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Reviving an Ancient Route? The Role of the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars Railway

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Though the initial idea about the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project was raised in the early 1990s, it was not taken seriously due to regional instability and economic difficulties. However, with the realization of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines in 2006, the idea of a railway connection became real once again.

The BTK, covering 850 km with a capacity of 5 million tons of cargo (upgradable to 15 million) per year and one million passengers (upgradable to three million), and connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, was launched in 2007 (Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:38; Uysal, 20 October 2014).It was launched without any international backing mainly because Armenia was left out due its occupation of nearly20 percent of Azerbaijani territory after a war in the early 1990s that ended in a cease-fire in May 1994.

Though initially the plan was to be completed in 2010, financial challenges as a result of falling oil prices meant that it became operational only on 30 October 2017. Azerbaijan was the driving force behind the BTK railway project.  The BTK is an important step in reviving the historical Silk Road. The Silk Road refers to an ancient network of trade routes that was used from 130 BC, when Han China opened trade with the West, to 1453 AD when the Ottoman Empire decided to end trade with the West and closed the routes. However, the term is far more recent. It was coined by the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 AD, who designated this network of trade routes ‘Seidenstrasse’ (silk road) or ‘Seidenstrassen’ (silk routes) (Mark, 28 March 2014).

However, the trade routes carried far more than silk. Trade included textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, religious objects, art work, precious stones and a lot more. It carried ideas and people too(UNESCO, nd.). Ideas and culture were transmitted changing the face of Eurasia. Many of the cities along the Silk Road became hubs of culture and learning. It connected the Han Chinese Empire with the Roman Empire. Starting at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) road, in reality a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the TaklaMakan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Not many merchants travelled the entire route. In fact, the trade was handled by a series of middle men (Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 October 2017).

With changing regional and geopolitical constellations, the historic Silk Road is on its way to revival, with a strong geo-political motive.In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which plans to improve Chinese rail and sea transportation to better connect with the global economy, strengthens the future perspective of the BTK. The Belt and Road goes through 65 countries, includes 70% of the world’s population, three-quarters of its energy resources, a quarter of goods and services and 28% of global GDP—some $21 trillion (Campbell, 2017). 

Map of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway

btkr

Source: Twelves, R., 01 November 2017, From Baku with Love: The New Transcaucasian Railway.

Hence, the importance of the project is manifold, ranging from economic to strategic interests. Being a part of traditional Silk Road route plays an important role for freight and passenger transportation between Asia and Europe.The BTK increases the strategic importance of Azerbaijan by enabling it to become a transport hub between Europe and Asia. Azerbaijan has already secured its energy independence thanks to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, both supported by the West and transnational oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil. However, the same support could not be secured for the BTK railway project.

The BTK has faced serious challenges including a lack of support from international donors or Great Powers. Indeed, under pressure from the Armenian lobby, possible funding from the USA was blocked for the BTK (Tsurkov 13 November 2017).Thanks to the decisiveness of Azerbaijan, the biggest hurdle, thelack of finances to carry out the construction/reconstruction works in Georgia was solved with Azerbaijan’s offer of a loan of $775 million with concessional terms to Georgia (Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:22). It is important to note that the total cost of the BTK was above $1 billion. Thus, Azerbaijan indeed took the lion’s share of responsibility in realization of the BTK project. This showed how important a small state could be in big regional projects without international backing. 

There are still many uncertainties ahead the entire Belt Road project. It passes through some of the world’s most volatile borders—Iran-Turkey, Russia-Ukraine, and the de-facto border between Western and Eastern Ukraine. China expects countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, with whom it competes for maritime influence to co-operate on the project. Another problem is that this ambitious attempt to connect the world’s richest regions in the West and the East through a swathe of poorer territory might mean that China has to extend geopolitical commitments, including military, which may not be welcome (Bohl, 2017).

In addition, the new Silk Road project has the potential of upsetting China’s regional rivals such as Japan and India. In an indication that such a challenge would be addressed Japan and India recently announced the AAGC (Asia Africa Growth Corridor) an initiative led by a partnership between India and Japan to better integrate the economies of South, Southeast, and East Asia with Oceania and Africa. In contrast to the land based routes of the New Silk Route this will be series of intersecting sea based economic triangles interconnecting cities in Central Asia which is expected to have rapid economic growth (Shepard, 2017a)

Such moves risk upsetting the traditional power in Central Asia—Russia—which as a legacy of the Tsarist and Soviet Empires has considerable influence in the region. Russia has cooperated with India on its own continent-crossing plan the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). This 7,200-kilometer multimodal trade corridor is expected to run from India to Russia, linking the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, improving India’s connections to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia(Shepard, 2017b)

A Russia, no longer under sanctions, could become a serious rival for the BTK. Additionally, China should fully commit to send goods to Europe mainly through the historic Silk Road route rather than through the Suez Canal (Twelves, 1 November 2017). Furthermore, so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in the region should be taken into consideration. A possible restart of an armed conflict can put regional projects into danger. Therefore, in the long term, some grave challenges remain.

However, standing up to these challenges could open up new perspectives. In other words, with full-fledged commitment by China and regional countries and the solution of threatening ‘frozen conflicts’, the BTK has the potential to bring back the trade potential of the historic Silk Road and substantially contribute to the development of economies lying along the route.

The main significance of the BTK is that it will reduce Russia’s monopoly on overland transportation and boost the travel between Asia and Europe. Most importantly, the transportation cost and time will be reduced substantially. Being a piece of historic Silk Road, BTK will transport goods from China to Kazakhstan, and then through the Caspian Sea to Baku, from where it will be taken to Turkey via BTK and finally to Europe, as far as London. The time required for the trip will be around 13-15 days which is almost twice as fast as sea transportation to the same destination. Moreover, it is 50 percent cheaper than air transport (Rick, 1 November 2017; Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:11). China has been strengthening the Central Asian part of the historic Silk Road. In terms of trade turnover with the Central Asian countries, China already overtook Russia in 2008. In other words, China is Central Asia’s biggest trade partner. In 2013 China achieved a trade balance of $ 50 billion, whereas Russia had $31.5. Interestingly, in 2001 China’s trade with Central Asia was only $1.5 billion (Muzalevsky, 27 April 2016).  In 2015, the Chinese president Xi Jinping mentioned that Chinese government aims at investing $46 billion in Central Asia in order to develop trade, transport and energy infrastructures (Muzalevsky, 27 April 2016). Until 2015 China have already invested nearly $40 billion to the Central Asian countries.Such a level of investment backs up the belief that Silk Road project is going to be revived in the coming few years. Benefiting from concessional loans from China and its own energy revenues, Kazakhstan have improved its transport infrastructure and build new railway connections which also includes the railway crossing the country from west to east.

Turkey is another country that eagerly supports the historic Silk Road expecting to become a transport hub between Asia and Europe. Apart from BTK, the famous Marmaray project is Turkey’s other contribution to the revival of historic Silk Road. The Marmaray project aims at connecting Europe and Asia by rail with a tunnel under the Bosphorus. This project, transporting both passengers and freight, is expected to be completed by February 2018 (Uysal, 4 July 2016).The BTK will be a crucial project to increase transport between Turkey and the CIS countries.

Initially Iran could lose out if the BTK project is realized as Turkey coulduse it to re-route goods that are currently transported to Iran via the CIS. However, in the long-run, if sanctions are liftedonce and for all, Iran will also benefit from the revival of historic Silk Road. Indeed, Iran has expressed its interest in building railway lines to Azerbaijan (Uysal, 20 October 2014).

Among others, the ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also attended the opening ceremony of the BTK railway in Baku (Mahmudov, 3 November 2017). This demonstrates the interests of all Central Asian countries to join the transportation route to transport their goods to the promising European market.

To conclude, the BTK will not only help the economies of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, it will also contribute to the trade between Asia and Europe bypassing Russia’s overland transportation monopoly. Therefore, it is not only an economical but also a strategic project. The major importance of the project is its positive impact on helping small countries to avoid Russian overland transport manipulations.

The BTK will increase both passenger and freight transportation between Asia and Europe outside Russian grip. It is the first regional non-energy project in South Caucasus connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The BTK railway proved an alliance build around an infrastructure project involving small states can shape greater economic as well as political regional realities which impacts great players as well. Azerbaijan, taking the biggest responsibility for the completion of the BTK, will also take the lion’s share in terms of benefits. It will become a transport hub, if it further develops its transport infrastructures, and it will also get access better access to Europe by using the transportation infrastructures, e.g., ports of Turkey.

Previous energy projects have shaped the regional triangle between Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey, and BTK will further strengthen this network. BTK is a purely economic project. Yet, it certainly has political and cultural consequences as well; it can contribute to strengthening trust between nations. Historical mutual mistrust among the Chinese andCentral Asians can be challenged with growing people-to-people encounters due to trade and travel along the historic Silk Road.

Moreover, besides the establishment of new partnerships and better integration of Eurasian countries into global value chains, the BTK will also help in attracting Foreign Direct Investment to countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. Last but not the least,the BTK will encourage construction of free economics zones and infrastructures along the route. 

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Eastern Europe

Crisis in Armenia Provides Fertile Ground for Russian Meddling

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The immediate cause came on February 25, when Onik Gasparyan, Chief of General Staff of the Armenian Army, and other senior commanders released a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Pashinyan responded by firing Gasparyan.

Yet the real cause of the uproar is Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year, which has triggered a deeply troubled and long-drawn-out period of soul-searching and consequent instability.

Delving into the details over what are the real reasons and who is to blame may anyway be futile in the cloudy political world of all three South Caucasus states (including Georgia and its current woes). While many Armenians believe that the protests are more about internal democratic processes, there is an undeniable geopolitical context too. Perhaps what matters most is the international ramifications of the conflict, especially as the early phases of the Russian-brokered November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are now being implemented.

The political crisis in Armenia does not affect the implementation of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26. Other statements by the Russian leadership indicated that the Kremlin, which closely follows the internal development of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally and the fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is nevertheless remaining aloof for now.

Over the past year, Russia has confronted multiple crises along its border with some finesse, successfully managing near-simultaneous crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.

In each case, the Kremlin has sought to extract geo-economic benefits. Take the current Armenian crisis. The opposition has some support, but not as much as the current leadership. Leaders from both sides have connections with senior Russian leaders, albeit the Kremlin was far more comfortable with the pre-Pashinyan Armenian political elite. They understood what Russia likes in the near-abroad – cautious leaders mindful of Russian sensitivities and unwilling to play the reformist and Western cards that Pahinyan has used since coming to power in 2018.

And yet however much illiberal Russia feels uncomfortable with the reformist Pashinyan government, it needs for now because his signature is on the November ceasefire agreement. With the early stages of the deal being implemented, Russia is keeping its eyes on the prize — most importantly, the agreement to reopen Soviet-era railways which potentially will reconnect Russia to Armenia via Azerbaijani territory. Chaos in Armenia can only jeopardize this key aim.

Russia also understands that Pashinyan is becoming increasingly dependent as time goes by and that it can exploit this vulnerability. Equally obviously, the opposition could prevail, and that would ultimately benefit Russia too.

In the long run, Russia has caught Armenia in a cycle. To stay in power, the government would need extensive Russian economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military support. But any new government formed by the current opposition would likely demand even more weaponry from Russia to prepare for the next confrontation, however hypothetic, with Azerbaijan. In both cases, the price for more arms would likely be deeper integration of Armenia within the EEU. And whatever remained of Armenia’s policy efforts towards the West, already under grave pressure since the Karabakh defeat, would die.

Potentially, there is a yet-greater reward for Russia – persuading Azerbaijan to allow the Russian peacekeeping mission to remain on its soil beyond the end of 2025. In which case, an openly revanchist Armenian government formed by an opposition determined to build a battle-ready military capable of offensive operations would be a useful tool for the Kremlin to justify the continued presence of its units in Karabakh.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

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An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

How has the world’s largest inland body of (salty) water escaped the economic and political notice for so long? And it is for a resource-rich area of a unique locality that connects Europe and Asia in more than just geography. Simply, the Caspian Basin is an underrated and underexplored topic with scarce literature on its geomorphology, mineral deposits and marine biota, its legal disputes, pipeline diplomacy,environmental concerns and overall geopolitical and geo-economic interplays.

As the former Minister of the Canadian government and Secretary General of the OECD – Honorable Donald J Johnston – states in the foreword, Caspian – Status, Challenges, Prospects“is a fitting title for a book that masterfully gives an objective, comprehensive overview of the region. The authors have compiled an analysis of Caspian’s legal classification, security and environmental concerns, geopolitical scenarios, and energy flow impacts as they affect the world’s largest continental landmass – Eurasia.”

From comprehensive but content intensive insights on Caspian littoral states Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russiaand Turkmenistan, to external actors like Turkey, EU, China and the United States, readers are presented how separate actors and factors interact in this unique theater. The book elaborates on the legal classification of the Caspian plateau including the recent ‘Convention on Legal Status of the Caspian,’ to the numerous territorial and environmental security concerns.

Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors present Caspian as the most recent, fresh and novel way, in one stop-shop offering broad analysis on the Caspian region. It is a single volume book for which extensive information is exceptionally rare to find elsewhere. Following the read, authors are confident that a new expanse of scholarly conversation and actions of practitioners will unfold, not only focused on Caspian’s unique geography, but its overall socio-economic, politico-security and environmental scene.

Welcoming the book, following words of endorsements have been said:

The Caspian basin and adjacent Central Asian region (all being OSCE member states, apart from Iran) have, since the early Middle ages, acted as a crossroads between different civilizations and geopolitical spaces. In an increasingly interconnected world, growing geopolitical competition, economic interdependence and the emergence of new global challenges, particularly those related to water, energy and the climate emergency, have highlighted the relevance of this region, making it of increasing interest to researchers and academics. This book presents a thorough analytical compendium of historical factors, political dynamics, economic trends, legal frameworks and geopolitical interests which underpin, but also affect, the stability and development of this complex, diverse and strategically significant region.

Amb. Lamberto Zanier,Secretary-General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2011-2017)  OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (2017-2020)

A thoughtful, comprehensive and balanced analysis of the complex interplay between geopolitics and geo-economics in Central Eurasia, and pivotal energy plateau – that of Caspian. We finally have an all-in reader that was otherwise chronically missing in international literature, which will hopefully reverse the trend of underreporting on such a prime world’s spot.   

Hence, this is a must-read book for those wondering about the future of one of the most dynamic and most promising regions of the world and what it could entail for both reginal and external players. 
Andrey Kortunov Director General, Russian International Affairs Council

Although of pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic importance, Caspian energy plateau represents one of the most underreported subjects in the western literature. Interdisciplinary research on the topic is simply missing.  

Therefore, this book of professor Bajrektarevic and his team – unbiased, multidisciplinary, accurate and timely – is a much-needed and long-awaited reader: A must read for scholars and practitioners, be it from Eurasia or beyond.

It is truly a remarkable piece of work!  

Authors were able to tackle a challenging subject with a passion, knowledge and precision, and turn it into a compelling, comprehensive yet concise read which I highly recommend.   

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Kazakhstan Erzhan Kazykhanov, Ambassador Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington dc, USA 

ARTNeT secretariat is pleased to see how our initial invitation to Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic to present at the ARTNeT Seminar Series in 2015 evolved. The talk was initially published as a working paper for ARTNeT (AWP 149). Now Prof. Bajrektarevic, in collaboration with another two co-authors, offers a comprehensive study on a nexus of legal, security, and environmental issues all emanating from and linked to energy cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subregion. This volume’s value extends beyond the education of readers on the Caspian Basin’s legal status (e.g., is it a sea or a lake?). It is just as relevant for those who want a more in-depth understanding of an interplay of economic, security, and political interest of players in the region and outside. With the global institutions increasingly less capable of dealing with rising geopolitics and geo-economic tensions, more clarity – even if only about some aspects of those problematic issues – should be appreciated. This volume offers such clarity.   

Mia Mikic, Director UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) ARTNeT coordinator

It is my honor to reflect on this work on Caspian. Comprehensive and content rich, this book of professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors brings up comprehensively all the useful information on Caspian, with the geographical and historical background and cultural, economic as well as security aspects related to it.

Authors’ novel and unbiased approach shall certainly help decision makers in their bettered understanding of the region that has centuries-long history of peace and cordial neighbourly relations. Long needed and timely coming, I warmly recommend this reader to those who want to know, but more importantly to all those who want to understand, this pivotal region of the world.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh Former Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran to United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva & Vienna

The book by Professor Bajrektarevic and his co-authors embodies a wide-ranging overview of the intertwined interests pursued by the young democracies of the Caspian basin, battling with inherited land and water disputes, and their interplay with regional and global powers. Apparently, supporting political independence of the formers and promoting their integration into the latter’s markets requires adequate analyses, timely outreach policies and consistent engagement. In this sense the publication serves as one of the scarce handbooks to understand diverse interests of stakeholders, dynamically changing security architecture of the region and emerging opportunities of cooperation around the Caspian Sea.

Ambassador GalibIsrafilov Permanent Representative to the UN Vienna and to the OSCE Embassy of Azerbaijan to Austria

Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

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Eastern Europe

As Georgians Fight Each Other, Russia Gleefully Looks On

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Earlier today, the leader of Georgia’s major opposition party – United National Movement (UNM) – was detained at his party headquarters by government security forces, the most recent escalation in a drawn-out political crisis. This could well be the beginning of a new troubled period in the country’s internal dynamics, with repercussions for the country’s foreign policy.

The optics favor the opposition. Images of armed and armored police storming UNM’s headquarters was damaging to the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD). Western diplomats expressed grave concern over the events and their repercussions. Protests have been called, and will likely be covered closely in Western media.

What comes next, however, is not clear.

Much will depend on what long-term vision for the country the opposition can articulate in the aftermath of the most recent events. It was not that long ago that UNM was declining as a political force in Georgian politics. There is a real opportunity here. But the burden is on the opposition to make a play for the loyalty of voters beyond its circle of already-convinced supporters.

Appealing to ordinary Georgian voters is ultimately the key to resolving the crisis. Beyond the intra-party clashes about the legitimacy of the most recent elections, there is a growing chasm between political elites and the challenges faced by people in their daily lives. And tackling these challenges successfully will not be easy.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have been facing declining support from the public at large. Long-term economic problems, which have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, have not been credibly addressed by either side. Instead of solutions, both sides have engaged in political theatrics. For many voters, the current crisis is more about a struggle for political power, rather than about democracy and the economic development of the country. No wonder that most people consider their social and economic human rights to have been violated for decades no matter which party is in power. These attitudes help explain high abstention rates during the most recent election. Despite remarkable successes in the early years after the Rose Revolution, Georgia has lacked a long-term policy for reimagining its fragile economy since its independence and the disastrous conflicts of the 1990s.

None of this, however, should minimize the threats to Georgian struggling democracy. Today’s arrests reinforce a longstanding trend in Georgian politics: the belief that the ruling party always stands above the law. This was the case with Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and is now the case with the current government. For less politically engaged citizens, plus ça change: Georgian political elites for the last 30 years have all ended up behaving the same way, they say. That kind of cynicism is especially toxic to the establishment of healthy democratic norms.

The crisis also has a broader, regional dimension. The South Caucasus features two small and extremely fragile democracies – Armenia and Georgia. The former took a major hit last year, with its dependence on Moscow growing following Yerevan’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. Today, Russia is much better positioned to roll back any reformist agenda Armenians may want to enact. Armenia’s current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been weakened, and easily staged protests are an easy way to keep him in line.

Georgia faces similar challenges. At a time when Washington and Brussels are patching things up after four years of Trump, and the Biden administration vigorously reiterates its support for NATO, Georgia’s woes are a boon for Moscow. Chaos at the top weakens Georgia’s international standing and undermines its hopes for NATO and EU membership. And internal deadlock not only makes Georgia seem like a basket-case but also makes a breakthrough on economic matters ever more unlikely. Without a serious course correction, international attention will inevitably drift away.

At the end of the day, democracy is about a lot more than finding an intra-party consensus or even securing a modus vivendi in a deeply polarized society. It is about moving beyond the push-and-pull of everyday politics and addressing the everyday needs of the people. No party has risen to the occasion yet. Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations remain a touchstone for Georgian voters, and both parties lay claim to fully representing those aspirations. But only through credibly addressing Georgia’s internal economic problems can these aspirations ever be fully realized. The party that manages to articulate this fact would triumph.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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