Sunday, September 21, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #67

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.

On September 20, 1994, Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev and nine foreign oil companies signed the "Contract of the Century" for the exploration and exploitation of three offshore oil fields in the Caspian Sea. This is hailed as the "beginning of independent Azerbaijan's policy of energy diversification" by the United States and other Western powers. A few days ago, Azerbaijan's embassy in the U.S., state-owned oil and natural gas corporation SOCAR, supermajor BP and the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce (USACC), which boasts advisors such as James Baker III, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the "Contract of the Century" in Washington. The key role of Azerbaijan in the Southern Gas Corridor was one of the major topics during the celebrations and the Aliyev regime is doing its best to satisfy the expectations:
Turkey, Azerbaijan break ground for Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline

Turkey's energy minister has declared a gas pipeline a "peace corridor" linking the Caucasus with the Balkans.

"We open the project as a peace corridor that is the result of 15 years hard work by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Through the South Caucasus pipeline and its backbone, the Trans-Anatolia pipeline, we connect the Caucasus with the Balkans. I wish every country could understand the true value of these projects and contribute with us," Taner Yıldız said while speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony of the South Caucasus pipeline in Baku on Sept. 20.
© Photo Daily Sabah

Azerbaijan & Turkey Push Southern Gas Corridor

The Trans-Anatolian gas Pipeline (TANAP) is expected to cost $12 billion and the construction is planned to be completed by 2018. Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil and French supermajor Total recognized at the right moment that the soaring costs are going to be a problem and pulled out of the TANAP project at the end of last year. According to SOCAR president Rovnag Abdullayev, the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor projects will require investments of around $45 billion. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan and Turkey are determined to follow through with these projects. Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev and Turkey's new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have vowed to extend the cooperation in the energy sector "to new levels." Davutoglu also stressed that the two countries plan "to realize many joint projects in the defense industry." Up to this point, Azerbaijan has purchased lots of weapons from Russia but NATO's proxy in the South Caucasus is now embarking on a different strategy:
Azerbaijan Pursues Drones, New Security Options

Heightened tensions with longtime foe Armenia over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh and mediator Russia’s Ukrainian adventure appear to be pushing Caspian-Sea energy power Azerbaijan ever more strongly toward a military strategy of self-reliance.

The strategy comes via two approaches: first, a build-up in Azerbaijani-made military equipment, including drones co-produced with Israel; and, second, a new defense troika with longtime strategic partners Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and neighboring Georgia, a NATO-member-hopeful.
Defense Minister Jamalov claims that Azerbaijan expects by the end of 2015 to be able to meet almost all of its own needs for ammunition and tank and artillery shells, formerly mostly supplied by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
© Photo Azerbaijani Presidential Press Service

Azerbaijan maintains close military ties with members and allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the last few days, more than 30.000 Azerbaijani and Turkish troops have been conducting large-scale military exercises in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Germany held a workshop on the theme "The armed forces in a democratic society" in Baku. Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist Ilgar Nasibov, who was just charged with assault for being heavily beaten, can tell you a thing or two about Azerbajian's "democratic society." The Aliyev regime tolerates no criticism in this regard and tries hard to deflect scrutiny of the deteriorating human rights situation. Baku spares neither trouble nor expense to shape public opinion in the West and The New York Times demonstrated recently how this works:
Azerbaijan's Opinion-Shaping Campaign Reaches 'The New York Times'

Earlier this month, "The New York Times" published documents demonstrating Azerbaijan's efforts to expand its relationship with think tanks in the United States to bolster U.S. public opinion of the country and make it clear that Baku "is an important security partner." 

"It is a campaign that produced real results," the September 6 report stated. 

Three days later, the very same newspaper published an op-ed about Azerbaijani-Armenian tensions without disclosing the author's ties to the government in Baku.
As long as Baku does Washington's bidding with regard to Pipelineistan and NATO, Western media will refrain from subjecting the Aliyev regime to critical scrutiny and turn a blind eye to actions, which would be heavily criticized in other countries. In recent weeks, the Azerbaijani authorities pressured the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to close its office in Baku and froze NDI's bank accounts in the country along with the accounts of Transparency International, Oxfam and the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX). At the beginnnig of this month, Azerbaijani security officials raided the Baku office of IREX and the latest move is the upgrade of Azerbaijan's foreign agent law:
Azerbaijan hardens rules of foreign NGOs activity

Azerbaijan hardens rules relating to the activities of representative offices and branches of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by foreign countries. A number of changes are proposed to be made to the Law "On State Registration and State Register of Legal Entities" due to it, Milli Majlis (parliament) told Trend.

Washington's Futile Efforts To Destabilize Russia

Azerbaijani MP Gudrat Hasanguliyev explained that the Azerbaijani society "accepts amendments to the legislation and the arrest of some foreign-funded NGOs leaders as quite normal." If this statement had been made in Russia, it would have attracted more attention in the West. When the Russian authorities take action against foreign-funded NGOs, Western governments and media lose no opportunity to moan that Russia is becoming a dictatorship. Due to the conflict in Ukraine, the fifth column in Russia is now under increasing pressure. For example, the human rights organization "Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg", which was put on the foreign agent list after making controversial claims about the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, is desperate to get the foreign agent label removed:
Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg NGO fights against foreign agent status

Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg NGO protest against labeling the organization as a 'foreign agent' and want the Ministry of Justice to remove it from the blacklist, Kommersant newspaper reported on Monday.

Ella Polyakova, the head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Soldiers' Mothers group, argued that the NGO did not fall under the law because it did not receive any foreign funds and was not engaged in political activity. She vowed to contest the ministry’s decision in court.
While Ella Polyakova & Co. emphasize that the organization is currently(!) not being funded from abroad, they fail to mention that the various Russian Soldiers' Mothers Committees have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. government via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) over the years. The United States and its allies have been doing their best to undermine the position of Russian President Putin and to destabilize the Russian Federation but all the trouble was for nothing. Putin's approval ratings are at an all-time high and Russia is more united than it was before NATO tried to play off the Chechens against their Russian brothers in order to gain a foothold in the North Caucasus. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov managed to turn Chechnya into a stable and relatively secure republic, loyal to the Kremlin, and he is now reaping the benefits of his work:
Russia to Start Drafting Chechen Men Into Army, Kadyrov Says

Five years after a brutal war between Russian forces and Chechen separatists officially ended, the first 500 Chechen men will be drafted to serve in the Russian army, its leader Ramzan Kadyrov has said.

"I was lucky enough to meet with [Russian] Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu," Kadyrov said late Thursday in a post on Instagram. "Of particular note, the minister — at our request — made the decision to this year draft 500 young [Chechen] men for regular military service."

"This is the first time in many years that this has been done. In the future, the number of draftees will increase," he added.

With the situation in Chechnya under control, the Russian authorities are free to focus on threats emanating from Central Asia. Central Asian migrants frequently attract negative attention in Russia due to criminal activites. Two weeks ago, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were arrested in Moscow on suspicion of making fake driving licenses and passports. A few days ago, a court in Khabarovsk in Russia's Far East sent three Tajik members of the Islamic Party of Turkestan to prison and another group of Tajiks was caught smuggling Afghan heroin to Russia:
Russian Police Arrest Alleged Smugglers Of Afghan Heroin

Russian police say they have seized more than 1,000 kilograms of Afghan-produced heroin and arrested more than 30 suspected drug traffickers in an operation targeting a criminal group with ties in Tajikistan.

Interfax quotes officials from the Russian Federal Drug Control Service as saying on September 18 that the core of the smuggling group was comprised of veterans from Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s, including former government troops and opposition fighters.

Russian police say the heroin was hidden in railroad cargo and in automobiles.

They said funds from drug sales were deposited with illegal financial centers in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan, and Cyprus.

Turkmenistan "Invades" NATO's Narco-Criminal State Afghanistan

Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, who has earned himself a place on the U.S. sanctions list for constantly criticizing NATO's "opium eradication" in Afghanistan, warned during a recent anti-drug meeting of the Caspian region that the drug production in Afghanistan is already at a "historic high" and that the situation is likely to deteriorate even more after the NATO withdrawal. What Ivanov meant to say is that the Russians want a bigger share of the booming opium business. Unfortunately, the United States and its allies are not going to abandon their narco-criminal state without resistance after they have spent billions of dollars to "rebuild" the country:
US Reconstruction of Afghanistan Most Expensive in US History

Washington's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the U.S. has provided more than $104 billion to rebuild Afghanistan -- more money than the United States has spent on reconstruction for any one country in history.

Sopko said the United States so far has failed to effectively deal with corruption in Afghanistan. He added the gap that is "astonishing" given that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and the US is spending billions of dollars there.

He was equally critical of Washington's failed $7.- billion effort to fight the opium industry. Without an effective counter-narcotics strategy and Afghan political will, Sopko warned, the country could become a narco-criminal state.

As highlighted last week, the security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating lately while the two presidential candidates were unable to agree on a winner of the heavily rigged "election." Especially Afghanistan's northern neighbors have to worry about the security of their borders. Turkmenistan was apparently fed up with the increasing fighting along the Afghan-Turkmen border and decided to send troops into Afghanistan:
Turkmenistan Armed Forces Reportedly Cross Afghanistan Border

Turkmenistan's armed forces have entered the territory of Afghanistan in an apparent effort to drive back Taliban forces that had settled on the border between the two countries, Afghan residents have told the Turkmen service of RFE/RL.

The report is in Turkmen but has been translated into Russian by Alternative Turkmenistan News. It quotes residents of the Qaisar region of Afghanistan's Faryab province saying that Turkmenistan soldiers crossed the border about three months ago and have dug trenches and built fences.
This would seem to be the latest escalation in an increasingly tense situation on the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. Earlier, there had been reports of Turkmenistan border guards making incursions in Afghanistan, and the Turkmenistan armed forces carrying out exercises close to the border. But now they seem to be going even farther.
Interestingly enough, neither the Afghan authorities nor the NATO-led international forces have said anything about this "invasion" by Turkmenistan. Washington decides on a case-by-case basis if state sovereignty applies. Ukraine? Of course! Syria? Of course not! Afghanistan? It is only an invasion when the Russians do it! Currently, NATO is only interested in getting the security agreement that the U.S. and its allies need to keep troops in the country into next year. This is going to be one of the first tasks of Afghanistan's new president Ashraf Ghani:
Afghanistan's presidential rivals sign power-sharing deal

Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates signed a deal on Sunday to share power after months of turmoil over a disputed election that destabilized the nation at a crucial time as most foreign troops prepare to leave.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who will be named president, embraced rival Abdullah Abdullah after they signed the power-sharing agreement at a ceremony watched by outgoing president Hamid Karzai, and broadcast live from his palace.