Sunday, August 17, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #64

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.

It is hardly a secret that the conflict in Ukraine has less to do with "Russian aggression" and "European values" than with NATO expansion and Pipelineistan. Even as the NATO-backed Ukrainian regime and Russia are moving closer to a direct military confrontation, all the European Union seems to care about is the stable delivery of gas. After the freaks in Kiev announced that they may halt Russian energy transits through Ukraine, EU officials lost no time in reminding them of Europe's priorities, which can be easily summarized: When Europe has to choose between Ukraine and Russian gas, the gas wins every time. Shortly afterwards, the European Council issued a statement urging Kiev to "to closely coordinate with the European Commission any actions regarding the transportation of Russian gas." With energy transits through Ukraine threatened, Russia's South Stream pipeline blocked and Azerbaijan's Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) still in the works, some countries are now even considering to revive the Nabucco project in order to bring Iranian gas to Europe:
Iran ready to revive Nabucco project, supply gas to Europe

Iran is ready to supply Europe with gas via Nabucco, an abortive gas pipeline project, Iran’s top official said on Monday, adding that two European countries had already showed interest.

As Europe intends to diversify energy resources routes, Iran with its major gas fields could supply gas to Europe via Nabucco, Deputy Minister of Petroleum for international affairs Ali Majedi told Iranian media on Monday, adding that Nabucco would be useless without the Iranian gas.

Delegations from two European countries have visited Iran recently to discuss possible routes for gas deliveries, he said without naming the countries. Majedi said different routes were possible, including supplies via Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Caucasia and the Black Sea, adding that he saw the Turkish route as the best option.

New Cold War Reaches Pipelineistan

After the Shah Deniz consortium opted against the Nabucco-West pipeline and decided to deliver gas from Azerbaijan to Europe via the smaller and less expensive TAP, the Nabucco project was, for all intents und purposes, dead, forcing the involved companies to turn their attention to other projects. Although some EU officials, led by EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, were still entertaining the idea of constructing both TAP and Nabucco after the latter's demise, they did not dare to suggest reviving Nabucco with Iranian gas. After all, the projects of the Southern Gas Corridor are designed to bypass Russia and Iran. But if Washington prioritizes "containing" Russia over "containing" Iran, there is a tiny chance of Nabucco having a future. One of Nabucco's strongest supporters was Austria's energy company OMV, which is now the leading advocate of Gazprom's South Stream in Europe. Since the EU is blocking South Stream on behalf of the United States, OMV might have to reconsider its plans:
Putin’s Pipeline Bypassing Ukraine Is at Risk Amid Conflict

Vladimir Putin’s dream of a new pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas to the European Union without passing through Ukraine is fading amid escalating tit-for-tat economic sanctions.

The $46 billion South Stream project, spearheaded by OAO Gazprom, is on hold and will probably remain in limbo for years as Russia continues to foment armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the EU retaliates with bans, Eurasia Group said.

“There’s no way Europe is going to put South Stream negotiations back on the table now, given the larger geopolitical context of the Ukraine crisis,” Emily Stromquist, a Eurasia analyst in London, said in an interview. “That, combined with a number of regulatory disputes about the pipeline and gas deliveries will push back the timeline a number of years.” 

OMV was not particularly lucky with its choice of pipeline projects so far. Austria initially planned to cooperate with Gazprom in South Stream before deciding to support Nabucco-West, which pushed Gazprom to plan the South Stream route through neighboring Slovenia. After Nabucco-West lost the Shah Deniz gas pumping rights to TAP, Austria resumed talks with Gazprom and signed a deal on South Stream. Both the Austrian government and OMV are therefore reluctant to abandon this project once again but the Bulgarian government has made it clear that the construction will be put on hold as long as the EU deems it necessary. It remains to be seen if the sabotage of South Stream will enable the EU to implement the ambitious Nabucco project. The Iranians are definitely eager to deliver gas to Europe as the country prepares to boost domestic gas production by some 200 million additional cubic meters starting in March next year. While Europe is looking forward to this development, another major gas supplier is terrified:
Is Turkmenistan Losing Iran As A Gas Customer?

It appears Turkmenistan is about to lose its second-best customer for natural gas, Iran.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said on August 11 that his country no longer needed gas from Turkmenistan. Zanganeh went so far as to say, "Iran is importing Turkmen gas just because it is important to promote political and economic relations with Turkmenistan."

The same day Zanganeh spoke of the end of Turkmen gas imports, the deputy oil minister in charge of international affairs, Ali Majedi, told journalists Iran was ready to supply Europe with gas via the Nabucco pipeline project.

In such a scenario Turkmenistan changes from Iran's gas supplier into Iran's competitor for a space in a pipeline across northern Iran into Turkey and on, eventually, to Austria.
That leaves Turkmenistan with two customers for its gas: China and Russia. The Turkmen authorities are aware of the problem and want to diversify Turkmenistan's gas exports sooner rather than later. In order to do this, Ashgabat has been promoting the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline and the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI), which are both equally fraught with problems. Despite the deteriorating situation south of the Afghan-Turkmen border, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow thinks that TAPI's construction should start next year. Especially Turkmenistan and Pakistan are desperate to make this happen. India, on the other hand, is currently working on an even bigger project:
India eyes $40-bn pipeline from Russia to import gas
In a move aimed at ensuring India’s energy security, the Narendra Modi-led government plans to import huge volumes of natural gas from Russia. The Centre is working out the contours of a $40-billion (Rs 2.4 lakh-crore) mega onland pipeline project carrying gas from Russia to India, in one of India’s biggest energy projects till date.

Top government officials told HT that the move follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Brazil on the sidelines of the Brics summit.

Two routes are being considered for the gas pipeline project. One is from Russia’s southern border to India via the Himalayas and the second from Russia - Astrakhan - Khazakstan — Uzbekistan and then along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan route to India (TAPI gas pipeline).

China Afraid Of ISIS Expanding Its Caliphate To "East Turkestan"

An announcement on this initiative is expected to be made in December, when Russian President Putin travels to New Delhi for the India-Russia annual summit. As discussed last week, the new Indian government is strengthening its ties with Moscow and Beijing, making India's accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) ever more likely. A major gas pipeline connecting the three countries would solidify this alliance. Washington will do everything in its power to prevent this from happening. Russia and India know that it will take a great degree of political will from both sides to implement the project and regardless of which route is chosen, substantial security risks have to be taken into account as well. Since the route through the Himalayas runs through China's Xinjiang province, the pipeline could be targeted by the "East Turkestan forces." The violence in Xinjiang has been escalating in recent weeks and if the Chinese media is to be believed, it will only get worse given that the Islamic State (IS) has called on its followers to "liberate East Turkestan":
China Sees Islamic State Inching Closer to Home 
They've been grabbing headlines nearly everywhere else, but the jihadis of northern Iraq haven't been getting much play in China. But a threat by the Islamic State (IS) of revenge against countries, including China, for seizing what IS calls "Muslim rights" appears to have changed all that. The comments were made in early July, but the news didn't jump the language barrier from Arabic into Mandarin until August 8, when Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based newsmagazine widely distributed in China, made the IS revenge threats against China its cover story. Since then, the article has been widely syndicated on Chinese news websites and has gained traction on social media as well. Ordinary Chinese who may have felt distant from the carnage now feel it creeping closer to home.

The article also includes a dubious map showing the vast territory IS plans to occupy in the next five years. Although this is all pretty ridiculous, it would be premature to dismiss the IS-Xinjiang story altogether considering that Maulana Abdul Aziz has reportedly declared his support for the "Caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi." Maulana Abdul Aziz was the radical spiritual leader of Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque, in downtown Islamabad until 2007, when Beijing pressured the Pakistani authorities to crack down on the mosque resulting in the Siege of Lal Masjid. Aziz might be tempted to take revenge for the killing of his younger brother during the siege. Lal Masjid is a symbol of the alliance between radical Islam and the Pakistani deep state and this alliance is very much intact despite occasional disputes. After Aziz was acquitted last year, he re-emerged recently as a member of the Pakistani Taliban's negotiation team indicating that his ties to the Pakistani intelligence services remain strong. Pakistani intelligence plays a decisive role in fueling the insurgency in Xinjiang in accordance with U.S. foreign policy and this has strained Pakistan's relations with China for quite some time. The Chinese military is currently engaged in halting the flow of terrorists from Pakistan up the Karakorum Highway and through the Khunjerab Pass into Xinjiang. Uyghur girls in the autonomous region are already getting a foretaste of what is to come if Aziz and his allies in the Pakistani intelligence services try to expand the Islamic State to "East Turkestan":
Suspected jihadi phone calls target underage Uyghur girls

Law enforcement authorities in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region said they have taken note of online allegations that Uyghur girls were being telephoned and asked to serve as "sex slaves" for Islamic State (IS) jihadists in the Middle East, and are investigating the issue.
 
Such appeals were brought to public attention by a Sina Weibo entry posted on Sunday. The post claimed that some Uyghur students from Xinjiang, who are studying at high schools outside the region, have received anonymous phone calls. These appear to be soliciting them to give up studying to travel to Iraq to become sex slaves for IS fighters. 
Sun Lizhou, a Xinjiang-born scholar from Chongqing University, told the Global Times that the authenticity of such calls still needs to be verified, "but since some Uyghurs are reportedly fighting alongside IS in Syria, it would be possible to speak to the students on the phone."
China's special envoy for the Middle East emphasized a few weeks ago that China was extremely worried about the return of battle-tested Uyghur terrorists from Iraq and Syria. Since The Economist and other Western media outlets are already warning that Xinjiang could be 'China's Chechnya' if Beijing does not obey Washington's orders, the Chinese authorties have every reason to keep a very close eye on NATO's jihadi mercenaries. In order to detect any danger as soon as possible, Beijing plans to recruit up to 100,000 volunteers as "anti-terror informants" across China. Meanwhile, Xinjiang's anti-terror campaign continues unabated: 
China says it 'rescues' 82 children from Xinjiang religious schools

A sweep on illegal religious activity in the capital of China's unruly far western region of Xinjiang has resulted in 82 children being "rescued" from unlicensed Islamic schools and the seizure of religious clothing, a state-run newspaper said on Saturday.

The latest campaign, in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, resulted not only in the "rescue" of the children from religious schools known as madrassas, but closure of 27 places used for "underground" preaching and detention of 44 illegal imams, the official Xinjiang Daily reported.

Another 24 people were detained for preaching jihad, and nine others for promoting terrorism and religious extremism, the newspaper added.

Ukrainian Conflict Doesn't Save Saakashvili

Although there has not been much talk lately about the foreign-backed insurgency in Russia's North Caucasus, the Russian authorities are still struggling with similar problems like their Chinese counterparts in Xinjiang. This week, the Deputy Mufti of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania Rasul Gamzatov was killed after Gamzatov's predecessor had been murdered under similar circumstances two years earlier. As mentioned two weeks ago with regard to the killing of the Uyghur imam of China's largest mosque, moderate religious leaders are frequently targeted by NATO's jihadi mercenaries. The ongoing destabilization of the North Caucasus is currently overshadowed by the conflict in Ukraine and according to Chechen separatist leader-in-exile Akhmed Zakayev, the "Chechen rebels" are also ready to enter the battle for Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, is convinced that Zakayev and his "Western bosses" will not be able to put this plan into action. However, Zakayev is not the only one calling on his people to take up arms against Russia: 
Ex-Defense Chief: Georgia Should Join War Against Russia

The former minister of defence and internal affairs of Georgia, Bacho Akhalaia has released a special statement regarding the situation in Ukraine and called on his compatriots to be on alert for assisting the brother nation and struggling together against Putin`s Russia.

`There is a greater danger – a serious possibility of intrusion of Russia`s regular army into Ukraine. For this moment we should mobilize, but the support by Georgian officers and military servicemen will not be sufficient – there is a need for mobilization of free citizens of Georgia to provide strong and additional resistance to Putin`s Russia. That`s why I call on you to at least make list of those brave Georgians, who will be prepared to travel to Ukraine promptly and immediately on behalf of Abkhazia and reinforce the Georgians residing in Ukraine, if Russia intrudes into Ukraine,` Akhalaia has posted. 
Akhalaia seems to have taken a page from former President Mikheil Saakashvili's book. Saakashvili is very close to the Ukrainian regime and he uses the Ukrainian conflict constantly to distract attention away from the piling criminal charges against him. According to the former President, the criminal charges are intended to "restrict" his international travels and active advocacy for Ukraine. A few days ago, Saakashvili even accused the Georgian government of opposing the Euromaidan and warned of a "Maidan" in Georgia. But neither Saakashvili's words nor repeated warnings from the U.S. and the EU against "politically motivated prosecution" got somewhere with the Georgian authorities:
Georgia Puts Saakashvili On Wanted List

Georgian authorities have put former President Mikheil Saakashvili on a wanted list and will detain him if he returns to the country he led for nearly a decade.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said on August 14 that Saakashvili is wanted on charges related to the forceful dispersal of a protest rally and violence at a TV station in November 2007.

The move may spark criticism from Western nations including the United States, which has warned the government against any politically motivated prosecution of former officials.
© Photo AFP

The charges against Saakashvili include the brutal breakup of an anti-government rally in November 2007, the raid on the Imedi TV company, the expropriation of assets owned by Georgian media mogul Badri Patarkatsishvili, the attack on his political opponent Valeri Gelashvili in 2005 and the embezzlement of around $5 million between September 2009 and February 2013. For obvious reasons, the Georgian government is less eager to investigate Saakashvili's greatest crime but Tbilisi does not really have a choice [emphasis mine]:
The Hague urges Georgia to investigate all details of August war

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili believes that the state is obliged to investigate all details and nuances of the August war.

"The Hague demands our state to investigate the circumstances of the August war. Otherwise, The Hague will do it. Our state is obliged to investigate this issue," the prime minister stressed.
 
He said the investigation process hasn't been completed yet, adding that only the information that doesn't contain state secret will be made public.