Monday, March 16, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #89

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.

Although it is still not clear who is responsible for the assassination of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov within sight of the Kremlin, it is safe to say that Nemtsov's killing has been a gift from heaven for Washington. Western media had solved the case before Nemtsov's body was cold: Putin did it! And even if Putin did not personally pull the trigger, the Russian President is still responsible for Nemtsov's death because he did create the "atmosphere of hate" in Russia, which enabled the killing. Neither the suspicious timing of the assassination nor the ensuing clan war in the Kremlin led Western pundits to rethink their assessment. But the Russian media's coverage in the aftermath of the murder has been hardly any better. Russian media put out several more or less absurd theories, from promoting the Charlie Hebdo angle to blaming the Nemtsov killing on the inept Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) or the new leader of the "Chechen rebels" fighting for Kiev in the Donbass:
Pro-Kremlin Newspaper Spins Conspiracy Theory That Nemtsov Was Killed By Pro-Kiev Chechen

Two weeks after the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) has revived a claim first floated a few days after his death and then abandoned - that Adam Osmayev, a pro-Kiev Chechen fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass, is somehow linked to Nemtsov's death.

KP says they have obtained an "exclusive interview" from an officer of the FSB who is in the investigation group for Nemtsov's murder. The unnamed officer "gave the name of the most likely contractor of the shooting of the politician [Nemtsov]."
© Photo AP/Pavel Golovkin

Nemtsov Killing Sparks Turf War Between FSB & Kadyrov

As previously mentioned, Adam Osmayev succeeded Isa Munayev as head of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion after the latter was killed near Debaltseve. Osmayev is famous for his ambitious plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin, which ended in a total disaster. Suggesting that Osmayev was behind the Nemtsov hit is ludicrous but for some reason Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) decided to revive this conspiracy theory. Initially, the FSB could sell a neat little version of events to the public: Zaur Dadayev, a devout Muslim and former Chechen police officer, killed Nemtsov because he was angered by Nemtsov's support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. However, the FSB version started to unravel very quickly when Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov praised Dadayev as a "true patriot of Russia," signaling that he doesn't agree with the narrative put forward by FSB director Alexander Bortnikov and his men. As it became clear that Dadayev was tortured into confessing to the murder, the FSB version fell apart completely and the turf war between the FSB and Kadyrov came out in the open:
Nemtsov Probe Exposes Widening Rift Between Kadyrov, FSB

The Boris Nemtsov murder investigation is the latest episode of an ongoing struggle between Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov — President Vladimir Putin's protege — and Russia's federal law enforcement officials, analysts told The Moscow Times on Wednesday.

The often brazen lawlessness with which Kadyrov's loyal forces have reputedly operated in Chechnya, across Russia and abroad has long been a sore spot for federal law enforcement agencies, according to Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"From what I can see, there has always been friction between Kadyrov and the federal forces, because Kadyrov only answers to Putin. This has irked people, especially since Putin awarded him the Order of Honor," said Malashenko.

Chechen Republic head Kadyrov can always count on the support of his mentor Putin but he has made several enemies in Moscow, including FSB director Bortnikov, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and his deputy Vyacheslav Volodin. Not everyone likes the fact that Kadyrov has become one of the most powerful men in Russia. His enemies appear to be using the Nemtsov murder to put him in his place. The FSB's clout in the North Caucasus has shrunk as Kadyrov's influence increased or as opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta put it, "law enforcement and the secret services have been repeatedly humiliated for the sake of 'political stability' in the Caucasus." The bad blood between the FSB and Kadyrov goes back several years but the security service is apparently determined to settle a score with Kadyrov now. Not only did they try to pin the Nemtsov assassination on Kadyrov, with curious timing, the FSB also leaked damning information to the press regarding another case:
"Novaya Gazeta": customers of attempt on Mayor of Khasavyurt are close to Kadyrov's retinue

The attempted murder of the Mayor of Khasavyurt Saigidpasha Umakhanov was ordered by people close to the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, said a source from special services of Dagestan, citing the testimonies of the residents of Chechnya, convicted in this case. Its figurants include Shaa Turlaev, a former adviser to Kadyrov, who is now wanted, and Adam Delimkhanov, an MP of the Russian State Duma, the "Novaya Gazeta" reports. 
The "Caucasian Knot" has reported that in March 2014, in Khasavyurt, the residents of Chechnya Ramzan Djabrailov and Badrudin Kachaev were detained on suspicion of plotting an attempt on the above Mayor Saigidpasha Umakhanov. On February 17, they were sentenced to 9 and 12 years in prison, respectively.
Adam Delimkhanov is a close relative of Kadyrov and he is Kadyrov's first choice to replace him as head of Chechnya if the Chechen leader decides to take up a new job in Moscow, which has been discussed for a while. The FSB seems to have other ideas. The question is why Kadyrov and his men are being targeted now - at an inconvenient time. After all, the U.S. deep state, in the person of Brookings president Strobe Talbott, made it quite clear to the Russians that they should brace themselves for a third Chechen war in the foreseeable future. Regardless of what one thinks of Kadyrov's methods, nobody can deny that he has done a remarkable job in Chechnya. Whether he overstepped his bounds and exported his way of solving problems to Moscow or the FSB played a more sinister role in Nemtsov's assassination to get rid of Kadyrov, is anybody's guess but the current turf war definitely plays into Washington's hands, which opens up another possibility. Neither Kadyrov nor the FSB flinch from killing people but there is a difference between going after Chechen "dissidents" in Turkey and shooting an almost irrelevant opposition figure right in the middle of Moscow:
Russian intelligence agency accused of poisoning Chechens in Istanbul

A Chechen activist has died in Istanbul after being hospitalized with his family members for food poisoning, as some of his relatives and Turkish activists accuse the Russian intelligence agency of poisoning wild garlic sent to him from Chechnya.

During the funeral ceremony at Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque on March 3, several of Saduev’s relatives claimed “the Russian intelligence poisoned him like former KGB agent Alexendar Litvinenko and Arab fighters in Chechnya.”

The head of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH), a conservative NGO in Turkey, said during the funeral that he also thought the Russian intelligence agency was behind Saduev’s death. “I’m addressing my Chechen brothers: Be very careful, no one among you is safe. Be careful of what you eat and where you go,” İHH head Bülent Yıldırım said, claiming Moscow prepared “a new assassination list” to target Chechen dissidents in Turkey.

Tajikistan Worried About All Kinds Of Extremist Groups

It comes as no real surprise that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is worried about the health of Chechen "dissidents" in Turkey. IHH has long played a vital role in U.S.-NATO terror operations and knows full well that not all Chechens living in Turkey are as innocent as the Turkish authorities would have us believe. There are several reasons for Turkey's willingness to shelter "dissidents" from various countries but altruism is not one of them. The hospitality of the Turkish authorities is a thorn in the side of the respective governments, which have to get creative to eliminate their adversaries in Turkey. Poisoning appears to be a very popular at the moment, as demonstrated by the recent assassination of Tajik opposition politician and businessman Umarali Quvatov in Istanbul. Quvatov's wife, Kumriniso Hafizova, and her two sons were hospitalized and diagnosed with poisoning after the family had been lured into a trap by a fellow countryman and follower of Quvatov's opposition movement:
Three Arrested As Tajik Opposition Tycoon Buried In Istanbul

Hafizova confirmed earlier reports saying that on March 5, she, Quvatov, and their two sons had been invited for dinner at the house of Sulaimon Qayumov, a 30-year-old Tajik citizen who has been residing in Istanbul for several months.

Hafizova said that she, Quvatov, and their sons felt sick after consuming food offered by Qayumov and rushed out for fresh air. An ambulance eventually arrived at around 10:30 p.m.

When they were outside, Hafizova said, an unidentified man approached Quvatov from behind and fired a single shot to his head before fleeing.

The host Qayumov and two other Tajik men have been arrested in connection with the murder but mourners left no doubt that "the killer of Tajik opposition leader, martyr Umarali Quvatov, is dictator Emomali Rahmon." Quvatov was the founder and leader of opposition movement Group 24, which has come under increasing pressure in recent months. In October of last year, Group 24 was labeled an "extremist" movement and banned in Tajikistan after the group had called for anti-government protests in Dushanbe. Lately, the Tajik authorities went after members of the movement in Tajikistan and abroad. Although Group 24 did not pose a threat to the rule of President Rahmon, it would be premature to dismiss the possibility that Dushanbe had a hand in Quvatov's killing. Perhaps somebody was getting tired of sending extradition requests to Turkey. The Tajik regime prefers to eliminate any threat to its rule, regardless of whether the threat is real or not:
Russian Defense Ministry: IS Poses Threat To Tajikistan

In comments that are sure to exacerbate ever-growing fears of militancy in Central Asia, Russia's deputy defense minister has warned that militants from the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan pose a threat to Tajikistan.

Anatoly Antonov reminded reporters in Moscow on March 5 that the IS group already had a presence in Afghanistan.

Antonov said that the IS militant group posed a threat to Russia's partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance comprising Russia and five other post-Soviet states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The main threat posed by the militants is to Tajikistan, Antonov explained.
The Tajik authorities apparently agree with Antonov's assessment. According to Tajik intelligence, between 500 and 1,000 insurgents have appeared on the Tajik-Afghan border. Russian and Central Asian officials regularly exaggerate the ISIS threat but there is certainly some truth in the claim that fighters are massing in northern Afghanistan. Whether they sport the ISIS flag or belong to other groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is not Dushanbe's primary concern. What matters is that they don't cross the border into Tajikistan. The Tajik military is even practicing for an emergency. Over 30,000 soldiers from all cities and districts of southern Tajikistan participated in the recent military drills, which simulated an incursion from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. Not everyone shares the opinion of U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliot that Tajikistan is able to protect its own borders and Russia prefers to play it safe:
CSTO Says Troops 'Could Be In Tajikistan In Three Days'

The head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) says its military forces could be at the Tajik-Afghan border within three days if a conflict broke out there.

Speaking at a press conference in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, late on March 13, Nikolai Bordyuzha said CSTO forces could repel any threat emanating from the Afghan side of the border.

Bordyuzha said Russia is not looking to create a "second front in Tajikistan, but [Russia] would never permit the security of a CSTO member to be in doubt."

Afghan Chaos Panics Neighboring Countries 

While the Russian and Tajik authorities are keeping a close eye on the Tajik-Afghan border, the Turkmen authorities are doing the same on their part of the Afghanistan border. In contrast to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan was already forced to take action last year, when Turkmen forces "invaded" Afghanistan to repel insurgents. Ethnic Turkmens living on the Afghan side of the border are fed up with Turkmenistan's incursions but they will have to put up with similar Turkmen actions in the future, as some 2,000 militants from ISIS, the Taliban and the IMU are conquering more and more territory in Afghan districts just south of the Turkmen border. The militant groups causing trouble in northern Afghanistan include many foreign fighters. Dozens of Uzbek families have relocated to Faryab province after leaving Pakistan's tribal areas and the presence of Arabic-speaking jihadists in the area has fueled fears that ISIS is coming:
Turkmenistan Mobilizes Military Against ISIS Threat

Turkmenistan is undertaking the first large-scale mobilization of its reserve military forces since gaining independence, which government officials say is required to ward off the threat of ISIS forces gathering in neighboring Afghanistan.

That's according to a report in Central Asia Online, a Pentagon-funded news website known mostly for its sunny promotion of the activities of some of the world's most authoritarian governments. This report, even though it falls into that same pattern, is nevertheless pretty extraordinary for the fact that it gets several Turkmenistan officials to talk on the record, and some of them even disagree with one another.

"This is the first large-scale and serious ... mobilisation of reservists in the nearly 24 years of the country's independence," Defence Ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov told Central Asia Online, calling the number of called-up reservists a "state secret".

Many of the reservists are being sent to the Afghanistan border, where they are supposed to defend the country against the ISIS threat. If the situation on the border continues to deteriorate, it won't be long before the Turkmen government longs to return to the days when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. With U.S. and NATO officials celebrating the ISAF mission as a "great success," the Obama administration will have a hard time explaining why plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of the year are being abandoned and why it is necessary to keep most of the American troops in the country. Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are trying to end the violence in Afghanistan with diplomacy. After Beijing put out all the stops to convince the Pakistani government and the Taliban of restarting stalled peace talks, there has been some progress but many obstacles remain:
Exclusive - Secret meetings in Pakistan expose obstacles to Afghan peace talks

Days after word leaked that the Afghan Taliban had signalled willingness to enter talks to end Afghanistan's long war, senior representatives of the militant group visited Islamabad for secret discussions on the next step forward.

They left with a blunt message from Pakistan: the Taliban must end a rift between two top leaders, or talks might never get off the ground.

The two senior Taliban figures in question are political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who favours negotiation, and battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who opposes talks with Kabul.
At least Pakistan appears to be supporting the peace talks, which is most likely owed to Chinese pressure. Afghanistan's Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah revealed a few days ago that China had also played a more important role than previously known in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table. According to Abdullah, Beijing has held "one, two or three rounds" of talks with the Taliban in the past few months. China doesn't want to make the same mistakes as the U.S. and tries to deal with the mess in Afghanistan without sending troops across the border, although this is becoming an option as well. The Chinese authorities might have to resort to the military option if the peace talks fail and the violence in Afghanistan starts to affect China's Xinjiang region, which faces enough problems:
'China convicted over 700 for secessionist activities in 2014'

China convicted and sentenced more than 700 people for instigating separatism and terrorism last year, mainly in the Muslim-dominated volatile Xinjiang region where militants linked with al-Qaeda have carried out attacks.

The Supreme People's Court today said that 712 people were sentenced for instigating secessionist activities and participating in violent terrorist attacks, a jump of 13.3 per cent year-on-year.

In a report to the National People's Congress, Chief Justice Zhou Qiang said that those convicted were involved in 558 cases, up 14.8 per cent.