Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #90

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.

With all eyes focused on Ukraine, recent developments in the South Caucasus have gone largely unnoticed but tensions are running high on Russia's southern border as well. Not everyone is fond of NATO's relentless expansion into post-Soviet space. Contrary to what Western media would have you believe, "it's NATO that's empire-building, not Putin" and some people are having second thoughts about joining "an aggressive military bloc." Georgian businessman and parliamentarian Gogi Topadze, leader of one of the parties of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, suggested a few days ago that it might be better to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Predictably, it didn't take long before some of the most influential Georgian NGOs, including George Soros' Open Society Georgia Foundation, launched a petition against Topadze's "anti-Western statements." As members of the Georgian government never grow tired of emphasizing, Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration is irreversible. The next step on this path is a NATO training center. But for some inexplicable reason, this doesn't go down particularly well in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov recently cited NATO's activities in Georgia and Tbilisi's refusal to sign a document on the non-use of force against South Ossetia and Abkhazia as key reasons for signing a wide-ranging alliance and integration treaty with Russia:
Putin signs treaty integrating South Ossetia into Russia

Russia tightened its control Wednesday over a second breakaway region of Georgia, with President Vladimir Putin and the leader of South Ossetia signing a new treaty that calls for nearly full integration.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili denounced the signing as a "destructive" move against his nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity and said it would further exacerbate tensions. The United States, the European Union and NATO also strongly condemned the signing.

Under the agreement signed Wednesday in the Kremlin, South Ossetia's military and economy are to be incorporated into Russia's. The treaty also promises to make it easier for South Ossetians to get Russian citizenship and to raise salaries for civil servants and state pensions.
© Photo RIA Novosti/Aleksey Nikolskyi

Saakashvili Launches Maidan To Topple Georgian Government

The signing of the treaty had been postponed due to the much-discussed 10-day disappearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which prompted speculation that Putin might be "too busy to annex South Ossetia," but on the one year anniversary of the "annexation" of Crimea, the Russian leader eventually found the time to "annex" South Ossetia. Although Tibilov stressed that joining Russia is currently not on the agenda, Georgian and Western officials made a fuss about the treaty and the Georgian opposition used the opportunity to accuse the Georgian authorities again of being too weak. Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and his minions have repeatedly criticized the "inaction" of the "pro-Russian" government in Tbilisi despite all evidence to the contrary. In Kiev, Saakashvili can now act out his dreams of fighting another war against evil Russia. And while he is waiting for U.S. weapons and fantasizing about an imminent Russian invasion, Saakashvili is plotting his return to Georgia. Inspired by the Maidan coup, the former Georgian leader and his party decided to exploit the currency crisis in Georgia in order to launch their own little Maidan:
Thousands in Georgia march call for government to step down

Tens of thousands of Georgians joined a protest rally Saturday in the ex-Soviet republic's capital Tbilisi to demand the government's resignation, claimed it has mishandled the battered economy.

Protesters packed Tbilisi's central Freedom Square after being called onto the streets by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), before marching towards the State Chancellery building, the seat of government.

Saakashvili addressed the rally by video link from Brussels as the cheering crowd chanted his name.

"We are united by our shared task to liberate Georgia from the government which destroys our country," Saakashvili said in an emotional address.
© Photo Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

Just as was the case in Ukraine, the organizers of the "Georgian Maidan" spared no expense to bring protesters to the capital but it appears that Saakashvili's UNM won't be able to repeat the "success" of the Euromaidan. For one, Saakashvili and his party face a lot of opposition in Georgia. As soon as the UNM announced its plans to rally in Tbilisi, activists of Georgia's ruling party took to the streets attacking the local office of the UNM in the western city of Zugdidi and on Saturday, there were again counter-protests. But the key reason why Saakashvili's Maidan is doomed to fail is that the U.S. and the EU don't support his plans. Washington and Brussels have no reason to topple the Georgian government - for now. Despite the lack of Western support, the UNM vowed to hold more protests until the government resigns. Furthermore, Saakashvili's party wants to initiate a no-confidence vote against the government. To this end, the UNM needs the support of Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats:
FD not to Join UNM’s Calls for Launch of No-Confidence Vote Against Govt

Irakli Alasania, leader of opposition Free Democrats, said his party, which holds eight seats in the Parliament, will not join UNM parliamentary minority group’s initiative to launch no-confidence vote against the government.

“Ivanishvili and Saakashvili need each other for scaring people with each other. Georgia’s future needs none of them. Georgia needs development and not the return in Saakashvili’s past,” Alasania said. “Those people who rallied [at UNM-organized anti-government demonstration on March 21] were expressing general spirit in Georgia that [government’s] inaction caused backsliding. Soon we will present our plan of economic development and we will have our agenda in the parliament and we will not support their [UNM’s] initiative in this particular case.”

Alasania, Georgia’s ex-defense minister, made remarks while speaking with Georgian journalists in Brussels, where he met NATO Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow.
Apart from Kiev, Brussels is apparently the place to be for former Georgian officials. Considering that Alasania is the darling of Washington and Brussels, his refusal to team up with Saakashvili clearly indicates that the U.S. and the EU have other ideas than Saakashvili. The former Georgian president should have asked his friends in Brussels what they think of his plans when he addressed the crowd in Tbilisi from the Belgian capital. Perhaps the success of the Maidan has gone to Saakashvili's head. Thanks to his friends in the West, Saakashvili is free to fuel the conflict with Russia and to plot toppling democratically elected governments instead of sitting behind bars but his crimes have not been forgotten and it is doubtful that he can return to his home country anytime soon. The Georgian authorities make sure that even young pupils learn everything about "Saakashvili's bloody regime" and Tbilisi has not given up on prosecuting the former president as well as his associates:
Georgia modifies charges against five ex-officials including Saakashvili

The Georgian Prosecutor General’s Office on Saturday modified the charges against five former high officials, including ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.

In Saakashvili’s and former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili’s cases, the charges were clarified, but when it comes to former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, former Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, the charges were made more serious.

Azerbaijan: Pipelines, Failed Conquests & Russian Weapons

Although the last few days in Georgia have been very eventful, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili found the time to travel to the Turkish city of Kars, where he met with his counterparts from Turkey and Azerbaijan. The three presidents attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which aims to carry gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II field in the Caspian Sea through Georgia and Turkey to Europe. Margvelashvili hailed the project as "a good example of fruitful regional cooperation." TANAP is an essential part of the Southern Gas Corridor but the first gas shipments will be destined only for Turkey until 2020, when the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is expected be completed. TANAP and TAP play a decisive role in Washington's und Brussels' plans to lessen European dependence on Russian gas. That is one of the reasons why Turkey prioritizes the construction of TANAP over the construction of Russia's Turkish Stream pipeline project: 
Construction of Tanap pipeline begins in Turkey as EU and Russia spar for upper hand 
A long awaited plan by the European Union to import Caspian gas moved forward this week as construction work began on the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (Tanap) in Turkey. Tanap is the central link in the EU-backed Southern Gas Corridor, a jigsaw of existing and planned pipelines designed to diversify Caspian energy export routes and reduce European dependence on Russian gas.

Estimated to cost $10bn, Tanap will tie into the existing South Caucasus pipeline that already supplies Azerbaijani gas to Georgia and east Turkey, and transport gas over a distance of 1,850km to Turkey’s western border with the EU. From there, gas is expected to enter the planned Trans-Adriatic Pipeline crossing Greece and Albania to Italy.

Turkey and Azerbaijan are the driving forces behind the TANAP and TAP pipeline projects, which are of strategic importance for both countries. Even as some companies have pulled out of the projects due to soaring costs and delays, Ankara and Baku kept on pushing the construction of the pipelines in accordance with instructions from Washington and Brussels. It remains to be seen if this will pay off but it is safe to say that the close cooperation in the energy sector has cemented ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan. As frequently discussed, Turkey is Azerbaijan's closest ally and Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev often turns to his buddy Erdogan when he needs support. During his visit to Kars, Aliyev used the opportunity to stir up hatred against a common enemy - "the invader Armenia, that is laying down groundless claims against Turkey and Azerbaijan." The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated a few times in recent months and shortly after Aliyev gave this bellicose speech in Kars, Azerbaijani forces launched another attack:
Armenian soldiers killed in clashes with Azeri troops near Karabakh

At least three Armenian soldiers were killed and four wounded in clashes with troops from Azerbaijan on Thursday near the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, but the two sides gave conflicting death tolls and disputed who was to blame.

Renewed violence this year along the border area has underlined the risk of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus, which is crossed by oil and gas pipelines.

The separatist region's defense ministry said in a statement that three Armenian soldiers had died after Azeri commandos attacked their position. "The Armenian side forced the enemy to escape after a two hour clash," the statement said.
The attack appears to have failed miserably. According to the Armenian side, 14 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed. As the Armenians picked up the Israeli gear left behind, Azerbaijan's notoriously unreliable Defense Ministry tried to win the propaganda war by claiming that 20 Armenian soldiers had been killed and wounded. Both sides regularly exaggerate the casualties of the enemy but in contrast to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh release the names of their dead soldiers. The propaganda war is currently Armenia's least problem. Yerevan is primarily worried about Azerbaijan's arms procurement binge and where these weapons are coming from. A recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) highlighted that Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years and that 85 percent of these arms imports came from Russia. Armenia has long complained that its strategic ally is supplying its arch-enemy with weapons and the SIPRI report is adding fuel to the fire:
Armenia leader: Russia's selling weapons to Azerbaijan is a problem

President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan thanked Russia for the support that the country has provided to Armenia since independence.

Speaking during a media forum in Yerevan, he said military and technical cooperation plays a great role in relations with Russia.

“In this term, we are concerned about the fact that Russia, due to different reasons, is selling weapons to Azerbaijan, and the problem is not the quality of weapons, but the fact that an Armenian soldier standing on the border realizes that they are trying to kill him from Russian weapons,” President said during “At the Foot of Mount Ararat” media forum.

Putin Pushes EEU Integration As Kyrgyzstan Fears "Ukrainian Scenario"

Not long ago, Russia's arms supplies to Azerbaijan aroused a heated discussion in Armenia after Azerbaijan had shot down an Armenian helicopter - presumably with a Strela air-defense system supplied by Russia. Armenia's loyalty to Russia has been put to the test several times in recent months but despite all differences, Yerevan decided to cement its ties with Moscow by joining the EEU at the beginning of this year. Given the fact that Armenia's EEU experience has been disappointing to say the least, one wonders whether Yerevan is already regretting this decision. Armenian officials downplayed the importance of Armenia's absence at the recent EEU summit but some questions remain. As Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbyev aptly remarked, the EEU "is living through a difficult period." Unperturbed by the difficulties, Russian President Putin is expediting the development of the Russia-led trade bloc:
Russia's Putin calls for regional currency union

President Vladimir Putin proposed on Friday creating a regional currency union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russia's partners in a political and economic union made up of former Soviet republics.

Putin made his proposal at a meeting with the Belarussian and Kazakh presidents which highlighted the challenges facing the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union following the fall in global oil prices and the decline of the Russian rouble.

"The time has come to start thinking about forming a currency union," Putin said after the talks in the Kazakh capital Astana with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

So far, the remaining EEU members have been less enthusiastic about creating a common currency. Lately, there has been some support for this idea in Belarus but others are still not convinced of Putin's proposal. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz government is beating the big drum for joining the EEU. In May, Kyrgyzstan will become the next member of the trade bloc unless the U.S. manages to topple the government in the next few weeks. That seems to be the task of color revolution expert Richard Miles who was recalled from retirement and appointed as charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy to Bishkek until a new ambassador is confirmed by the Senate. In the last few months, there have been some indications that Washington is planning a Kyrgyz Maidan and Richard Miles' arrival in the country adds to the list of suspicious activities. His track record is well known, even in Kyrgyzstan:
Protesters Rally In Front Of U.S. Embassy In Bishkek

Some 30 representatives of Kyrgyzstan's Communist Party and the Russian World Foundation picketed the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, protesting appointment of Richard Miles as the interim Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Kyrgyz capital.

The leader of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, Klara Ajibekova, attended the rally on February 27. She told RFE/RL that the arrival of Mr. Miles to the post was a "significant event" as "in every country, where Miles worked as diplomat, armed conflicts erupted," and therefore "we do not want Kyrgyzstan to find itself in such a situation."
Richard Miles assumed the position of interim Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, on February 13, as the arrival of Ambassador designate Sheila Gwaltney is still pending.
Kyrgyzstan has learned a lesson from previous color revolutions. Inspired by Russia's foreign agent law, some Kyrgyz lawmakers are looking to contain the influence of hostile "non-governmental" organizations before Miles & Co. launch a Maidan in Bishkek. A parliamentary committee recently approved a bill targeting NGOs that receive from abroad. The bill has been sent to other committees for further discussions. Kyrgyzstan's Justice Ministry stated last year that existing legislation was sufficient to deal with the threat but many people seem to disagree. A group of nationalist activists announced a few days ago the formation of the paramilitary militia "El Namysy" (The People's Dignity) to defend Kyrgyzstan from "foreign threats," which includes NGOs. One foreign threat that didn't make El Namysy's list and has long been tolerated by the Kyrgyz authorities are the Gülen schools in the country but Erdogan's fight against the Gülen movement has not gone unnoticed in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps somebody will take measures against this foreign threat as well:
Kyrgyz parliament suggests checking activities of all Turkish schools “Sebat”

Kyrgyz parliament suggests checking the activities of all Turkish schools "Sebat" in case of violations to close them. This was stated by the deputy Zhyldyzkan Dzholdoshova.

According to her, she read that the head of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan negatively spoke about these schools. "It means a lot. I believe that it is necessary to check these high schools. We must form a government commission or law enforcement agencies have to check it. Moreover, not only catering, but also what they teach our children," she added.