THE CASPIAN REGION AND U.S. ENGAGEMENT DURING AND AFTER THE COVID-19 CRISIS
Like the rest of the world, the countries of the Caspian region face severe challenges posed by the spread and evolving nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges carry significant immediate and long-term public health, economic, social, and political implications for the development of the region. Effectively addressing them requires a holistic approach and strong cooperation both within the region and with global partners like the United States. It requires an openness and willingness to exchange in- formation on how the novel coronavirus is spreading within a country, how it is affecting particular populations, and what measures are working — or not working — to combat the disease and to meet economic and other societal needs.
Bordering three major hotspots, most of the region’s governments took steps early on to contain the spread of the pandemic. Those measures often shut borders and shuttered businesses in a region where greater connectivity and economic growth are needed. At the same time, given the importance of the energy industry to a number of these countries, surplus oil supplies and the crash in world petroleum prices amplified the negative impacts of the COVID-induced global economic contraction. International observers also noted a number of cases where governments intimidated journalists or censored citizens’ social media activities.
Even though the countries in the Caspian region, as in other parts of the world, look to reopen, the pandemic is not over. A lot remains uncertain and unknown about the virus, including how best to treat it medically. This report looks at COVID-19’s current and future implications for the region’s development as well as at steps actors in the region should take and actions the United States should pursue. The proposed actions include engaging the region’s governments and institutions to boost emergency response capabilities there as well as to publicly demonstrate the commitments Washington reiterated in its recent policy document. Offering to donate excess defense articles such as climate-controlled tents, generators and power distribution sets, ambulances, prefabricated shelters, utility vehicles, and enhanced medical kits would be important – as would actions to help ensure food security through increased U.S. food aid. Over the longer term, scientific and other technical exchanges to share knowledge and expertise would both strengthen the U.S. presence in the region and the United States’ own defenses against the virus. Continuing to work with the Caspian region to boost safe connectivity within the region as well as with the rest of the world would improve the region’s economies, stability, and independence, including that of Afghanistan. Continued engagement on energy matters is another action the United States should pursue.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers the Caspian region opportunities, not just threats. As elsewhere, the situation is evolving, and it is not enough just to react. Governments, public, and businesses in the region have opportunities to determine what they want in the post-pandemic reality and Americans — scientists, academics, business people, researchers, and specialized institutions as well as the U.S. government — should be active partners in that effort.
The pandemic crisis, therefore, presents new opportunities for fostering fruitful cooperation between the Caspian region and the United States.