Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #102

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.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the entire country was widely celebrated in the U.S. and many other countries but not everyone welcomed the decision. Western media, which is more concerned about LGBT rights in Russia than in any other country, awaited eagerly how Russians would react to the ruling. The Washington Post was dumbfounded when influential journalist Dmitry Kiselyov and other prominent Russian figures didn't react as expected but fortunately Western journalists still got the reaction they were looking for. What went largely unnoticed is that Russians are not the only ones who see the U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a "big mistake." Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili assured his compatriots that he will do his best to prevent legalizing same-sex marriage in Georgia. This resonates with many people in his country. More and more Georgians are wondering whether Euro-Atlantic integration is really worth the trouble:
Spurned by the West, Georgians look to Russia despite past quarrels

In this fiercely pro-Western nation that fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, few thought the Kremlin could ever regain a toehold. But with the West backing away from Georgia’s path to E.U. and NATO membership after a year of conflict in Ukraine, pro-Russian sentiments are on the rise.

“More and more Georgians are feeling they haven’t gotten anything tangible from the West,” said Shorena Shaverdashvili, a prominent Georgian journalist. “There isn’t more love for Putin and Russia. It’s just a realization that we’re left face-to-face with Russia and we have to deal with it.”

“Georgia should be neutral, and it should be militarily free,” said Archil Chkoidze, the leader of Georgia’s Eurasian Choice, a coalition of pro-Russian groups that says it has nearly 16,000 members. Among the warnings about Europe that he passes to his members, he said, was that E.U. leaders are more concerned with cultural issues such as gay rights — deeply unpopular in a socially conservative nation — rather than the everyday lives of Georgian citizens.

 

Georgian Government Not Swayed By Rising Pro-Russian Sentiments

Western promotion of gay rights and NATO's refusal to grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) have contributed to a rise of pro-Russian sentiments in the country. Disappointment over the free-trade deal with the European Union is also a major factor. In June of last year, Georgia signed a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU as part of its Association Agreement. The result after one year is sobering. Georgian farmers are still struggling with EU food-safety standards and the benefit of the free-trade deal is debatable, to say the least. That is why support for signing the EU trade agreement is decreasing while support for joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union is increasing, as highlighed by a recent public opinion poll from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which shocked the West. The Georgian government has not been swayed by the changing public sentiment but it is becoming increasingly difficult for the West to reject Tbilisi's plea for NATO membership:
Georgia risks Kremlin fury with Nato overture 
GEORGIA has vowed to press ahead with its attempts to join Nato, in a move set to provoke a furious reaction from Russia, which is hostile to any further expansion of the alliance.

Tina Khidasheli, the defence minister of the former Soviet republic, said Nato was already “increasing its footprint” in her country and the next “logical step” would be an offer of membership.

Khidasheli’s call came as Nato defence ministers discussed a potential upgrade of the alliance’s collective nuclear policy for the first time since the end of the Cold War, after an announcement by the Kremlin that it would add 40 warheads to its already vast nuclear arsenal.
© Photo NATO

Georgia's first ever female Defense Minister has picked up where her predecessors left off. Since taking office in May, Khidasheli has already visited NATO headquarters in Brussels twice and she lost no time in signing a controversial air defense deal with France. This came as a surprise to former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who had claimed that he was fired because the government tried to prevent him from signing a similar deal. Alasania's sacking sent shockwaves through Brussels and Washington but concerns that this could spell the end for Georgia's NATO membership ambitions were completely unfounded, as Khidasheli's statement once again shows. The rise of pro-Russian sentiments notwithstanding, the Georgian authorities remain committed to Euro-Atlantic integration and support Western projects as best they can. A few days ago, Georgia hosted Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and the talks focused primarily on the Southern Gas Corridor:
Turkmenistan’s President Visits Georgia, Discusses Gas Transit Project

Energy projects, involving potential transit of Turkmen gas via southern corridor to Europe, were among the main issues discussed by the Georgian leaders and President of Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who is paying his first official visit to Georgia on July 2-3.

President Margvelashvili said that “this cooperation is beneficial” not only for Georgia and Turkmenistan, but also for “the entire region and for many countries in Eurasia.”

“Our joint transit and energy projects will make it possible to transit Turkmen energy resources to the European markets,” the Georgian President said.
Before Georgia can transit Turkmen gas to European markets, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will have to build the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. After Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan agreed to their maritime border in the Caspian Sea, proponents of the Trans-Caspian pipeline have again gotten their hopes up that the project will be implemented but Russia and Iran also have a say in this matter. Much to the delight of Turkmenistan, Georgia doesn't care much about what Russia has to say. In fact, the Georgian government loses no opportunity to support projects which are directed against Russia. Although the Georgian authorities are annoyed about the strong presence of former Georgian officials in Ukraine, they keep supporting the Kiev regime and turn a blind eye to the activities of former Georgian soldiers in Ukraine. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has done a tremendous job in luring other Georgians to Ukraine but not every one of his followers is up to the task:
Ukraine’s ‘Georgian’ minister resigns

Embattled Ukrainian Health Minister, Alexandre Kvitashvili, resigned Thursday after harsh criticism by the parliament, Verkhovna Rada and even by his former boss and current informal leader, Mikheil Saakashvili.

“The old system breaks down, bribery and other levies thrive in hospitals, and nothing has improved in recent years, but on the contrary, deteriorated,” Mikheil Saakashvili, the governor of strategic Odessa Oblast, said.

Ukrainian media quotes Saakashvili as saying that Kvitashvili, who held the same position of the health minister in Georgia during Saakashvili presidency, hasn’t been ‘aggressive and active’ enough to carry out necessary reforms.

Russia Rewards Armenia For Not Starting Another Maidan

As Saakashvili is showing Kvitashvili & Co. how to be more "aggressive and active," the U.S. government is making sure that the disgraced former Georgian President and his minions don't run out of money. In light of the developments in Ukraine after the Maidan Putsch, it is not difficult to understand why Russian officials and media were freaking out when they saw thousands of protesters gathering in the Armenian capital Yerevan. Although many protesters had made it clear that they don't want to follow the Ukrainian example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov deemed it best to warn the West against any attempt to spark a color revolution in Armenia by exploiting "Electric Yerevan." Armenian Prime Minister Ovik Abramyan also pointed out that the movement could be hijacked by forces whose real goal is destabilizing the country. In contrast to Lavrov, Abramyan was not referring to the West but rather to the Armenian opposition and he did have a point:
Armenian politician arrives at Yerevan's Baghramyan Avenue with EU flag (PHOTOS)

Paruyr Hayrikyan, leader of Armenia’s Union for National Self-Determination, arrived at Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue accompanied by several supporters, who carried the flags of Armenia and EU.

The protestors began to shout angrily “Go away!” and urged Hayrikyan to remove the EU flag. Protestors qualify this step by Hayrikyan as a provocation.

Responding to the journalists’ observations on whether such a step isn’t a provocation and won’t give a reason to foreign and specifically Russian media to present the protests in Baghramyan Avenue as Maidan, Harikyan said he’s not interested in that.

As protesters tore up the EU flag, they told Hayrikyan and his supporters in no uncertain terms: "Baghramyan is not Maidan, don't associate it with the latter!" That is exactly what the Kremlin wanted to hear. "Electric Yerevan" has made the Russian government very nervous. Moscow tried to appease the crowd by granting Armenia one concession after another but the protesters stood by their three demands, which can only be fulfilled by the Armenian government. Yerevan has merely offered to absorb the costs of the electricity price hike until an independent audit determines whether the planned price hike is justified. So the protests continued and Russia made another move. After granting Armenia a $200 million loan to buy Russian weapons, Russian defense industry sources leaked a few days ago to the press in Russia and Armenia which weapons the country might get:
Russia ‘Negotiating’ On New Missile Supplies To Armenia

Russia is reportedly holding negotiations with Armenia on supplying it with sophisticated Iskander-M missiles that would significantly boost Armenian defense capabilities in the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan.

“A contract has not been signed yet; negotiations are still going on,” the official TASS news agency quoted an unnamed source in the Russian defense industry as saying late on Thursday.

The source gave no further details, saying that “all information about such contracts is secret.”
Details are scarce but when the news broke, it created a stir in Armenia and abroad because the delivery of Iskander missile systems could have serious implications for the military balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Given that Azerbaijan is not capable of intercepting Iskander missiles, one would expect that the report caused an outcry in Baku but Azerbaijani media preferred to downplay the issue. AzerNews advised Armenia "to improve its economic situation rather than frivolously spending the money on its military" and Trend suggested that Russia is just trying to sell more weapons to Azerbaijan. This view was shared by an Armenian newspaper, which argued that Russia granted Armenia the $200 million loan to keep the arms race going and provoke Azerbaijan into buying Russian weapons for billions of dollars. Regardless of whether or not there is some truth to these claims, it is safe to say that "Electric Yerevan" has prompted some major developments despite failing to achieve its goals:
Police End ‘Electric Yerevan’ Protests, For Now

Riot police forcibly unblocked on Monday a central Yerevan avenue that has been the scene of a nonstop demonstration for the past two weeks against a controversial rise in electricity prices in Armenia.

Only between 100 and 200 protesters remained camped out on Marshal Bagramian Avenue when the police began dismantling their barricade. They went on to carefully disperse the small crowd.

No To Plunder, a youth group that launched the “Electric Yerevan” campaign, urged the protesters on June 28 to unblock Marshal Bagramian Avenue. Most protesters rejected the appeal. Nevertheless, attendance at the protests fell dramatically in the following days.

Turkey's Anti-China Propaganda Takes Its Toll On Uyghurs, Koreans

While Russia can stop worrying about the "anti-Russian" protests in Armenia, China would be well advised to keep a very close eye on the anti-Chinese protests in neighboring Turkey. As discussed in the last round-up, Turkey has been ramping up its East Turkestan propaganda in recent weeks. When Western media and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) started their annual propaganda campaign against China's "Ramadan ban," Turkey took the lead with media, politicians and other prominent figures all condemning "China's brutality in East Turkestan." The Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern" to China over Ramadan restrictions in Xinjiang and even raised the issue with China's ambassador in Ankara. Beijing was outraged and tried to set the record straight about the "Ramadan ban" but the anti-China propaganda was already having the desired effect:
Turks Protesting China Pick Random Chinese Food Restaurant, Trash It

Turkish protesters stormed a Chinese restaurant in central Istanbul Sunday, shouting anti-China slogans, flinging blue paint and dropping a “dead” baby doll on a table.

They were apparently protesting China’s bans on Ramadan fasting in the majority-Muslim region of Xinjiang. That region’s native people, the Uyghurs, speak a language related to Turkish, and some separatists prefer to call the region “East Turkestan.”

Sunday’s instigators were members of a small nationalist group, whose ideology, Turanism, espouses unity among the world’s Turkic peoples. In a rally outside the restaurant, they flew banners reading “Long Live East Turkestan,” and chanted the slogans “Down with Red China” and “Murderous China, get out of Turkestan.”
© Photo Reuters/Osman Orsal

Moreover, they beat the cook of the restaurant, thinking that he was Chinese. As chance would have it, the guy was a Uyghur Turk. The protesters were members of "Turancı Hareket Platformu," which seems to be affiliated with the Grey Wolves, the paramilitary youth wing of the National Movement Party (MHP). The far-right MHP finished third in the Turkish general election last month, winning more than 16 percent of the vote. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has been one of the strongest advocates of the East Turkestan independence movement. Recently, he was arguing with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about who has done more for their "Uyghur brothers." Given the history of the MHP and the Grey Wolves in 'Gladio' operations in Turkey, it comes as no real surprise that they are also playing a decisive role in Washington's East Turkestan project. A few days after the attack on the Chinese restaurant, anti-China protests erupted all over Turkey, once again led by the Grey Wolves:
Turks protesting against China attack Koreans ‘by mistake’

Turkish nationalists protesting China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims attacked a group of Korean tourists in the heart of Istanbul's old city yesterday, mistaking them for Chinese nationals.

The tourists were rescued by riot police, who fired tear gas to disperse the attackers, members of the notorious far-right Grey Wolves closely affiliated with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Video footage by Dogan news agency showed a distraught Korean tourist telling reporters: "I'm not Chinese, I'm Korean."
Judging by the scenes in Istanbul, the Turkish authorities will have to tone down the East Turkestan propaganda if they don't want Asians to get attacked on a regular basis. China's Foreign Ministry lost no time in warning Chinese citizens traveling in Turkey to stay away from anti-China protests, pointing out that some Chinese tourists have recently been "attacked and disturbed." As if the situation was not already tense enough, Radio Free Asia reported a few days ago that 173 Uyghur women and children have arrived in Turkey after being held in Thailand for more than a year. A Thai lawyer told Reuters that they had left Thailand on a "secret charter flight" provided by Turkey. Shortly after our old friend Seyit Tümtürk from the World Uyghur Congress welcomed the Uyghur refugees in Turkey, Beijing criticized Ankara for supporting illegal migration. The response from Ankara was not long in coming:
Turkey says to keep doors open for Uighur 'brothers', irking China

Turkey vowed on Friday to keep its doors open to ethnic Uighur migrants fleeing persecution in China, a stance likely to exacerbate Ankara's row with Beijing over its treatment of the largely Muslim, Turkic-language speaking minority. 

U.S.-based Radio Free Asia reported that 173 Uighur women and children had arrived in Istanbul this week from Thailand, where they had been detained for more than a year by immigration authorities for illegal entry.

Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic declined to comment on the report, but said Ankara would continue to welcome its "Uighur brothers", citing "cultural and historical bonds".