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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

Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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