Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Changing Geopolitics of the Caspian Region?

After the last Middle East Symposium, Global Politics editors have decided to shift their attention to other very interesting region – Caspian Sea. According to many IR scholars, world is now experiencing the power shift from the West to so called „emerging powers“, which is accompanied by various geopolitical turmoils. But is this also the case of Caspian region? If so, could this change bring some fresh air to local frozen conflicts? These questions were answered by various regional experts with diverse backgrounds and professional experiences, but profound understanding of Caspian affairs.

It is our great pleasure to publish the answers of Emil Souleimanov, Anar Valiyev, Leila Alieva, Joshua Kucera, Thomas de Waal and Tomáš Šmíd.

GP questions:

1) How has the geopolitical situation of the Caspian region changed in recent years in relation to the growing ambitions of „emerging“ geopolitical powers represented by Turkey and Chi­na? Can they challenge the established geopolitical order in this area?

2) Can these „new“ geopolitical powers bring any changes to local frozen conflicts, such as the one in Nagorno-Karabakh, in the future?

Addressed experts provided their answers during September and October 2011.


Emil Souleimanov

Charles University, Prague, assistant professor

1) No, they can't. Firstly, China is far too far away from the region and it lacks the means to play a more important role in the South Caucasus. Yet it can still improve its positions in Central Asia, which it has recently been doing: redirecting some natural gas (and oil) flow routes from the Caspian to its markets. As for Turkey, because of its complicated relations with Armenia and the fact that Turkey's economic and political potential is quite limited (incomparably lower than that of the EU member-states, the USA and even Russia), it is not in a position to strengthen its standing in the area.  

2) No, they can't. All the regional conflicts may only be solved by Moscow's approval or in the case that Russia sees a rationale behind solving the region's ethnic conflict – which isn't the case as of yet. With South Ossetia and Abkhazia being Moscow's de facto protectorate, Turkey may do its best, yet it won't reverse the situation in these areas. The situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is just the same, as its independence from Baku largely rests on Russia's military alliance with Armenia.


Anar Valiyev

Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, Baku, assistant professor, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs

1) Let me answer this question in two parts. First of all, China. China used to be active in the region during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, since the second half of the first decade of this century, Chinese marginal influence and power in the region were further diminished. The region doesn't feel that China is a major player in the area and countries do not appeal to Beijing as they might to other countries. There are a few reasons for this Chinese role. First of all, China is not interested in the region from an economic perspective. That is, China can easily get access to other oil and gas rich countries in the world. For example, Central Asia, and Kazakhstan, is a much more lucrative region and does not pose too many difficulties. Secondly, local business opportunities are not competitive for Chinese companies, since the economy of the region is highly competitive.

Turkey, by contrast, is increasing its influence, and experts talk more about „neo-Ottomanism“ in Turkish foreign policy. Turkish policy has begun to unlock doors it didn't dare to for years. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is one example. Active Turkish penetration into local markets is another. Turkey has, since the Russo-Georgian war, already changed its policy in the region and consequently is changing the geopolitical order. We can now say that, if Turkey was previously a secondary player – after US or Russia – now it plays the same role as the super-powers. Whether it is issue of gas transportation or conflict, Turkey could have opinions or take decisions different from those of the great powers.

2) Definitely, China will hardly bring any changes to this frozen conflict, as a result of its greater proximity to the region and its inability or unwillingness to take sides. Settlement of the conflict would necessarily require taking sides, which China will be reluctant to do. As for Turkey – this country is in a difficult situation. Georgia and Azerbaijan are natural Turkish allies and national interests would require Ankara to be on the side of these two countries. This in turn would make Turkey an antagonist to Russia and Armenia. The frozen conflict could be solved if Turkish influence increases while Russian influence decreases. Then Turkey would be able to press on both sides and bring peace. Otherwise, the counterbalancing Russian influence would present difficulties for Turkey.


Leila Alieva

Centre for National and International Studies, Baku, president

1) Caspian geopolitics has not changed much, especially in relation to the growing ambitions of Turkey and China. That is mainly due to the direction of these ambitions – towards the Middle East rather than the Caspian region in the case of Turkey. Chinese activities, for geographic reasons, take place mainly on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Caspian geopolitics have been and always will be mainly affected by the general orientation of the two major oil producing states, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, towards Europe and the West in general, and by the growing assertiveness of Russia (in particular, after the 2000s). New states in the region (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan) have always tried to preserve the achievements of their independence and to promote balanced policies, to avoid a one-sided focus. China is not yet a political actor in the Caspian which can compete with Russia, Europe or the US. Geopolitical changes will most probably come from domestic changes in the regional powers – Russia or Iran, as well as domestic changes in other Caspian littoral states.

2) Taking into account all of the above, it is hard to expect China to get involved in conflict resolution in the foreseeable future. Its interests have been so far limited to the economy. There is, however, the significant unrealized potential of Turkey. As a member of the region, it could influence regional conflict resolution, but this has yet to be acknowledged by the international community. Turkey is not part of the Minsk Group of the OSCE, although Russia, despite being involved in the conflict (as a defence and security ally of Armenia), is a member. There is no balance of power in the composition of the mediation group which would support progress in the conflict resolution. Ideally, greater involvement of non-Western powers in Caspian geopolitics may lead to a more stable balance of power. But because of the nature of their interests – energy – their more active involvement may even further strengthen the existing status quo.


Joshua Kucera

freelance journalist, analyst, Washington DC

1) The rising international ambitions of Turkey and China have influenced Caspian geopolitics in various ways. China's energy investment in the Caspian, most dramatically represented by the new Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, is allowing the countries of Central Asia greater independence from Russia, which had previously controlled all export infrastructure from the Caspian. That economic independence should allow a greater political/diplo­matic independence from Russia. But it could backfire, as well, especially in the countries that border China, which tend to be fearful of Chinese migration and economic dominance of their societies, which could then turn back to Russia for protection.

2) Turkey's role is also ambiguous. Its attemped rapprochement with Armenia, though stalled, brings the possibility of unthawing the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. One of the elements that has kept the conflict frozen had been that each party to the conflict has had a powerful backer: Azerbaijan has Turkey, and Armenia has Russia. But Turkey's attempt to restore relations with Armenia has alarmed Azerbaijan, which has reached out to Moscow, including by buying sophisticated Russian air defense systems. While this realignment has not gone very far yet, it holds the possibility of destabilizing the geopolitical situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which could mean a greater chance of adventurism or miscalculation by the respective parties.


Thomas de Waal

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, senior associate

1) It is hard to talk about a “Caspian region” as Central Asia and the South Caucasus are two very different areas, one of which is part of Asia and the other being a Eurasian borderland. In Central Asia, China is now the wealthiest actor, while Russia balances it in terms of political weight. Vladimir Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union is in many ways a response to the challenge of China. In the South Caucasus, Russia is largely in strategic retreat, aside from its de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Turkey is more influential but its influence is so far mostly economic, not political. The South Caucasus remains “the lands in-between,” the object of interest of many powers, but not a first priority for one power.

2) The main reason the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved is the intractability of local actors. Armenians and Azerbaijanis—both elites and ordinary peoples—are not prepared to make sufficient compromises to the other side to change the status quo, however miserable it may be. The United States, Russia, Turkey and the European Union want to see the conflict resolved but, because it is not a first-order priority for them, are not prepared to expend the heavy resources and to endure the pain necessary to make it work. The Caucasus is not the Balkans, where the European Union eventually decided to shoulder the burden.


Tomáš Šmíd

Masaryk University, Brno, assistant professor

1) The basic geopolitical situation in the Caspian region remains substantially unchanged. In other words, from the shock of 1991 until now, it hasn't been completely established in such a way that we can now speak of changes in a stable geopolitical paradigm. Turkish capitalization on ethnolinguistic and (to some extent) cultural affinities in the area is nothing new, and I am not sure about the success of these Turkish efforts. On the other hand, Turkish influence in the region could, surprisingly, be strengthened further by the potential success of European penetration in the area, mainly because of similar interests in energy and geoeconomic processes (i.e. transport projects); especially, in the energy sector, in the containment of Russian dominance over Caspian raw material deposits. However, Turkey by itself can't be considered a major player.

Chinese expansion is a known fact, especially thanks to the growing demand for strategic raw materials for its huge economy. On the other hand, the Caspian region doesn't play a crucial role in Chinese strategy and its future projects mainly involve Kazakhstan and to a greater extent Turkmenistan. That said, China is still a strategic threat for Russia and, in the longer term, also for the USA. However, there still remains one crucial issue: that a geopolitical status quo in the region hasn't been finalized since 1991, and therefore we must consider all these processes as yet another symptom of the constantly-evolving nature of current Eurasian geopolitics, which is missing the dominant players of the past such as Tsarist Russia, the USSR or, in the more distant past, perhaps even the Mongolian Empire.

2) China – fundamentally not; while Turkey has for a long time, especially regarding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, been consistent in its position. Instead, the question is whether the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh could be influenced by a process of Armenian – Turkish rapprochement, or rather normalization of the relations between two historical adversaries. In this regard, I can imagine that Armenia, in exchange for open borders and easier access to world markets – crucial for the development of the troubled Armenian economy – accepts unexpected compromises with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh. The notion that Turkey will separate both processes – the historical rapprochement and the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is, in my view, rather naive.

Author of the Symposium is student of the international relations at Masaryk University and Global Politics editor

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Jan Daniel
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2. 11. 2011