Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Kazakhstan

This is the last in my series of guarded predictions for the year ahead in the Caspian region.

I have left Kazakhstan until last for the simple reason that it is the trickiest to predict. The three biggest political and security issues in the country – the labour unrest in the west, the militant threat and the presidential succession – are complex and defy easy forecasts.

After the crackdown on strikers in Zhanaozen on December 16, which led to at least 16 deaths and sparked riots elsewhere, the situation appears to have stabilised. President Nazarbayev’s response to the violence has been fairly efficient: regret has been expressed for the loss of life, prosecutors have begun investigating the police who shot protestors, reconstruction work has been launched, and Mangistau provincial governor Krymbek Kusherbayev has been sacked.

Equally telling is who is not being investigated or sacked – the senior security officials who orchestrated the operation. This may be distasteful for those who want justice to be done, but in practical terms it probably won’t mean that much.  As Joshua Foust notes, “Even if the punishment to the police is limited to a few symbolic prosecutions, that will in all likelihood be enough to halt any attempts to convert this horrible tragedy into a regime-ending event.”

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Turkmenistan

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

The biggest news in Turkmenistan is February’s presidential election – if you can call an entirely rigged and stage-managed vote ‘news’ at all. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov faces fourteen opponents at the time of writing (summarised by Catherine Fitzpatrick), all of them state officials or managers from state-controlled industries. They include such political luminaries as Myrat Charykulyev, MD of the Mary-Ozot chemical company, and Rejep Bazarov, deputy mayor of Dashoguz region.

So, needless to say,  Berdimuhammedov will win another resounding mandate. None of the other candidates will probably break the 5% mark, although the sheer number of them which have been nominated suggests that the government is keen to give the president a lower and more ‘realistic’ share of the vote - last time, in 2007, he won 89.2% against five opponents, each of which got an average of 2.2%.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Georgia

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

Like Armenia, Georgia has parliamentary elections in 2012 (in October) preceding a presidential vote the following year. Like Armenia, the vote pits an entrenched but tainted government against a controversial opposition.

President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement still dominates Georgia, in politics and in media. UNM offices are central to local politics, often doubling as the seat of the local government. Most of the opposition is divided, under-funded, and in some cases presumed to be backed by either Moscow or the government.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Azerbaijan

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

The Azerbaijani government has enjoyed a pretty good 2011, with solid economic growth, no changes on the political front and some small but symbolic foreign policy victories, winning the Eurovision Song Contest and (more importantly) securing a temporary seat on the UN Security Council for 2012 and 2013. Although relations with Iran have been testy, and Karabakh still smoulders, this is nothing new.

In energy, the scramble to choose a pipeline route to Europe for Azerbaijan’s gas may have energy analysts and companies in a spin, but whatever route is picked, Baku wins – it has fully emerged as a critical player in regional energy politics.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Armenia

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

For Armenia 2012 will be dominated by parliamentary elections in May, the first since a disputed poll in 2008 led to street protests in which at least eight demonstrators were killed by police.

President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia, which heads the ruling coalition, will probably win another parliamentary majority. But it is likely to be significantly reduced by a number of factors, leaving the country’s political landscape in flux after a period of relative stability.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Turkey

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

2011 was, on balance, a good year for Turkey. Despite the challenges posed by the Arab Spring, and the demise of the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy, Turkey has made huge strides in building itself as a regional power. At home the economy has been solid; the AKP won a resounding third term, solidifying political stability; and the army has been confined to barracks. 2012 is not likely to be so successful.

In 2012 the biggest foreign-policy challenges will remain Syria and Iran. A total collapse into chaos in Syria, or direct clashes on the border, could prompt Ankara into mounting a limited military intervention (under humanitarian auspices, probably).

Monday, 19 December 2011

Natural Gas Europe - Iran’s Caspian Discovery Could Change the Regional Gas Game

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe.

Iran’s recent announcement that it has found a huge new gas field in the Caspian has been touted as a major event, which will “will change the energy and political balance around the Caspian Sea”, according to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With estimated reserves of 1.4 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 8 billion barrels of oil, the find is undoubtedly significant, but perhaps not for the reasons which Iran means.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Khamenei arrests his own son for 'assassination plot'

Divisions within the Iranian elite are nothing new, but this story takes things to another level:
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei has ordered the arrest of a number of senior members of the Revolutionary Guards he suspects of planning to assassinate him. . . Mojtaba Khamenei, Khamenei’s son and an ardent supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was one of the officials that was arrested.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Politics, policy and the Turkish economy

On the surface, the signals coming from the Turkish economy are enough to make anyone in Europe envious. 8.2% growth in the third quarter; foreign direct investment between January and October up 84% year-on-year; exports at a historical high of $134 billion in the past year.

But every piece of good news is now accompanied by a warning that the economy is overheating and heading for a crash. Citigroup says (via the FT) that “the composition of growth remains grossly unbalanced”.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Natural Gas Europe: Risks and Opportunities of Shell's Turkey Deal

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe.
As reported on 23rd November, Royal Dutch Shell signed a major deal with Turkey’s state energy firm TPAO to begin prospecting for gas and oil onshore in southeastern Turkey, and offshore in the southwest. The deal could have major implications for Turkey’s long-term energy security but carries its own risks.

Interviews with Trend news agency, Azerbaijan

Below are two interviews I've recently given to Azerbaijan's Trend News Agency.

South-Eastern Route has more chances to deliver Azerbaijani gas to Europe
Azerbaijan, Baku, Dec. 6 / Trend A.Badalova/
The South-Eastern Route (SEEP) has more chances to be chosen by Shah Deniz consortium to transport Azerbaijani gas to the European market, political risk analyst at Menas Associates in London, focusing on Caspian energy and political issues Alexander Jackson said.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A truce in the Baku-Tehran cold war

The relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran has been tense for years, but things got especially difficult this year. Border shootings, Iranian warnings of revolution to the north, protests by ethnic Azeris in Iran, and the recent murder of an anti-Iranian journalist in Baku have driven the relationship to a low ebb.

It now seems that both sides have realised things have gone too far and are keen to patch up the damage: to that end, Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration Chief Ali Hasanov flew to Tehran recently. Hasanov announced that the neighbours have come to an agreement on non-interference and mutual understanding. This was diplomatic boilerplate, but Hasanov’s comments to the media were remarkably direct, given how euphemistic both sides usually are.

“If you respect my values, I will respect you," he said. "If you do not interfere in my domestic affairs, I will not interfere either. . . We oppose the artificial introduction of any sects, religious groups, as well as various political, ideological, spiritual currents in Azerbaijan. They aim to create anarchy in Azerbaijan under the guise of democracy. We stop and will stop this."

He said that neither state had hostile propaganda towards the other at the state level. Iranian clerics may make an anti-Azerbaijan statement, but Azerbaijani historians might make anti-Iranian statements too. He also expressed support for the Iranian political system and made it clear that the same should apply to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s communication minister has also got involved, saying that the two states would work towards improving the protocols on cross-border broadcasting. This reflects a longstanding Azeri complaint that pro-Iranian propaganda, spreading support for hardline Islam, is beamed into southern Azerbaijan. Iran also complains that broadcasts promoting separatism among its ethnic Azeris are transmitted from across the border, although less loudly.

Hasanov’s visit is fairly significant, much more than the usual protocol-heavy trips. The substance of his comments is that Baku and Tehran have explicitly agreed an end to their recent cold war, most of which was, in any case, out of the hands of the upper echelons of government.

It remains to be seen whether the truce will hold, but in this neighbourhood and at this time, both of them need all the friends they can get.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Upcoming Kazakh reshuffle paves the way for Nazarbayev’s succession

This is pretty serious news:

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov will probably leave his post following the creation of a new government, Kazakh president's adviser Yermukamet Yertysbayev told Kazakh republican newspaper Liter.
Speculation has been swirling about the presidential succession for months, and it now seems we are getting a clear signal: Yertysbayev is known as the “president’s nightingale” for his role in cautiously communicating Nazarbayev’s intentions, so his pronouncements carry a lot of weight.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Ambassador Bryza on his way out?

Observers could be forgiven for thinking the long-running saga over Matt Bryza’s tenure as US ambassador to Azerbaijan had finished.

The seasoned Caucasus hand has been in the ambassador’s residence since February, after President Obama bypassed a block on his appointment which was imposed by two pro-Armenian Senators (Barbara Boxer  (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) questioned whether Bryza’s close links to Turkish and Azerbaijani officials compromised his judgment). Now, the appointment is back in the news, and the possibility has been raised that Bryza will be dragged back from Baku.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Natural Gas Europe: China Undercuts Russia and Europe with New Turkmen Gas Deal

From now on I'll be writing regular pieces for Natural Gas Europe, the go-to site for news and analysis on European gas issues, and will reblog them here.

A new gas deal between Turkmenistan and China suggests that Beijing is seeking to steal a march on both Russia and Europe for Turkmen gas supplies. Further signs of an eastward shift by Turkmenistan could have a profound impact on regional energy geopolitics, but there may be less to the latest news than meets the eye.

New publications

I've realised that my paper on 'Next Steps In The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict' from earlier this year has been published on the new website of Caucasus International, available at:

My piece on Turkish-Iranian relations, for the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy's 'Azerbaijan In The World', is also now online, at:

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Saakashvili pushes ‘United Caucasus’ dream again

Critics have been comparing Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili to his arch-rival Vladimir Putin for a while now. Their authoritarian tendencies, colourful language, and fondness for switching political offices (speculative in Misha’s case, confirmed in Putin’s) make uncomfortable parallels between the Russian strongman and his Westernising nemesis.

There may be another reference to add to the list: both like espousing fanciful and unwanted integration projects in which they would (naturally) take the lead. Putin has his Eurasian Union concept, likely to be a cornerstone of his third presidential term, and Saakashvili has his own, provincial version: the United Caucasus.