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Security and Politics in the Caspian and Black Sea Region

In the newest Eurasian Connectivity podcast episode, New Lines’ Senior Director Kamran Bokhari sits down with regional expert Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili to discuss current security and political happenings in the nations surrounding the Caspian and Black seas, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

Kamran Bokhari:

Hi everybody, this is Kamran Bokhari. I’m the senior director for Eurasian Security and Prosperity at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. And welcome to another episode of Eurasian Connectivity. Today my guest is Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili, and she needs no introduction for those who follow Eurasia, Central Asia, but I’m going to introduce her anyway. She’s the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, and she’s also a professor there at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. She’s a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome to Eurasian Connectivity, Jennifer.

So we are speaking with each other at a very interesting time. The world is focused on the Middle East. I guess this episode is going to attempt to say, Hey, while we need to focus on the Middle East, there’s a whole world out there. And let’s not forget that there is another war that’s been going on in Ukraine and it hasn’t ended, and it has implications for both the Black Sea Basin and the Caspian Sea Basin and just broader Eurasia. I’m going to ask you to begin with some high level thoughts. What are you watching? These are areas that fall very well within your area of expertise. So what are you watching in Eurasia?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

So I think we’re just seeing a real realignment that’s happening very slowly in the region. And of course, Russia has significant influence, has historic influence, that influence isn’t going away, but it’s changing. It’s shifting. Russia’s weakening. And of course countries in Central Asia, for example, still remain fearful of Russia, have some benefit from Russia, but they’re seeing the poor military performance of Russia in Ukraine. I think that is having such an effect on how countries in this region really think about Russia. And that’s not just true for Central Asia, it’s true for China, it’s true for Afghanistan. I think it’s true for so many countries in the region which had expected Russia, okay, if it couldn’t play a major economic role, it had a lot of economic confusion. Looking at this shift has really created new opportunities for so many other players. And I think the other thing that we really have to think about from a micro level, from a geographic level, is looking at the remarkable political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan.

Now, I lived in Uzbekistan for a long time. Those reforms in terms of democracy haven’t been as significant I think as we may have hoped. But the fact that this was a target country that has a really important geographic role because it touches on five countries in the region, when it was closed off, a lot of possibilities for exchange and trade were simply not possible. When this opened up, we’re seeing a lot of new possibilities, especially going from north to south, from Central Asia to South Asia, which were really unthinkable just a few years ago.

Kamran Bokhari:

Well, you’ve started us off on Uzbekistan. So I was there back in July for the election, and yes, I mean it’s a remarkable place. It’s come a long way since 2016 when the former President, Islam Karimov, passed on, and we have the current President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, take over. I mean, there’s been a sea change, if you will, a rapid opening up of the country, reforms. And this is the heart, the center of gravity of Central Asia, with what, 36 million people and growing and soon to be 40 million in another decade or so, probably less. And it’s right there in the center of the region, with borders with all other four central Asian countries as well as Afghanistan. So you mentioned that connection with South Asia. How are you looking at a Afghanistan? This is a key piece of the puzzle. If there’s going to be trade, there has to be some predictability to say the least. What are you looking at and what are you noticing happening when it comes to a Afghanistan and that connectivity with South Asia.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

So Afghanistan, as you well know, is desperate for this connectivity, and the economic crisis that the country has plunged into. I mean, it wasn’t looking great before the US withdrawal. I think this is really important for people to remember. There’s this notion that the US withdrew, the economy, cratered. Well, the economy was not really in very good shape before, and it was a terribly violent region. The civil conflict was raging. Thousands of people were dying each year. So what we’ve seen since US withdrawal is this power vacuum in the region, but a power vacuum that hasn’t been met by fear. So I think that surprised a lot of observers of the region. The Central Asian states, China, like, oh no, the Taliban’s taking over. That just wasn’t the case. I think there was a lot of comfort dealing with the Taliban.

We’ve seen diplomats from Central Asia, for example, deal with the Taliban for many years, and the Taliban are desperate to have this connectivity, this north-south connectivity, east-west, whatever it can do in order to build an economy. Now, the Central Asians, for example, really see this as a positive situation. They’ve had plans in the works for a very long time, but there was never peace and stability. Well, now we have the absence of war. I wouldn’t call it peace by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have an absence of war inside of the country and that creates these real opportunities for these rail lines, gas lines and so forth. But now the one piece that’s missing is this international financing. So if the Taliban are under these enormous sanctions, who’s going to finance this? So now we’re seeing a huge press and scrappy, very creative ad hoc solutions coming from Central Asia into South Asia, China sort of standing by nodding, looking to see how this all plays out.

And this is a much more bottom up approach, I think, to the kind of integration that’s really important than sort of these top-down initiatives that we saw for many years promoted by the State Department. You remember the Silk Road strategy, and I would even suggest by China, through Belt and Road Initiative. So Afghanistan has asked China to be part of Belt and Road and China sort of nods and says, of course, of course you’re part of Belt and Road, Afghanistan. The Taliban have asked to be part of CPEC, which is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which I’m sure you could talk a lot about. And this has been sort of a failed effort.

I would call it a very costly effort by China. It’s sort of Belt and Road initiative inside of Pakistan that the Taliban have said, can we loop into this? Can we be part of CPEC? And China’s looking at this saying, well, this hasn’t been very successful. But it makes the Taliban happy, and we’re really concerned about the security situation inside of Afghanistan. So of course Taliban, yes, you can join CPEC. So it makes the Taliban happy, but we’re not really seeing a lot of investment come out of this.

Kamran Bokhari:

So you mentioned China and you mentioned Afghanistan. And I have a follow-up question to what you just said. So Daniel Markey has written that fascinating book on China’s westward March towards Eurasia. It’s a dimension that doesn’t get discussed a whole lot because the overwhelming focus is on the maritime space in the Western Pacific in the context of the US-China competition. And then you have India coming into this as well. But China seems to be more interested in, yes, there’s the constant military operations, the air flights, the naval vessels doing exercises around Taiwan. But the thing that doesn’t get picked up a whole lot in the public discourse is there’s just far more that China’s doing in Central Asia than it is in the maritime space. So what do you see as China’s approach to Central Asia post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan? You’ve touched on it a little bit, but this place needs security, and the United States isn’t doing that anymore.

The Russians seem very, very incapable of doing it, at least for now. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but as long as they’re in Ukraine, they’re not going to pay much attention to any place else. They couldn’t do much in the South Caucusus with the flipping of the balance of power between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It’s almost like the Turks saw an opportunity. They helped the Azerbaijanis, and the Azerbaijanis did something that, basically shifting everything that existed since 1994 in terms of who controlled what territory. So in this context, security is a big issue. Do you see China, it’s pushing in geo-economically, but do you see China also looking at filling that security vacuum? Because they need security in order to be able to do business, no?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

I mean slowly they are, right. I mean, we know that to be the case. So just to your point about Azerbaijan and Armenia, I think what happened there effectively killed the CSTO. When you see Armenians protesting for the United States, and Armenia is such a key important player in the CSTO, the collective security treaty organization. So this is the treaty organization that Russia created to sort of counter NATO. This to me signals the complete collapse of that alliance. And you match that with Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan’s refusals to stand by Russia in terms of its invasion of Ukraine. This was a country that had called in Russian troops, right? Just a month before Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, called upon the CSTO. And now we’re seeing this completely, I think, disintegrate. We are seeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cause the collapse of the security alliance. So yes, we can’t look at China’s rise in terms of provision of security without thinking about Russia’s weakening in this area.

Now, people who look at this region, this Eurasian heartland, this continental part of Eurasia have always said Russia provides the security, China provides the investment. We’re going to see a shift in this. Now, I’m not an expert in China, I don’t have any insights into what China’s doing except for what I’m observing in the places that I care about in this heartland. So I’m not an expert on Chinese security policy by any stretch of the imagination. But now we’re seeing the establishment of these Chinese outposts in Tajikistan, for example, and security outposts. They’re not full military bases, but they’ve been going up for the past several years, which shows us that China number one doesn’t believe that Russia has the capacity to protect this border between Afghanistan and Central Asia. So this is the Tajik-Afghan frontier where Russia says they have 10,000 troops there.

We don’t know the status of these troops. I was actually talking to colleagues in Tajikistan just a couple of weeks ago saying, give me verification that these troops are still here. How many are still there? If Russia has this deficit of troops that it’s trying to recruit into Ukraine, how can we be sure that there are 10,000 troops remaining there? And then we’ve seen the poor military performance that China looks at this and of course is concerned. And if China’s putting how many hundreds of thousands into internment camps or concentration camps in China because it’s concerned about Uyghurs, it’s got to be very, very concerned about what it’s seeing inside of Afghanistan. So the Taliban are very clever because they’re keeping these small groups of Uyghurs around. It’s telling China that it’s getting rid of them, but it’s very helpful to the Taliban in particular, to have these small pockets of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Ansarullah people from the Ansarullah forces, from Tajikistan, the East Turkistan Islamic movement there inside of Afghanistan, because it gives them leverage against China or neighbors.

So this is a long way of me saying we’re only going to see China’s security influence grow, but China I think is very keen not to make the same mistakes the United States has made, I think is very worried about overstretch, very worried about any kind of imperialism, doesn’t want to get involved in nation building, state building. So it’s going to be very strategic in the way that it does this. And we’re going to see China, I think, focused more on protecting itself. And that’s why we’re seeing these outposts in Tajikistan. I see China as really interested in containing rather than projecting force.

Kamran Bokhari:

So you talk about the Central Asian states, and you mentioned earlier the political reforms in Uzbekistan. You got something similar going on in Kazakhstan and in this environment of reform, of change, I mean it’s happening. This internal, domestic political economic transformation is taking place at a time of great strategic, if you will, commotion. You look at the strategic environment of Central Asia, you have Russia mired in uncertainty, to put it mildly. You have China trying to deal with a world where the United States is not in Afghanistan. Russia is oscillating on a wavelength and frequency that’s not familiar, and it has its interests to pursue. So in the midst of all of this, you see the United States, you see the West trying to push into Central Asia. You just had the C5+1 first ever summit with President Biden meeting all five of his counterparts in New York.

So yes, there’s some symbolism attached to it. It’s significant. We’ve never had a presidential-level meeting of that kind. And yes, the same Central Asian heads of state met with President Xi before they met with President Biden, and they keep meeting Putin. So this is neither here nor there, but we see this push and you see this talk of a Trans-Caspian energy and trade corridor. So there’s a lot of Western interest. And so this is almost like the Chinese are pushing into Eurasia and they’re kind of somewhere in Uzbekistan. They’re not quite there yet in the Trans-Caspian region, but that’s where the West wants to come in. And Turkey is an emerging player as well. So how do you see this region reacting to this growing, if you will, great power competition?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

So I think what it’s doing is it’s giving the region a heck of a lot of confidence because there’s so much interest. I always tell this story, 20 years ago when I was living in Uzbekistan, I would hear these government officials talk about, this is before 9/11, right? I’m sure I’ve repeated this on other podcasts, but it’s really important to remember. You Americans are so worried about this Islamic extremism. We got this. We’re not worried about this. If you see instability across the post-Soviet space, there’s only one entity behind it, right? And that’s Russia. We’re talking about the era right after the Tajik civil war had ended. If we look at Nagorno-Karabakh, we’ve just talked about all of these kinds of issues, Georgia, I mean Ukraine, every place that there’s been violence, instability across this space, Russia has been very involved in this. And so with the weakening of Russia, we are just in the beginning phases I think, of seeing a recession of Russian influence in terms of its security prowess.

And I don’t think that’s going to necessarily going to be a very peaceful process. And Russia is going to want to use the old tools that it has in its toolkit to really make sure that it can continue provoking and illustrate its power. So we’re seeing this confident Central Asia as it deals with United States, China, everybody is jockeying for this influence. But I think it’s important not to overstate the influence of the United States and even the EU can have compared to China. I mean, China is a neighbor. It is right there. The US has that attention span of the past six months, let’s say, that it’s really cared about this despite the fact that it had almost a hundred thousand troops in the region and didn’t really have a very good strategy for the region. So I’m not confident that the US really is going to do anything in a significant manner.

It’ll play a role at the margins. Yes, it can encourage the if IFIs to provide some financing for some of these Trans-Caspian projects, but I don’t see the US and even the EU maybe having a more significant role here. But I think the concern is, is that you see all of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan having these multi-vectored foreign policies, they’re all screaming multi-vectored, I mean Kazakhstan was the og, multi-vectored foreign policy country. Now we’re seeing Uzbekistan mimic this and it’s great, it’s a very positive sum, you can take from everyone.

We’re friends with everyone, until something really bad happens, then you have to sort of take sides. But for now that’s working and you’re seeing these countries exert a lot more confidence. But the threat isn’t from without. It’s actually from within. So we’re talking about, okay, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan have had these reforms, but if you look about what’s happened, especially in Central Asia over the past 18 months, is we’ve seen an incredible instability in the region, in fact, we’ve seen more domestic instability in the region that we’ve seen in the past 18 months than we’ve seen in a very long time.

The first interstate conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, right, in the Fergana Valley. And that is an interstate conflict. That is not just farmers and some water. We’re talking about an interstate war, something we didn’t think would be possible, not a war, not a full scale war, but certainly a conflict, a conflagration where you’re seeing two militaries of two countries engaging one another. You’re seeing uprisings in [Karakoram? 17:16] Pakistan. We saw those domestic unrest inside of Kazakhstan, where Tokayev have called in the CSTO to help. We’re seeing Gorno-Badakhshan unrest, and this is really prolonged. So you’re seeing confidence on one hand, but real insecurity domestically. And I’m not sure how long these states can really reconcile this. They want to have all of this investment. They want to bring in all these foreign partners, but unless they’re able to stabilize this by using something other than force, because we know how tenuous that could be.

And I think Central Asia has had quite a holiday over the past 30 years in terms of its own stability, with the exception of that very bloody Tajik civil war. We’re going to see new leaders come to power. And we’ve seen incredible instability inside of Kyrgyzstan that’s made that country really hard to have as a reliable partner. So I don’t think that these elections in Uzbekistan, I’m not sure how happy people are internally, for example, with that. I think inside of Kazakhstan, you’ve seen Tokayev promise the world, yet backtrack on that. You saw the same thing in Uzbekistan. Make big promises in terms of domestic reforms and then backtrack. We didn’t see the prior generation of leaders do that kind of thing. They didn’t promise anything. They hardly delivered. And so seeing that I think really signals a kind of weakness that people haven’t seen before. That’s sort of my sense. So you’re seeing this real domestic insecurity while you’re seeing the need to have this global projection. And I think that’s something really that I’d like your listeners to watch out for.

Kamran Bokhari:

Well, I’m going to pick up on what you just talked about in terms of the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But before I do that, I want to remind my listeners that we’re speaking with Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili. She’s the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is also a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. So you said that there is this conflict that is emerging, this interstate conflict. So if you are Tajikistan and you are already worried about what’s happening on your southern flank with Afghanistan, and you are the only country in Central Asia that has a hostile attitude towards the Taliban, everybody else is playing friendly. Can you afford to have a two front situation where you’re worried about the north, you’re worried about the south, and then there is this transition that has to take place because President Emomali Rahmon is not going to rule forever.

And there are rumors, or rumor intelligence that he didn’t pass it on to his son, but nothing is known for sure. And then he, not too long ago, I guess it was last year when he openly complained to Putin that, “Hey, you don’t care about us anymore. And you’re so focused on Ukraine.” And so clearly he’s worried that the security situation in his neighborhood could leave him in a very, very dicey situation. And he’s not confident that the Kremlin will come to his aid. And you said earlier, Hey, how many troops are there? Is this a priority area for Russia while it’s focused on its strategic front yard? So give us a sense of what is Dushanbe thinking with this [Kyrganese? 20:31] fault line, if you will. And then there’s the Afghans and everything else that’s happening.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

So I mean, I think Rahmon, if we think about what’s going on in Tajikistan, yes, there was a lot of bluster there, right as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was collapsing. It was really funny to see Rahmon give these medals to, it was like Rabbani and to Ahmad Shah Massoud posthumously. And it was like he was trying to instigate this kind of Tajik nationalism, which I thought actually wasn’t directed at Afghanistan at all. To me, he was mobilizing this kind of nationalism in response to what was going on at Kyrgyzstan. So a lot of people focus on what he was doing, vis-a-vis Afghanistan, and he was going to stand up to the Taliban. I think that was all about Kyrgyzstan and mobilizing public opinion in that direction. I think what we’ve seen in terms of Tajikistan’s policy towards Afghanistan towards the Taliban is now mimicking what we’re seeing in Uzbekistan.

It’s not quite as friendly, they’re not quite as open about it, but they’ve signed those agreements to transfer electricity just the way the Uzbeks have done. Yes, they’ve allowed Ahmad Massoud to maintain sort of a skeleton office inside of Dushanbe, but they know that no one’s really clamoring to support that and frankly who wants to support something like that? Russia. Russia. And in fact, we did see, I think Ahmad Massoud, who traveled to Russia, he met with a Russian delegation recently, which was very interesting because it was US, Russian strategy. It supported negotiations with the Taliban because it really wanted to provoke US weakness. It wanted to illustrate US weakness. Well, now the Russians are so worried about what’s going on inside of Afghanistan that it’s happy to have the former Northern Alliance buddies inside of Tajikistan who it can hedge with. And in fact, there was a CSTO declaration that was written over the summer, and it was written by Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister wrote in these declarations, not that I follow them so closely.

I remember seeing this and it said, Lavrov personally wrote this declaration, and it was about Afghanistan, it was about security in Afghanistan. And it said, look, we need a more inclusive government. We need participation of women. We need all these preconditions before Russia will recognize the Taliban. And it was the same week where President Biden, you remember that comment he made about Al-Qaeda and the Taliban? He said, they’re doing our bidding for us. The Taliban said they’d get rid of Al-Qaeda and they got rid of Al-Zawahiri for us. So look how smart I was. It was in August, it was at the two-year anniversary, that’s what it was. And he made this comment saying, look how clever I am. The Taliban do what I say. And then you have the CSTO and Lavrov almost the same week saying the Taliban need to be more democratic, they need to be more inclusive, they need to promote women’s rights.

And I thought like, wow, what a strange change of fortune. Almost the CSTO press release looked like something that the US would’ve said three years ago. And then you see Lavrov saying this, why does Lavrov care about that? Because the Russians know darn well, and so does Tajikistan, that unless the Taliban become more inclusive, do something about women, it’s going to blow again. Because we look at these patterns of Afghani history, even China is saying the same thing. You can’t rule this way. It’ll blow into civil war.

And I think everyone believed this narrative, Taliban 2.0 narrative, we’re going to be more inclusive. Look at the Uzbek Taliban, look at the Tajik Taliban. In the New York Times, Haqqani wrote, we’ve changed. No, they’ve not changed. And countries in the region know that, especially Russia, especially Tajikistan. So they’re hedging. But can Tajikistan afford a two flank war? No. But is that what Tajikistan’s doing? Absolutely not. It has really turned back its rhetoric toward Afghanistan, and you’re seeing trade delegations coming now, and you’re almost seeing the same kind of normalization that you’re seeing with the rest of the central Asian republics.

Kamran Bokhari:

So before we flip over to the Caucasus, I want to delve into that and pick your brain on it. Where do you see Iran in all of this? Now, Iran is so “busy” in the Middle East, and it’s kind of like if you will, disconnected from its northern flank. And the northern flank from Tehran’s point of view is hostile given the relationship with Baku and the alignment between Azerbaijan and Israel, and now the alignment between Israel and Turkmenistan. So where do you see Iran? I mean, is Iran going to do anything? I know they’re really heavily involved in Afghanistan and they’ve got these relations with Tajikistan government factions there because of the linguistic historical relationship. But do you foresee Iran doing anything in Central Asia or this is like its strategic backyard that it just doesn’t want to tamper with?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

So we’ve seen under the new presidents definitely a move towards Central Asia that we hadn’t seen, for example, in a very long time. And we saw President Mirziyoyev visit Tehran a few months ago, and we’ve seen the Iranian leader visit Central Asia as well in recent months. So we’re certainly seeing an uptick in these kinds of relations. And I think for the central Asians, it has to do with trans-Caspian issues. I think it has to do with trade, commerce. We need more routes south. We need to divert our trade and commerce in other directions because we just can’t deal with Russia and frankly don’t want to be dependent on China. So yes, China has a much greater influence in the region, but I think as China’s influence increases, you do see a public backlash against China. I mean certainly in Kyrgyzstan, right? You see this, you feel it.

People are not afraid of talking about this. So that’s what I think is driving that. Now, Iran is very interested, and I think this just aligns with Iran’s broader policy towards establishing itself as a greater, not just regional power, but continental power, let’s say that. So they definitely see their role of course, in the Middle East, but they want to be involved in the region, and they see the decline of Russia. They could complement Russia’s decline, provide another perspective on it. But I don’t think that Iran will ever be a serious player because of the Sunni-Shia issue, was one. And the real apprehension of countries about Iran’s role in exporting terrorist organizations. That really frightens Central Asian republics. And that’s been a major tool of Iranian foreign policy. I mean, we’re seeing this play out with Hamas, Hezbollah. The Central Asian states aren’t really interested in that.

Kamran Bokhari:

So switching gears here to Iran’s rival, Turkey. So if you are Turkey and you were trying to expand influence into the Middle East, you couldn’t because Iran had a big headstart there and there are all sorts of complications. The Arab Spring didn’t pan out the way that they thought it would, and then the economy of Turkey isn’t doing well. But now on their northern flank, with Russia weakening, you mentioned that the Central Asian states are gaining confidence because of that and looking at ways in which to take the multi-vector foreign policy doctrine to a whole new level. What do you see Turkey doing? Because they’ve already given us a sneak preview with their support for Azerbaijan in the NK war, and really shifting the balance of power in the South Caucusus. So do we see this happening, this trend where Turkey asserts itself increasingly, albeit gradually, as and when Russia becomes encumbered by sanctions, by military losses? And so do you see Turkey playing a bigger role in the Black Sea Basin?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

I mean, obviously the Black Sea Basin is going to be its bread and butter, and that’s where we’re going to see Turkey really seek to expand its influence. But I am skeptical. I mean, yes, of course. I mean, Turkey’s a NATO member too, right? There’s both opportunities for Turkey, but also a series of constraints on how it can behave because of its membership in NATO. And that gives it a lot of power. So in terms of the Black Sea, it’s going to want to demonstrate, I think much more of a strategic dominance. It’s funny, when I was in graduate school, I took a course on Russo-Turkish relations, and I thought I was signing up for a course on geopolitics, but it was about the treaties that governed the strait, and how many treaties were written over this, how many wars were fought over control of the strait to get in and out of the Black Sea in Istanbul.

And we forget that this has been a major source of contestation for centuries, not just decades, centuries, people fighting for control of this territory. And the peace that we’ve seen in recent years I think is maybe an aberration, but looking, it’s very interesting because you have this, if you look at the littoral states and their involvement, you’ve seen what’s going on in Romania, for example, Russia targeting those rockets that are hitting Romanian border, and now the Romanians really saying that they’re going to start fighting back against this. You see the opportunity and then you see Turkey’s relation to all of this. So Turkey’s trying to assert itself, but Turkey has to compete against many others in this region who are quite powerful. In Romania, for example, that’s the EU. Then you have Georgia on the other side, which is caught between a rock and a hard place.

And then of course you have Russia. We do see Turkey really trying to exert itself. One, we see this in the Middle East, what it’s trying to do, Hamas and Gaza, but also now in Central Asia where it’s trying to assert itself. And just this past week we saw this Turkic Union summit, which people really like to talk about, and color me skeptical about the role of these regional players. There’s been a lot of talk about Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and their role in the sort of continental landscape. I just don’t think countries in the region really have an appetite for any of them in a really sustained way. They don’t see countries that have their domestic act together. Qatar really plays, I mean, Qatar’s sort of a different story. They’ve got resources and they can mess around in ways that other countries can’t without domestic constraints. But I’m very skeptical of claims that we’re going to see the, Turkey and Iran in particular play a really significant role. I think regionally they will, but anything extended far outside of their core territory, we’re not.

Kamran Bokhari:

So speaking of that, and we’re coming up to our stopping point, so I’m going to ask you a last question, and it has to do with your idea of confidence. So we see confidence on the part of Azerbaijan now that it has taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh. You see Kazakhstan taking risks, if you will. Do you see countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which seem to be like the two principle players in terms of Trans-Caspian trade. Do you see them coming together in a significant way? And will we see in the coming years a significant rise in Trans-Caspian commerce?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

I think absolutely. I think this is where the Iran, Turkey thing, from the outside, I’m not seeing it. So here, not only do you have interests, but you also have resources. So of course it’ll take additional resources to develop this infrastructure. But with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, you’re talking about two very resource-rich countries that can afford to invest, and they have skin in the game in ways that other countries do not or cannot. The only problem is dealing with other littoral problems on the littoral states, and that is Iran and Russia. And to the extent to which Russia will play a spoiler in any of this, which they very much can do. It was really interesting to see Azerbaijan was invited to that forum of Central Asian leaders right before they all went to the United States. I can’t remember what forum it was. There’s been so many of them that have brought them together.

But I’d actually want to maybe wrap up by asking you a question, and it’s about Pakistan. It was a country we actually barely touched on during this discussion. Where another place where I think we’re seeing this confidence is Pakistan. And just recently, this past week, Pakistan booted out 2 million Afghan refugees, and I think that will test Afghanistan quite a lot. We’re seeing 1.5, up to 2 million Afghan refugees now return to Afghanistan. You have a very poor Afghanistan that can’t really support these people. There’s no infrastructure, there’s no housing, there’s no nothing. This will be a huge tax on Afghanistan and really will put enormous pressure on the Taliban. I’m curious to know from your perspective, what you really see is driving this. To me, this is an extraordinary amount of confidence for that government, this caretaker government to do this at a time when a lot of people have spoken about terrorism and the threat of the TTP, but this could really backfire against the Pakistanis and really destabilize things in the entire region in ways that I think Pakistan may not be very happy about.

Kamran Bokhari:

Yeah, I don’t see this as a move that portrays confidence. It’s more fear, it’s more reactive. As for the caretaker government, it does what the military establishment wants it to do. It doesn’t have that kind of mandate. So yeah, for them, it’s a bit shocking that this was done during this time period. But it’s understandable that if you want to do something like that, do you want to wait for an elected government to come in that may or may not play ball and have its own imperatives and its own compulsions? So it’s easy to get it done through a caretaker government. Now, what will actually happen? What benefits this will bring to Islamabad? It’s just not really clear to me. Pakistan is going through probably a very, definitely an unprecedented political-economic situation, but we’ve not seen this level of political chaos and economic chaos in the history, I mean look, as you know, problems, whether political or economic, financial, they’re chronic. They’ve been going on for decades. They go back to the earliest days of the founding of the Republic. But I think we’re at a point where they’ve run out of options. And when I say options, I mean they just don’t have the financial wherewithal to deal with the situation. So if you look at what the needs of Pakistan are and what they’re able to get as commitments in terms of financial assistance, whether from IFIs or whether from allied nations in the Gulf, China, the United States, there’s a huge financing gap. So I mean, they’ve definitely dodged a bullet in terms of a default, but it could be that this is kicking the can down the road more than actually dodging the bullet. But we’re just going to have to wait and see. There has to be some major strategic shifts vis-a-vis India, Afghanistan is a problem of their own making.

They put their weight behind the Taliban, and even before the Taliban came back in the eighties and the nineties, they were leaning towards one particular faction and made enemies out of the minorities. And so I think that they don’t have good solutions. So this is like, “Oh, we have terrorists and we are financially broke, so let’s send a message to the Taliban that we’re not going to house your people anymore.” So what does that do? How will the Taliban react? I mean, it doesn’t solve their TTP problem. I mean, if they think they’re going to solve the TTP problem this way. I mean, it operates on its own logic, and it doesn’t really have to do with Afghans living in Pakistan because I mean, how many people are part of TTP versus 2 million Afghans? So I mean, this is not going to solve their problem, but it’s not the first time Pakistan does something attempting to solve a problem and creating more. So this is just kind of more of the same.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili:

Yeah, I just can’t imagine that countries in the region are really pleased with this. I mean, at all, because it’s going to create really, really challenging problems. I mean, we’re only just beginning to see this.

Kamran Bokhari:

I mean, if they want connectivity with Central Asia, this is the wrong thing to do. There’s no shortage of problems with Afghanistan that Pakistan has to deal with. This is creating another one and not solving the original problem. Yeah. But anyway, I think we’ve come to the end of this episode. I’d love to keep talking. This is stuff that you and I are both interested in and I’m sure our listeners are interested in. But we’ll definitely have you back. Folks, that was Professor Jennifer Murtazashvili from the University of Pittsburgh. She was my guest for this particular episode. You can follow her work at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s on Twitter. And continue to follow us at New Lines Institute, at www.newlinesinstitute.org. And this is Kamran Bokhari signing off for now from Eurasian Connectivity. Take care.

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