Syrians Not Seeking, Syrians Not Welcome: Refugees and the Caspian Region
The primary point of interest here is why Syrians are fleeing their nation and where they are going. The primary reason they are fleeing is relatively obvious: Syria is currently being torn apart by war and its citizens want to be free of the violence, destruction and general unrest.
But with increased pressure being placed on western states to accept a larger number of refugees, a secondary reason now also exists. There is a segment of the population fleeing in the hopes of upgrading their quality of life, despite not having been affected, or having been very negligibly affected, by the violence in Syria. In some cases the ‘refugees’ have yet to be displaced at all. The more interesting point of interest here is where Syrian refugees are going. The Syrian refugees have largely settled in nations along immediate borders such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. There has also been a coalition of support from European and Eastern nations that have accepted large numbers of refugees. One group of nations, however, is notably rejecting support and has remained almost entirely refugee free: the Caspian states. These states are all geographically located very close to Syria and to date have either failed to accept any refugees or have accepted a trivial amount. In contrast, a nation such as Canada, literally on the other side of the world, has done more in the past month to support refugees than the entire Caspian region has since the conflict began.
Geography is the most easily justifiable reason for refugees to choose a nation to emigrate to. It is easier, logistically speaking, to take in refugees from one country to another if the countries are bordering each other. In the case of the Syrian conflict this is best exemplified by Turkey. Since the conflict began, it has taken in over 2 million Syrian refugees, nearly twice as many as the next highest, Lebanon. However, other nations that either directly or very closely border Syria have failed to take on any refugees. The most readily apparent Caspian state to fit the bill is Iran. To date they have accepted zero confirmed refugees despite being the closest state in the Caspian to Syria. Russia and Azerbaijan would be the next closest Caspian states to border with Syria, though there is a small nation in between (Georgia and Armenia respectively). Similar to Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia have taken in zero refugees. What may be occurring in this case is ‘opportunity asylum.’ Meaning that by having to travel through one nation to reach another, which is necessary to reach any of the Caspian states, refugees may receive asylum from the first nation they cross before reaching the second. Most refugees will accept guaranteed asylum in a nation rather than take their chances at the next one. This theory receives some support from the number of refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, but doesn’t explain why western nations significantly further away are accepting larger numbers of refugees while the much closer Caspian states continue to accept none. Thus, there must be other factors at play outside of geography and opportunity asylum.
Politics always plays a significant role with refugees. This does not appear to be the issue in the Caspian region, however, as all five nations of the Caspian have policies in place to deal with the intake of refugees, be it from Syria or anywhere else. The history of refugee intake in the Caspian is not one decorated with successes, however. Azerbaijan has the most visibly negative track record for refugees, as its own citizens have historically at times fled from the nation to become refugees elsewhere, primarily in Armenia. Every other state in the Caspian, however, has accepted refugees at one time or another. Iran in particular boasts by far the most impressive track record for refugee intake in the region. They have hosted the largest population of refugees in the world since 1979 and an Iranian, Sadruddin Aga Khan, assumed the position of High Commissioner for Refugees on behalf of the UN from 1965 to 1977. Thus, there is precedent within the Caspian region for accepting refugees. So there must be other factors at play outside of politics keeping Syrians from finding asylum in the Caspian.
Social concerns and persecution have played the largest role in keeping Syrians out of the Caspian region. Despite the fact that all Caspian nations have refugee policies in place there are some significant social concerns when accepting asylum in a foreign nation. Will that nation treat you well? Will they respect your customs, culture, or religion? Will they temporarily house and feed you until a more permanent solution materializes? Does the possibility of permanent citizenship and naturalization exist? These are important questions for a refugee to consider when fleeing any nation, particularly Syria, as there are currently many other options available. The policies may be in place formally but Caspian states have been notoriously difficult for refugees seeking asylum. Numerous human rights groups have been particularly critical of Russia’s refugee policies. There have been multiple reports citing concerns with everything from detention centers to impossibly tight deadlines to submit refugee applications, which could then deny them refugee status if not completed on time. Perhaps of greatest concern is the fact that Russia does not prohibit the return of refugees to their home country, which therefore does not guarantee asylum and is inconsistent with international norms. In Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan there have been numerous reports of refugees experiencing human rights violations and racism. Combine that with general poverty for refugees in these nations and none of the states are particularly appealing options for seeking asylum. This therefore begs perhaps a rhetorical question: why would a refugee flee from persecution and violence in Syria only to arrive in a Caspian state and be persecuted more?
The fact of the matter is that Syrian refugees are not being accepted into the Caspian region largely because they do not want to claim asylum in the Caspian states. There are other contributing factors in geography and policy but ultimately when other nations with a better track record in economy, human rights and historical refugee acceptance exist as asylum options, then there is no reason to choose a lesser Caspian state. Though to be fair to refugees, the Caspian nations certainly are not encouraging Syrians to come and claim asylum either. In fact, the very opposite is occurring, as states like Russia have explicitly stated they will not be accepting any.
Finally, there could be an element of public image at play as well. If Syrians claim asylum in the Caspian and are persecuted shortly thereafter, an immense amount of critical attention and involvement from the UN and global community could be drawn. It could very well cause a state to suffer embarrassment or even sanction. Rather than potentially suffer this embarrassment on the international stage, the Caspian states have de facto closed their borders knowing it would be near impossible to guarantee that Syrian refugees would remain free of persecution in the host nations. The chance of this changing before the Syrian conflict ends is virtually zero and thus the Caspian will remain free of Syrian refugees for the foreseeable future.
Latvia risks to turn to a ghost state
Latvia 2020 population was estimated at 1,886,198 people at mid year according to UN data.
At the beginning of 2022 population of Latvia accounted for 1 million 876 thousand people, which is 17.5 thousand people fewer than a year ago.
The current population of Latvia is 1,826,608 as of May 17, 2023, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.
For many years Latvia has suffered from a so-called “brain drain”, a phenomena when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country. Since Latvia became a member of European Union and Schengen Area and when working in other countries became especially easy, the human capital flight from the country has intensified and reached high figures, when Latvia lost many residents due to emigration.
The number of young people continues to has decline sharply. At the beginning of 2022, there were 234,500 boys and girls aged 13 to 25 living in the country. This is 12.5% of all residents. Behind the reduction of this group is not only a decrease in the birth rate, falling living standards but also emigration. The young and talented people prefer not to stay here.
One new reason for youth to leave the country has appeared this year. Latvia reintroduces compulsory military service. The decision was made by the country’s parliament on April 5. Latvia has not had compulsory military service since 2007 when it was abolished.
From 2024 onward, the number of conscripts will increase. The plan is to call up 7,500 Latvians every year, starting in 2028. This will increase the size of the army from over 22,000 soldiers to 50,000, including territorial defense and reserves.
The Baltic nation feels threatened due to the war in Ukraine. But, new public surveys show that many young men are not convinced that compulsory military service is the right reaction. Only a small share of people back compulsory military service.
Young men are known for their rebellious ways. So, it’s hardly surprising that the Latvian government’s recent decision to reintroduce compulsory military service has not gone down particularly well with them.
Far fewer people wanted to become professional soldiers. There have not been any national opinion polls conducted on the topic recently. But a study in May 2022 found that more than 40% of Latvians opposed it. According to Maris Andzans, a professor at Riga Stradins University, who wrote in a February briefing for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, support was lower among younger respondents, with only 34% in the 18-24 age group supportive of the idea.
In Latvia, there is also another segment of the population that doesn’t like the idea of military service. Some members of the country’s Russian-speaking minority are skeptical about what they perceive as the country’s pro-Western course. Russian-speakers make up about a quarter of Latvia’s 1.9 million-strong population. Joining the Latvian army to “fight against your own people” is not something they wanted to do. So many are planning to leave. So, a phenomena of “men drain” when young highly trained and qualified people emigrate from the country because of unwillingness to serve.
Russia and Georgia Working Towards Improving Bilateral Relations
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest decree to review the visa regime for Georgian citizens and relaunching Tbilisi-Moscow flights between the two capitals starting May 15, has sparked antagonism among members of the European Union. Putin signed the decree waiving the visa requirement for Georgian citizens. In another decree, the president canceled the ban for Russian air carriers to perform flights to Georgia and on selling tours to the country.
According to the document, “from May 15, 2023, citizens of Georgia may enter the Russian Federation and leave the Russian Federation without visas, on the basis of valid identity documents.” In addition, a decree was issued to lift restrictions on flights to Georgia, which have been in force since July 2019.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili branded these decisions as provocative, while Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili said that he welcomed the visa-free travel and direct flights. Russia introduced visas for Georgians in 2000. Georgia waived the visa requirement for Russians in 2012.
According to several media reports, the United States and the European Union have warned Tbilisi about the risks of sanctions in the event of the resumption of air traffic with Russia. Both Russia and Georgia have had cross-haired relations down the years. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed by Tbilisi in 2008 after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia, like any other former Soviet republics, to some extent have reservations on their political relations with Russia. In a number of post-Soviet republics prefer dealing with the United States and the European Union. Russian authorities are aware of these facts and trends, while policies are still considered or seen as hard and dominating.
Addressing the third Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club on May 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin said that some Central Asian countries and the former Soviet republics are showing little appetite for risk and, there also signs that may join sanctions against Russia.
However, he warned that any artificial severance of ties with Russia may cause more damage than the costs of any secondary sanctions. The senior Russian diplomat emphasized that Russia is seeking to consistently intensify its strategic partnership with these countries across the region. With with the bulk of them experiencing economic transformations, more foreign investments are trickling in from the United States and European.
Despite that, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili expressed hope that European partners would understand the importance of the decision to carry on trading with Russia because trade is among the broad interest of and the proximity as a factor for Georgia.
Georgian Airways launches its Tbilisi-Moscow flights starting May 20, the Civil Aviation Agency has already issued a permit to Georgian Airways for flights, to be operated seven times a week, to Russia.
The Russian Transport Ministry said that after the restrictions are lifted, Russian airlines will also fly between Moscow and Tbilisi 7 times a week using domestic aircraft. Red Wings, whose fleet is comprised mainly of Russian SSJ100s, quickly announced they were ready to start flights to Georgia if they could receive the necessary permits. Three Russian airlines have applied for direct regular flights to three Georgian airports including Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.
Restoring flights between Georgia and Russia in 2023 could bring $300 to $400 million in additional revenue for the Georgian tourism sector, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili said at a briefing after a government meeting held May 15.
Davitashvili noted the successes achieved in the tourism sector in the post-pandemic period and expressed hope that this year the flow of travelers from Russia will increase even more, as well as from other countries, in particular from neighboring Azerbaijan.
The Deputy Prime Minister stressed that it would not be “pragmatic” to turn down direct flights between Russia and Georgia. That the country’s population would positively assess the efforts that the authorities are making to improve the country’s economy. At the same time, Davitashvili stressed that the country’s course towards joining the European Union remains unchanged.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s relations with former Soviet republics has remarkable difficulties due to several factors. Georgia, like all the former Soviet republics, has its political sentiments, viewpoints and approach towards Russia, which mounted ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine since February 2022, and has currently come under a series of stringent sanctions.
Russia, Ukraine to receive African Delegation for Potential Peace Plan
Local Russian and foreign media awash with the latest potential peace efforts, this time, from African leaders. Presumably this group of peace-makers, headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, will demonstrate collective efforts at resolving the heightened political differences between Russia and its neighbouring Ukraine.
According official sources monitored by this author, the peace plan is backed by African leaders of Senegal, Uganda, Egypt, the Republic of the Congo and Zambia. Four of those six African countries – South Africa, Congo, Senegal and Uganda – abstained from a U.N. vote last year on condemning Russia’s invasion. Zambia and Egypt voted in favour of the motion.
Zambia has historical ties with Russia. Uganda is a U.S. ally on regional security in East Africa, but Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has spoken of his country’s friendship with Russia and its neutral position in the war in Ukraine. Previously, the African Union, regional economic organizations have officially called for the adoption of diplomacy mechanisms and negotiations through which to end the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
Last year in March, Senegalese President Macky Sall and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, held discussions on the main aspects of the special military operation and on the importance of humanitarian issues and suggested ending the conflict through diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a phone conversation May 12, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Putin supported his idea of several African leaders participating in the Ukrainian settlement. The South African leader pointed out that the Ukrainian crisis negatively impacts Africa because it triggered growing food and fuel prices. “A group of African heads of states took the view that Africa does need to put forward an initiative, a peace initiative, that could help to contribute to the solution of that conflict,” he added, according to report by Singapore’s CABC radio station.
Ramaphosa said he spoke with Putin and Zelenskyy by phone over the weekend and they each agreed to host “an African leaders peace mission” in Moscow and Kyiv, respectively. “Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in the Ukraine,” Ramaphosa was quoted in media reports.
According to Russian media, a group of African countries is in the process of coordinating the terms and timeframes of its visit to Moscow and Kiev in order to lay out their Ukrainian reconciliation initiative. It said further that “the modalities of the trip are being worked on with both countries. It’s a group of African Heads of State.”
It said the governments of Russia and Ukraine had agreed to receive an African delegation, whose goal is to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian conflict. Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelenskyy have given their consent to receive the African delegation in Moscow and Kiev.
Details of the plan have not been publicly released, although Ukraine’s stated position for any peace deal is that all Russian troops must withdraw from its territory. But Ramaphosa said the United States and Britain had expressed “cautious” support for the plan and the U.N. Secretary General had also been briefed about the initiative.
Considered one of Moscow’s closest allies on the continent, South Africa says it is impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions on the war. Last week, it rejected claims by U.S. ambassador to South Africa that weapons were loaded onto a Russian vessel from a naval base in Cape Town in December. Reports said Ramaphosa had opened an inquiry into the allegation.
South Africa is preparing to attend the next Russia-Africa Summit in July 2023 in St. Petersburg. In August, it will host the next BRICS gathering in Durban. The BRICS group of nations are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. With BRICS as an example, China has attempted playing a crucial role in the conflict resolution between Russia and Ukraine.
China has been, so far, offering to mediate possible peace talks, an offer clouded by its show of political support for Moscow. Beijing released a proposed peace plan in February, and a Chinese envoy is preparing to visit Russia and Ukraine. But there appeared to be little chance of an imminent breakthrough to end the war since Ukraine and its Western allies largely dismissed the Beijing’s proposal.
The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, which most nations have denounced as illegal. Ukraine has rejected the demands and ruled out any talks with Russia until its troops pull back from all occupied territories. Ukraine is determined to recover all Russian-occupied areas.
Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan also includes a tribunal to prosecute crimes of aggression, which would enable Russia to be held accountable for its invasion. Zelenskyy had private talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 14, later saying he sought support for Ukraine’s peace plan from the pontiff.
As a new world is awakening to the worsening situation, it is necessary that all countries must be guided by the principles of non-interference, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Due to its ‘special military operation’ that it started in February 2022, Russia is currently experiencing a raft of sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada, European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a host of other countries.
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