Monday, December 15, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #79

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.

While U.S. President Barack Obama is still trying to convince the public that Russia is completely isolated, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid official visits to Uzbekistan and India, strengthening Russia's ties with the two countries. On December 10, the Russian President traveled to Tashkent, where he held talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov. Putin's visit was a show of support for Karimov ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan, which could get interesting for a change given that Karimov has not stated whether he will stand for re-election as president. Russian-Uzbek relations have been tense since the end of the Soviet Union and the Karimov regime has always been a difficult partner for Russia but the Kremlin is now looking to forge closer ties with Uzbekistan, regardless of who is running the country. The two presidents signed an important agreement, significantly reducing Uzbekistan's debt to Russia in order to pave the way for new loans from Moscow, which are intended for a particular purpose [emphasis mine]:
Russia Cozies Up to Uzbekistan With $865 Million Debt Write-Off

Russia on Wednesday wrote off $865 million of debt owed by Uzbekistan as President Vladimir Putin sought to bolster ties between the former Soviet republics during a one-day visit to the country, news agency TASS reported.

The agreement, which was signed in the presence of Putin and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov, freed Uzbekistan from almost all of its $890 million debt to Russia. Uzbekistan will have to pay just $25 million, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Wednesday.

Presidential aide Yury Ushakov said Wednesday that settling the debt issue will allow Russia to expand sales of arms and military equipment in the country, TASS reported.
© Photo AFP

Uzbekistan, India Welcome "Pariah" Putin With Open Arms

Uzbekistan hoped to profit from the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by getting leftover American equipment, such as Mine Resistant Armor Protected (MRAP) vehicles, but this didn't work out. Therefore, the Uzbek regime is now turning to Russia for new arms and military equipment and since much of the debt has been written off, Tashkent is free to go on a shopping spree. In exchange for freeing Uzbekistan from its debt, Karimov agreed to start consultations on a free-trade zone between the Central Asian republic and the Russia-led Eurasian Economics Union (EEU). Moreover, Uzbekistan's strongman leader praised Russia's stabilizing role in Central Asia and he asked the Russian President to help the 'stans in the fight against the "creeping expansion of militant extremism and religious radicalism" in the region. This issue was also high on the agenda during Putin's trip to India, where the "pariah" was welcomed with open arms by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who used the opportunity to express his condolences for the recent attack in Chechnya's capital Grozny [emphasis mine]:
Combating terrorism, stability in Afghanistan key areas of India-Russian ties, says PM Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday said the areas of priority for cooperation between India and Russia include combating terrorism and extremism; advancing peace and stability in Afghanistan; working together for a stable, balanced, peaceful and prosperous Asia Pacific; and cooperating for development in other countries.

"I conveyed my deepest condolences for the loss of lives in the terrorist attack in Chechnya. This also reflects our many shared challenges," Prime Minister Modi said in his media statement during the official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India.

"This is President Putin's eleventh Annual Summit and my first. This Summit reinforced my conviction in the extraordinary value and strength of this partnership. I am confident that our bilateral cooperation and international partnership will acquire new vigour and scale new heights in the years ahead," he added.
© Photo PTI

Russia's landmark military cooperation agreement with Pakistan didn't go unnoticed in India but New Delhi cuts Moscow some slack because the Russians cite the need to combat terrorism as one of the reasons for their closer ties with Pakistan. The strong strategic partnership between Russia and India is hardly affected by such minor points of contention. Washington learned this the hard way in recent months, as the Americans tried in vain to convince India of turning its back on Russia. Instead the new Modi-led government has moved closer to Moscow and Beijing. This week's 15th India-Russia Annual Summit showed that India wants to follow China's example in strengthening its strategic partnership with Russia. As previously discussed, the two allies seek to boost their trade and economic ties so that they eventually match the strong political ties. According to Russia's Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, the goal is to increase trade turnover up to $30 billion by 2025 and during Putin's visit to New Delhi, Russia and India took the first step in the right direction:
Modi, Putin discuss defence, energy

Russia will remain India’s foremost defence partner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday while announcing that Russia had accepted India’s offer to jointly manufacture light-utility helicopters.

India and Russia announced a $10-billion oil deal for Indian company Essar with Russian oil giant ROSNEFT to import about 10 million tonnes of crude oil over the next decade. The two sides also signed seven agreements on atomic energy, military training and health while Mr Modi and President Putin oversaw the signing of 13 commercial contracts.

The highlight of the meeting — part of an annual summit between the two countries — was the unveiling of a vision statement on atomic energy cooperation, where Russian nuclear agency ROSATOM and the Department of Atomic Energy and NPCIL have agreed to build at least 12 new reactors supplied by Russia over the next 20 years.
Furthermore, the two sides agreed to "scout and explore" for hydrocarbons in the Arctic shelf and to conduct a study exploring the feasibility of a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline from Russia to India. Much to the dismay of the United States, Putin announced that they also agreed to expand payments in national currencies. The Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Russia have already set up a joint working group to work out modalities for de-dollarizing the growing bilateral trade. Russia and India signed a number of agreements which won't go down well in Washington but one memorandum of understanding (MoU) is particularly interesting in this regard because it "aims to facilitate India’s deepening economic cooperation with Crimea." Sergey Aksyonov, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Crimea, accompanied Putin's delegation to New Delhi, which prompted the U.S. puppet regime in Kiev to lash out at India:
Ukrainian president slams India over Crimean leader visit

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at India on Friday over a visit by the leader of Crimea, the former Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia, who accompanied President Vladimir Putin's annual summit delegation this week.

India does not back Western sanctions against Russia, and the unofficial trip by Sergey Aksyonov could spoil the mood before Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosts U.S. President Barack Obama for India's Republic Day festivities in January.

Poroshenko, addressing the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney, said India was placing more importance on "money" than "values" by welcoming Aksyanov, and it was not standing with "civilization" against Russian aggression.

Insurgents' Families, Human Rights Activists Under Attack In Chechnya

Ukrainian oligarch turned president Poroshenko knows a thing or two about money and values and he is definitely a leading authority in the field of civilization considering that his regime is still waging war against the people in eastern Ukraine, who don't share Poroshenko's enthusiasm for neo-Nazis from all over the world. A few of Poroshenko's "civilized" pals are currently being investigated by the Russians for public calls for terrorist activities in Russia in connection with the recent attack in the Chechen capital Grozny, which left 26 people dead, including all eleven insurgents. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov suggested after the clashes that the attackers might have come from outside Chechnya but this was highly doubtful from the beginning and all insurgents have meanwhile been identified as residents of the Chechen Republic. This will only reinforce Kadyrov's decision to punish not only those who support the insurgency but also anyone who fails to prevent terrorist activities, even if that means evicting families who couldn't stop their relatives from becoming terrorists:
Homes Of Alleged Militants' Families Torched In Chechnya

Residents of Russia's Chechnya region say the authorities are carrying out Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov's orders to destroy the homes of relatives of alleged militants held responsible for attacks.

Residents of the village of Yandi said that masked men arrived in more than a dozen vehicles late on December 8 and set several homes on fire.

On December 6, after 14 policemen were killed in some of the deadliest fighting in the Chechen capital in years, Kadyrov announced that relatives of militants involved in killings would be evicted from Chechnya and their homes "razed down to the basement."
© Photo BBC

Anticipating that the harsh punishment of insurgents' families would draw a lot of criticism, Kadyrov made it perfectly clear that he couldn't care less about the "opinion of some people or the so-called human rights advocacy groups who watched in silence as NATO warplanes and militants trained by the West murdered millions of Muslims in Syria and Iraq." A few days after several houses had been burned to the ground, the Chechen authorities organized a large anti-terrorism rally in Grozny, reportedly attended by 50,000 people, in an effort to demonstrate that the population supports the persecution of insurgents' relatives. Following the rally, a group of masked men set alight the local office of the Moscow-based Committee to Prevent Torture (KPP), one of the last human rights groups still active in Chechnya. The group is headed by Igor Kalyapin, who appealed to Russia's Prosecutor General over Kadyrov's statements calling for relatives of terrorists to be held responsible and was shortly thereafter implicated by the Chechen President in organizing the recent attack in Grozny:
Chechen Republic Head Implicates Human Rights Defender In Grozny Attack

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has indirectly implicated Igor Kalyapin, head of Russia's Committee to Prevent Torture, in organizing last week's attack by insurgents in Grozny in which 14 police and security personnel were killed and 36 wounded.

In an Instagram post on December 10, Kadyrov claimed that a man by the name of Kalyapin channeled from Western intelligence services to Akhmat Umarov, the brother of former Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov, the funds to finance the attack by insurgents on Grozny. Kadyrov demanded a probe to determine whether the Kalyapin in question and the Kalyapin "who came to the defense of bandits and their relatives" are one and the same person.
Therefore, Kalyapin was also pelted with eggs during a press conference in Moscow two days before the Chechen branch of the KPP, the Joint Mobile Group, came under attack in Grozny. During the rally in the Chechen capital on Saturday, several signs in the crowd read "Kalyapin Go Home" and asked for Kadyrov to "protect us against the Kalyapins." Some activists of the KPP/Joint Mobile Group are now considering leaving Chechnya due to threats but the NGO wants to continue its work in the republic. Whether or not Kalyapin and his group have anything to do with the attack in Grozny, remains to be seen. As mentioned last week, the trail leads to NATO member Turkey, where Akhmat Umarov is living at the moment. Turkey is the place to be for aspiring terrorists but this week's assassination of a radical Uzbek imam, who promoted jihad in Syria, shows once again that life in Turkey is also increasingly dangerous because everybody knows where to look for the jihadists and their handlers:
Uzbek dissident assassinated in Istanbul, one arrested

An Uzbek dissident who was living in Turkey for around 12 years was assassinated in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district on Dec. 11, with a Chechen-origin Russian national being detained as the sole suspect. 

Abdullah Bukhari, 38, was working as a religious leader and was the head of the İhsan Learning Services and Solidarity Association in the Zeytinburnu district of the city. The Uzbek dissident was wounded in a gun attack at close range in front of the association building.

Bukhari had allegedly received death threats from Russian and Uzbek intelligence agencies and reportedly donned a steel vest whenever he went outside. He was attacked at a time when he was not wearing the steel vest, while he also reportedly did not inform any students at the association that he was going to the building.

Setting The Right Priorities In The South Caucasus 

According to Turkish media, Bukhari was one of four "dissidents" on a hit list, which was drawn up by Russian and Uzbek intelligence agencies three months ago. Interestingly, the Uzbek imam was assassinated on the same day as Putin and Karimov were meeting in Tashkent but that is perhaps just a coincidence. Be that as it may, on the same day, there was also a noteworthy meeting in the eastern Turkish city of Kars. The Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey gathered in Kars to strenghten trilateral cooperation between the three neighbors. Especially energy and transportation projects, such as the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, were high on the agenda during the fourth trilateral meeting since the launch of this format in 2012. Russia's decision to drop the South Stream project and redirect the pipeline to Turkey caused a great stir in Europe and some EU countries immediately expressed their concern that this could affect the implementation of TANAP but Turkish FM Mevlüt Cavusoglu put oil on troubled waters:
TANAP natural gas project is Turkey's priority: FM

The Trans Anatolia Natural Gas Pipeline, TANAP is Turkey's priority rather than Russia's last project proposal, according to Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
 
Cavusoglu spoke on Putin's announcement of the suspension of the South Stream natural gas project and his proposal for an alternative route through Turkey to send natural gas to Greece and to European countries.

"We signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia but it doesn’t mean that TANAP stays in the background," Cavusoglu said at a meeting with Azerbaijan’s Elmar Mammadyarov and Georgia’s Tamar Beruchasvili on Wednesday.

After Turkey and Russia signed the MoU on constructing a gas pipeline across the Black Sea, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasized that the deal was not binding and required more talks on the details. Ankara is admittedly interested in the project but the construction of TANAP, which is expected to start next year, takes top priority. With South Stream dead and no Iran nuclear deal in sight, Europe is left out in the cold and new gas supplies are desperately needed. The much-hyped Southern Gas Corridor is supposed to be the solution and the EU hopes to receive the first energy supplies from the Caspian region by 2019 but the construction of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is apparently taking longer than expected. Given that the countries of south-eastern Europe face several years of uncertainty, it is easy to understand why they have still not given up on Russia's South Stream project despite vehement opposition from Brussels and Washington [emphasis mine]:
EU turns to Azerbaijan for gas
The EU is considering plans for a new pipeline to enable gas imports from Azerbaijan. The push comes in the wake of Russia's decision to cancel the South Stream pipeline project.
EU Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic said Tuesday that a new high-level working group would be set up to advance the integration of central and south-eastern European gas markets and pipeline networks. As part of the effort, Sefcovic discussed proposals to link Azerbaijan's gas fields by pipeline with European markets.

The move is partly in response to the uncertainty generated by Russia's surprise decision to scrap the South Stream pipeline project that it had agreed with the EU. Several EU member states that had invested in the South Stream pipeline, or stood to benefit from it - including Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Romania and Slovenia - asked Sefcovic to reach out to Russia and discuss whether it might reconsider its decision.
While Austria, Bulgaria & Co. wait in vain for Brussels to prioritize Europe's interests over Washington's, Azerbaijan stands to benefit from the demise of South Stream. As Azerbaijan is becoming more important to the U.S. and the EU, the Aliyev regime knows exactly how to exploit its position, much to the indignation of Azerbaijani dissidents, activists, journalists and their friends in the West. In recent months, Baku made headlines with an unprecedented crackdown on critics and foreign-backed NGOs, raising the question of whether Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev wants to abandon his pro-Western course. According to Western media, the recent arrest of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who is working for CIA propaganda outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, proves that this is the case but it remains to be seen whether the close military and economic cooperation between NATO and Azerbaijan continues as before, or whether Ismayilova's arrest was really a breaking point:
Baku in the USSR? Azerbaijan could be set to abandon West and head East

Ismayilova’s arrest is seen by many in Baku as a breaking point in Aliyev’s attempts to align Azerbaijan with the West. In an interview he gave two weeks ago to a Russian news channel, he accused the West of having encouraged the emergence of the Islamic State with its “policies in the Middle East over the last decade.” 

His words echoed the Kremlin’s position that the United States and European Union are responsible for the rise of ISIS (also known as ISIL) by supporting the rebels fighting the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. 

Until very recently, Azerbaijan saw President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a hostile force trying to undermine its pro-Western policy and supporting neighboring Armenia in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Now, Aliyev is praising Moscow and saying that “Azerbaijan and Russia are two neighboring friendly countries which are developing together and are ready to face world challenges.”