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NATO-Russia: No “business as usual”

Dimitris Giannakopoulos

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Welcome to the Greater Caspian Brief, where you will find the most important things you need to know about diplomacy, intelligence, military and economy of the Caspian 5, Central Asia and Caucasus. We appreciate ideas, reports, news and interesting articles. Send along to Caspian[at]moderndiplomacy.eu or on Twitter: @DGiannakopoulos

DIPLOMACY

NATO and Russia held “frank and serious” talks despite “profound disagreements” as their ambassadors met on Wednesday for the first time since 2014, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said. The two sides agreed to keep communicating following the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which has been on ice since the alliance cut practical ties with Moscow to protest the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014. The aim of the talks was to ease military tensions over the simmering violence still gripping eastern Ukraine, although former Norwegian Prime Minister Stoltenberg admitted there was no major breakthrough. Russia blames NATO for increasing the risk of conflict by building up its troops in eastern European countries, many of which have been lobbying for more Western support.

Obama meets Saudi king with Iran on agenda

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ahead of a summit with other Gulf Arab leaders on Thursday and with regional tensions with Iran likely to be high on the agenda. The White House shares the view of Gulf Arab states that Tehran plays a destabilising role, but has said it hopes to bring them and Iran to develop a “cold peace” in which their rivalry does not further inflame smouldering Middle East tensions.

Shinzo Abe to visit Russia on May 6

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on May 6, with a long-simmering territorial dispute expected to top the agenda.”I expect that the working visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planned to take place in Sochi on May 6 will facilitate the widening of Russian-Japanese ties on the basis of mutual advantage and taking each other’s interests into account,” he told foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin.

Tokyo-Moscow relations have been hamstrung by the row that dates back to the end of World War II when Soviet troops seized the four southernmost islands in the Kuril chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan. The lingering tensions have prevented them from signing a peace treaty, which has hindered trade and investment ties.

INTELLIGENCE

10,000 ISIL Fighters in Afghanistan ‘Trained to Expand to Central Asia, Russia’

The presence of DAESH in Afghanistan, is a significant security threat, said Zamir Kabulov, the head of the Asia and Middle East department of the Russian foreign ministry, who also serves as special envoy of the Russian president to Afghanistan. “There are now 10,000 DAESH fighters in Afghanistan. A year ago there was a hundred. This growth over a year is huge. The Afghan branch of DAESH is definitely specialized against Central Asia. Russian is even one of their working languages,” Kabulov added. “They are being trained against Central Asia and Russia.”

Moscow believes that Afghan government forces are either unable or unwilling to fight DAESH-affiliated groups, focusing whatever resources they have on opposing the militant group Taliban. The Taliban suffered from DAESH growth too, losing men, lands and influence to the group.

MILITARY

Azerbaijan and NATO meeting in Brussels

The meeting took place between Azerbaijan and NATO to discuss the Planning and Review Process document for 2016. Head of the Military Cooperation Department of MOD major-general Huseyn Mahmudov briefed NATO representatives, in detail, on provocative and destructive actions taken by Armenian units against Azerbaijani citizens and settlements along the front line in the first days of April. NATO representatives were also informed on responsive measures and necessary security actions taken by Azerbaijani Armed Forces in different directions of the front line in order to prevent Armenian destructive actions and protect civilians.

Russia to finish deliveries of S-300 missiles to Iran by year-end

Russia will complete its deliveries of S-300 air defence missile systems to Iran by the end of the year, Interfax news agency cited Sergei Chemezov, the head of the Russian state-owned high- tech conglomerate Rostec, as saying on Tuesday.

Gulf, US agree joint patrols to block Iran arms

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and the United States have agreed to carry out joint patrols to stop any Iranian arms shipments reaching Yemen, the bloc’s secretary general, Abdullatif al-Zayani, said on Wednesday. Iran denies accusations by Gulf states that it is smuggling weapons to Yemen, where GCC countries are involved in a military campaign against the Tehran-allied Houthi movement.

ECONOMY

OPEC will invite Russia, Oman, and Azerbaijan to June talks in Vienna

The three major oil producers, who are not OPEC member states, last met with members of the oil exporting cartel in Doha on April 17, in a failed bid to put through a February decision on capping oil production. The output freeze is expected to be brought up again at the talks in the Austrian capital. Oil prices have plunged more than 60 percent from their peak of $110 a barrel in June 2014 amid fears that the global oil production was outpacing the world’s demand.

Doha meeting disappoints Kazakhstan

The results of Doha meeting held in Qatar on April 17 between OPEC member states and non-OPEC oil producers fell short of the expectations of Kazakhstan, said Rashid Zhaksylykov, chairman of the presidium of KazService Union. Kazakhstan is concerned about the oil prices and its impact on the country’s development. The failure of the meeting is related to the intense geopolitical relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia said it would not put a cap on the volume of oil it produces if other oil producers, particularly Iran do so. However, Tehran has no intention to freeze its oil production and did not even attend the meeting.

Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan create railway consortium

The railway agencies of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan agreed to create the International Trans-Caspian Transport Consortium. Azerbaijani companies ADY Express and ACSC Logistics, Kazakh KTZ Express JSC and Georgian Trans Caucasus Terminals LLC are the members of the consortium. The Trans-Caspian international transport route runs through China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and then through Turkey and Ukraine goes to Europe. This is a multimodal corridor using railway, maritime and roadways for transporting goods.

Kazakhstan waits for potential participants of Eurasia project

Kazakhstan believes that potential participants of the Eurasia project will soon take a decision on the study and exploration of hydrocarbon deposits in the Caspian basin. The Eurasia project, to be implemented in 2016 to 2020, targets studying deep-water geological structure of the region to enable discovery of new and huge hydrocarbons recources. The government expects to receive intentions of participation in this project by late May, Kazakh Energy Minister said.

The prospects of realizing the Eurasia project are huge and it can bring huge benefits to Kazakhstan, in particular huge investments and financial revenues, new technologies and decrease of dependence on old oil fields. Experts believe that Kazakhstan, which desires the participation of international companies in the Astana-initiated project, will see more interest of big oil companies in its Eurasia project. The main condition on the way of involving leading energy companies in this project is the oil price in the world markets as in the current low oil prices and a glut of oil on the world markets the Eurasia project probably does not look so attractive.

Iran and Kazakhstan have reached an agreement to set up a joint shipping company

The planned freight shipping line would improve mutual trade through the Iranian port of Bandar Anzali and Kazakh port of Aktau, both on the Caspian Sea. Moreover, the Islamic Republic and Kazakhstan also decided to increase rail transportation through a railroad joining Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

Turkmenistan plans to privatize large industrial enterprises

The country has adopted a state program for privatization of state enterprises and facilities in 2013-2016. To date, 39 out of 89 facilities have been privatized as part of the first and second stages of the state program. It is planned to privatize 29 facilities during the third stage. Turkmenistan pursues the policy of gradual transition to market economy and has taken a number of measures such as denomination of the national currency, unification of exchange rates for this purpose. The country actively carries out privatization in the spheres of construction, communication and services.

LUKOIL builds gas processing plant in Uzbekistan

Russian company LUKOIL commenced construction works of Kandym gas processing plant in Uzbekistan, representative of Uzbekneftegaz, national holding company said on April 19. A gas processing plant with an annual production capacity of 7.819 billion cubic meters of commercial gas, 134,360 tons of stable condensate and 212,900 tons of elemental sulfur is planned to be constructed during the first phase of the complex construction and development of Kandym fields. Construction of 77 planned wells, six multiple-well platforms, two gathering stations, gas pipeline, rotational camp and external infrastructure are also under consideration. It is the largest investment project of LUKOIL in Uzbekistan. Total amount of investments to the project is estimated at over $3 billion.

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine. follow @DGiannakopoulos

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Top global firms commit to tackling inequality by joining G7 Business for Inclusive Growth coalition

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A group of major international companies has pledged to tackle inequality and promote diversity in their workplaces and supply chains as part of a G7 initiative sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron and overseen by the OECD.

The Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG) coalition will be launched at the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Biarritz, France, taking place from 24 to 26 August 2019. Spearheaded by Emmanuel Faber, Danone Chairman and CEO, the coalition brings together 34 leading multinationals with more than 3 million employees worldwide and global revenues topping $1 trillion. Members have agreed to sign a pledge to take concrete actions to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are more widely shared.

B4IG coalition members will tackle persistent inequalities of opportunity, reduce regional disparities and fight gender discrimination. Companies have identified an initial pool of more than 50 existing and planned projects, representing more than 1 billion euros in private funding, to be covered under the initiative. The projects range from training programmes to help employees adapt to the future of work to greater investment in childcare, to increasing women’s participation in the workforce; to financially supporting small businesses, to encouraging greater participation in supply chains; and to enhancing the integration of refugees through faster integration to the workforce. Coalition members will seek to accelerate, scale up and replicate already existing projects, while significantly expanding their social impact.

The platform, chaired by Danone, consists of a three-year, OECD-managed programme. It aims at increasing opportunities for disadvantaged and under-represented groups through retraining and upskilling, as well as promoting diversity on the companies’ boards and executive committees and tackling inequalities throughout their supply chains. They will also step up business action to advance human rights, build more inclusive workplaces and strengthen inclusion in their internal and external business ecosystems.

The B4IG initiative will be presented to President Macron during a meeting with business and civil society leaders at the Elysées Palace on Friday 23 August.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said: “Growing inequality is one of the biggest social challenges in the world today, perpetuating poverty, undermining social cohesion and trust. Sustainable economic growth means inclusive economic growth. It means giving every individual the opportunity to fulfil her or his potential, the chance not only to contribute to a nation’s growth but to benefit from it, regardless of their background or origins.”

Mr Gurría added: “I welcome this initiative by France to involve some of the world’s most important companies to work hand-in-hand with governments and the OECD to tackle inequalities. The OECD, for its part, will contribute with its policy analysis, research and expertise.”

A Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG) Incubator of public-private projects will be created at the OECD. The facility will offer companies access to the latest policy research, to help them launch and develop projects, undertake impact assessments and eventually bring about meaningful change. The B4IG Incubator will be funded by both G7 governments and private donors. It will service innovative inclusive business projects that require strong collaboration between the private and the public sector. The Incubator will catalyse and disseminate knowledge around the business models with higher social impact.

An evaluation of the projects will be published after three years, alongside OECD guidance for promoting inclusive growth through joint public-private action and for measuring business performance.

OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa Gabriela Ramos, leader of the OECD Inclusive Growth Initiative, said: “The OECD has been documenting and raising the alarm bell regarding the increased inequalities of income and opportunities in OECD countries for decades. They do not only undermine social cohesion and trust, but they also hamper growth, by preventing our economies to take full advantage of the talent of its people and businesses. We are delighted to partner with leading companies that are committed to take action. Our experience, evidence and best practices are at the service of the Business for Inclusive Growth Initiative.”

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World Bank Launches Stakeholders Consultations to Support Peace in Afghanistan

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The World Bank today launched a stakeholder’s consultation to identify economic initiatives to support and sustain peace in Afghanistan once a potential political settlement is reached with the Taliban.

After completing several consultations with international and Afghan stakeholders, the World Bank is now seeking broader input from all stakeholders and made public several draft documents on its website to facilitate the process.  

At the 2018 Geneva Ministerial Conference on Afghanistan, the World Bank was tasked to support planning for post-settlement economic development projects and programming following discussions.

According to Henry Kerali, the World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan, the consultations will serve several purposes. “First, we want to show that a peace agreement can bring substantial economic benefits to all Afghans and is in the interest of all parties involved in the ongoing conflict. Second, we want to identify potential principles and themes to guide programming decisions following a settlement. Finally, we want to provide some concrete ideas about the kind of programs that could be scaled up or initiated to maintain peace and realize new economic opportunities in Afghanistan.”  

Kerali also noted that the consultations come at a critical time for Afghanistan. “The World Bank is merely providing technical analysis and is not involved in any negotiations; our priority is to plan for the future of Afghanistan. Peace prospects can improve if the right economic conditions are in place and create job opportunities for those who might otherwise take up arms.” Kerali also noted that public input would be vital to ensure effective planning.

The World Bank is inviting comment on three documents now published on its Afghanistan website:

  1. A two-page consultation note;
  2. A short consultation presentation; and
  3. A full technical report.

Consultations are expected to continue until a peace agreement is reached and new programming decisions are made. The public is invited to share comments and questions throughout the process via email or through comments on the relevant website.

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Environment

Microplastic pollution is everywhere, but not necessarily a risk to human health

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A woman fetches water in Pakistan. Photo: UNDP Pakistan

Tiny plastic particles known as microplastics are “everywhere – including in our drinking-water”, but they are not necessarily a risk to human health, UN experts said on Thursday.

In its first summary of the latest research into the impact of the tiny plastic pollutants on humans, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that they have been found in marine settings, waste and fresh water, food, the air and drinking-water, both bottled and from a tap.

Frequently, microplastics are defined as less than five millimetres long, according to WHO.

Its report notes that the particles most commonly found in drinking-water are plastic bottle fragments.

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health. “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water.”

According to WHO’s findings, microplastics larger than 150 micrometres (a micrometre is a millionth of a metre) are unlikely to be absorbed in the human body, while the uptake of smaller particles is likely to be limited. 

Absorption of microplastic particles “including in the nano-size range may, however, be higher”, the WHO report continues, before cautioning that available data in this “emerging area” is extremely limited.

Asked by journalists about how levels of plastic pollutants differ between tap water and bottled water, WHO’s Jennifer de France from WHO’s Department of Public Health, replied that bottled water “in general did contain higher particle numbers”.

Nonetheless, Ms. France also cautioned against jumping to conclusions, owing to the lack of available data.

“In drinking water in general, often the two polymers that were most frequently detected were polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene,” she said. “Now these polymers – the polyethylene terephthalate – is often used in producing bottled water bottles, and polypropylene, is often used in producing caps. However, there were other polymers detected as well, so more studies are needed to really make a firm conclusion about where the sources are coming from.”

While citing the handful of available studies into the absorption of microplastics and nanoplastics in rats and mice, which showed symptoms including inflammation of the liver, WHO’s report insists that people are unlikely to be exposed to such high levels of pollutants.

Drinking-water contamination: a million lives lost each year

A much more clearly understood potential threat than microplastics is exposure to drinking-water contaminated by human or animal waste, said Bruce Gordon, from WHO’s Department of Public Health, highlighting a problem that affects two billion people and claims one million lives a year.

One way that Governments can tackle this problem is by putting in place better waste-water filtration systems.

The move would reduce microplastic pollution by around 90 per cent, the WHO official explained, before noting that the report had touched on people’s wider concerns about how to live more sustainably and waste less.

“Consumers shouldn’t be too worried,” Mr. Gordon said. “There’s many dimensions to this story that are beyond health. What I mean by that is, if you are a concerned citizen worried about plastic pollution and you have access to a well-managed piped supply – a water supply – why not drink from that? Why not reduce pollution. Of course, there are times when you need a water bottle when you’re walking around, but please reuse it”, he emphasized.

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