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2014 was a year of crisis. Ebola, ISIS, and Donbas are now part of the global lexicon. Eurasia Outlook experts weigh in on how crises on Russia’s periphery affected the country, and what these developments mean for Moscow in 2015.
The South Caucasus in 2014 lived in the shadow of the conflict in Ukraine. Armenia formally agreed to join the Eurasian Union and Azerbaijan moved closer to Russia. However in both cases it looked more like a tactical maneuver than a whole-hearted ideological embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
As is customary in the South Caucasus, local factors ruled supreme. Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan moved to cement his position in power by installing a new government. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev made a sharp move towards a Central-Asia-style autocracy with a cruel crackdown on the last remnants of Western-funded non-governmental organizations and independent media. Many of Azerbaijan's best known human rights activists were arrested and are in jail.
Again local factors were more important, as Armenia and Azerbaijan upped the stakes in their 26-year-old confrontation over Nagorny Karabakh. The increased militarization of the Line of Contact dividing Armenian and Azerbaijani forces were the trigger for the worst violence since the ceasefire of 1994. Fighting in late July and early August and the shooting down of an Armenian helicopter in November cost several dozen lives.
Georgia was also gripped for most of the year by domestic political melodrama: an ongoing feud between the prime minister and president, both of whom at one point threatened to go to the United Nations to represent their country, the mystery of to what degree former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was pulling strings from behind the scenes, the sacking of pro-Western defense minister Irakli Alasania.
At the end of the year, Moscow signed a new “partnership treaty” with Abkhazia and there were reports of an even more ambitious document to be agreed with South Ossetia. The big question in the New Year is how far Russia will go and whether the thaw in relations with Georgia has ended.
For the most of the year, the Caucasus was not in the spotlight, edged out by the crisis in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. Both of these challenges, however, had a palpable influence on the region. For some, the situation in Ukraine triggered further integration into Euro-Atlantic Institutions (Georgia); for others, it spurred closer ties with Russia (Abkhazia) and the Eurasian Union (Armenia).
ISIS influenced the region in three main dimensions—ideological, informational, and social—which entailed two trends: an escalation of extremist activity in the North Caucasus (the recent terrorist attack in Grozny is just the latest example) and a dramatic increase in the number of Islamists from the North Caucasus and the Volga river basin fighting in Iraq and Syria—from around 500 to more than 1,000 fighters. Although currently the trends seem minor, they may develop, which will pose new political and security challenges to the Russian state and other regional stakeholders.
In the wider Black Sea-Caspian region the transformations have been more significant. The “Crimean spring” was a symbolic political milestone marking a new era in international affairs. The events may ultimately be equivalent in historical magnitude to the break-up of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 atrocities in shaping a new world order for many years to come.
In 2014, Russia beefed up its southern flank by launching initiatives in the Caspian Sea and by signing a “South Stream” deal with Turkey. The latter empowered Ankara and took Russian-Turkish relationship to a new level. This developing relationship will be interesting to watch in 2015.
Negotiating parties’ inflated expectations were problematic for diplomatic talks over Nagorno Karabakh and the Iranian nuclear issue. In the former, tension is the highest it has been since the negotiation of the ceasefire; in the latter, there has been little progress on the diplomatic track, opening up space for political and military hawks. Fear of a potential military campaign involving major powers is growing in the region. With Russia and the West demonstrating no interest in cooperation with one another, the risks are multiplied as potential conflict prevention tools are limited.
The year 2014 was the most tumultuous year in the history of independent Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych made a dramatic U-turn before the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius; the EuroMaidan protest turned violent after the riot police’s brutal crackdown; Yanukovych fled after the failure of EU-brokered peace deal on February 21; Russia annexed Crimea; and the armed resistance in Donbas turned into a military conflict between Russia-backed insurgents and Kyiv forces whose political legitimacy was reinforced by presidential and parliamentary elections.
The statement “Ukrainians looked for Europe, but have found themselves instead” fits the developments of 2014 fairly well. But Ukrainian self-identification, framed by newly found national unity, also mirrors Russia’s fervent patriotism. The difference is that the latter is much more dependent on state aid while the former relies on the self-determination of the citizens.
Both Western and Russian media tend to describe the Ukraine crisis through a geopolitical lens. In reality, the conflict is based on the struggle of the Ukrainian people to determine the character of their own state. Ukraine is a country where various factors—the breakdown of central authority, staggering inequality, rent seeking, and the dwindling of previously readily available resources—blew up the political status quo and disrupted the local remnants of the Cold War.
The key question for 2015 is whether Ukraine’s “same old” political elites can build upon the foundation created by the country’s civil society. The reform agenda should not aim to bring back resources, but should rather focus on improving governance to allow for a better distribution of existing resources and to enable local problem solving that benefits local people. Unfortunately, rather than taking this path, the current government believes in austerity and symbolic measures to achieve unrealistic goals such as joining NATO. Unless Kyiv addresses some fundamental economic and social realities, the EU flag may become just as unpopular as the banner of the disappointing Orange Revolution of 2004.
Viewing the Ukraine crisis through geopolitics alone sets up a trap for all the actors involved: Russia comes to see the crisis as a Western ploy, Ukraine loses sight of the importance of good governance, and the EU attributes the entire conflict to Putin’s overzealous geopolitical ambitions. The year 2015 is shaping up to be a rocky one indeed.
2014 was a year of temptation, disillusionment, and lack of free choice for Central Asia.
The countries in the region were made an offer they could not refuse: China pledged 40 billion dollars in investments to set up a Silk Road infrastructure fund, which made Beijing virtually the only economic donor—albeit to varying degrees—to all five Central Asian states, including neutral Turkmenistan. Kyrgyzstan, which signed an agreement to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) at the very end of this year, had to make the hardest choice of all. This small, resource-poor country is in for a difficult period of transition as the end of the free flow of Chinese imports will force the closure of the largest Central Asian wholesale markets, which provide jobs for around 400,000 Kyrgyz citizens. Despite the costs, Bishkek was unable to refuse EEU membership; it was a civilizational choice, conceded Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev on December 26.
Most countries in the region are also very concerned with the security threats associated with a large-scale U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 2014, Central Asian states found their southern borders vulnerable in light of the heightened Taliban activity in Afghanistan, which contributes to the power vacuum in the northern Afghan provinces adjacent to some Central Asian state borders. Turkmenistan is particularly affected by this problem, despite Ashgabad’s time-tested ability to maintain cordial relations with any Afghan regime, including that of the Taliban. The potential for destabilization is even greater due to the influence of the Islamic State, which attracts many Central Asian Islamic extremists, hundreds of whom are already fighting in Syria and Iraq. Central Asian regimes fear that protests could spawn after the jihadis return home.
However, the most unexpected challenge for post-Soviet Central Asia has to do with the Russian annexation of Crimea, which prompted Western sanctions against Moscow, the weakening of the ruble, and the start of a recession in Russia. Reacting to these changes, Central Asian elites lost trust in Moscow, and migrant laborers, whose cash remittances total at least 10 billion dollars a year, began returning home en masse. Their return and subsequent lack of employment increases the potential for destabilizing protests at home. Over 200,000 Tajik guest workers are already prohibited from returning to Russia. Central Asian economies are also affected by the economic situation in Russia, the worsening of which has led to the significant devaluation of local currencies. Since the start of 2014, the Kazakh tenge has lost 19 percent of its value, and the Kyrgyz som, Uzbek som, and Tajik somoni have fallen 15 percent, 9 percent, and 5.5 percent respectively.
Still, paradoxically, all of the aforementioned factors in one way or another make the countries in the region increasingly reliant on security guarantees offered by Russia.
The swearing-in of charismatic Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi in May as the prime minister of India following the landslide victory of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian parliamentary elections was perhaps the most important event in South Asian politics in 2014.
In a first, Modi invited all South Asian leaders to attend his inauguration. The presence of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif provided some hope of an early start to Indo-Pakistani dialogue.
However, the hopes were dashed in August when the Pakistani ambassador met with Kashmiri separatists in New Delhi and India cancelled foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries.
Accusing each other of deadly ceasefire violations on their common border, the two rivals remained locked in a war of words until the horrific Taliban terror attack on a Peshawar school prompted Modi to pick up the phone and call Sharif to express his sympathies.
The state of Indo-Pakistani relations predetermined the outcome of the November SAARC Katmandu summit which placed Modi’s push for greater cooperation and development on the subcontinent on the backburner.
One of the most salient developments of 2014 was the new Indian government’s hectic engagement with three major players outside of South Asia. Two of these, the United States and China, are traditional allies of Pakistan while the third, Russia, is considered India’s old friend.
In September, Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping on the backdrop of fresh incidents and tensions on the disputed border. Later in the same month in Washington, he befriended Barack Obama who, in a rare gesture, accepted an invitation to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. He will become the first-ever U.S. president to attend this major event and to visit India twice in his tenure.
However, after summit talks in New Delhi with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, Modi signaled that despite a push for improving ties with the United States, Russia will remain India’s “most important” defense partner.
Domestic and international events—primarily elections and high-level visits—figure prominently among the major events of 2014. Parliamentary elections took place in Bangladesh, India, and the Maldives, while Afghanistan was voting for president. The Indian elections, which led to the victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, have attracted most attention. The Afghan polls also featured some intrigue: its favorites couldn’t determine who would become the head of state for several months. Ultimately, in September, the parties agreed to an arrangement that made Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai Afghanistan’s president and Abdullah Abdullah its CEO.
However, I would rather focus on such woes as corruption, violence, terrorism, and natural disasters, which touched the lives of the people in the region to a much greater extent than changes among the top political brass. The incidents of violence against women, children, and religious minorities have not decreased. Several countries of the region remain among the worst countries in terms of social and political gaps between women and men. Despite the efforts made by authorities in some of the countries in the region, primarily by Narendra Modi’s government, corruption remains a distinctive characteristic of politics and economy in India and other South Asian countries.
Acts of terror become more ferocious and less predictable. It especially concerns Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Terrorist attacks killed around 3,200 civilians in Afghanistan, over 1,760 in Pakistan, and over 410 in India. The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has reached record high since the start of the U.S.-led military operation in 2001. The bloodbath in a Peshawar school, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, drew the largest response. It was perpetrated by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan members in early December.
South Asians bear the full brunt of climate changes. Flash floods and landslides claimed the lives of over 650 people in Afghanistan and affected more than 125,000. Floods caused by monsoon rains had killed about 300 people in India by the end of September, mostly in the states of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir. A total of over 25,000 Assam residents and over 200,000 Jammu and Kashmir residents were affected by the floods. Monsoon rains and the resulting floods claimed the lives of 300 people and impacted the lives of 1.8 million people. Torrential rains and landslides caused more than 200 deaths in Nepal, and over 170,000 Nepalese residents were affected by the disaster. Rains and landslides resulted in 70 deaths in Sri Lanka and affected the lives of over 106,000 people. Floods in Bangladesh impacted 3.2 million people with only a few recorded fatalities.
All these woes are going to spill over into 2015. Narendra Modi’s government is working on improving India’s response to them, which provides reasons for cautious optimism. Political situation in other countries in the region engenders less optimism.
2014 was a transformative year for the Asia-Pacific. Though only time will tell which events truly altered history and which were just “noise,” three events have clearly had a significant impact on the region already.
1. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in Ukraine will have consequences in the Asia-Pacific. It is not that Asian powers have a real political stake in the conflict or significant business interests in Ukraine, but rather that the crisis will echo loudly throughout the region. It is the first time since the end of the Cold War that a major non-Western power has violated the formal norms of international law and the informal codes of conduct. The reaction of the West (and particularly the United Ststes) to the Ukraine crisis was a frequent topic of discussion in Asian capitals and international fora like the Shangri-La Dialogue. Ukraine was not a formal American ally, but the United States and its Western partners saw the conflict as the result of a revisionist power trying to prevent a young democracy from pursuing closer association with the West.
The sanctions made a very mixed impression on Asian governments. Some thought that the West’s reaction evidenced its power to crush a country even as mighty as Putin’s Russia through economic force. Others considered the response to be rather weak and inefficacious in deterring Russian aggression in Donbas. This may call into question the role of the United States as a global security guarantor: many in Asia have projected the conflict in Eastern Europe onto regions like South China Sea in an attempt to figure out what Washington’s reaction would be should China make a powerful move to change the status-quo.
Not only was the demonstrative effect of the Ukraine crisis important; so too were Moscow’s subsequent attempts to diversify its economic relationships by pivoting to Asia. The past year did bring some important changes to Russia’s relations with China, with Beijing becoming the most significant provider of capital, technology, and market access to sanctions-crippled Moscow. This link may improve China’s position vis-à-vis its regional rivals, most notably Japan, which lost momentum in improving ties with Russia.
2. Speaking in Shanghai in May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on the region to establish a new security architecture in which security will be provided “for Asians by the Asians.” To many this may sound like a hollow propaganda statement, but it is important to note that this was the first time that China officially announced its goal of establishing a regional security architecture at the highest political level. A productive meeting between Xi and Barack Obama in November during the APEC summit in Beijing shouldn’t mislead anyone: both major powers have different perceptions on the future of Asia-Pacific security, which was clear long ago but became obvious during this year.
3. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Fund (AIIF) was also a watershed event. The polite words and awkward diplomatic statements uttered by the Chinese and representatives of the Bretton-Woods structures should not mislead anyone. China has for the first time used its financial power to establish an institution that will challenge the existing Bretton-Woods order. The fund may seem small and unserious, but we should view is as part of the pilot-scheme thinking—the way Beijing experiments with strategic concepts—of the Chinese leadership. One could argue that creation of AIIF is a reflection of China’s growing ambition, or that the new fund is a necessary reply to an outdated model that was not adjusted in a timely manner because of the arrogance of the existing stakeholders. One thing is clear: the rivalry between the existing and emerging institutions may have a big effect on the regional financial architecture.
It was a difficult year for the Middle East. During the last twelve months, overall regional instability gradually grew: the simmering conflict in Libya, the further destabilization of the situation in Yemen, and the political and military stalemate in Syria came to characterize the Middle Eastern in 2014. Further, new threats seriously undermined regional security. The military successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during the summer allowed jihadis to declare the establishment of an Islamic caliphate on large territories previously controlled by Bagdad, Damascus and the Syrian opposition. This, in turn, posed a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq and created a new challenge for regional secular forces.
International efforts to improve the situation in the Middle East were only partially successful. This, to a large extent, can be explained by the absence of unanimity among the main regional players (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Egypt) and non-regional forces (the United States, the EU, Russia, and China) regarding the future of the region and the methods necessary to bring stability to the Middle East. One of the greatest (though quite predicable) disappointments of 2014 was the failure of the talks on the Iranian nuclear program. Although all sides involved in the P5+1 negotiations expressed satisfaction with the results of the November meetings in Vienna, the ultimate goal of these talks was not achieved. Tehran and the West are still far from reaching a satisfactory, final agreement.
The potential for conflict in Egypt did not dissipate in 2014. The election of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the next Egyptian president strengthened the positions of forces capable of counterbalancing the influence of the Muslim brotherhood in the country. However, this did not entail the end of conflict in Egypt. During 2014, Egyptian security services prevented more than 400 terrorist attacks and arrested about 10,000 members of opposition groups. Foreign observers noted that while as-Sisi was trying hard to bring stability to Egypt he was also reluctant to observe civil rights in the country. According to them, quite a large number of those arrested by the Egyptian police were not terrorists but rather represented a peaceful, civil opposition.
Finally, complications in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue further aggravated the situation in the Middle East. The summer’s clashes between Israel and Gaza once again brought to the fore the question of a lasting settlement to the Palestinian conflict. Yet, it only led to a controversial initiative by the Jordanian government to adopt a UN resolution regarding the establishment of the Palestinian state.
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