on the multi- polar world order; we see signs and struggles for it on a daily basis. From the collaborations within the BRICS format, clearly underpinning the American dominance, Asia rising and Latin America moving further away from the dominance of the Northern Hemisphere, and to many other numerous regional outlets gaining momentum and credibility (such as, for example, the ASEAN common market initiative), the world is clearly escaping the reins of the leftovers from the cold war era and the supporting premise of the lone superpower. I believe that these trends will become even more vibrant and affective in 2025, with:
– fully working and prolific BRICS bank and monetary fund, successfully overshadowing the current dominance of IMF and the World Bank;
– integrated and economically more efficient South- East Asia (The US`s foreign policy feature “pivot to Asia” will likely become a global redirection);
– strong regional hegemons instead of one world superpower and much more vibrant and balanced world politics.
I also think that the prediction for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan sustaining the high momentum of foreign FDIs is likely to be true in 2025 as it is in 2015. Additionally, as the current trends show, countries are very likely to have escaped the Dutch disease due to the establishment of stabilization oil funds. In Azerbaijan, growth of the non- oil sector has surpassed the growth of the oil sector for the first time in 2012, signaling the success of such policies. Of course, such directions and policies can be subject to change in the future, depending on the governmental preferences, world economic situation and energy trends of the future (green vs. fossil fuels).
When it comes to Turkmenistan, the new president Berdimuhamedov seems to be redirecting the country onto a different course. With an enhanced relationship with other Central Asian nations, Russia and many high- level visits to China, the country seems to be opening up. The most significant investments are made from Saudi Arabia and Iran, but these have to be carefully balanced in order not to spill over the stronger and more significant religious standpoint to otherwise very secular Turkmenistan. But the data from the country does not seem to match these efforts and many fear that a lot of it is just smoke and mirrors. In 2014, overview of the country`s economic freedom showed a small decline from the previous year. It showed no significant gain in the FDIs to the country`s economic sector, which matched the still present relative disengagement from the international community, apart from the gas trade. With the recently erected avant-garde monuments for the president, the country seems to have fallen back to its old trail.
Highlighting the destabilizing factors in the near vicinity of the region, the authors of course could not predict the two major ones: the Ukrainian crisis, poisoning the inter- state and inter- continental relations, damaging the overall economic progress and stability, and the rise of ISIS; the latter has been caused by the security loophole, left by the American forces in the Middle- Eastern region, and fueled by various extremisms, resulting from the overall failed western policies in this part of the world. Afghanistan of course is not to be neglected, the country is still very volatile to changes and the concerns over the overall rise in the international terrorist activities, many of which is supported and organized by ISIS, are also worth every consideration.
When it comes to the overall relationship between Russia, Caspian littoral states and the EU, the scenario is utterly wrong. Unfortunately, due to the Ukrainian crisis, the relations between Russia and the West are at its worst since the fall of the Berlin wall. The current trends seem to indicate a stronger Russian turn to Asia, again supporting the theory of a multi- polar world order, gaining in credibility, man power and capital. Additionally, the vision of Turkey and Azerbaijan being part of the EU common market seems outrageous for the moment, especially with the increased Islamophobia in Europe.
When it comes to pipelines, the prediction of the Caspia, Inc. scenario definitely has some misperceptions. Although BTC will stay an important infrastructural pathway, Nabucco pipeline and the Russian counterpart, South Stream, were both cancelled and future projects are manifold and depending on the at-the-moment political support. Since the Trans- Caspian pipeline largely rests upon the potentially resolved issue of the status of the Caspian Sea, it is hard to tell what will happen in the upcoming 10 years. The last major breakthrough was reached last year, when all the Caspian littoral states agreed to lock foreign (military) vessels out of the Sea, therefore not fully applying the UNCLOS anytime in the future. This was a great strategic victory for Iran and Russia and it makes one wonder what can be found between the lines of this agreement. It might be possible that both, Russia as well as Iran, will agree on the border limitations sooner than expected as a compensation for this agreement, therefore granting full access to hidden natural resources to all the littoral states for exploitaton. Such silver lining makes it easier to understand why the newcomers to the Caspian club, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, would agree to such terms in the first place, especially considering how some of them, namely Azerbaijan, were lobbying for the complete application of UNCLOS for the Caspian. But there are no clear signs on the agreement for the Caspian Sea status just yet, but these recent events show it might be one of a kind, sui generis status.
The cancelation of the Nabucco pipeline project meant new life for the Azerbaijan/Turkey financed Trans- Anatolian pipeline, with the Baku- chosen Trans- Adriatic pipeline to serve as the western leg of the project to Europe. Recent events show greater tendency of Caspian littoral states and Turkey to serve as major energy/ transportation players and therefore gaining more independence and profit from this status. It might happen in the future that the new pipeline infrastructure to Europe will be neither Russian nor European, but Central Asian.
Therefore, we can conclude that the scenario of Caspia, Inc is not likely to ever fully realize because the relations in the international community are what they are. Although the cold war is long over that does not mean the old geopolitical rivalries are likely to be forgotten anytime soon. And while the Caspian littoral countries are seemingly headed into a more independent and successful future, there are still many obstacles in the way regarding economy and internal politics and all have to be considered with great care. The future of the Caspian therefore seems less harmonious, especially when considering the international community as a whole, and not surprisingly, much more susceptible to political and economic realities to come.