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The Dark Side of the Caspian: Despair and Death in Human-trafficking

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The Caspian region presents individuals with an array of options for those seeking better opportunities. Unfortunately nefarious individuals are well aware of people’s hopes and dreams of a better, safer life and devastatingly use this knowledge to their advantage.

Individuals who fall victim to these criminals typically have been forced to leave their homes due to fighting or instability in their home region. A common scenario is when, unknowingly, the victim agrees to the perpetrator’s terms for safe transport and new jobs in a different country. Once they have given their trust, as well as their identification documents of course, the criminal exploits them in such a manner that it is nearly impossible for the person(s) to leave or escape their tragic new circumstances. Welcome to the new insidious form of de facto 21st century industrial slavery.

The Caspian region has well-documented human-trafficking routes. What makes this region popular for trafficking specifically is the Caspian Sea. Smugglers who are able to transport their human chattel across the sea save themselves time and money to reach their destination. Bypassing land routes is beneficial as they avoid many checkpoints that are intent on finding drug-traffickers and increasingly seeking to expose human-traffickers as well. Over the last decade, a few of the littoral states have created several initiatives primarily centered on combatting drug-trafficking and organized crime that is pervasive throughout their countries. Turkmenistan appears to be the main driving force behind several of these initiatives. Actions taken, however, as a result of the initiatives to curtail drug and human-trafficking have not yet been sufficient enough to prevent victims from living through a horrifying ordeal. Aside from transporting victims across the sea there are several other factors that create the prevalence of human-trafficking in the Caspian region. One of the main drivers is the abundance of energy resources in the region, which results in an increased need for laborers. Many individuals seeking work travel to the region and while some individuals are fortunate and are able to obtain legitimate work, many others become trapped in a system of de facto forced labor, debt bondage, restriction of movement, nonpayment of wages, physical abuse, and sexual exploitation.

The U.S. State Department monitors and publishes a yearly report that depicts trends in trafficking patterns throughout the world as well as the severity of human trafficking for each country. The countries that surround the Caspian region and beyond, unfortunately, factor heavily in the report. Men, women and children obtained in Central Asia, for example, are often trafficked to Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); men, women and children from Uzbekistan are often first trafficked to Kazakhstan; within Kazakhstan they are internally trafficked for forced prostitution as well as forced labor; men, women and children from Azerbaijan are trafficked not only within Azerbaijan but also trafficked to Turkey and the UAE for the sexual exploitation of women and children; men and boys may also be trafficked from there to Russia; Uzbek men and women are trafficked to Iran, Pakistan, and the UAE; Iran subjects Iranian women and children, both girls and boys, into sex trafficking in Iran, Europe and the UAE, as well as being sexually exploited in the Iraqi, Kurdistan and Gulf regions; traffickers force Afghanistan migrants into slave labor; Afghan boys are subjected to sexual abuse by their employers as well as being harassed or blackmailed by Iranian security services. The victims are a United Nations of victimology, coming from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, other Eastern European countries, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Iran and Russia are both Tier 3 offenders, the ranking given to the worst perpetrators in the world per the U.S. State Department. Both countries do not comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, protect trafficking victims, nor have they made significant attempts to do so. Russia has a significant amount of foreign labor workers in-country that is estimated between 5 and 12 million persons. Labor trafficking is the predominate problem in Russia to the extent that there have been criminal cases in which Russian officials were suspected of assisting human traffickers openly. Allegedly these officials have protected the traffickers and have even returned trafficking victims to the criminals, in a weird example of an international Dred Scott decision, while other officials were accused of accepting bribes from employers in order to prevent being fined for their undocumented workers. When authorities do get involved, suspected victims have often been charged with living illegally in Russia and were deported without any assistance or investigation to determine if they were in fact trafficking victims.

Iranian government officials have reportedly been involved in the ever-growing sex trafficking of women and girls. Officials overseeing shelters for runaway girls in Iran have been accused of forcing these girls, who were seeking safety and protection, into prostitution rings. Trafficking victims in Iran have continued to be punished for the unlawful acts they are forced to commit against their will. Female victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation rarely receive justice due to the fact that a woman’s testimony in Iranian courts is weighted to only half of what a man’s testimony is. Women are also liable to be prosecuted for adultery even if they were victims of sexual abuse, forced prostitution, or sex trafficking. Their victimization is punished by the courts, which then condemn them to death. The nuclear deal with Iran certainly has the potential to create an escalation of human trafficking in the Caspian region. It would once again allow Iran to export its natural resources. More laborers will be needed in the region to produce, refine and transport the crude oil and natural gas, in addition to building the newly required pipelines. Individuals not willing to pay decent wages to workers will rely on trafficked victims subjected to forced labor. The incidents of sex-trafficking and forced prostitution in Iran are also likely to increase as more people will be conducting business in Iran. Men seeking these victims are not discouraged from their desires but rather catered to. Their craven demand only increases the need to locate more victims to sexually exploit.

Tragically the majority of the world continues to overlook the evil of human-trafficking in the Caspian region. The victims become merely an afterthought of doing business there. Their words and stories of horrific abuse and exploitation fall on deaf ears. Disturbingly, the world has failed to recognize that sexual exploitation and modern labor slavery seems to evolve lock-step with developing regions, especially areas with ample supplies of natural resources to be extracted, refined, and distributed. This means the Caspian region might only become more of a hub for modern slavery and human-trafficking as the economic consequences emerge from the new Iranian nuclear accord. If the global community doesn’t make it clear that emerging prosperity shouldn’t be built upon the back of exploited men, women, and children, then it will have no one to blame but itself for the dark side of the Caspian descending further into shadow.

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Eastern Europe

The Stewards of Hate

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A big bear is rattling the open door of his cage.  He cannot abide a NATO spear in his belly.  Hence Valdimir Putin’s demand for Ukraine to remain out of it, and for the military alliance to stop its advance into eastern Europe.

For 72 years until 1991, Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union, and before that for centuries an oblast of the Imperial Russian empire.  In 1939, parts belonging to Poland were annexed.

It was during the breakup of Russia following an independence referendum that Ukraine opted to separate.  But NATO is another story.  After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (NATO’s eastern counterpart), Russia had expected the West to do the same.  Instead, NATO became a US fig leaf for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Apparently, everyone in the world saw through this — except the US — as it embroiled itself in both countries, and the bill for the misadventures rocketed from $80 billion to an estimated $5 trillion.

The EU, a path to riches for East Europeans, is a Ukrainian dream, and Russian troops the reality when they wake up.  Such are the facts, no matter how much the Ukrainians are trying to ignore them. 

If the powerful Russian bear is the Ukrainian bete noire, its polar opposite is the case in India.  A powerful Hindutva movement abhors the Muslim minority.  It blames them for India’s problems, very much akin to the situation for Jews in pre-WW2 Germany.  Not unsurprisingly given the roots of the RSS, which modeled itself after the Nazis, instituting uniforms and drills.  A former member assassinated Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims.  Post independence, the RSS was banned by India’s first government which was led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a secular socialist.

The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a former RSS pracharak —  that is an active member who devotes himself full time to promoting RSS doctrine and, like a missionary, in seeking new members.  As an ambitious politician, he shed RSS ties when he entered politics and as leader expresses the wish for unity — sentiments not shared by his BHP colleagues.

There is the yogi elected chief minister of India’s largest state, and his undisguised derogatory opinions of Muslims.  Worse, at a political event at the end of December, leaders called openly for the killing of Muslims, and India’s leaders kept silent.  After general social media outrage at the speeches, the police  finally registered a case against some of the speakers for ‘promoting hatred between religious groups.’

Videos show many of the speakers are prominent religious leaders often present with senior ministers in the BJP government.  Imagine, calling for genocide in 2021.  The world reacted to the effort to eliminate Tutsis in Rwanda where it also began with reviling and dehumanization.  Genocide and even incitement to genocide is a crime.  Hence the prosecutions.  Incitement to genocide is recognized as a separate crime under international law and an inchoate crime which does not require genocide to have taken place to be prosecutable.

The founders of post-independence India, Gandhi and Nehru who took pride in being secular, must be in agony over international outlaws wanting to become the stewards of their child.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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