Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #101

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.

When the Armenian authorities reluctantly approved a request by the country's energy monopoly, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), to increase electricity tariffs from the beginning of August by 7 Armenian dram (1.5 U.S. cent), President Serzh Sargsyan and his government didn't expect that this could turn into a huge problem. They knew full well that ENA was trying to compensate for its losses, which had been caused by graft, but figured that the people would put up with yet another rate increase - the third one over the past two years. However, this time many Armenians decided that enough was enough. What started with a small sit-in in the center of Yerevan on June 19 soon evolved into huge protests on Baghramyan Avenue. As more and more people joined "Electric Yerevan," the government began to understand the gravity of the situation and tried to nip the protests in the bud:
Armenian Police Forcefully Disperse Yerevan Protesters, 18 Injured

Armenian police used force and water cannons to clear a demonstration in central Yerevan overnight after a standoff with activists protesting against rising electricity prices.

In the early hours of June 23, special police forces moved to disperse hundreds of protesters who spent more than nine hours seated in the street not far from the presidential compound.

The protesters insisted that their actions were peaceful and demanded that President Serzh Sarkisian revoke the decision made by state regulators to raise electricity prices by 16 percent beginning August 1.
© Photo PHOTOLURE News Agency/Demotix/Corbis

"Electric Yerevan" Sends Shockwaves Through Armenia & Russia

Yerevan police arrested 237 people but released all of them shortly thereafter. Much to the dismay of the Armenian authorities, the crackdown didn't have the desired effect. The protests continued and more people joined in. To make matters worse, Russian, Ukrainian and Western media tried to use "Electric Yerevan" to push their own agendas, thereby inflaming tensions in Armenia and abroad. The fact that ENA is fully owned by Russian energy company Inter RAO was neither lost on the protesters nor on Western media, which pointed out that the protests were not only directed against the Armenian government but, by default, also against Russia. Although many Armenians went out of their way to stress that they don't want to turn "Electric Yerevan" into a Maidan-style color revolution, Russian officials and media were not easily convinced and kept insisting that this is another Western plot:
Russian Officials See 'Color Revolution' in Armenia

Russian lawmakers said Wednesday that rolling protests on the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan could be the first stage of a "color revolution" similar to those that have toppled governments in post-Soviet countries including Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

"It's no use deluding yourself, all 'color revolutions' developed along these lines," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the International Committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, the RIA Novosti news agency reported Wednesday.

Other lawmakers compared the demonstrations to the collapse of a pro-Russia government in Ukraine last year, a process the Kremlin characterizes as a foreign-backed coup.
© Photo Karen Minasyan/AFP

Armenia has long been tipped as a Western 'regime change' target. Given that the country is Russia's only ally in the South Caucasus, it is hard to overstate the importance of keeping Armenia in Russia's sphere of influence. When Maidan mastermind Victoria Nuland and a high-level USAID official visited Armenia during their South Caucasus tour a few months ago, many people were already expecting the worst. So it came as no real surprise that Russian lawmakers believed "Electric Yerevan" to be the color revolution that everyone had been waiting for. It didn't help that the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia denied any U.S. involvement in the protests. Armenia's close relationship with Russia has been put to the test time and again in recent months. Russian arms deliveries to Azerbaijan and the murder of an Armenian family by a Russian soldier are still hot topics in Armenia. Therefore, the Kremlin deemed it best to appease the protesters by making some concessions:
As Protests Continue In Yerevan, Russia Concedes To Armenia On Soldier Murder Case

Russia has agreed to let Armenian courts try a Russian soldier accused of murdering seven members of an Armenian family after deserting Russia's major military base in the country. The move is a major concession by Moscow, and comes as large-scale street protests in Yerevan against Armenia's Russian-owned electricity company have been gathering strength.

On June 26, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with a Russian government delegation to discuss energy fees, the issue that sparked the Yerevan protests. But the scope of the discussions was apparently wider than that, and Sargsyan's office issued a surprise announcement after the meeting:

On top of that, Russia also apparently agreed to give Armenia $200 million in credit for arms purchases.
President Sargsyan thanked the Kremlin for helping him out but Moscow's concessions didn't stop "Electric Yerevan" and only whet the appetite of the protesters. Although the movement brought together many different people with different objectives and claimed to be leaderless, the protesters had agreed on three demands - the cancellation of the electricity price hike being the most important one. After initially refusing to listen to the demands, the government eventually offered to pay the additional costs until an independent audit determines whether the planned price hike is justified. Predictably, the protesters lost no time in rejecting the offer and vowed to continue the fight. However, ten days of protest have taken their toll on the people and a split within the movement has also played a part in contributing to the decline of "Electric Yerevan." So it remains to be seen in which form the protests will continue:
“No to Plunder”: Struggle at Baghramyan Avenue is politicized

The struggle at Baghramyan Avenue is already politicized, this is the reason “No to Plunder” initiative decided to continue their actions at Liberty Square, member of the initiative group Vaghinak Shushanyan told reporters.

“We are apolitical structure and we are dealing with the social problems, and our task is to cancel the decision to increase hike in electricity prices. This is the reason we continue our struggle at the square,” he added.

Vaghinak Shushanyan previously urged the protesters to leave Baghramyan Avenue for Liberty Square and turn it into a tent city, because the logic of the struggle requires it. He also said that there are provocateurs at Baghramian Avenue who are trying to transform their civil claims into political one.

 

Kyrgyzstan: Color Revolution Expert Richard Miles Caught Red-Handed

Fears that the protests could be hijacked have been dismissed as "Russian paranoia" but it is noteworthy that Western propaganda outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Hromadske.TV, are showing great interest in "Electric Yerevan" and have been embraced by leading figures of the movement. The Russian Defense Ministry is probably keeping a close eye on "Electric Yerevan." They are developing a manual on countering color revolutions. Depending on how the situation in Yerevan develops, they might be able to add a few pages to the manual. But Armenia is not the only post-Soviet state in Russia's sphere of influence which deserves closer attention. Since last year, Kyrgyzstan has seen a number of suspicious developments suggesting that the U.S. is trying to start a Kyrgyz Maidan. Only a few weeks after the controversy surrounding the delivery of 150 tons of "diplomatic mail" to the U.S. Embassy Bishkek, the U.S. is now again making headlines in Kyrgyzstan:
Scandal in Kyrgyzstan After Protest Organizer Seen With US Diplomat

A media scandal has broken out in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan following the posting of a YouTube video showing a protest organizer meeting with the American ambassador.

On Wednesday, a few dozen people organized by civil society and rights groups gathered in front of the presidential building in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, protesting a government initiative to hold a referendum which would make changes to the country's constitution. Protesters attached portraits of government officials with their faces crossed out to the presidential building's gates, and carried banners saying "Do Not Sell the Country!" and "Do Not Rape the Constitution."

But the scandal, which broke out on Wednesday evening, was over an anonymous YouTube video which showed protest organizer Nurbek Toktakunov, leader of local NGO 'Precedent', meeting with US Charge d'Affaires Richard Miles shortly after the protest.

Toktakunov tried to downplay the meeting by claiming it had been planned for a long time and had no relation to the protest. Regardless of whether or not that is true, meetings between local NGO leaders and American diplomats should always raise red flags - and even more when the American diplomat in question is Richard Miles. They don't call him a "genius of color revolutions" for nothing. Although Miles serves only "temporarily" as U.S. charge d'affairs in Bishkek until a new ambassador is found, his arrival in Kyrgyzstan was met with a lot of suspicion. Judging by the revealing video, which was presumably recorded by Kyrgyz and/or Russian intelligence, the fears were justified. Moreover, this scandal will reinforce Bishkek's decision to monitor the NGOs in the country. Despite strong opposition from the usual suspects, Kyrgyzstan's parliament recently gave the go-ahead for a 'foreign agents' bill:
Kyrgyzstan Passes 'Foreign Agents' Bill in Preliminary Vote

After stalling for almost two years, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has overwhelmingly passed a bill that will have a chilling effect on the Central Asian country’s vibrant civil society, if it becomes law. Local media reported that legislators voted 83 to 23 on June 4 in favor of the “foreign agents” bill.

The bill – which must go through two more votes in parliament before landing on the president’s desk – is modeled on a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that has been used to crack down on independent groups there. Kyrgyzstani rights activists fear that with Russia tightening its grip on the region, and lawmakers seemingly eager to please Moscow, the walls are fast closing in on free speech and other civil liberties.
Kyrgyzstan has indeed a "vibrant civil society." There are so many NGOs operating in the country that is difficult to keep track of all of them. The Ministry of Justice has already announced that it won't be able to carry out audits of the NGOs' financial activities, as proposed in the bill, unless its staff is being increased. Richard Miles was certainly relieved to hear that. Western opposition to the 'foreign agents' bill is not exactly grounded in a passion for democracy. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about possible attempts by the West to destabilize the country. Last month, Kyrgyz police detained as many foreigners in the city of Osh as they could find after mysterious text messages and rumors about an imminent revolution and interethnic conflict created a stir in the south of the country in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan riots. One of the messages said that the U.S. is distributing weapons to Hizb ut-Tahrir members, which is even more curious given the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir members usually refrain from using violence and focus on radicalizing others:
Hizb ut-Tahrir printing house found in south Kyrgyzstan

A clandestine press has been found at a house in Kara-Suu district, Osh Region, in southern Kyrgyzstan, which printed literature of the banned international religious and extremist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Osh regional police spokesman Zhenish Ashirbayev told Interfax on Friday.

The discovery was made during searches of the houses of eight local residents who were involved in propagating the ideas of the banned organization, he said.

For his part, a regional police source said that whereas a few years ago Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters received literature from abroad, now they can print all necessary material locally, having all the necessary equipment. 


WUC, Turkey Highlight "China's Brutality In East Turkestan"

While the Kyrgyz authorities are trying to prevent Hizb ut-Tahrir and others from radicalizing the population in Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese authorities are trying to do the same in neighboring Xinjiang. And just as the Kyrgyz authorities don't care if they send a few innocent people to jail, the Chinese authorities don't care if they violate a few religious traditions. Every year, as Ramadan approaches, China's so-called "Ramadan ban" is hitting the headlines in Western media and the NED-funded World Uyghur Congress (WUC) comes out of the woodwork to remind everyone that "this will only lead to instability and conflict." Never mind that only few people are affected by the ban and that thousands upon thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang are still openly celebrating Ramadan. As regular readers of the New Great Game Round-Up may recall, Western media and the WUC like to exaggerate when it comes to China's Ramadan ban but the Chinese authorities do their bit as well:
'Many Uygurs like to drink': Chinese academic defends beer festival in Muslim region

A Communist Party academic defended a government-organised beer festival in a mainly Muslim county ahead of Ramadan by saying that locals enjoyed alcohol, a state-run newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Islam prohibits alcohol but authorities in Niya county, in the troubled Xinjiang region, held a beer drinking contest last Monday, three days before the start of Islam's holiest month, with cash prizes of up to US$160 for winners, the Global Times reported.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for exiled group the World Uygur Congress, slammed the festival as an "open provocation" to faithful Muslims.

As usual, our old friend Dilxat Raxit, the WUC's Sweden-based spokesman, used the opportunity to slam the Chinese goverment. Just a few days earlier, Raxit had already criticized that China is stepping up controls on religious activities in Xinjiang ahead of Ramadan. Predictably, Beijing didn't listen to Raxit's warnings that "this will only lead to instability and conflict." Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of Ramadan, Uyghur insurgents attacked police with knives and bombs at a traffic checkpoint in the city of Kashgar. The ensuing clashes left between 18 and 28 people dead. Considering that these kind of attacks happen on a regular basis in Xinjiang, it was not surprising that Raxit's "prediction" came true within a matter of days but even some of China's allies wondered after the attack whether the WUC might have a point. The latest outbreak of violence in Xinjiang was also noticed in Turkey, where many Uyghurs have found a new home after leaving China:
Actors, academics and politicians decry treatment of Uyghurs 
After 28 people were killed in East Turkestan during the holy month of Ramadan, actors, academics and politicians in Turkey have raised their voices criticizing the Chinese government and calling for the freedom of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

In Ankara, the Ülkü Ocakları, a youth organization affiliated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), prayed at a funeral procession for those killed in East Turkestan, at the Mustafa Asım Köksal Mosque in Keçiören. Speaking after the prayer, Olcay Kılavuz, the head of the youth movement, gave a press statement where he declared that the red flag of Turkey and the blue flag of East Turkestan were equal.

Kılavuz also said that members of Ülkü Ocakları would resume their struggle in favor of their brothers in East Turkestan, until their last breath. He added that the government was keeping silent about the killings and ongoing oppression in East Turkestan.
MHP leader Devlet Bahceli echoed the remarks of Kilavuz and lamented on Twitter that "everbody is concerned about the fight between two terrorist groups in Kobane" but "nobody is speaking about China's brutality in East Turkestan." This didn't go down well with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took the criticism personally and responded in the usual manner. While Bahceli and Erdogan were arguing about who has done more to help "their brothers in East Turkestan," Turkish ultra-nationalists launched a campaign on social media promoting the "liberation of East Turkestan." As previously discussed, Turkey plays a decisive role in Washington's East Turkestan project. This has led to several disputes with China in recent months. The Chinese authorities tried to put pressure on Ankara by shedding some light on Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terrorism operations. And last but not least, they stepped up their efforts to prevent Uyghurs from fleeing to Turkey:
After Attempting to Join Her Husband in Turkey, Uyghur Woman Dies in Custody in Xinjiang

A young ethnic Uyghur woman detained by Chinese police in February while attempting to flee the country to join her husband in Turkey has died in police custody in her native Xinjiang, according to sources in the region and in exile.

Tursungul, 32 and described as healthy before she was taken into custody, died shortly after being taken to the Shaptol Township police station in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Peyziwat (Jiashi) county, a Uyghur living in Turkey told RFA’s Uyghur Service, citing sources in Xinjiang.

“She died within a week and was buried somewhere by the police,” said the man, who had successfully escaped to Turkey with Tursungul’s husband some time before.