Monday, October 6, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #69

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.

At the beginning of this week, the presidents of the five Caspian littoral states gathered in the Russian city of Astrakhan to attend the fourth Caspian Summit. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of how the Caspian shelf should be divided has been dispute and although Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan made some progress at the recent summit, they remain divided on this key issue. While Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbajev were talking about a "breakthrough", Turkmenistan's leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow reminded everyone of the disagreements when he reiterated that "Turkmenistan believes that the construction of pipelines under the Caspian Sea is the sovereign right of the states through whose section of the seafloor they pass." Berdimuhamedow was of course referring to the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, which is vehemently opposed by Russia and Iran. Moscow and Tehran will have a hard time convincing Berdimuhamedow and Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev to give up on this pipe dream but they accomplished another important objective in Astrakhan:
Russia and Iran Lock NATO Out of Caspian Sea

Iran and Russia have built unanimous consensus among the Caspian states, which also feature Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, over the inadmissibility of a foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea, ruling out any future possible deployment of NATO forces in the basin.

A political declaration signed by the presidents of the five Caspian states at the IV Caspian Summit held in Astrakhan, Russia, on September 29, “sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian,” according to a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of the summit.

Azerbaijan's Real & Not-So-Real Crackdowns 

Especially Azerbaijan, close U.S. ally and NATO proxy, had long resisted any notion of formally banning external forces from the Caspian. After Baku had finally given in to pressure from Moscow and Tehran, the United States and Azerbaijan lost no time in pushing back against the Caspian Five joint statement. The Aliyev regime downplayed the statement and the U.S. State Department said it doesn't intend to change anything about its military cooperation with Baku. So it remains to be seen how much this declaration is actually worth. The U.S. and Azerbaijan maintain very close ties. Last week, Azerbaijan Airlines successfully inaugurated its first direct flight to the United States marking "the culmination of several years of close cooperation" between the two countries. As previously discussed, Baku relies on the Gülen movement to remind American lawmakers of Azerbaijan's importance and Hizmet's promotional work for the Aliyev regime has not been affected by Azerbaijan's "crackdown" on the CIA-backed movement:
Azerbaijan: Wary of Breaking Ties with Gülen in US?

Azerbaijan’s recent crackdown on institutions and individuals allegedly linked to the influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen may not have halted promotional work by Gülen-associated organizations in the United States for the Azerbaijani government.

But why the Gülen movement would continue to promote Azerbaijani causes in the US despite the takeover of Gülen-associated educational operations in Azerbaijan remains unclear.

As yet, small and mid-size Turkish businesses in Azerbaijan identified by researchers as run by Gülen sympathizers do not appear to have been similarly targeted.
© Photo UPI/Spencer Platt

This demonstrates once again that there was no real crackdown on the Gülen movement in Azerbaijan. SOCAR, the state-owned oil and natural gas corporation of Azerbaijan, which works hand in hand with Hizmet, is reportedly already trying to reopen the Gülen schools in the country after they had been placed under SOCAR's control and eventually closed down a few months ago due to pressure from Turkish President Erdogan. Aliyev doesn't want to disgruntle either his close ally Erdogan or Gülen's puppeteers in Langley but, currently, he is probably more concerned about what his friends in Langley and Washington think of him. The crackdown on the U.S.-backed Azerbaijani opposition has not gone unnoticed in the United States, some people are even calling for sanctions on Baku. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Azerbaijan's crackdown on NGOs and while Obama was trying to pronounce the name "Azerbaijan", the Azerbaijani authorities were trying to divert attention from the fact that they have made more politically motivated arrests this year than ever before by arresting a few actual criminals:
Azerbaijan Arrests Alleged ISIS and Other Islamic Fighters

The arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Syria and the wider region may help Azerbaijan place its strategic importance to the United States above criticism of its growing autocratic reputation.

The September-23 detentions mark this Caspian-Sea country’s largest operation against alleged Islamic extremist fighters since reports began to circulate over the past year about a steady flow of recruits from Azerbaijan for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said that the detainees have joined several paramilitary groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals.

The arrests were reported on the same day that US President Barack Obama mentioned Azerbaijan among the countries notorious for crackdowns on civil society.
Given that there is no shortage of Azerbaijani veterans of the Syrian conflict, the Azerbaijani authorities could probably conduct more operations like this if they wanted to but Baku is doing its best to support NATO's war against Syria and prefers to go after dissidents. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recently called on the Aliyev regime to release the jailed civil society activists and, much to the dismay of Baku, honored one of them, Anar Mammadli, with the Vaclav Havel prize for civil society activism. Ali Hasanov, a key aide to Aliyev, immediately condemned this "outside pressure on an independent state." The mounting criticism is not having the intended effect and seems to encourage the Azerbaijani authorities to come up with new police state measures and to ignore the critics: 
Azerbaijan Questions its Future with "Failed and Unfortunate" Euronest Parliamentary Assembly 

Azerbaijan has branded the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly a "failed and unfortunate initiative" and has challenged its fellow member states to explain why it should remain a member.  

The Chairman of the Azerbaijani Delegation to the Euronest PA, Elkhan Suleymanov, has written to his colleagues as a "last resort" telling them that the body, constituted in 2011, is now "bogged down by indecision, platitudes and double standards."

Azerbaijan was last week angered by a European Parliament motion calling for the release of activist Leyla Yunus, who is presently embroiled in a criminal case involving the alleged embezzlement of tens of thousands of euros from a string of NGOs with which she was involved with in Azerbaijan.

Bad News For Georgia's Ex-President Saakashvili

Neighboring Georgia is facing criticism from Europe as well. Georgia's efforts to hold former president Mikheil Saakashvili accountable for some of his crimes are not met with approval in most European capitals, where a few equally corrupt and criminal individuals hold a protecting hand over their friend Saakashvili. Therefore, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe criticized not only Azerbaijan's crackdown on civil society activists but also Georgia's "political prosecution" of members of the previous government. During his time in office, Saakashvili has gone to great pains to please his friends in the West, first and foremost his "friends" in Washington, and he is now reaping the benefits of his work. At least that was Saakashvili's plan but his friends in Washington have apparently other plans:
Saakashvili denied to get business visa in the U.S.

The U.S. has denied a business visa to Georgia's ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian Alia newspaper reported on September 30, citing Saakashvili's United National Movement party.

"The veracity of the information will soon be cleared. Supporters of the ex-president's party are disappointed. The U.S. political elite is disillusioned with Saakashvili, he has, in fact, no support at the White House anymore," the paper wrote.

Saakahsvili lives in his uncle's house in one of the skyscrapers in Brooklyn's Willaimsburg district. Saakashvili has recently hosted the ex-head of CIA David Petraeus at his house, and plans to meet with the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
© Photo EPA

Perhaps, Saakashvili should consider a move to France to support the comeback of his friend Nicolas Sarkozy. Returning to Georgia is not an option. Although there are still some Saakashvili supporters who are willing to take a hit for their former president, Saakashvili's return to his home country would most likely end in jail. The criminal charges against him keep piling up with no end in sight. Georgian officials are now wondering how Saakashvili managed to amass a fortune of between $200 and $300 million and, even worse, the exhumation of Saakashvili's prime minister is going ahead:
Georgia Orders Zhvania Exhumed

A prosecutor in the former Soviet republic of Georgia has ordered the body of the late prime minister Zurab Zhvania to be exhumed, nearly a decade after his death in murky circumstances.

Zhvania was a top leader of the Rose Revolution protests that paved the way for Mikhail Saakashvili to become president in 2004. Zhvania died a year later. An autopsy determined that he died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty space heater in the Tbilisi apartment where his body was found, but suspicions of foul play have persisted.
Predictably, the Associated Press failed to mention the noteworthy video with the title "Saakashvili killed Mr. zurab zhvania", which was leaked in March of this year. The video shows photos from Zhvania's autopsy and highlights suspicious marks on the dead bodies of both Zhvania and Raul Usupov, a young regional official who was found dead in the same Tbilisi apartment along with Zhvania. Therefore, the exhumation of Zhvania could spell more trouble for Saakashvili. The Georgian authorities are always good for a surprise. Usually it is an unpleasant surprise for the opposite side. The Russians can tell you a thing or two about it. Only recently, Foreign Policy's report about Georgia's offer to host a training camp for "Syrian rebels" and other "anti-IS fighters from multiple countries" caused a stir in Russia: 
Moscow Opposes Idea of Training Camp for Syrian Opposition Fighters in Georgia

The creation of a training camp for Syrian opposition fighters in Georgia will damage security in South Caucasus, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

“Moscow noted recent media reports about plans to create a US training camp for Syrian opposition fighters in Georgia,” the ministry said in a statement. “Such a decision, if made by Tbilisi, will do serious damage to stability and security in South Caucasus.”

Terrorist Attack In Chechen Capital Spells Trouble For Russia

Russia's Foreign Ministry took note of Tbilisi's subsequent denial of the training camp offer but reminded the Georgian authorities that Russia will follow this issue very closely. Battle-tested Chechen jihadists are the driving force behind the battlefield successes of the ISIS mercenary army, which is wreaking havoc in the Middle East, and Moscow fears that a similar force could be unleashed in the North Caucasus. As Veronika Krasheninnikova, the head of the Center for International Studies and Journalism at Russia Today, pointed out, there has been an "exceptional level of military and political activity in the South Caucasus" in recent months with Georgia's offer to host a training for "Syrian rebels" being the icing on the cake. According to Krasheninnikova, this indicates "that a second anti-Russian front is being created in the South Caucasus." Something is brewing in the Caucasus and those who were not convinced of the threat until fairly recently changed their mind most certainly after the attack in Chechnya:
At least 5 police killed in suicide blast outside concert hall in Chechnya, Russia

At least five police officers have been killed and another three sustained injuries in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya as they attempted to detain a suspected suicide bomber. The young man detonated improvised explosive when police attempted to search him.

The incident happened ahead of a concert dedicated to City Day in Grozny, which is home to over 280,000 people, most of them Chechens. According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, police forces noticed a suspicious man outside a concert hall.
 
"Police officers who were manning metal detectors at the entrance of the concert hall noticed a suspicious young man. When the police officers decided to check the individual, the man blew himself up," a local police officer told RIA Novosti news agency.
© Photo BBC

Although the man did not succeed in perpetrating a devastating attack inside the concert hall, this incident sends a very strong message to the Russian authorities. For one thing, the attack occured during Eid al-Adha and for another, it struck the capital of the relatively calm and stable Chechen Republic. In contrast to neighboring Dagestan and other republics in Russia's North Caucasus, which are still struggling to contain the violence, Chechnya had not seen any terrorist attacks in over a year and Grozny has become the symbol of Russia's victory over the foreign-backed insurgency. In a recent Voice of America article, Mike Eckel described the situation in Russia's North Caucasus as follows: "After two wars waged by Russia since 1994, the North Caucasus has become relatively stable, free of all-out war and major terrorist attacks." The suicide blast in Grozny indicates that this is going to change and the attack is not the only worrying sign in this regard:
Fears of Radicalization Among Muslim Youth Rising in Russia

There is an increasing risk of radicalization among Muslim youth in Russia, Russian News Paper Kommersant reported on Wednesday.

A large group of Muslim youth attacked a police bus on September 26, as the police arrested a man, who drove into an officer, after being told to move his car, parked in a no-parking zone, Kommersant reported. As a result of the riots, 30 people have been arrested, World Bulletin reported.

“30 people were detained to prevent a breach of the peace and because they resisted police officers. A court imposed on them an administrative penalty and fine”, said Andrei Galiakberov, Chief of the Moscow Police Department, as quoted by World Bulletin.
The North Caucasus is of course not the only region in Russia, which is vulnerable to Islamic extremism. Crimea's Tatar population is currently experiencing first-hand how serious the Russian authorities take this threat. Lately, a Crimean Tatar news channel was cautioned for broadcasting extremist content and two Crimean Tatars were kidnapped under mysterious circumstances by unknown men in military uniforms. Members of the Crimean Tatar community have pressured the local authorities to launch an investigation into the abduction but it would not be surprising if the Russian security services had something to do with it. The Russian authorities take no chances when it comes to the radicalization of the Tatar population, regardless of whether it concerns Crimea or other parts of Russia, and they spare no-one, not even the "grandmother of Tatar nationalism":      
Nationalist Sentenced for Urging Tatars to Oppose Moscow's Crimea Annexation

A court in Russia's republic of Tatarstan has handed down a one-year suspended sentence to a radical nationalist who had called for fellow Tatars in Crimea to oppose the Russian annexation of the peninsula, claiming violent persecution of Muslims in Russia.

Fauziya Bairamova, 63, nicknamed the "Grandmother of Tatar nationalism" by Russian media for her decades-long radical stance, was also banned from changing her residence without informing the authorities, according to a city court verdict Thursday, which she posted on her Facebook page.