Wild and Wealthy: the Past and Future of the Caspian Sea

I have been advertised that the chief trade of Persia is into Syria, and so transported into the Levant Sea [Mediterranean]. The few ships upon the Caspian Seas, the want of mart and port towns, the poverty of the people and the ice, maketh that trade not.

So commented Anthony Jenkinson, intrepid representative of the English Muscovy Company during his epic journey through Russia and Central Asia in 1558-1560.

In search of new trading partners and an overland route to the wealth of China, Jenkinson’s explorations were not only a remarkable feat of adventurism but they also allowed for some of the first English-language accounts of a region still oft-overlooked thanks to their inclusion in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation.

The land encompassing the Caspian Sea – a still controversial designation for this massive landlocked body of water – rarely makes the headlines, only momentarily garnering attention for a recent agreement hashed out Aktau between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The five heads of state celebrate the deal in Aktau

After decades of dispute, the five littoral states bordering the Caspian have agreed to share its resources and work together to prevent outside powers from setting up military bases on its shores. Rich in oil and gas, it is a prudent step to douse this particular geopolitical flame.

When Jenkinson – a native of the quiet Leicestershire town of Market Harborough – travelled the region in the mid-1500s, he encountered a wild land of nomads and bandits, whose conceptions of commerce differed widely from his own ‘sophisticated’ notion.

From the Caspian Sea unto the castle of Sellizure aforesaid, and all the countries about the said sea, the people live without town or habitation in the wild fields, removing from one place to another in great companies with their cattle, whereof they have great store, as camels, horses, and sheep both tame and wild.

Yet if the Caspian of the 16th century was beyond his comprehension, imagine what the merchant would think of today’s Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, with its sparkling modern facades and nouveau-riche adornments.

Baku’s elite status has been confirmed by its hosting of a grand prix on the Formula 1 calendar

Not that the oil wealth of the Sea was completely unknown to Jenkinson’s contemporaries. Thomas Bannister and Jeffrey Duckett (also English traders) commented that the area was:

a strange thing to behold, for there issueth out of the ground a marvelous quantity of oil, which serveth all the country to burn in their houses. This oil is black and is called nefte. There is also by the town of Baku, another kind of oil which is white [petroleum] and very precious.

Indeed the modern petroleum industry threatens to wreak environmental disaster on the Caspian, with oil run-off and chemical disposal poisoning its waters at an alarming rate. If the five signatories do not take action soon, then the Caspian threatens to follow the Aral Sea into ecological oblivion.

Oil wells near Baku: with great wealth comes environmental responsibility

Jenkinson thought that the Aral ran into the Caspian, yet today the former is barely recognisable as a water body, its desiccated plains more reminiscent of a desert.

What was, and remains, true about his observations, however, is the ‘wildness’ of the Caspian. Beyond the oil wealth there is impoverishment and turmoil. Iran sits on the Sea’s southern border, scheming to bend the region to its will. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan remain mired in post-Soviet decay to the east, whilst to the north is the restive Russian province of Dagestan, long a source of discontent that Moscow has sought to quell.

This Astracan is the furthest hold that this Emperor of Russia hath conquered of the Tartars towards the Caspian Sea, which he keepeth very strong, sending thither every year provisions of men and victuals, and timber to build the castle.

Jenkinson could almost be writing about Vladimir Putin and his determination to ensure the loyalty of his southern lands (many Muslim-dominated), albeit substituting the castles for tanks and modern artillery.

A map based on Jenkinson’s descriptions: note the misshapen Caspian

Central Asia is imbued with huge economic and political potential, yet few seem to realise it. A massive disparity in wealth and opportunity exists between the elite and the citizenship, whose ambitions have been thwarted by dictatorial and repressive regimes.

Whether the ground-breaking achievement of this month will make a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens remains to be seen. Will the state-level sharing trickle down to the poor and needy? Without international attention, their governments may not see the immediate value in concession. A desire to protect the Caspian’s precious sturgeon population (the caviar conduit) may be a stronger incentive to clean-up the lake than the wants of those who rely on its waters for sustenance.

Successful fisherman in the Caspian Sea in 1949, before the oil boom

On his return across the Caspian from the fabled Silk Road town of Bukhara, Jenkinson and his men were buffeted by a storm during which they were:

driven far into the sea, and had much ado to keep our bark from sinking, the billow was so great: but at the last, having fair weather, we took the sun, and knowing how the land lay from us, we fell with the river Iaic, according to our desire, whereof the Tartars were very glad, fearing that we should have been driven to the coast of Persia, whose people were unto them great enemies.

With the agreement of Aktau, it should no longer matter which way the winds blow.

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Turkmen Elections Offer Hopes of Change: political development initiated

The Turkmen people were not meant to be tamed, beholden to anyone or anything other than the land. Nomads of determination and skill, the Turkmen of history were notoriously difficult to conquer. Seljuks, Mongols and Uzbeks failed to subject them into an acquiescent bondage.

The open mountain plains of Turkmenistan have a long history of nomadism, trade and war
The open mountain plains of Turkmenistan have a long history of nomadism, trade and war

As soldiers, horsemen and traders, the Turkmen formed an influential constituent part of successive dynasties and Khanates. Brought into service they may have been, but the Turkmen retained an autonomy of character which only Russia would end.

In the 19th century the conquests began; striking out from the Caspian Sea, the Tsarist forces achieved what no civilization had achieved before. The nomadic Turkmen were tamed. 1881: the Battle of Geok Tepe confirms Russian victory.

Russian forces lay siege to Geok Tepe during the 'Great Game'
Russian forces lay siege to Geok Tepe during the ‘Great Game’

Since this point, the Turkmen people have been subject to the whims and demands of a select group of people. First, it was the bureaucrats of the Tsarist imperialists; then it was the stooges of the Soviet Union, the eloquently titled General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

The last of these scions of Moscow was Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. Eccentric, deranged, impulsive, Niyazov became the first President of an independent Turkmenistan. Surely the years of subjection and repression were over? Not so; bloodthirsty meglomaniac that he was, Niyazov drove the Turkmen people further into the ground. Renaming months after his family, commissioning hideously overpriced artworks of his bloated figure, he ruled for personal pleasure.

His successor, the laboriously named Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow, dispensed with the cult of personality and vulgar cultural works but his authoritarian control of the Turkmen was undimmed. In 2012 he was re-elected with 97% of the vote.

On Sunday, multi-party parliamentary elections were held for the first time. Yes, the contesting parties were all government sanctioned; yes, it may be a ruse to detract attention from Turkmenistan’s undemocratic state; yes, it may be an attempt to attract foreign investment.

A rubber stamp for the government it may be but turnout for the Turkmen elections were high; people yearn for political participation
A rubber stamp for the government it may be but turnout for the Turkmen elections were high; people yearn for political participation

To simply dismiss this development, however, would be naive. Political development is a slow process. Democratic change does not simply occur overnight, despite the desperate hopes and beliefs of the Western world. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya; overthrowing authoritarianism and replacing it with democracy is too destabilising.

Initiating political change, however limited, is the key starting point. Think of the Great Reform Act of 1832 in the United Kingdom. Changes to the electoral system and the franchise were limited, supposed to appease the agitators without giving anything away, yet they set in motion a lengthy political process that ended with universal suffrage. People get encouraged by change, it makes them hungry for more.

For the Turkmen people, it has been a long time coming. Indentured nomads, they yearn for freedom. Do not be surprised to see the streets of Ashgabat bedecked with the demands of a people destined to seize this sliver of hope.