The troubled waters of the Caspian
Despotic regimes often bolster their credentials by hosting international events. These events serve to present a friendly and legitimate façade that masks the more ruthless and despotic elements of the regime.
It should come as no surprise that, for the Aliyev regime of Azerbaijan, winning and hosting the Eurovision Song Contest was a priority. The contest was a perfect platform to showcase the nation’s western and secular credentials.
The contest was very much an Aliyev family affair. The First Lady was heavily involved in the organisation, the President’s daughter was one of the compères and his son-in-law performed one of the main acts. Most construction works were carried out by companies with links to the Aliyev family.
The real star of the evening was the German spokesman Anke Engelke who told President Ilham Aliyev’s daughter (and approximately 125 million viewers “It is good to be able to vote and it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey, Azerbaijan! Europe is watching you!”
Europe is indeed watching the developments in the region. Azerbaijan is one of five authoritarian states on the littoral of the Caspian; an inland sea that has the potential to become a hotspot for conflict.
It is active in different European and North Atlantic structures and maintains good relations with the West. Relations with neighbouring Armenia are strained after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Iran is located to the south of Azerbaijan and its nuclear ambitions and frequent scaremongering often make the international headlines. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, there have been frequent reports of alleged state-sponsorship of terror.
Kazakhstan and Russia are located to the north of Iran. Russia is one of the main players in the region and holds historic, strategic and economic interests in the Caspian.
Kazakhstan has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev since its independence from the USSR in 1991. President Nazarbayev pursues a balanced foreign policy supportive of Russia’s economic need of oil and petroleum at advantageous rates, Iran’s call for regional monetary union and the US’ efforts in the global war on terror.
Turkmenistan is located to the south of Kazakhstan. For 15 years, the country was the personal playground of President Saparmurat Niyazov who embarked on lavish projects to bolster his own personality cult. His successor, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, managed to dismantle part of the personality cult and institute cosmetic changes to the Constitution. Nonetheless, the country still retains an abysmal human rights record.
These regimes operate in a region rich in oil and gas resources. The income obtained from the sale of these commodities serves to bankroll these regimes. Nonetheless, social discontent, economic inequalities and developmental issues are still prevalent and provide the perfect breeding ground for violent unrest and Islamic fundamentalism.
Experts state that the region is home to approximately 90 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and about 287 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves. It is estimated that there may be an additional 206 billion barrels of oil reserves and 319 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.
These reserves are often a bone of contention between the powers of the region. Russia and Iran claim that the Caspian is a lake and, hence, does not fall under the jurisdiction of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982). They believe the resources of the Caspian should be explored jointly by all the littoral states.
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan adhere to the 1982 convention, which states that every nation has a right to exploit resources in its own territorial waters – defined by equidistant demarcation lines between states. Turkmenistan has been more cautious due to its economic dependence on Iran.
These three Caspian states rely on Russia and Iran to transport their resources to the major markets. Russia has often used the closure (or threat of closure) of the energy pipelines for strategic and political purposes.
Vladimir Putin’s grip on power restored Russia’s self-confidence and international ambitions. He has long considered the Caspian basin as a priority and created the post of a special representative for the region within Russia’s national Security Council. The relevance in security terms of the Caspian is set to increase. The debate concerning economic and energy security constitute only a fragment of the geopolitical make-up of the region.
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were previously constituent republics of the USSR. The end of Cold War bipolarity led to a search for identity along ethnic and religious lines as opposed to the east/west spectrum.
These ethnic and religious elements are being radicalised. Disenchanted elements in society are becoming increasingly drawn to these groups. These clandestine organisations often opt for violent methods, thus jeopardising the security of the nation and of the region.
The authoritarian (or semi-authoritarian) nature of the Caspian states allows little room for the fulfilment of the legitimate aspirations of citizens. Moreover, one of the main regional players, Iran, is keen on advocating its own brand of political Islam.
Stability cannot be enforced at the expense of democratic change and the rule of law. This form of stability is false and fragile and provides fertile ground for radical and violent ideologies.
One hopes that the recent attention given to Azerbaijan provokes a wider interest and awareness of the Caspian region for it has the potential to be a bridge between the nations of central and western Asia and Europe or a source of conflict with negative repercussions for the entire international community.
The author read for a Masters of Arts in International Relations and is a public policy graduate from the University of Malta.