Monday, February 2, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #85

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.

Over the years, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has proved himself to be an excellent Twitter warrior. Aliyev regularly uses his favorite medium to blow his own trumpet and blast arch-enemy Armenia. So he started the new year by calling Armenia "a powerless and poor country," which "is not even worthy of being a servant." The conflict between the two neighboring countries over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated in recent months. Although international mediators have repeatedly called on both sides to work towards a peaceful solution, the clashes intensified again in January. On Thursday, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said it had shot down an Armenian drone near Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia dismissed the statement as "absurd." Despite all that, Aliyev is touting Azerbaijan as "an island of stability." Most people will also have a hard time agreeing with Aliyev's claims that "the fight against corruption and bribery is proving very successful" and that "no-one is prosecuted or arrested for a critical opinion in Azerbaijan." Baku's unprecedented crackdown on journalists, human rights activists and NGOs has drawn a lot of criticism from the West. Even "civil society" expert George Soros is deeply concerned:
George Soros urges President Aliyev to loosen his stranglehold over civil society

The Open Society Foundations are deeply concerned about the intensifying campaign against civil society in Azerbaijan, including the detention of several prominent human rights activists.

In April, the authorities targeted Open Society’s foundation in Baku, the Open Society Institute–Assistance Foundation. They froze the foundation’s local bank account and seized its computers, as well as questioned former employees. The Open Society Foundations dismiss any allegations of wrongdoing.

George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, met with President Ilham Aliyev in Davos, Switzerland, and urged the president to loosen his stranglehold over civil society and to end his harassment of legally registered charitable organizations.

Atlantic Council Working On Transatlantic Strategy For Europe's East

Aliyev knows full well that he is not in a position to defy Soros and the U.S. deep state, which Soros represents. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan will abandon its pro-Western course, as many people have suggested in recent months. Baku's friends in the U.S. are already trying to pour oil on troubled waters. This week, The Washington Times launched a marketing campaign for the Aliyev regime. The highlight was an article by former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives Dan Burton, in which he explained why "America and the rest of the free world need more friends like Azerbaijan." Burton is currently the chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance. He can look back on a long career as lobbyist for Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan and FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds included Burton in her State Secrets Privilege Gallery with good reason. Speaking of 'Gladio B,' former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, whose name might sound familiar to readers of The Lone Gladio, likewise urged the U.S. to pay more attention to Azerbaijan. It is well known that Aliyev's fiefdom in the South Caucasus is very important to the U.S. and NATO. The Atlantic Council's new strategy for Eastern Europe will definitely take this into account:
“Toward a Transatlantic Strategy for Europe’s East” conference held in Washington 
The Atlantic Council in partnership with the government of Latvia has hosted a conference titled “Toward a Transatlantic Strategy for Europe’s East” in Washington.

Head of the Azerbaijani Parliamentary delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Samad Seyidov attended the conference.

Mr. Seyidov jointly with Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia and Georgia, the Deputy FM of Ukraine and a Polish official participated in the “Toward a Europe Whole and Free" program.

Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia plays an equally important role in Washington's plans to create a Europe "whole and free," which means the consolidation of a unified Europe controlled by Brussels on behalf of the United States. Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili attended the Atlantic Council conference during her four-day visit to Washington, where she met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials. Moreover, Beruchashvili found the time to talk to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) about Russia's imminent "annexation" of South Ossetia. The Georgian Foreign Minister was referring to South Ossetia's new integration treaty with Russia, which is expected to be signed later this month. Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia's has already signed a similar treaty. Russian officials have assured that neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia will be incorporated into the Russian Federation but the draft of the South Ossetia treaty tells another story:
South Ossetia is the Next Crimea

Unlike the treaty of the same name that Russia signed with Abkhazia at the end of 2014, which underwent several re-writes, the draft of the South Ossetia treaty involves the transfer of huge amounts of sovereign responsibilities away from the de facto authorities in the capital Tskhinvali to the Russian Federation. These transfers are so comprehensive as to effectively signal the end of South Ossetia as an independent entity.

If this treaty is signed into law, South Ossetia will lose control of its military, police, border control, judiciary and education system. In short, all of the attributes of a sovereign polity, recognized or not. The immediate impact of this will be softened due to de facto Russian control, official or via infiltration, of many South Ossetian institutions, but writing such control into law is groundbreaking.
South Ossetia has been calling for much deeper integration for quite some time, which is not difficult to understand considering Georgia's actions. While Beruchashvili was meeting with U.S. officials in Washington and helping the Atlantic Council with its "transatlantic strategy towards Europe's East," her colleagues at home were also busy furthering Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration. At the beginning of this week, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili welcomed Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, who visited the South Caucasus to discuss Georgia's integration with the EU and NATO. And shortly thereafter, they hosted NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, who flew to Tbilisi to scout out prospective sites for NATO's planned military training center in the country. Vershbow hailed Georgia's "remarkable democratic and defense reforms" and stressed that the U.S.-led military alliance is "committed to have the training center up and running later this year":
NATO To Start Military Exercises In Georgia This Year

NATO's planned military training center in Georgia will start operations this year, a senior alliance official said on a visit to Tbilisi.

"Starting this year, we aim to hold periodic military exercises here in your country, with NATO Allies as well as with other interested NATO partners," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at a January 30 speech in Tbilisi.
 
The exercises will be held at a "Joint Training and Evaluation Centre," the establishment of which NATO and Georgia announced last September. A location for the center still hasn't been determined, but one of the items on Vershbow's agenda in Georgia was to scout out locations; Civil.ge reported that one of the candidates sites he visited was the Vaziani training range near Tbilisi.

Russia Vows To Support Tajikistan As ISIS-Taliban Rivalry Escalates

In light of NATO's activities in Georgia, Russia's "annexation" of South Ossetia makes perfect sense. Meanwhile, Russia is also trying to convince Tajikistan of closer integration. Moscow would like Tajikistan to become the third Central Asian member state of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) after Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which is expected to join the bloc in May. To this end, the Kremlin wants to exploit Tajikistan's dependence on remittances from labor migrants in Russia. Remittances from Tajik workers abroad make up about 50 percent of the nation's GDP. Given that Russia's new regulations disadvantage migrant workers from outside the EEU, the Tajik authorities will have a hard time rejecting EEU membership. Furthermore, Russia eyes closer military cooperation with Tajikistan. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov stressed this again during this week's visit to the Central Asian country, as he tried to assuage concerns about slow deliveries of promised military aid:
By providing assistance to the Tajik army Russia strengthens its own security, says Russian official

“Antonov noted that Russia and Tajikistan have no choice but to expand cooperation because they face common challenges and threats,” Faridoun Mahmadaliyev, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, told Asia-Plus in an interview.

“We realize that Tajikistan is our advanced post in the fight against terrorism and other challenges and threats,” Antonov said.

He further added that the Russian defense ministry would continue providing assistance to the Tajik armed forces.

Antonov stated that Moscow wants to strengthen the Tajik army as "an outpost of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Central Asia" and the strengthening of the Tajik-Afghan border was reportedly also high on the agenda during his meeting with Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon. Russian and Central Asian officials have recently sounded the alarm due to the growing number of insurgents in northern Afghanistan. Kidnappings along the Tajik-Afghan border highlighted that the threat has to be taken seriously. The four Tajik border guards, who were supposed to be handed over to Tajikistan last week, are still being held hostage in Afghanistan and two more border guards were lately wounded in shootouts along the frontier. Many of the insurgents in northern Afghanistan are believed to be Central Asian fighters belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or splinter groups, such as Jamaat Ansarullah. Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, raised a few eyebrows when he claimed that the jihadists are from the Islamic State (ISIS) but recent reports suggest that some insurgents have indeed joined ISIS and this has brought a new private militia into the arena:
“Marg” Group formed against Taliban and ISIS in northern Afghanistan

A new group calling themselves “Marg” or “Death” announced its existence in northern Afghanistan.

Dozens of members of “Marg” group yesterday went to the provincial council of northern Balkh province and announce their readiness to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Taliban in Afghanistan.

Marg Group claims that more than 5,000 people have announced their allegiance with them to fight ISIS and Taliban.
Balkh province borders Turkmenistan in the north-west, Uzbekistan in the north and Tajikistan in the north-east. The Central Asian regimes will be relieved to hear that a homegrown militia is now giving the Afghan security forces a hand. But perhaps the problem will solve itself. ISIS and the Taliban are not exactly on the same page. ISIS is trying to woo fighters away from the Taliban and wannabe Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called Taliban leader Mullah Omar "a fool and illiterate warlord." As mentioned last week, former Taliban commander and Guantanamo detainee Mullah Raouf Khadim was leading ISIS's recruitment efforts in Afghanistan but the Taliban lost no time in getting rid of the competition. It remains to be seen if this signifies the end of ISIS in Afghanistan. All indications are that the much-hyped terrorist group won't give up that easily. ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani recently announced the group's leaders for "Khorasan," which covers Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Tajikistan. Hundreds of Taliban fighters have reportedly joined the new branch of ISIS in Pakistan and the insurgents, who escaped Pakistan's Operation Zarb-e-Azb, are potential recruits as well:
Militants Driven From Pakistan Flock to Afghan Towns

Arab and Central Asian Islamist militants have moved into Afghanistan after a military offensive by Islamabad largely eliminated havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Afghan officials and local residents say, posing a potential new threat to the country’s already tenuous security.

At least 400 families affiliated with militant groups—including members of al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—crossed into Afghanistan in December and now live in the homes of locals in lawless parts of the country, Afghan officials say.

Afghan officials say these fighters aren’t engaging in combat, but their arrival comes as a robust Taliban insurgency confronts the government in Kabul. Islamic State, which occupies swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, has also sought a foothold here.

China Tries To Lure Turkmenistan With Surface-To-Air Missiles

ISIS's expansion into the region has apparently only just begun. The director of a Bishkek-based think tank told reporters last week that ISIS has allocated around $70 million to destabilize the situation in Central Asia and that the group's main target is the Fergana Valley, which spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These alarmist predictions should be taken with a grain of salt. The insurgents in northern Afghanistan give the neighboring countries cause for concern but they have not even crossed the border into Central Asia. Furthermore, Uzbekistan is perfectly capable of dealing with the threat. The Uzbek regime will put the 300 armored vehicles from the U.S. to a good use, regardless of whether that means fighting ISIS or crushing dissent at home. Only Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have a good reason to worry about ISIS, the IMU or whatever else the insurgents in northern Afghanistan like to call themselves:
Islamic State fighters appear on Turkmen-Afghan border

The presence of Islamic State (IS) fighters has been reported in the Almar district of Afghanistan’s Faryab province along the border with Turkmenistan, Radio Azatlyk (the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) reported on January 22 with reference to Afghan parliament member Gulmuhammed Rasuli. 
According to Rasuli, on January 21 in Kabul, heads of Afghanistan’s special services discussed the situation in the north of the country, and confirmed the fact of IS fighters’ movement from southern Afghan provinces to the north.

Rasuli was quoted as saying that black flags of the Islamic State seen in Almar villages inhabited by Pushtuns testify to the presence of IS fighters close to the Turkmen border.
As previously discussed, the presence of insurgents along the Turkmen-Afghan border prompted the Turkmen regime last year to "invade" Afghanistan and push the fighters back. The situation has been very tense ever since. Most of the insurgents, who are causing trouble on the border, were members of the Taliban or the IMU but according to Rasuli, several Taliban groups in the region have now joined ISIS. In contrast to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan cannot count on support from Russia or the CSTO because the country refuses to join the Russia-led military alliance or the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for that matter. Turkmenistan attaches great importance to its neutrality. This has advantages but also some disadvantages. As the security situation deteriorates, the Turkmen authorities might be tempted to turn to Russia or China for assistance. Beijing is already trying to lure Ashgabat with HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles but this begs the question why Turkmenistan would need surface-to-air missile systems:
Central Asian countries trade with China natural gas for weapons

China plans to sell HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to its Central Asian neighbors of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to reduce the price it has to pay the two countries for natural gas, reports Kanwa Defense Review, a Chinese-language military magazine based in Canada, on Jan. 25.

Since natural gas produced in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is vital to China's development, the country is willing to sell advanced weapon systems such as the FD-2000, an export version of the HQ-9 missile, to its western neighbors as a way to get better deals. Yet there is a catch. If China successfully convinces both nations to purchase FD-2000s, they will then have to purchase Chinese radars, early warning aircrafts and even fighter jets to coordinate with the air defense system.

From China's point of view, the deal makes a lot of sense but the Turkmen regime would be well advised to think twice about increasing its dependence on China even more given the fact that Turkmenistan is already heavily dependent on its strategic partner. If Iran goes ahead with its plan to boost domestic gas production and stops importing Turkmen gas, Turkmenistan's gas exports will depend entirely on China's demand. China received 25.86 Bcm of Turkmen gas in 2014, a 5.3 precent increase from 2013, but still less than the 30 Bcm/year agreed between Turkmengaz and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in 2007. It is doubtful that the two companies can adhere to their agreement to boost China's imports from Turkmenistan to 40 Bcm/year by 2015. With China about to import more Russian gas, Turkmenistan is under pressure to diversify its gas exports. As expected, the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline remains a pipe dream. Turkey and Azerbaijan think that they have found the solution but Russia will beg to differ:
Turkey and Azerbaijan want Turkmenistan to join Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline - Turkish FM

Both Turkey and Azerbaijan want Turkmenistan to be included in the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, an indispensable project for Turkey that will be completed within three years, Turkish foreign minister said Thursday.

Addressing a press conference after the trilateral meeting of foreign ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in Ashgabat, Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "TANAP is an indispensable project for us. We plan to finish this project in three years," reports Anadolu News Agency.
Cavusoglu said the secure transmission of the Azeri and Turkmen natural gas through Turkey to Europe was also discussed.