Sunday, June 8, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #54

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.

With the exception of Uzbekistan's leader Islam Karimov, the presidents of all Turkic countries travelled to Turkey this week for the 4th summit of the Turkic Council. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov attended the summit personally for the first time indicating that Turkmenistan is ready to upgrade its status in the organization from observer to full member. Berdimuhamedov had already arrived a few days before the summit to discuss the strengthening of Turkey-Turkmenistan ties with top officials in Ankara. The two countries are set to sign a free trade agreement next year and Turkish President Abdullah Gül stressed during his meeting with Berdimuhamedov that Turkey "is ready to carry Turkmen gas to European markets." Both Ankara and Ashgabat have repeatedly voiced their interest in delivering gas from the Central Asian republic to Europe, which has so far lost out to China in the quest for Turkmen gas. In the light of recent events, Europe and Turkmenistan have ample reason to finally implement this project:
Turkic leaders pledge energy, tourism cooperation
"Trying to reduce its dependency on Russian natural gas, Europe wants Turkmen gas supplies more than ever," said Guner Ozkan, Caucasus and Caspian regions expert at the Ankara-based think-tank International Strategic Research Organization told the Anadolu Agency in an interview.

However, Ozkan pointed out that Russia is the strongest player in the Caspian region and it would be wrong to believe that Russia would not "intervene" in a project that will go through the Caspian and reach Europe to supply an alternative to Russian gas.

"The recent $400 billion agreement between Russia and China, will soften up Turkmenistan’s gas price negotiations with China," Ozkan said, adding, "Turkmenistan needs alternative markets as well and reaching Europe through Turkey is imperative from this perspective."
© Photo Ministry of Foreign Affairs Turkey

 

News From Pipelineistan & The Gülen-SOCAR Network Exposed

As Ozkan notes, one of the biggest obstacles to the Trans-Caspian pipeline is Russia's strong opposition. Furthermore, up to this point, the European Union has failed to come up with a unified energy policy and it does not look like as if this will change anytime soon. Relations between Turkey and Russia are fairly complex and resilient but if the Turkish government continues to push ahead with the Trans-Caspian project, Ankara's ties with Moscow could be damaged beyond repair. In recent weeks, Turkey was remarkably silent about the crisis in Ukraine, much to the dismay of its NATO allies. According to the Kremlin, Turkish PM Erdogan even praised "the decisions made by the Russian president to improve the situation of Crimean Tatars." With Turkish-Russian relations apparently unaffected by the Ukraine crisis, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev used the Turkic Council summit to make the case for closer cooperation between the Turkic countries and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and he invited Turkey to join the newly formed trade bloc. Although the Erdogan government will hardly take the offer, there seems to be a rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow. Dr. Vitaly Naumkin explained recently the reason for this:
Russia, Turkey agree on Gulen
Paradoxically, what today promotes the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is Moscow’s extremely negative attitude toward the activities and ideas of Fethullah Gulen. In the past, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were allied with the leader of this Islamic sect — which is taking root in many countries around the world and in which a significant portion of Turkey’s population is involved, including prominent officials and, in particular, members of the security structures and the judges — Moscow’s position acted as an irritant for Ankara. Now, however, with the Cold War flaring up between the leader of the AKP and Gulen, who resides in the United States, Moscow’s position creates an interest in joint actions to limit his influence. Recall that all Gulenist schools have been closed in Russia, and in 2012 numerous books by this ideologue were included in the federal list of extremist literature by a Russian court decision.

Russia was one of the first countries to ban the CIA-backed Gülen movement and, in contrast to other governments, the Kremlin will not rethink this decision. Experts such as Vasily Ivanov, an associate at the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, warn against the nefarious cult. In his paper "Fethullah Gulen’s Movement: an extremist organization masquerading as supporters of 'the dialogue of civilizations'" Ivanov argues that the Gülen movement "glamorizes the idea of armed jihad." A few weeks ago, more and more people in Azerbaijan came to the same conclusion. The crackdown of the Aliyev regime on the Gülen movement was somewhat surprising considering Baku's subservience to Washington and some things did not add up, as mentioned in a previous round-up:
"A published list of alleged Azerbaijani Gülenists also included Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov and, ironically, SOCAR’s vice-president Khalik Mammadov, which has prompted some speculation whether Baku is really cracking down on Hizmet by placing its schools under SOCAR's control or if the Gülenists are in league with the state-owned oil and natural gas corporation."
This week, a new article exposing the extensive lobbying efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities in the United States shed more light on the relationship between the Sate Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) and the movement of CIA puppet Fethullah Gülen. According to the report, since early 2013, American lawmakers in 17 states have introduced resolutions or memorials relating to Azerbaijan, all of which had one thing in common:
Inside Azerbaijan’s Bizarre U.S. Lobbying Push

What the initiatives had in common was they nearly all had at least one sponsor who attended a conference in the capital Baku in May 2013 organized by the Turquoise Council for Americans and Eurasians. The council is a Houston-based group connected to Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the moderate Islamist Hizmet movement who fled Turkey in 1999 after clashing with secular Turkish authorities who accused him of trying to turn Turkey into a religious Islamist state.

The Turquoise Council, headed by a Gulenist follower named Kemal Oksuz, paid for the travel of lawmakers who went on the trip, according to congressional records. Oksuz also chairs the Assembly for the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ), a Houston group sponsored by SOCAR, which hosted a U.S.-Azerbaijan convention in Washington at the end of April attended by many of the same lawmakers who went on the trip to Baku, as well as other members of Congress and former administration officials. The Assembly’s vice president is Milla Perry Jones, the sister of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and its treasurer is Rauf Mammadov, the chief of SOCAR’s U.S. branch. Oksuz also owned TDM Contracting, a construction firm in Texas that worked to build a network of Gulenist charter schools there.
So the Gülen movement and SOCAR are definitely working hand in hand, which means that Azerbaijan's move to place the Gülen schools under SOCAR's control did not really amount to a crackdown. Besides the Gülen-SOCAR network, the Aliyev regime is also using the Azerbaijan America Alliance as a conduit to lobby in the United States. The fairly new group is run by Anar Mammadov, the son of Azerbaijan’s Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov, and Dan Burton, former U.S. Congressman from Indiana. Burton demonstrated his abilities as a lobbyist already during his time in Congress. He did not shy away from taking bribes from the government of Turkey or Pakistan's ISI and has earned himself a place in Sibel Edmonds' State Secrets Privilege Gallery. Having friends like Burton in its pocket enables the Azerbaijani government to influence resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh and the like but it will not solve Baku's latest problem. A few days after French energy giant Total decided to sell its stake in Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II gas project to Turkey's state oil company TPAO, both Total and E.ON announced their plans to withdraw from the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP):
Total, E.ON to exit pipeline to bring Azeri gas to Italy

France's Total and Germany's E.ON plan to withdraw from a pipeline scheme to bring Azerbaijan's gas to Italy, an Azeri official said, as falling Italian demand puts energy projects there into doubt.

The move comes less than a month after Russia's Gazprom said that it would re-route its massive South Stream pipeline, which plans to bring Russian gas to Europe later this decade, to Austria instead of Italy.
Europe sees Azeri gas as an alternative to its reliance on Russia, but analysts say commercial issues cloud the picture.

Brussels' Reckless South Stream Sabotage

With Italian gas demand falling 15% since 2005, E.ON is pulling out of the ailing Italian market and plans to sell its 9% share in TAP. Total's share is 10% and the remaining shareholders are BP (20%), SOCAR (20%), Statoil (20%), Fluxys (16%) and Axpo (5%). One day after the bad news, TAP's managing director reaffirmed that construction work on the pipeline will start next year. After all, TAP has been hailed as the answer to Gazprom's South Stream gas pipeline and Europe's first major step in reducing its dependence on Russian gas. This is of course a bunch of baloney. TAP was never a challenge for Gazprom and the Russians had no reason to complain, when the project was chosen over Nabucco-West. Despite the latest blow to the Southern Gas Corridor and the uncertain future of Russian gas deliveries to Europe via Ukraine, Washington's lackeys in Brussels are doing their best to sabotage South Stream. Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly fed up with the antics and has suggested re-reouting the pipeline via non-EU countries if Brussels continues to play Cold War. But Russia wants to build the pipeline in any case, that much is clear:
Gazprom to build South Stream regardless of sanctions - CEO
Gazprom and its partners will build the South Stream gas pipeline to Europe regardless, despite the negative statements against this project by EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, the Russian gas giant's CEO, Alexei Miller said on television station Rossiya 24.

"No one can prohibit us from building South Stream, so construction will continue," Miller said, adding that there are regulatory issues [concerning a number of restrictions according to European legislation], "but this applies to the operation of the gas pipeline."

He said the first line of the pipeline is scheduled to be put into operation at the end of 2015, and there is still time to discuss these issues with the European Commission.

Gazprom is prepared to implement the project even if no external funds can be attracted. Some EU countries are also determined to proceed as planned. A few days ago, Brussels demanded that Bulgaria suspends construction work on the pipeline prompting the government of neighboring Serbia to state that there are no plans to delay the construction of Serbia's South Stream leg, which is scheduled for July. While the Serbian government also added that it is prepared to change its position depending on further developments, the Bulgarian government was less cooperative in this regard. Therefore, Brussels and Washington decided to get tough with Sofia. The EU withheld 90 million euros for a completely unrelated development program and the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria threatened to impose sanctions on certain Bulgarian companies, sparking outrage in the Bulgarian business community. Furthermore, the wannabe cold warriors got a coalition partner in the Bulgarian government to do their bidding:
South Stream project threatens to bring down Bulgarian government

A junior coalition partner in the Bulgarian cabinet has called for early elections today (5 June), after publicly opposing the government's policy to continue construction of the Russian-backed South Stream gas pipeline project, despite European Commission warnings that it infringes EU rules.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a liberal party, said it disagreed with its senior coalition partner, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, over plans to continue building South Stream.

Lyutvi Mestan, the leader of DPS, a mainly Turkish ethnic party affiliated with the liberal ALDE group, told parliament that Bulgaria “shouldn’t do anything against Brussels”, saying the country should defend its national interest “in cooperation, not in confrontation” with Europe.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hit the nail on the head this week when he accused the United States of doing everything to prevent an alliance between Russia and the EU. Unfortunately, Washington can count on the top officials in the EU to go along with it and act against European interests. This will have dire consequences for Europe sooner rather than later. Russia's eastern energy pivot is just beginning and if the country becomes a swing natural gas supplier between Europe and Asia, the EU will be on the losing end. When asked about the next major deal between Russia and China, Keun-Wook Paik, an expert on Sino-Russian energy issues and a fellow at Chatham House, put it bluntly: "If it materializes, it will be a dream situation for Russia but will be a nightmare for Europe." Brussels would be well-advised to reconsider its Cold War policies before it is too late:
Russia, China Could Agree Upon Altai Gas Pipeline

Just weeks after a historic $400-billion deal, Russia and China are now inching towards a second major gas project to build a pipeline to export natural gas from Russia's western Siberia to north-western China, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday.

“Considering the pace of China’s economic growth and the agreed pricing formula I’d say it is very likely that we will soon conclude a contract to build a western [pipeline] before long that will run across the Siberian Federal District,” Ivanov said.

Putin’s chief of staff said the project to build the so-called Altai natural gas pipeline was a particularly “huge” endeavor. “It might be less capital-intensive than the eastern one, but it’s no doubt going to cost us tens of billions of dollars,” he explained.

Turkmen-Afghan Border Sees More Violence

The new Cold War will backfire on the United States as well. Gazprom Neft has convinced most of its clients to sign agreements on a possible switch from dollars to euros. Moreover, Moscow and Beijing agreed to increase their cooperation in the monetary policy sector and to set up a joint rating agency. Russia and China seek to strengthen the BRICS as well as the CSTO and SCO. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council and former director of the FSB, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week to discuss joint security cooperation. Patrushev emphasized that the increased activity of terrorist groups in Xinjiang in recent months "is not accidental" and the "Afghan factor and its impact on regional security" were also high on the agenda during his talks in the Chinese capital. In recent months, Moscow and Beijing have often warned against a possible spillover of violence from Afghanistan to the neighboring Central Asian states. Although these concerns have been ridiculed in the Western media, recent developments along the Turkmen-Afghan border lend credence to the spillover theory. At the end of last month, Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister paid an unscheduled visit to Afghanistan following the killing of three Turkmen border guards: 
Ashgabat, Kabul discuss situation on Turkmen-Afghan border, murder of Turkmen soldiers

Turkmenistan has taken the issue of murder of its border guards with President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai as constant criminal activities have been reported in border areas of Faryab and Badghis provinces on the Turkmenistan-Afghan border.

Turkmenistan believes that Afghan criminal groups are involved in killing Turkmenistan border guards with the support of Afghan border security staff. The matter has been discussed between President Karzai and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan Rashid Meredov during their meeting in Kabul.
Karzai assured the Turkmen Minister that Afghanistan would start probes into the border incidents. He regarded the extensive cooperation between intelligence and security agencies of both the countries as important for thwarting criminal activities in the frontiers, and articulated that more Afghan security forces would be deployed in areas bordering Turkmenistan.

It was the second time this year that Turkmen border guards were killed by Afghanistan-based insurgents. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was outraged about the incident but instead of blaming the Afghan authorities or the insurgents he threatened to dismiss Turkmenistan’s border police chiefs and slammed them for their "improper" work and "shortcomings." Meanwhile, the violence along the Turkmen-Afghan border is escalating:
Afghan Village On Turkmen Border Comes Under Attack

Six Afghan border guards have been wounded in an attack on the northern village of Marchak, along the border with Turkmenistan.

The chief of security in the Afghan district, Daulat Mawin, said the attack started late on June 4, when militants launched an assault on the village, which is located in Afghanistan's Baghdis Province.

Mawin said the security situation in the region had been deteriorating for several months.
Turkmen border guards have reportedly increased their surveillance and are now flying regular helicopter patrols along the border. It is not entirely clear whether the attacks in this region are perpetrated by the Taliban or some other group. CIA's RFE/RL linked the latest killing of Turkmen border guards to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and has started to promote the terrorist group. The rise of the IMU in the region might coincide with NATO's "withdrawal" from Afghanistan. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined a plan to withdraw all but 9.800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and the rest by the end of 2016. As usual, Obama forgot to mention a few crucial points [emphasis mine]: 
When 9,800 Doesn't Equal 9,800
An invisible army of American diplomats, intelligence personnel, civilian government officials, and contractors will remain in Afghanistan well in the future, likely outnumbering the 9,800 troops that will be there next year and the smaller numbers of troops that will be there in the years to come.

By the Pentagon's latest count, there are 61,452 contractor personnel supporting the Defense Department in Afghanistan, including 20,865 civilians. (This is down from 113,491 near the height of the Afghan war in January 2012.) These figures represent the current contractor support network for U.S. military forces, at a ratio of roughly two contractors for every U.S. service member. After the military withdrawal, our diplomatic footprint will likely rely even more on contractors than the military, because the State Department and other civilian agencies don't have the same logistics, communications, and security force structure as the military. A diplomatic mission of 1,000 to 2,000 could require as many as three to five times its number in support contractors, depending on the extent of its movements around the country and the amount of security risk it wants to take in Afghanistan. (Today, more than 5,000 contractors support the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq.)