EurasiaChat: Shrinking Caspian, invisible opposition, elusive pipeline
The declining Caspian poses a threat to the environment, no protests poses a threat to stability, no deals poses a threat to the trans-Caspian pipeline.
There is yet another looming water crisis that Central Asia is having to contend with these days.
In the latest edition of the EurasiaChat podcast, Peter Leonard and Alisher Khamidov opened with a look at the troubling lowering of the level of the Caspian Sea, which is posing a severe threat to its ecosystem and marine economy.
The situation has been exacerbated by a combination of natural factors and human influence, with dire consequences for the region's environmental and economic stability.
The sea, which borders Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia, has seen a notable decline in its water level since 2005. According to one top Azerbaijani official, the water level has decreased by 114 centimeters over the past decade alone.
Climate change has further exacerbated the issue, leading to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and diminished water inflow, primarily due to global warming.
For now, the impact is being felt most strongly in Kazakhstan. As RFE/RL reported over the summer, authorities in the coastal city of Aktau have been prompted to declare a state of emergency to expedite measures to address the receding shoreline.
Staying on the topic of Kazakhstan, Alisher talked about what has become something of a tradition around this time of year: anti-government protests on Republic Day, which is marked on October 25.
As ever, the figure exhorting the discontented to go out onto the streets was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a critic of the government based in Europe. His calls for demonstrations appear to have lost whatever appeal they once held, however. Police, as is customary, resorted to legally dubious preventative measures to stop the willing from going onto the streets, but even so, engagement in the anti-government actions was markedly weak.
As Alisher and Peter discussed, though, this is no reason for the authorities to claim victory. On the contrary, by using various measures to deprive the discontented of any viable and legitimate political force with which to identify, they have created a situation of inherent unpredictability and, accordingly, potential instability.
“When we don’t have elites who can talk to the ruling establishment, which can be like a formal opposition, protests can become unruly, just [like what happened in Kazakhstan in January 2022], and they can become sporadic and isolated, and as a result there will be mass destruction, because authorities do not know whom to talk to,” Alisher concluded.
Wheeling back to Caspian matters, the topic of building a natural gas pipeline across that sea, from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, is very much on the agenda again.
There are a few recent signpost events to consider. One was a trilateral Azerbaijan-Turkey-Turkmenistan heads of state summit in December in which the three countries looked, to use the language of the Turkmen government website, “to form a coordinated and multi-option system for delivering energy resources to global markets.”
Another was the time in August when President Berdymukhamedov traveled to Hungary, where he met Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who was in turn in Ashgabat in June. After that latter visit, Hungary’s foreign minister intimated that a “political agreement” on gas deliveries had been reached.
Thin scraps perhaps, but if any pipeline is ever to be built, commercial deals will need to be nailed down. Demonstration of political will could be a step toward that happening.
As EurasiaChat was recording, Berdymukhamedov was readying to fly to Turkey, where he met for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan said in remarks to the press that Turkey and Turkmenistan aim, in collaboration with Azerbaijan, to contribute to international energy security. They discussed that vision in the context of development of an East-West transport corridor, which goes through the Caspian region.
The language is well-rehearsed. What is needed for the agenda to go forward is deals and money.
This episode of EurasiaChat was produced by Aigerim Toleukhanova.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in Bishkek.