Sunday, October 12, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #70

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.

After nearly four years of negotiations, the European Union und Kazakhstan finally agreed on a new enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) during this week's visit to Brussels by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The agreement, which is expected to be signed next year, "aims to boost cooperation in around 30 policy areas including trade and foreign and security policy." Given that the PCA is a far weaker deal than the infamous European Union Association Agreement and that the Kazakh negotiators had been "very careful that the agreement respects their country's commitments to the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union," the Kremlin won't get worked up over the agreement. With the PCA negotiations concluded, Nazarbayev travelled to Minsk to attend summits of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Community and, most importantly, the Eurasian Economic Union, which welcomed a new member:
Armenia Joins Eurasian Union

After months of delay, Armenia formally joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan on Friday, drawing praise from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 


President Serzh Sarkisian signed a corresponding accession treaty with Putin and Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus at a summit of the Russian-led bloc held in Minsk.

Speaking at the gathering, both Putin and Sarkisian expressed hope that the treaty will be ratified by the parliaments of the EEU’s three member states by the end of this year. The Armenian president said his country should be able to “start working from January 1” as a full-fledged member of an alliance which critics fear will restore Russian hegemony over much of the former Soviet Union.

Russia Expands Eurasian Union, Prepares For Trouble In Tajikistan

Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambaev expressed hope that his country would also join the organization by year's end. The Kyrgyz government had approved a roadmap for joining the EEU just before the summit. Neighboring Tajikistan is still considering the offer and doesn't rule joining the economic bloc as well. Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon said during the talks in the Belarusian capital that Dushanbe is currently analyzing the EEU legal documents. While Kyrgyzstan has decided to cast its lot with Russia, the Tajik authorities are not yet fully convinced of this idea. Lately, some people in Tajikistan have cast doubt on Russia's intentions or abilities to fulfill its obligations with regard to the promised economic and military aid but Moscow is doing its best to assure Dushanbe that Russia will follow up its words with deeds:
Russia Promises Tajikistan "Armageddon," Polite People

Russia will build a new military training facility in southern Tajikistan to help the two countries carry out drills together, a Russian military official has said.

Few details were given about the new facility other than the name, which certainly makes a statement: "Armageddon."

"Russian soldiers will help their Tajikistani colleagues in setting up a new polygon, Armageddon, in the Khatlon province for joint training of military units of the two countries," said a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, Yaroslav Roshchupkin.

With reference to the immensely popular 'polite people' who protected Crimea after the coup d'état in Kiev, Roshchupkin added that the Tajik language classes that Russian soldiers are going to take "are intended to form and strengthen the image of 'polite people' among soldiers of the Central Military District." A few weeks ago, two Russian soldiers were accused of murdering a Tajik taxi driver and the Russian military is now trying to prevent any further incidents, which could upset the host country. Roshchupkin made this announcement during the recent drills of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan:
Russian Military Holds 'Antiterror' Drills In Tajikistan

Russian forces based in Tajikistan are holding military drills near the Central Asian nation's capital, Dushanbe.

A spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, Yaroslav Roshchupkin, says the maneuvers started on the Lyaur training ground on October 6.

He said more than 1,000 servicemen and 300 pieces of military hardware from Russia's 201st military base, which is located in Tajikistan, are practicing to ward off possible attacks by "international terrorists."
Tajikistan shares a long border with Afghanistan and Russia has pledged to support the Central Asian state in dealing with a possible spillover of violence from Afghanistan. Other countries in the region have also offered to provide Tajikistan with military aid to bolster the border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan has already received aid from Belarus as well as from Armenia and Tajik leader Rahmon used the meetings in Minsk to thank the two countries for their assistance. The increasing violence in northern Afghanistan doesn't bode well for Tajikistan and it is of little help that the Tajik regime is more or less turning a blind eye to the recruitment of Tajik fighters for the war in Syria. But instead of addressing these issue and going after real extremists, the Tajik authorities are busy stifling any sign of dissent and going after "extremist" opposition groups:
Tajik Opposition Group Banned As Extremist

Tajikistan's Supreme Court has banned the opposition organization Group 24.

The October 9 decision followed growing government pressure on the opposition group after it used the Internet to call for street protests in the capital, Dushanbe, on October 10.

Supreme Court judge Salomat Hakimova ruled that Group 24, which is led by fugitive Tajik businessman Umarali Quvatov, is "extremist" and therefore is banned in Tajikistan.

ISIS Welcomes IMU, Vows To Attack Russia

While the Tajik authorities were going after the "extremists" from Group 24, the arguably more dangerous extremists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) made an interesting announcement, which could affect Tajikistan as well. According to an Uzbek law enforcement official, IMU head Usman Ghazi confirmed that the group has joined ISIS. In recent months, the IMU had been fighting alongside the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). For example, the Jinnah International Airport attack in June and the Quetta airbase attacks in August were the result of joint TTP-IMU operations. Last week, some media reports alleged that the Pakistani Taliban had also pledged support to ISIS but the group lost no time in denying these reports and reaffirmed that they have declared allegiance only to Mullah Omar. Up until now, the IMU has not issued any denial and the Uzbek authorities claim to have "operational video and audio information about IMU's support and participation in joint military actions on the side of IS units." Uzbek security officials and analysts named, among others, the current financial hardship of the IMU as a key motive for the decision to join forces with ISIS:
Helplessness forces IMU to call itself an ISIL 'partner'

A recent expression of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) support for the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) betrays the IMU's weakness, analysts are saying.

The IMU lost support in Afghanistan as its brutality leads to civilian suffering, the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) says. Now the IMU reportedly is eyeing northern Afghanistan, where most of that country's ethnic Uzbek minority lives.

"IMU militants were forced to [announce their 'alliance' with ISIL] because donations had dried up," Tashkent political analyst Linara Yuldasheva said. "They're essentially leaderless, and they're looking for someone to cling to. But this alliance can't guarantee them any more power."

Although Pakistan's Operation Zarb-e-Azb is not anything like as successful as the Pakistani military claims, the military offensive has at least forced IMU fighters and other insurgents in the Pakistani tribal areas to temporarily leave their hideouts and seek shelter in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Northern Afghanistan has long been a safe haven for the IMU, regardless of whether troops of the NATO-led security mission were stationed there or not. Both the IMU and the Taliban are now trying to exploit the ISAF drawdown and conquer even more territory. ISIS is also looking to expand its activities in Afghanistan but the group seems to have a hard time deciding on its next target. If ISIS leader Tarkhan Batirashvili aka Omar al-Shishani gets his will, the next target won't be Central Asia or China but rather Russia:
How Islamic State Grooms Chechen Fighters Against Putin

When the Islamic State commander known as “Omar the Chechen” called to tell his father they’d routed the Iraqi army and taken the city of Mosul, he added a stark message: Russia would be next.

“He said ‘don’t worry dad, I’ll come home and show the Russians,’” Temur Batirashvili said from his home in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, on the border with the Russian region of Chechnya. “I have many thousands following me now and I’ll get more. We’ll have our revenge against Russia.”

Al-Shishani is the tactical mastermind behind Islamic State’s swift military gains on the ground in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad, including an encirclement in which his forces killed as many as 500 Iraqi troops and captured 180 more near Fallujah, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Given that Gartenstein-Ross is praising the "brilliant tactical maneuvers" of the "exceptional field commander" Batirashvili, it is probably a good idea to take a closer look at the suspicious background of the Georgian ISIS commander. As mentioned two weeks ago, several jihadists from the Pankisi Gorge have left the Caucasus to follow Batirashvili's lead and dozens of Georgian citizens are now fighting for ISIS. Fighters from the Caucasus are the backbone of the mercenary army. Therefore, the Russian authorities won't be casual about Batirashvili's threat. The recent terrorist attack in Chechnya served as a stark reminder that the foreign-backed North Caucasus insurgency continues to pose a threat to Russia. One day after the suicide bombing in Chechnya, Russian security forces prevented a similar attack in the neighboring republic of Dagestan, which has become the hotbed of terrorism in Russia:
170 kg of explosives destroyed in Russia's Dagestan

Russian security forces have prevented a series of potentially “resonant” terrorist attacks, destroying almost 170 kg of explosives in the southern Republic of Dagestan. Two policemen and a militant were killed in the operation.

The militant was preliminarily identified as Alidibir Asudinov, a bomb expert and an “active member” of the so-called Kizilyurt gang, who was on the federal wanted list for terrorist crimes.

According to the Anti-Terror Committee, the gang “planned a series of resonant terrorist attacks” in the Republic of Dagestan.

Russian Warnings Fall On Deaf Ears In Georgia

Alidibir Asudinov reportedly recently returned from Syria, where had studied explosives, further highlighting the Syria-North Caucasus connection. When Foreign Policy broke the story of Georgia's offer to host a training camp for "moderate Syrian rebels," Russia was understandably alarmed. The subsequent denials from Tbilisi have failed to reassure the Kremlin and NATO's other activities in Georgia cause additional tensions between the two neighboring countries. NATO compensated the Georgian government with a 'substantive package' for the disappointment of having been denied a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the summit in Wales. Among other things, this package includes a military training center for NATO members and partners in Georgia. Moscow tried this week once again to make its position on this issue clear to Tbilisi:
NATO Presence in Georgia Could Threaten Stability in Caucasus: Russia

The placement of military infrastructure in Georgia in the interests of NATO would pose a threat to stability in the Caucasus region, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

"The Russian side has expressed concern over rumors circulated by Georgian media about plans to place elements of NATO-linked infrastructure in Georgia," the Russian ministry said in a statement.

"Such actions would threaten the existing stability in South Caucasus," the statement reads.

The warning fell on deaf ears in Georgia. Alexi Petriashvili, Georgia's State Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, countered that the closure of Russian bases in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Moldova (Transnistria) and the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine would be a better way of ensuring stability and security in the region. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania took the same line emphasizing that Georgia will proceed with its integration into the U.S.-led military alliance:
NATO infrastructure in Georgia surely to be created - Ministry of Defence

NATO infrastructure in Georgia will surely be created, Georgian Defence Minister Irakli Alasania said, commenting on the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.
“I would like to state that the infrastructure of NATO in Georgia will be created,” the minister said. “It is an agreement reached at the summit. NATO-Georgia package is aimed at creation of an alliance infrastructure in our country, conduction of joint military exercises. This will increase both the constraint of the aggression, which comes from Russia, and our defence.”
Just recently, Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas visited Georgia to discuss with Alasania and other top Georgian officials the idea of joint military exercises. The two post-Soviet states agreed to conduct joint drills within the framework of the NATO cooperation program in the future and after his meeting with Olekas, Alasania announced that Georgia looks set to increase its defense budget next year. But although Georgia is doing its best to expedite the military build-up in accordance with Washington's plans, the Georgian leadership seems to have a hard time understanding why Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia doesn't show any interest in Tbilisi’s "reconciliation efforts":
Breakaway Abkhazia Wants to Break Away Further 
In a move that many Georgians believe bodes ill for their remaining links with breakaway Abkhazia, the region’s new de-facto leader, Raul Khajimba, has stated he wants to eliminate all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory.

“The national border with Georgia on the Enguri River will be reinforced,” RIA Novosti quoted Khajimba as saying in reference to what most of the rest of the world sees as an administrative boundary line between Abkhazia and the Tbilisi-controlled region of Samegrelo.


“There should be only one checkpoint for reasons of national security,” Khajimba told an assembly of his party, the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia.