The Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions are often considered by politicians and experts to be a common wider region. What are the similarities between these two regions?
I wouldn't see too many similarities between the Black and Caspian Sea regions, other than the fact that they are rather isolated from the global high seas, and that they both have strategic relevance for European energy security. In fact, there are many experts who would say that the big diversity of the people living in the Black and Caspian Sea area stops them from being qualified as a proper region. However, from a geopolitical perspective, the Wider Black Sea (WBS) area, as it is usually known - the wider area you are referring to - is a lynchpin for Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, and a corner stone in the strategic outlook of many international actors towards the Eurasian landmass. Stability in the WBS is vital for all stakeholders across Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, due primarily to its significance as a transportation corridor for global energy supplies. I think that this is the main reason why many European and American politicians and experts think that the Black and Caspian seas should be linked together into a common wider area.
What do you think of the current regional formats (the Black Sea Economic Cooperation organization - BSEC) for cooperation in this region? Is this framework sufficient?
I would say that BSEC has proved to be a solid framework so far which is absolutely necessary for regional cooperation in the Wider Black Sea. However, experience so far has also proved the limited capacity of BSEC to foster such regional cooperation, which is mostly related to the diverging strategic interests of its members, and to scarce resources available in most regional countries. Just to give you an example of the diverging strategic interests among BSEC members, I would refer to the continuing debate on the role of external powers such as, most notably, the United States (i.e. NATO) and the European Union, in supporting Black Sea regional cooperation. There are some regional nations who would favour the stronger involvement of these external actors, while others would prefer to keep regional cooperation a closed process, with external powers just being tolerated as resource providers. It is precisely because of this proven limited capacity to foster cooperation that I'm of the opinion that BSEC is a necessary but insufficient framework for regional cooperation in the Wider Black Sea.
Does the Karabakh conflict affect security and cooperation in the region? And what do you think about the prospects for its settlement?
Yes, it definitely does. The protracted conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) is actually one of the main security challenges in the Wider Black Sea. It is clearly hampering regional cooperation not only in the South Caucasus, but more broadly in the whole area. For the moment, I don't think that one can envisage an easy or rapid solution to the conflict. There are many reasons for that including the difficulties of political leaders in identifying an acceptable compromise against the backdrop of an obvious mutual lack of trust, the unpreparedness of public opinion for a peaceful settlement, the emerging geopolitical vacuum in the South Caucasus, and the growing political tensions in some neighbouring regions. Therefore, in the short term, the international community should be aiming at conflict management/containment rather than conflict resolution in N-K, while in the medium and longer term, political, institutional, and societal modernization matched by concrete steps towards economic integration, confidence and security building measures, and people-to-people contacts in the framework of strengthened civil societies may eventually lead to conflict resolution.
Economic incentives, in particular in the shape of energy or other major regional infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus, may also have a key role in addressing the peaceful resolution of the N-K conflict. Azerbaijan has stated many times that a more economically integrated and connected Caucasus is in the interest of all stakeholders. Baku has also implied that Armenian participation in large-scale regional energy and infrastructure projects in the Caucasus, which originate in Azerbaijan, would be possible provided Armenian forces are withdrawn from its occupied lands. The European Geopolitical Forum in Brussels has just started a research project aiming to identify to what extent, and in what conditions such an arrangement might actually work in practice.
How would a possible war in Iran affect the whole Black Sea - Caspian region?
What possible war in Iran are we talking about? Who against whom? And how will the other international actors, including Iran's neighbours, position themselves against such a war? It is always difficult to talk about the concrete implications of hypothetical wars in any part of the world, and even more so in the Middle East. However, it is very likely that in the event of a major international crisis involving Iran, the South Caucasus could become politically and strategically high ground for belligerents. It is also very likely that the tensions among regional and local actors might also grow dramatically, and that attempts to fill the existing geopolitical vacuum in the South Caucasus might also emerge. It is certain that there will also be significant efforts to contain the effects of a potential international crisis in/around Iran, not least in order to maintain a certain ability to control a possible upsurge in energy prices that would accompany such a crisis. However, it is difficult to predict now which of those trends will eventually prevail.