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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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