Sunday, November 9, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #74

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.

Russia's southern neighbor und staunch NATO ally Georgia has been hitting the headlines on a daily basis in recent weeks. While Georgian officials were still freaking out over Russia's "attempt to annex" Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, inspired by the treaty offered to its separatist twin, began to draw up a similar agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation. Tbilisi tried to win back the two regions by offering them broad autonomy and to share the prospective benefits of Georgia’s integration with the EU, but to no avail. To make matters worse, the Georgian government didn't even have the time to comprehend that Georgia is about to lose Abkhazia and South Ossetia once and for all because the country is facing yet another crisis. It all started with the arrest of five former and current officials of the Defense Ministry and general staff of the armed forces, who are accused of contract-rigging and thereby defrauding the state of $2.34 million. Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who was visiting France and Germany at the time, got behind the detained officals and condemned the arrests in the strongest possible terms after his return:
Georgia: Defense Minister Claims NATO Plans under Threat

Georgia’s NATO-membership plans have come under attack from within the the country's government itself, embattled Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania claimed on November 4, as a crisis over investigations into his ministry deepens within the ruling coalition.

Alasania, rated as Georgia’s favorite political figure, declared in a televised briefing that prosecutors’ sudden spate of inquiries into the defense ministry’s work is politically motivated. After the arrest of five former and current ministry officials last week as part of a probe into a tender, prosecutors today filed criminal charges against three army medical officers in a food-poisoning case.

“This is an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. This is an attack on the agency with an outstanding record in achieving our foreign policy goals,” Alasania asserted. “I will not be intimidated by the prosecutors or by mud-slinging by certain media groups,” he added.
© Photo Georgian Ministry of Defense

Georgia On Euro-Atlantic Course Despite Government Shake-Up

Although some members of the government coalition share Alasania's concerns, he probably should have chosen his word more carefully if he wanted to keep his job. Only a few hours after the popular Defense Minister had made this startling statement, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed Alasania from his post and replaced him with Mindia Janelidze, who served as head of the National Security and Crisis Management Council. Alasania praised his successor as a "patriot" but he emphasized that he is worried about the country's political direction. Predictably, Western media and politicians are also alarmed. Georgia has changed eight Defense Ministers in the last ten years but Alasania was supposed to put an end to this. Officials in Washington and Brussels see Alasania as one of their own and they counted on him to lead Georgia into NATO. In the light of his sacking and the resignation of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, who is Alasania’s sister-in-law, the United States and the European Union are now worried that Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration could be threatened:
Georgia Political Crisis Alarms EU

The abrupt departure of several pro-European government ministers in Georgia has prompted a government crisis and alarmed senior European Union officials, who fear a country pivotal to Western interests could be shifting toward Russia.

Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, the minister of European affairs and several deputy ministers resigned Wednesday, one day after pro-Western Defense Minister Irakli Alasania was let go. Later, Mr. Alasania’s Free Democrats signaled they would pull out of the ruling coalition, leaving its future unclear.

The departing ministers said Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was veering from a European path, a claim he denied. The personnel shifts are entangled in Georgia’s complex political infighting, but EU officials worry they could portend a slowdown or even reversal of the country’s move toward Europe.

The United States urged Georgia not to veer from pursuit of a "Euro-Atlantic future" but there is absolutely no reason to suspect that the Georgian government is really planning to change course. PM Garibashvili made it clear from the very beginning that the allegations voiced by Alasania and Panjikidze are "naive" and "ridiculous" and he immediately met with foreign diplomats in Tbilisi to assure them of Georgia's firm commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. He even managed to convince Deputy Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, who had resigned along with Panjikidze, to stay on her post. Only one day after Beruchashvili had warned that Georgia’s "European choice is under threat," she toed the government line saying that the country's "European integration is irreversible." New Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze lost no time in conveying this message to Georgia's most important "partner":
New Defense Minister Meets U.S. Ambassador

Georgia’s new Defense Minister, Mindia Janelidze, who has replaced sacked Irakli Alasania, met on November 7 U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, and reiterated that the ministry will “continue and intensify” cooperation with the U.S. and NATO.

“We very much appreciate the new minister Mindia Janelidze’s invitation to come and meet this morning,” Ambassador Norland continued. “He made a point in saying that given that the United States is Georgia’s primary strategic partner, symbolically he felt it was important to have the American ambassador be first visitor and we see this as a sign of continuity of our relationship on the military-to-military front and in bilateral security cooperation.”
Alasania has caused a great stir by linking the investigation into the defense ministry to Georgia's NATO-membership plans, much to the dismay of PM Garibashvili. The Prime Minister lambasted Alasania, calling him "adventurist, stupid and ambitious," and he warned the ex-minister that there will be "many surprises" about him that "will be embarrassing for him personally and his allies." Alasania was right when he said that the investigation is politically motivated but it has less to do with Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration than with a domestic power struggle. Georgia's richest man and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is still very much pulling the strings behind the scenes, and his protégé Garibashvili are apparently trying to get rid of an immensely popular rival, who was more inclined to please Washington and Brussels than to please Ivanishvili. Although Ivanishvili, Garibashvili & Co. have also been steering the country towards NATO membership, they favor a less aggressive policy vis-à-vis Russia than Alasania who pushed Georgia's militarization like no other. With Alasania's Free Democrats leaving the Georgian Dream coalition, the ruling coalition is now struggling to retain the majority in parliament and the 2016 parliamentary elections are going to be interesting:
Alasania Becomes FD’s Chairman, Hopes to ‘Celebrate Victory’ in 2016 Elections

Ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania, who was elected on November 8 as chairman of the Free Democrats (FD) at a congress of the party he founded five years ago, said he hopes FD “will celebrate victory together with people” in next parliamentary elections in 2016.

Addressing the congress of FD party in Tbilisi, Alasania, who was the only candidate for party chairmanship, spoke about the need of upholding democratic values, saying that the state “should be based on fair laws and not on the will of one man.” He said that “hatred, tension, disrespect and revenge” should no longer be part of the politics. He also spoke about Russia and said that its “imperial fundamentalism” is Georgia’s “sworn enemy.”

CSTO Alarmed At NGO Activities As Soros Visits Krygyzstan

But regardless of whether Georgia is led by Alasania or by Ivanishvili and his men, the Euro-Atlantic integration of Russia's southern neighbor is set in stone. The same applies to Russia's second neighbor in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan's recent quarrels with the West over human rights abuses and NGO legislation have cast doubt on Baku's relations with its "Western partners" and there is some speculation about a possible realignment of Azerbaijan but Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev knows full well that he cannot overplay his hand. Baku's supposed crackdown on the CIA-backed Gülen movement is an example par excellence of Aliyev's reluctance to sever ties with his friends in Langley and Washington. Moscow is most certainly following the current government crisis in Georgia and the disputes between Azerbaijan and the West very closely in the hope of capitalizing on the situation but so far there is no evidence of NATO losing its grip on the South Caucasus. Moreover, Nikolay Borduyzha, the head of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), pointed out during this week's CSTO parliamentary assembly in Moscow that the United States and other Western countries are up to some mischief in the Eurasian Balkans:
CSTO Chief Accuses U.S. Embassies Of Fomenting Instability In Region

Most interesting were Bordyuzha's claims about the U.S. and other Western countries fomenting dischord in the CSTO region. While this isn't an especially new theme for Russian officials, Bordyuzha's comments contained an unusual amount of detail. From the CSTO's account of the event:
Bordyuzha said that the West is guilty of destablizing the situation in the CSTO countries. He said that evidence of this was a "disproportionate increase in the numbers of officials in Western embassies, especially those of the U.S." as well as "the activization of the work of the many NGOs financed by Western grants."

Bordyuzha said that several years before the change of government in Ukraine the staff of the American embassy in Kiev grew to almost 1,500 workers. "The emergence and development of hotbeds of conflict in the CSTO space in most cases is connected with the activization of external influences," Bordyuzha said. "The West crudely interferes in the internal affairs of other governments, trying to manipulate public opinion, economically and financially affecting the government and population."

Bordyuzha didn't specify which countries are being targeted but it is safe to say that Kyrgyzstan is on the list. As highlighted last month, Russia has been steadily strengthening its foothold in Kyrgyzstan in recent years, culminating in the closure of the U.S. air base at Manas International Airport in summer of this year. This was a heavy blow for the U.S., which has set up a not-so-secret intelligence-gathering operation in southern Kyrgyzstan to retain at least some military presence in the strategically located country. Furthermore, Washington is relying on its countless "non-governmental" organizations to wield influence in Kyrgyzstan and U.S. ambassador Pamela Spratlen emphasized lately that the U.S. is not going to leave the Central Asian state to the Russians without a fight:
U.S. Ambassador To Kyrgyzstan Warns Of Russian Influence

The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan says that the Central Asian state's "growing partnership with Russia" presents a challenge to U.S. efforts to support democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

In an article published on the website of the Council of American Ambassadors, Pamela Spratlen said the "strong partnership" that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has forged with Russian President Vladimir Putin "has had its impact on our efforts."

Kyrgyzstan has seemed to follow Moscow's lead on several issues recently, including drafting laws that legitimize discrimination against homosexuals and would require foreign-based organizations to register as "foreign agents."
American NGOs are currently under high scrutiny in Kyrgyzstan and the activities of the U.S. State Department's TechCamp project have even aroused fears of a Kyrgyz Maidan. CIA/State Department front organization Freedom House was forced to suspend its activities and to close its office in the city of Osh after its survey among ethnic Uzbeks in Osh was met with fierce opposition. According to local residents, the questions related directly to the ethnic clashes, which rocked the region in 2010, and were aimed at inciting ethnic hatred. Freedom House is of course protesting its innocence and trying to file a complaint about the actions of the security services. Multi-billionaire and NGO master George Soros can perhaps put in a good word for Freedom House with the Kyrgyz authorities when he makes one of his extremely rare visits to Kyrgyzstan later this month:
Billionaire George Soros to visit Kyrgyzstan

Billionaire George Soros will visit Kyrgyzstan, the Executive director of "Soros - Kyrgyzstan" Fund Shamil Ibragimov said to 24.kg news agency.

According to him, the American financier will arrive in the country for one day (allegedly on November 17) in the framework of a trip to the Eurasian region. He will examine the work of his foundation in the Kyrgyz Republic, as well as visit the AUCA.

Last time George Soros visited Bishkek about 10 years ago, back in the presidency of Askar Akayev.

"Isolated" Russia, China Push Eurasian Integration

The Kremlin would be well-advised to keep a very close eye on the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and the activities of the various "foreign agents." Russia has already lost one potential member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) due to a Western-instigated putsch in Ukraine and it is easily conceivable that the West could try to torpedo Kyrgyzstan's accession to the newly created economic bloc, which will go into effect at the start of next year. Although the economic war against Russia is leaving its marks, for example in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Moscow doesn't have a hard time finding new partners for the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry told RIA Novosti this week that Egypt is considering joining the Customs Union and India is also interested in closer cooperation with the economic bloc:
India, Russia agree on negotiations for FTA

For the first time India and Russia have agreed on negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India & the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan & Russia.

As The Hindu had reported earlier, the agreement marks the first FTA negotiations initiated by the NDA government, and discussed by visiting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during the 20th session of India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission (IRIGC) in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Mr. Rogozin also co-chaired the eighth India-Russia Forum for Trade and Investments, an active business forum between the two countries, along with the Minister of State for Commerce & Industries Nirmala Sitharaman.
Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin is an outspoken proponent of Russia's pivot to Asia and he lauded the India-Russia Forum by tweeting: "This is how businessmen respond to Western sanctions." Rogozin, who is seen by some as a potential successor of President Vladimir Putin, visited India for the second time in five months to finalize the joint "economic vision" package, which will be unveiled during Putin's trip to India next month. Russia and India are looking to boost their trade and economic ties so that they eventually match the strong political ties between the two countries. But before Putin and Indian President Narendra Modi get to unveil their joint economic vision package, the Russian President wrapped up yet another major deal with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Even the wannabe cold warriors who are still promoting a "revived strategy of containment" will have to realize at some point that the West cannot isolate Russia. The only question is how many more energy deals Russia and China will have to sign before this happens:
​Putin, Xi Jinping sign second mega gas deal on new gas supply route

President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have signed a memorandum of understanding on the so-called “western” gas supplies route to China. The agreement paves the way for a contract that would make China the biggest consumer of Russian gas.

Russia’s so-called “western” or "Altay" route would supply 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year to China.

The new supply line comes in addition to the “eastern” route, through the “Power of Siberia” pipeline, which will annually deliver 38 bcm of gas to China. Work on that pipeline route has already begun after a $400 billion deal was clinched in May.
© Photo AFP/How Hwee Young

Neither the new mega gas deal nor the fact that Putin and Xi were also discussing the possibility of payment in Chinese yuan, including for defense deals, bode well for the U.S. and Europe. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev used yesterday's celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to warn that Europe "will be weakened and become irrelevant" if the new Cold War continues and the latest gas deal is a perfect example of this. As previously discussed, Europeans will be on the losing end if Russia becomes a swing natural gas supplier between Europe and Asia and "it will be a dream situation for Russia but [it] will be a nightmare for Europe" if the Altai project materializes. China on the other hand has profited from the new Cold War and continues striking one deal after another. The New Silk Road economic belt is making progress and China is prepared to spend huge sums to finance the construction of infrastructure linking its markets to three continents:
China to establish $40 billion Silk Road infrastructure fund

China will contribute $40 billion to set up a Silk Road infrastructure fund to boost connectivity across Asia, President Xi Jinping announced on Saturday, the latest Chinese project to spread the largesse of its own economic growth.

China has dangled financial and trade incentives before, mostly to Central Asia but also to countries in South Asia, backing efforts to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once carried treasures between China and the Mediterranean.

The goal of the fund is to "break the connectivity bottleneck" in Asia, state media quoted Xi as saying during a meeting in Beijing with leaders from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Tajikistan.