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Fighting the Shadow Silk Road: Anti-trafficking Efforts across the Caspian

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Most conversations about the Caspian countries revolve around the region’s political and economic developments and Central Asia’s new Silk Road initiatives that seek to facilitate regional cooperation in the areas of energy, transportation and trade.

Despite all of these commendable advancements, there is a dark side that is rarely explored because many find the topic rather unpalatable. There is an underground and subversive “shadow” Silk Road that has become a source of prosperity for those that would seek to enslave humans – many of them among some of the most vulnerable – for the purpose of exploitation and abuse.

Human-trafficking, a type of slavery that involves the transport or trade of human beings for the purpose of labor, affects virtually every country in the world. Despite the fact that slavery was abolished well over a century ago, there are more slaves in the world now than at any other time in history. Unfortunately, none of the Caspian Five countries are immune to the proliferation of human-trafficking and corruption within their borders. In fact, the Caspian makes up a very significant part of a human-trafficking network that has, at any given time, ensnared about two and a half million people around the globe. Overall, human-trafficking is estimated to be a $32 billion a year industry and shows no signs of slowing down, despite – thanks to the rise in the production of documentaries and the release of blockbuster Hollywood movies like Taken – the growing awareness of the public. The victims of human-trafficking include people of all backgrounds and are trafficked for a variety of purposes. Men are trafficked to be used in hard labor jobs and women and children are trafficked to work in the agriculture, fishing, and textile industries. Men, women, and children are all trafficked into the commercial sex industry and used for prostitution, pornography, or other forms of sexual exploitation.

Human beings are smuggled within national or across international borders, work out of both public and private organizations, and are ‘sold’ over and over again across time. While not all human-trafficking victims are acquired in the same way, the common theme among those that are ‘recruited’ is extreme poverty. When a person is trafficked, the victim is removed from everything that is familiar and finds himself or herself isolated and powerless. They often don’t speak the same language – or understand the culture – of their captors, ‘customers,’ or fellow victims and, in many cases, even travel through multiple countries before they end up at their final destination, making most efforts to track and rescue almost impossible. Once in the custody of their kidnappers – who are often part of a larger, more organized group of criminals – victims are stripped of their documentation, told that they are breaking the country’s laws by being there, and threatened with harm to their loved ones if they try to escape. They are subjected to physical and psychological abuse ranging from degradation to food and sleep deprivation to torture. As a result, the victims often become confused, disoriented, frustrated, and ultimately compliant from sheer despair. The average life span of a victim of human-trafficking after being ensnared is somewhere between three to seven years. In many of these cases the victim is literally worked to death.

The proliferation of human-trafficking is fueled by widespread corruption and greed. In some parts of the world the life of a female holds so little value that there is not much opposition to the idea of purchasing them for sexual services across the general population according to several disturbing survey polls. Prostitution is often considered a victimless crime and in many countries there is a perception that it is a woman’s choice to enter the commercial sex trade as their preferred profession. Despite the efforts of governments – including formally the governments of the Caspian Five countries – to regulate and enforce anti-trafficking legislation, local governments and police forces have been known to not only protect sex-trafficking rings but to participate in them. There are also lucrative benefits to countries because of the practice of sex tourism – where travelers vacation to a particular country for the purpose of having sex with an exotic and/or underage male or female.

Azerbaijan, known as a ‘destination country’ for women from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia for forced prostitution, is also identified as a transit country for victims of sex and labor-trafficking from Central Asia to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran. According to the U.S. Department of State, Azerbaijan is classified as a TIER 2 country, which means its government does not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but is making significant efforts to do so. According to the 15th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, Azerbaijan’s government did increase the number of trafficking investigations and convictions, enacted a new national action plan, and introduced new legislation to provide reintegration assistance to vulnerable populations.

Kazakhstan, also identified as a TIER 2 country, is to a lesser extent a destination and transit country for sex-trafficking and forced labor. Unlike neighboring countries, most victims of trafficking in Kazakhstan are lured there with promises of legitimate employment. People from the country’s rural villages are attracted to the economic prosperity they perceive in Kazakhstan’s major cities, like Astana and Almaty. Upon arrival, many are deceived and made victims. According to the TIP report, Kazakhstan’s government is committed to combating the problem by improving its anti-trafficking legislation, training law enforcement officials, and investigating and prosecuting suspected police officers that participate in trafficking activities. Kazakhstan has also significantly increased its funding for victim assistance and continues to cooperate with international organizations and NGOs to protect victims and raise awareness of trafficking crimes.

Turkmenistan, recognized as a TIER 2 Watchlist country, is a ‘source’ country for people subjected to forced labor and sex-trafficking. Most of the Turkmen people that become victims are mainly taken to Turkey and Russia, where they are often forced to work in the cotton and construction industries. Even though Turkmenistan is supposedly ‘making significant efforts’ to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, its government has not been particularly committed to devoting sufficient resources to implement such plans to bring about compliance. While Turkmenistan has continued to convict traffickers, it does not demonstrate very adequate efforts to identify and protect victims and, in some cases, even punish victims for their ‘crimes.’

Both Russia and Iran, which have been identified as TIER 3 countries, are source, transit, and destination countries. Neither country’s government makes much of an effort to eliminate trafficking. They do not share information with NGOs, the media, international organizations, and other governments in order to address the extensive trafficking problem found within their borders (and beyond) and neither have a national action plan in place to combat trafficking. While Iran did make a small effort to work with other countries in the region to combat other types of transnational crime, Russia has refused to take major public steps to combat root human-trafficking causes that often originate within its own borders through its extensive organized criminal groups.

As seen after the collapse of the USSR, economic systems were completely transformed and many people, especially women, found themselves facing unemployment and poverty. These people flocked to the cities in search of work opportunities, higher wages and a better future. Unfortunately, many found themselves swept up in the sex-slavery trade and modern-day indentured servitude. Now that sanctions have been lifted on Iran there are so many new opportunities across the entire Caspian region that will no doubt prove to be irresistible for people in search of a better life. People will thus find themselves looking to leave home to make the voyage to a ‘nearby new world’ where they hope new opportunities that weren’t there a few short months ago can transform their lives. Unfortunately, wherever there is hope there is also an accompanying fear. Wherever there is opportunity there is also exploitation. As hopefuls flood back and forth across the Caspian Five, governmental efforts must not simply continue to formally declare their animosity to trafficking but they must begin to truly fight the predators waiting in the shadows. If they do not, then fighting the Shadow Silk Road will likely remain a losing battle.

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Eastern Europe

Will Russia serve the old wine in a new bottle?

Angela Amirjanyan

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Nowadays, one of the main features of global political developments are non-violent or color revolutions. These revolutions are brought about by wide-spread corruption, poverty, unemployment and a deep gap between masses and the ruling elite with the latter being the biggest political risk for the ruling party. Most analysts argue that these factors are combined also with outside support, which can culminate in the revolution. However, what happened in Armenia after a few weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the Velvet revolution, that brought down the regime and has exercised true people power, is considered to be unprecedented for it didn’t owe its origin to the external assistance or wasn’t an attempt by ‘‘US to export democracy’’ in Armenia. The geopolitical factor was initially excluded.  In fact, Russia has traditionally had negative attitude towards color revolutions and has seen them ‘‘as a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties’’.This means that Russia, desperate to maintain its own standing in the Caucasus, was likely to intervene in the events unfolding in Armenia. However, the Kremlin didn’t view turmoil in Armenia as a Ukraine-style revolution. Asked if Russia would intervene, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the matter was “exclusively an internal affair” and Russian action would be “absolutely inappropriate”. Moreover, after Armenia’s unpopular leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Armenians “a great people” and wrote, “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”

The prospect of a Russian intervention was low for 2 key reasons

One of the possible reasons behind Russian inaction was that Moscow didn’t regard the revolution in Armenia as a threat to its geopolitical prerogatives, but rather as an opportunity to make a strategic move through a global panic over Russia’s continued warlike behavior. Satisfied that this is genuinely an internal Armenian issue directed at an incompetent and ineffective government, Russia proved with its muted response to Armenia’s color revolution that Kremlin embraces the policy of non-interventionism.

Secondly, a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society representatives and youth was prevalent in Armenia in the past decade. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly decided in 2013 to join Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) over EU Association Agreement.Yerevan’s decision of September 3, 2013 to involve in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was mostly conditioned by Moscow’s ultimatum imposition, which left a deep track in the perception of Armenia-Russia relations and formed a comparatively new cliché. Anti-Russian sentiments were on rise in Armenia in recent years due to major levers of influence that Russia maintained over Armenia: Armenia’s corrupt oligarchic system and the military threat coming from Azerbaijan. Civil society and the opposition in Armenia viewed Russia as the sponsor of the autocratic, oligarchic system of governance in Armenia. They have traditionally criticized the government for having closest ties with the country which provides 85 percent of arms export to Azerbaijan-a country which is in continuous conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.  This anti-Russian sentiment reached its apex in 2016 when the intense fighting broke out in Karabagh known as Four-Day War. This drew the public attention to the Russian-supplied arms which played a role in the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

Both opposition leaders and civil society members demanded not only Armenia’s exit from the EAEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country. The anti-Russian rhetoric was useful for both the Armenian government and the opposition to alert Russia not to take Armenia for granted.Hence, in one way the April Revolution in Armenia was a test for Russian-Armenian relations, and Russia viewed it as a new impulse for mutually beneficial relations aimed at restoring the damage of Russia’s protective image among Armenians.Needless to say,Armenia is important to Russia, as losing Armenia would cause fundamental changes in Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. Furthermore, Armenia can’t cherry-pick among its closest allies because its landlocked position limits the freedom to maneuver in its foreign policy and its economic and defense imperatives dictate a close alignment with Russia. This was reaffirmed by new prime minister and protest leader of Armenia, Nikol Pashinian, who not only supported maintaining the current Russian-Armenian relationship but also suggested a “new impulse” for political and trade relations during the meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 14. During another meeting a month later, Armenian PM expressed his hope that ‘’the relations will develop more effectively on the basis of mutual respect for the best interest and sovereignty of the two States’’.

On the whole, Armenia will continue to pursue its “Complementarian” or multi-vector foreign policy, which means that no radical change in the realm of foreign policy is expected to take place.  Yet there is no strong anti-Russian current in Armenian political and society rhetoric. The recent civic movement was significant in realizing the potential of Russian-Armenian mutual relations for economic development and security. Undeniably, Russia should adopt new approaches towards Armenia and it should realize that under new circumstances the backward-looking policies are destined to be counter-productive. In Armenia people hope that Kremlin wouldn’t serve the old wine in a new bottle.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania deserves better life

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The latest expressive headlines on delfi.lt (the main Lithuanian news portal) such as “Gender pay gap increased in Lithuania”, “Sudden drop in EU support pushes Lithuania into middle income trap, finmin says”, “Lithuanian travellers spent EUR 186.5 mln abroad this year” and “Lithuania’s Jan-May budget revenue EUR 14.3 mln below target” clearly demonstrate difficult situation in the country. The only positive thing in this fact is Lithuanian authorities do not try to hide the social problems or they just cannot do it anymore.

While in the international arena Lithuania continues to be very active and promising, the internal political and social crisis as well as decrease in living standards of the population make Lithuanians worry about their future. Idleness of the Lithuanian authorities makes the country poorer.

The most acute social problems today are emigration of young people, unemployment rate, increase in the number of older persons and poverty. The appalling consequences of such phenomena are alcoholism and suicides of the Lithuanians.

According to Boguslavas Gruževskis, the Head of Labour Market Research Institute, in the next 5-6 years, Lithuania must accumulate reserves so that our social protection system can operate for 15 years under negative conditions, otherwise serious consequences are expected.

Over the past two years the level of emigration has grown by more than 1.5 times. In 2015 the country left about 30,000 people, in 2017 – 50,000. This is a social catastrophe, because, in fact, the country has lost the population of one Lithuanian city. And the situation with depopulation cannot be corrected by an increase in the number of migrants coming to Lithuania. Their number is too small because Lithuania cannot afford high living conditions for newcomers like Germany or other European countries and may serve only as transitory hub.

As for unemployment rate and poverty, in Lithuania, 7.1% of the population is officially considered unemployed. The more so according to the Department of Statistics for 2016, 30% of Lithuanian citizens live on the verge of poverty, which is 7% higher than the average European level.

One of the most profitable sectors of the economy – tourism, which allows many European countries to flourish, Lithuanian authorities do not develop at all. Even Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis plans to spend his summer vacation in Spain. This fact speaks for itself. Skvernelis notes that spending vacation in Spain is cheaper than in Lithuania. Thus, he is lacking the will or skill to do something with the situation as well as other high ranking officials. He is named one of the main presidential candidates but does nothing to improve the distressful situation.

At the same time, Lithuanian President wants more foreign troops and modern weapons, increase in defence budget and uses all her skills to persuade her NATO colleagues to give help. Probably, she is afraid of her own people, which is tired of helpless and indifferent authorities, and wants to protect herself by means of all these new weapons and foreign soldiers?

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Eastern Europe

Spoiled Latvia’s image in the international arena

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Latvia is actively preparing for one of the most important political event of the year. Parliamentary elections will take place in October 6, 2018. Submissions of the lists of candidates for the 13th Saeima elections will take place very soon – from July 18 to August 7, 2018. But the elections campaign as well as all political life in the country faces some problems which require additional attention from the authorities. And these problems spoil the image of Latvia as a democratic state which might respect the rights of its people.

This is a well-known fact, that the image of the state is composed of several components: it heavily depends on its foreign and domestic policy directions. The more so, internal events very often influence its foreign policy and vice versa.

Latvia considers itself a democratic state and tries to prove it by all possible means. But all attempts fail because of a serious unsolved problem – violation of human rights in Latvia.

It is not a secret that about one third of Latvians are ethnic Russians. Their right to speak and be educated in their native language is constantly violated. This problem is in the centre of attention of such international organizations as OSCE and EU. This fact makes Latvian authorities, which conducts anti Russia’s policy, extremely nervous.

Thus, the Latvian parliament recently passed in the final reading amendments to the Education Law and the Law on General Education under which schools of ethnic minorities will have to start gradual transition to Latvian-only secondary education in the 2019/2020 academic year. It is planned that, starting from 2021/2022 school year, all general education subjects in high school (grades 10-12) will be taught only in the Latvian language, while children of ethnic minorities will continue learning their native language, literature and subjects related to culture and history in the respective minority language. This caused

Hundreds joined a march in the centre of Riga in June to support Russian-language schools in Latvia. The event was held under the slogan: “For Russian schools, for the right to learn in native language,” as the government wants to switch the language of the education system to Latvian.

The European Parliament deputies called for support of Russian education in Latvia. 115 people have signed the joint declaration that will be forwarded to the Latvian Sejm and government. The declaration is signed by representatives of 28 EU countries, and almost all parliamentary factions. Every 7th deputy supported the necessity of the Russian school education in Latvia. The document authors marked that this is unprecedented expression of solidarity towards the national minorities, especially Russian residents of the EU. Authors of the letter sharply criticize the education reform that takes away from children of national minorities the right to study in their native language.

On the other hand the parliament contradicts itself by rejecting a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

The matter is in parliamentary election will take part not only Latvians, speaking Lantvian, but Latvians, who speak Russian. Their voices are of great importance either. The authorities had to recognize this and tempered justice with mercy.

After years of oppressing Russian speaking population and violating their rights Saeima committee this month rejected a bill allowing election campaigning only in Latvian.

It turned out that politicians need ethnic Russians to achieve their political goals. They suddenly remembered that Campaigning Law should not promote discrimination because publicly active people should not have problems using the state language.

“Wise” deputies understand that Russian speaking children are not going to participate in the elections while Russian speaking adults can seriously damage political plans. Only this can explain the controversy in the Parliament’s decisions.

In Russia Riga’s decision to transfer the schools of national minorities to the Latvian language of teaching considers as unacceptable and could cause introduction of special economic measures against Latvia as well as condemnation by the international community.

So, Latvia’s on-going war against its residents also could become a reason for deterioration in attitudes not only with Russia but with EU and OSCE that will have unpleasant economic and political and even security consequences for Latvia. It is absolutely clear that making unfriendly steps towards own citizens and neighboring states, Latvia can not expect a normal attitude in return.

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