Sunday, October 19, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #71

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.

Much to the dismay of the United States, Russia "has been steadily strengthening its foothold" in Kyrgyzstan in recent years. This became apparent in June of this year, when American troops vacated the important U.S. air base at Manas International Airport after the Kyrgyz government had yielded to Russian pressure and agreed to kick the Americans out. Since 2001, the U.S. had used Manas not only to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, but also to engage in all kinds of nefarious activities. After years of unsuccessful attempts to convince Bishkek of closing the base, the Russians finally got their way a few months ago, marking "Kyrgyzstan’s new era as a Russian client state" according to Alexander Cooley, Deputy Director for Social Sciences Programming at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, which is famous for its anti-Russian bias. Cooley's statement shows that the closure of Manas was a heavy blow for the United States. Moscow lost no time in capitalizing on the departure of U.S. forces and is now apparently planning to expand Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan as well as its base in Armenia [emphasis mine]:
Russia Strengthens Air Defenses With Bases in Belarus and Central Asia

As Moscow moves to bolster its military presence in ex-Soviet allied states, the head of the Russian air force announced that Russia will establish an airbase for fighter jets in eastern Belarus in 2016, state media outlets reported Wednesday.

Colonel General Viktor Bondarev also said Moscow planned to expand its airbases in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The three nations are members of a loose Russia-dominated security alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which has accelerated efforts to create a unified air defense network as the Ukraine crisis reenergizes the West's military powerhouse, NATO.
© Photo AFP/Vyacheslav Oseledko

Kyrgyzstan Targets U.S. NGOs Amid Fears Of Kyrgyz Maidan

Russia has been talking about its air base in Belarus since last year but location and date of the opening keep changing. Work at Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, is already making some progress. The expanding military presence is just one example of Russia's growing influence in Kyrgyzstan. Inspired by Russian legislation, Kyrgyz lawmakers are now pushing bills, which target 'homosexual propaganda' and NGOs. The Kremlin couldn't be more proud. Washington was less impressed with the Russian-style bills and the U.S. Embassy Bishkek used the opportunity "to interfere in the internal affairs of Kyrgyzstan." At least that's how it has been perceived in the Kyrgyz parliament. Lately, the Kyrgyz authorities have been increasingly suspicious of the activities of American NGOs in the country. One Kyrgyz MP was particularly concerned about the recent TechCamp event in Bishkek:
Kyrgyz MP concerned about meetings held with youth by NGO holding similar meetings in Ukraine prior to unrest

MP Irina Karamushkina said at today's plenary session of the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan the NGO “TechCamp” is holding meetings with youth in Bishkek, which held similar meetings prior to the Maidan events in Ukraine.

“This NGO has been holding meetings with our youth for 2 weeks already. Do our special services have information about what kind of meetings this NGO is holding? This NGO held similar meetings with youth prior to the events on Maidan in Ukraine. Aren't we wasting time, while someone is shaping views of your youth?” the lawmaker interrogated.
© Photo U.S. Embassy Bishkek

Karamushkina's concerns with regard to the TechCamps initiative, which is led by the U.S. State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy, might seem absurd at first glance but given that former Ukrainian MP Oleg Tsarov demanded on 20 November 2013 a criminal investigation into the activities of TechCamp in Ukraine because he believed it was part of "preparations for inciting a civil war," it is probably a good idea to keep a close eye on the TechCamp events. One day after Tsarov had accused the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine of training "information war experts and potential revolutionaries to organize protests and overthrow the regime," the Euromaidan protests erupted. Although he was later proven right, Tsarov had no reason to celebrate. While running for president, he was brutally beaten by an angry mob and eventually forced to flee the country because Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky put a $1 million bounty on his head. Kyrgyz politicians want to avoid a similar fate. Therefore, American "non-governmental" organizations, such as Freedom House, are now under high scrutiny:
Activities of Freedom House in Osh suspended

In the city of Osh, activities of Freedom House international organization suspended. Media Resource Center public organization confirmed the information to 24.kg news agency.

According to local journalists, Freedom House office in Osh is closed temporarily and its representative is called to Bishkek.

Azattyk notes that "previously conducted by the organization survey among ethnic Uzbeks in Osh was frustrated." According to experts and representatives of Uzbek diaspora, monitoring issues of the organization were incorrect and Freedom House staff could not explain the purpose of the survey. The organization believes that the survey was correct.
Freedom House refused to comment on the closure of its office in Osh. Only a few weeks ago, the U.S.-based NGO dismissed Kyrgyz media reports accusing the organization of plotting to overthrow the government as absurd. How dare anybody questions the ulterior motives of infamous CIA/State Department front organizations. Speaking of which, USAID and the Gülen movement are also heavily active in Kyrgyzstan. While other countries in the region are shutting down schools of the CIA-backed Gülen movement, Kyrgyzstan is still opening new Gülen schools. Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that the country continues to struggle with Islamic extremism. Especially the rise of female Islamists in Kyrgyzstan attracted attention recently. Kyrgyzstan's security service highlighted the other day that a significant number of the Kyrgyz who have gone to Syria are women. ISIS and other jihadist groups are reportedly recruiting female students from Kyrgyzstan to work as nurses in Syria:
Kyrgyz Medical Student Joins Islamic Militants In Syria  
Kyrgyz authorities say a 19-year-old medical school student from Kyrgyzstan's southern Osh region is "fighting" on the side of Islamic State militants in Syria.

Osh regional police said on October 6 that the young woman, whose name was not disclosed, had traveled to Syria via Turkey in July.

Osh regional police chief Suiun Omurzakov says jihadist groups are recruiting female students from Osh's medical school to work as nurses in Syria, promising them high salaries and arranging their trips to Syria through Turkey.

Tajikistan Struggles With Syria Blowback, Boosts Ties With Azerbaijan

Neighboring Tajikistan is facing similar problems. For the most part, the Tajik authorities are turning a blind eye to the recruitment of Tajik citizens for the various terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq in order not to upset their friends in Riyadh, Ankara and Washington. This has led to an increasing number of Tajiks being killed in the Middle East. According to the country's Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda, 50 Tajik jihadists fighting for the "Syrian rebels" have bite the dust so far. Dushanbe couldn't care less about these jihadi mercenaries as long as they are fighting and dying in the Middle East but if they manage to return to their home country, the Tajik authorities are forced to take action:
Tajik Islamists Held For Plotting Attacks

Police in Tajikistan have reportedly arrested 20 alleged Islamist militants for plotting to blow up two road tunnels.

An unidentified Interior Ministry spokesman told AFP news agency on October 18 that the group wanted to blow up the tunnels linking the center to the north of the countries.

He said all those arrested had returned to Tajikistan after fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.
Some people in Tajikistan have probably realized by now that it makes sense to take a few jihadists off the streets before they leave for Syria. In recent weeks, law enforcers in Tajikistan's Sughd Region detained ten local residents who were trying to leave the country and join the "Syrian rebels." Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon could have asked his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev how to deal with this problem given the fact that Azerbaijan contributes a significant number of jihadi mercenaries as well. Aliyev visited Dushanbe this week to meet with Rahmon and other top officials. The talks were fruitful and the two post-Soviet states agreed to expand cooperation in various fields:
Azerbaijan, Tajikistan discuss expansion of ties (UPDATE)

President Aliyev, who arrived in Tajikistan on an official visit on October 15, was officially welcomed by the Tajik president at the Palace of Nations in Dushanbe on October 16. After the official welcoming ceremony, the two presidents held a one-on-one meeting.

During the official talks held in an expanded format the sides reviewed the two countries' achievements in the fields of economy and trade, and stressed the importance to further strengthen the activities of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation.

The two leaders also noted the importance to develop direct relations between the business circles of the two countries, expressed readiness to strengthen and expand the interaction in the security and defense fields, as well as cooperation in combating against terrorism, extremism and other threats of the modern world.

Combating terrorism is not necessarily Azerbaijan's strong suit. Instead the Aliyev regime is known for its relentless crackdown on NGOs, political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and so on. After the Azerbaijani authorities had already pressured the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to close its office in Baku, the U.S. NGO IREX also halted its work in the country at the end of last month "following pressure from the Azerbaijani government," including "a police raid on its offices." Fed up with Baku's efforts to prevent the U.S. from meddling in Azerbaijan's affairs, U.S. officials reportedly warned the Aliyev regime that "recent harassment of international and Azerbaijani nongovernmental organizations is unacceptable." The criticism from Washington won't convince Baku to give U.S. NGOs a carte blanche to operate in Azerbaijan but it might have prompted Aliyev's decision to pardon a few prisoners, including three members of the U.S.-backed NIDA civic movement:
Azerbaijan frees four opposition activists in amnesty

Four jailed opposition activists in Azerbaijan have been pardoned and released as part of a wider amnesty announced by President Ilham Aliyev, state media said on Friday.

Three, all members of a youth movement called NIDA, were convicted of hooliganism, possessing drugs and explosives, and intent to cause public disorder. The fourth, Hasan Huseinly, was head of a non-governmental organisation, "Intellectual Citizen".

The opposition activists were among a group of 80 pardoned prisoners, including citizens of Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, but there were no details of the crimes these people had been sentenced for.

Georgia Freaking Out Over Russia's "Attempt To Annex" Abkhazia

Although Washington and Baku quarrel regularly over NGOs and the like, Azerbaijan is still an absolutely reliable puppet state of the United States, as demonstrated by Baku's unease about the declaration adopted at the recent Caspian Summit, which bans any future possible deployment of NATO forces in the Caspian Sea. Russia is now trying to convince Azerbaijan of closer naval cooperation in order to solidify its control over the Caspian Sea and to keep the Americans out. At the same time, the Kremlin is also trying to do the job properly in the South Caucasus. Russia offered Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia a new treaty that "proposes a merger of military forces, coordination of police and an alignment with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union." Abkhazia's new President Raul Khajimba, who lately made headlines with his announcement to close down all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory, is keen on signing the agreement:
Khajimba: New Treaty with Moscow to ‘Modernize’ Abkhaz Army 
New comprehensive cooperation treaty with Russia will enhance military alliance with Moscow and help to modernize Abkhaz army, Abkhaz leader, Raul Khajimba, said at an event marking 22nd anniversary of the breakaway region’s armed forces on October 11. 
“We need to strengthen and enhance our military alliance with Russia. That is also an aim of new agreement, which we plan to sign before the end of this year. It will allow us to carry out a large-scale modernization of our army, bring to higher level its material-technical support and preparedness, and will significantly increase salaries and social protection of servicemen,” Khajimba said.
© Photo RIA Novosti/Mihail Mokrushin

Not everyone in Abkhazia is as enthusiastic about the offer as Khajimba but given that Abkhazia is already heavily dependent on Russia, it is an exaggeration to talk about a "loss of sovereignty." Predictably, many Georgian officials freaked out when they heard of the proposed treaty and Tedo Japaridze, former Ambassador to the U.S. and former Foreign Minister, urged the government to call off this week's Abashidze-Karasin meeting. However, Zurab Abashidze, Georgia's special envoy to Russia, who represents Tbilisi in the talks with Moscow, ignored this advice. After his meeting with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Abashidze told the media that he and his Russian interlocutor "have radically different views" on the planned treaty and that it is now up to the government to decide whether Georgia continues with this format of direct dialogue with Russia or not. The following statement of Georgia's parliament offers little hope in this regard:
Parliament Condemns Russia’s ‘Attempt to Annex’ Abkhazia

The Parliament adopted on October 17 with 80 votes a statement, which “condemns” Russia’s “attempt to annex occupied Abkhazia” through its new treaty on “alliance and integration” with Sokhumi.

If signed, the Russian-proposed treaty “will give rise to a new wave of violation of international legal norms, create an additional threat to regional stability, significantly damage the process of normalization of Russian-Georgian relations,” reads the statement.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili complained that Georgia had taken "constructive and pragmatic steps towards normalizing relations with Russia" and that Russia responds by "annexing" Abkhazia. As usual, Garibashvili and Co. are doing their best to criticize Russia without wasting any words on NATO's military build-up in Georgia. Moscow has warned Tbilisi repeatedly that the establishment of NATO-linked infrastructure in Georgia could threaten stability in the South Caucasus, to no avail. Now the gloves are coming off and the situation in the Caucasus is heating up:
Tbilisi Says to Counter Russia’s Abkhaz Moves with ‘Pro-Active’ Foreign Policy

The Georgian authorities will take measures aimed at “consolidating” and heightening international focus on Russia’s “attempt to annex” Abkhazia thought its proposed new treaty on alliance and integration with Sokhumi, senior officials said after a meeting of the Georgian State Security and Crisis Management Council on Saturday.

Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, said after the meeting that “very aggressive – meaning active” foreign policy steps will be undertaken.