Sunday, January 19, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #37

The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

A few months ago, NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reassured the Kremlin that no Russian neighbor will join the U.S.-led military alliance in 2014. However, shortly thereafter NATO tried to integrate Ukraine into the military structure of the European Union using the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which has been accurately described as a "NATO military agreement disguised as a customs and economic agreement". So sooner or later the United States will incorporate more Russian neighbors into its military bloc and some Georgian officials do not want to wait any longer for this moment:

Usupashvili's Blunt Warning over NATO MAP

Refusal to grant Georgia a membership action plan (MAP) at NATO summit in Wales in early September will "ruin and undermine" political stability in the country, Georgia's parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, has warned.

Speaking at an event organized by the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership, Usupashvili, who is one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, also suggested that if Georgia is again denied to MAP, like it happened four years ago at the NATO summit in Bucharest, it will give a “momentum” to anti-Western political forces in Georgia.

China, Russia Counter NATO In The South Caucasus

Usupashvili recalled the disappointment in Georgia in 2008, when the country did not receive a MAP at the NATO summit in Bucharest. Although the U.S., Canada and most East European states supported the idea, the military alliance ultimately decided against it because of strong opposition from Germany, France and other West European states, which understand better where Russia is coming from. Afraid that Usupashvili's warning could upset anybody in Washington, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili immediately clarified Tbilisi's position on this issue:
PM Comments on NATO MAP 
“If there is no MAP now, it will be later – it is not a principle [issue]. If the question is whether we want it or not, of course, we want it. But if there is no MAP, it will not pose a threat to and change our European integration,” the PM said.
After all, the Georgian puppet government does everything to please its masters in Washington. This includes sacrificing more Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan, strengthening military ties with top U.S. ally Israel and supporting the military-industrial complex in NATO countries:
Georgia: We Will Replace All Russian Helicopters With Western Aircraft 
Georgia is planning to "get rid" of its Soviet-legacy helicopter fleet and replace it with Western models, the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, told reporters at an end-of-the-year press conference in Tbilisi.
Somebody in neighboring Azerbaijan apparently did not get the memo and so Baku continues to purchase weapons not only from Russia but also from Belarus. Apart from this, relations between Azerbaijan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could hardly be any better. Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev praised the "strategic cooperation" during his recent visit to the NATO headquarters and Anders Fogh Rasmussen was equally delighted:
NATO: Azerbaijan Of Pivotal Importance For Oil, War

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday (15 January 2014) that the Alliance looked forward to strengthen its cooperation with his country and thanked him for his nation’s support to NATO operations. “We are determined to reinvigorate our political dialogue including on strategic issues, such as energy security and counter terrorism,” the Secretary General said.

At the end of last year, Baku and Washington signed an agreement extending their military cooperation for another five years. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani regime maintains its very close military ties with pivotal NATO member Turkey and wants to collaborate with France in the defense sector. The cozy Azerbaijan-NATO relations cause concerns in Russia as well as in Armenia, where Aliyev's trip to Brussels did not go unnoticed. In order to keep up with the NATO-supported Azerbajiani military, Yerevan has also secured more outside assistance:  
China To Give Military Aid to Armenia

China agreed to provide Armenia with 5 million yuan (US $830,000) in military aid per year, the Armenian Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

A cooperation agreement was signed by Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan and Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Chang Wanquan Dec. 26 during the former’s official visit to Beijing. The discussed topics included military cooperation in training and technical assistance, the statement said.
During this meeting, the two sides agreed to step up communication and cooperation between the Chinese and Armenian armed forces. The Azerbaijani regime is predictably not amused about these developments and protests against China's military assistance to Armenia. Moreover, Baku will have to worry about Moscow's support of its arch-enemy. Questions about Russia's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were answered by the commander of Russian troops in Armenia two months ago and plans for a new helicopter squadron are now being put into action:
Russia Forms Helicopter Squadron for Armenian Base

The Russian military has formed a helicopter squadron to strengthen its air contingent at the Erebuni air base in Armenia, the press service of Russia’s Southern Military District said Friday.
“The Russian air contingent [in Armenia] will be strengthened with Mi-24P attack helicopters, Mi-8MT and Mi-8SMV military transport helicopters, which will be used for ground support and transportation of the [Russian] troops deployed in Armenia,” the press service said in a statement.
Armenia's dependence on Russia will increase even further this year, when the CSTO member joins another Moscow-led organization, the Customs Union. 


Dagestan: Olympic Torch Relay In Danger

However, currently the Kremlin is less focused on expanding its trade bloc and developments in the South Caucasus than on ensuring security in the North Caucasus. With Sochi on lockdown, terrorist attacks targeting the venue of the Olympic Winter Games seem unlikely, unless the FBI comes up with another one of its signature terrorist plots. Dagestan on the other hand is still an easy target and there is no end in sight to the violence:
4 Insurgents, 3 Officers Killed in N.Caucasus Shootout

Four militants and three members of Russian security forces were killed Wednesday in a shootout in Russia’s volatile republic of Dagestan, anti-terror officials said.
At least five officers were injured in the shooting Wednesday that began when a group of militants were cornered in a house in the village of Karlanyurt in the republic of Dagestan, security forces said.
Russian Security Forces Kill 7 in North Caucasus Firefight
Seven militants have been killed during an operation in the capital of Russia’s troubled North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, security officials said Saturday.
The killings follow a Friday grenade launcher attack on a restaurant in Makhachkala that was followed by a car bombing when police arrived to secure the area. Investigators said Saturday that 16 people, including several police officers, were injured in the incident.
So the Russian authorities take no chances with the Olympic torch relay and changed the route, which was supposed to pass through the main avenues of the Dagestani capital Makhachkala before finishing in the city's central square:
Olympic torch relay route shortened in Dagestan

For safety reasons, Olympic torch relay in Dagestan will be held in the "Anji Arena", and the number of torchbearers will be cut from 270 to 67. This was reported by an official from the Ministry for Sports of Dagestan.

In an effort to reduce the growing fear of terrorism in the South Caucasus ahead of the Winter Olympics, the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov surprisingly announced the death of one man who had threatened to attack the Games, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate Doku Umarov:
Chechen Leader Claims New Evidence for Top Militant's Death

It is not the first time Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has proclaimed the death of Doku Umarov, who is classified as a terrorist by both Russia and the United States.

“According to our information, Umarov is dead and we are looking for his body,” Kadyrov said late Thursday, according to a report on Russia’s NTV television channel.

Writing later on social media site Instagram, Kadyrov said that intercepts of a recent conversation between senior North Caucasus militants included a discussion of Umarov’s death and disagreements over his replacement.
But considering Kadyrov's track record with regard to the death of his nemesis and Umarov's ten reported deaths since the year 2000, the latest claim of the Chechen leader has to be taken with a grain of salt. While people still speculate whether he is dead or alive, Umarov follows Osama bin Laden's example and lives up to his nickname of "Russia's bin Laden". In the meantime, the Vilayet of Dagestan, one of the strongest militant groups in the North Caucasus and part of the Caucasus Emirate, has claimed responsibility for the 2013 Volgograd bombings. The horrific attacks prompted the Kremlin to toughen anti-terrorist legislation:
Russian lawmakers draw plan to combat terrorism

A package of anti-terrorist laws will be submitted to the State Duma lower house of Russia's parliament on Wednesday, January 15. It comprises three sections: higher responsibility and stronger measures in combating terrorism, information security of telecommunication networks and regulation of personal data in payments. Lawmakers have proposed to amend the criminal and administrative law, the legislation that regulates communication, the Internet, banking and law-enforcement, and the operation of non-governmental organizations and regional government bodies. The authors of the package of bills are representatives of all house factions.
One of the introduced bills is designed to increase the punishment for terrorist activities to life in prison. Furthermore, the bill would scrap the statue of limitations for terrorist crimes and certain terrorism-related activities could be punished with up to 20 years behind bars. As Duma Deputies seek to expand the mandate of the FSB regarding searches on suspected citizens and vehicles, Russian security services will benefit significantly if the new legislation is passed. This includes more powers to monitor Internet users [emphasis mine]:
Russia to Tighten ‘Anti-Terrorism’ Internet Rules

Russia is set to severely limit online payment systems and oblige websites including the likes of Google and Facebook to store information on users and share it with security services

Any website that allows users to post comments will be required to inform the authorities about it and store logs for six months, according to lawmakers behind the proposal.

The logs, which will also have to be kept by Internet service providers, will have to be accessible to security services, Andrei Lugovoi of the nationalist LDPR party said.


China's New Anti-Terror Strategy

Control over the Internet and all-pervasive surveillance are definitely two of the main objectives of governments all around the world. And when it comes to Internet censorship, the Chinese government is of course one of the leading advocates. Chinese leaders tend to see more regulation of the Internet as an all-round solution and will therefore use this measure as well to tackle China's terror problem:
Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun says city must focus efforts on stability
Beijing municipal authorities plan to step up anti-terrorism efforts in the wake of October's deadly car explosion in Tiananmen Square - in part by regulating the internet more closely - the capital's mayor said yesterday.
Wang said Beijing would include counterterrorism and riot prevention among its "stability maintenance" plans, and would tighten control over the internet. The government would also launch "special rectification campaigns" to prevent major incidents.
Fortunately, Internet censorship is not China's only answer to this issue. In mid-December, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in a landmark speech a 'major strategy shift' in dealing with terrorism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the primary target of Washington's destabilization campaign:
China to focus on economic growth in Xinjiang to tackle terror

In a major strategic shift, China is set to abandon its policy of military crackdown to tackle the growing problem of Islamic militancy in Xinjiang and instead focus on ensuring economic growth to maintain stability in the resource-rich region.

The Chinese government's decision comes after a turbulent year which saw multiple terrorist attacks, including the first-ever suicide attack by Uyghur militants in Beijing, targeting the iconic Forbidden City at the Tiananmen square.

"The new strategy is not a denial of the region's policy since 2010. It aims for a combination of maintaining stability and economic development, which will be realised in a groundbreaking manner," said Turgunjan Tursun, a research fellow at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences.

Beijing wants to develop more labor-intensive industries in the autonomous region in order to create enough jobs and improve the socioeconomic conditions. Although the focus is now on economic development, the policy shift does not result in an abandonment of the hard-line anti-terrorist measures. In fact, Xinjiang will double its anti-terrorism budget in the coming year and the regional government made clear that terrorist activites will not be tolerated: 
Xinjiang governor pledges terrorism crackdown
"The regional government will resolutely crack down on religious extremism, prevent violent terrorist attacks and mass incidents from happening," said Nur Bekri, chairman of the regional government.

He said that the government will continue carrying out ethnic unity campaigns because safeguarding unity will fundamentally guarantee the region's long-term social stability.
In addition, the regional government will strengthen community services and improve the residence permit system to serve people better, said Nur Bekri.
While Nur Bekri and the rest of Xinjiang's regional government try to turn the autonomous region into the transport, financial and logistics center of the Silk Road Economic Belt and open it further to Central Asia and Europe, the Chinese authorities will do everything in their power to contain efforts aimed at destabilizing Xinjiang. The latest move in China's War on Terror was carried out by the People's Bank of China:
China moves to choke funding of terror outfits in Xinjiang

China’s central bank on Friday announced new measures aimed at enabling authorities to freeze assets of domestic terrorist groups and their “overseas affiliates,” in a move seen as underlining China’s continued concern over outfits believed to be operating out of Pakistan.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) said the rules, issued along with the Ministry of State Security, “will prevent terrorism and is in accordance with a United Nations requirement that all nations freeze, without delay, funds or other assets of terrorists,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.