Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #104

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.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is now fighting on multiple fronts after the neo-Nazis from Pravyi Sektor recently turned their attention from the evil Russkies to the regime in Kiev. As the west of the country descends into chaos as well, the Odessa region under the leadership of Poroshenko's buddy Mikheil Saakashvili is becoming Kiev's showcase project. Odessa is supposed to show the world that Ukraine is headed in the right direction and the former Georgian President and his minions are tasked with guiding "Ukraine's reforms path away from Russia." After bringing in several of his compatriots, Saakashvili is now looking for other "talents" to improve his team. The 25-year-old Euromaidan activist Yulia Marushevska, who became famous for her appearance in the "I Am a Ukrainian" propaganda video, was the obvious choice and Saakashvili's next appointment was even more fitting:
Russian shock therapy reformist's daughter to work for Saakashvili

Chairman of Odesa Regional State Administration Mikheil Saakashvili on Friday introduced as his new deputy the Russian opposition politician, journalist, social activist Maria Gaidar, who is a daughter of Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the controversial shock therapy reforms in post-Perestroika Russia, according to local news portal Dumskaya.

"All Ukrainians, all Europeans and all Russians are looking at Odesa. The successful changes in Odesa will influence the situation in the world," Gaidar said, Dumskaya wrote.

According to Saakashvili, she will be in charge of social issues. Her official appointment should be enacted by President Petro Poroshenko in the near future.
© Photo Gazeta.Ru

Saakashvili Fans Try to Exploit Georgian Border Woes 

If Maria Gaidar wants to follow her father's example, Odessa is in for a rough ride. Former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar is one of the biggest crooks in Russian history. He played a decisive part in selling off Russia's assets to a couple of insiders and plunging more than 100 million people into poverty. That is why he is hailed as a "reformer" in the West. Ukrainian politicians and media were not enthusiastic about Saakashvili's latest appointment for a number of reasons, most importantly, Maria Gaidar failed the Ukrainian litmus test when she repeatedly refused to answer a journalist's question about who Ukraine is at war with. After realizing that she won't get very far with this kind of attitude, Gaidar reportedly corrected her mistake later during a press conference in Kiev. Saakashvili wants to ask Poroshenko to grant Maria Gaidar Ukrainian citizenship but she seems to be not entirely convinced of this idea. The fate of former Georgian und Ukrainian health mininster Alexander Kvitashvili serves as a cautionary tale of how fast the "Ukrainain dream" can be over:
KYIV BLOG: Black cash still oils Ukrainian politics

The circulation of black cash in parliament and government may also be indispensable to the system's functioning, as Ukraine's former health minister Oleksandr Kvitashvili, one of the so-called Georgian reformers, confirmed after his resignation in July.

According to Kvitashvili, government ministries such as the health ministry pay staff off-the-books dollar cash to boost their tiny official salaries. “I don't know where this money came from,” he told lb.ua in an interview. When he tried to break with the practice, employees fled the ministry, paralysing its work and prompting Bloc Petro Poroshenko, the party that had appointed him, to fire him six months later for “losing control of his ministry”.
© Photo Kyiv Post/Anastasia Vlasova

Appointing Georgian reformers is apparently not enough to change the rotten system but 'Team Georgia' won't give up and Saakashvili can use the opportunity to "set himself up as Ukraine's prime minister in waiting." For some inexplicable reason, some Ukrainians would prefer Saakashvili to go home but that is obviously not possible as long as the Georgian authorities are determined to put him in jail. Nevertheless, the former Georgian President is still hoping for a comeback in his home country. To this end, Saakashvili's followers from the United National Movement (UNM) party lose no opportunity to attack the "pro-Russian" government in Tbilisi. A few months ago, Saakashvili and the UNM even tried to launch a Maidan in Georgia but failed miserably due to a lack Western support. Fortunately, they have just been provided with another opportunity to point out that the current government is not doing enough to counter "Russian aggression":
Georgia Calls for Caution as Tensions Rise with Russia

As anger builds in Georgia over Russia’s latest alleged attempt to redesign the country’s borders, Tbilisi is urging Georgians not to let their emotions get in the way of attempts at rapprochement with Moscow.

“Let’s not be naïve and expect that some meeting will convince Russia to change its policy toward Georgia, toward neighboring countries,” commented Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s envoy to talks with Russia, after meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague on July 15.

The talks between Karasin and Zurab Abashidze, centered on tensions over Russian troops on July 11 snagging a piece of Georgian-controlled territory for separatist South Ossetia, and shanghai’ing a piece of BP’s Baku-Supsa oil pipeline in the process.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili took the same line and assured his fellow countrymen that Georgia will counter Russia's "provocation" through using all the available "international levers." Predictably, this was not good enough for some people. More than 3,000 Georgians gathered in front of the State Chancellery in Tbilisi on July 18 under the slogan "Stop Russia" to protest against Russia's "creeping occupation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to call for an end to "collaboration and cooperation with the enemy." Moreover, a group of activists and journalists staged a small anti-Russian protest near the South Ossetian border. They replaced a border sign with a Georgian flag, which was then immediately taken down by soldiers from South Ossetia. The Georgian government tried to defuse the situation by restricting access to some villages on the boder but the damage was already done. South Ossetia has vowed to retaliate against "any new Georgian provocations" and locals on the Georgian side of the border will have to pay the price for the anti-Russian protest: 
Locals unhappy about South Ossetia border protests
Locals gathered near the border with Georgia’s breakaway region South Ossetia on Friday to protest against the actions of a group of journalists who staged a protest a few days ago against Russia’s ‘creeping occupation.’

Russian border guards used to allow locals access to agricultural lands on the other side, but now they are not allowed to go there, they say.

“We have to harvest and we are now restricted from harvesting,” Interpressnews quotes one of the locals saying. “Let those people come here now if they are brave enough, sit with us on combines and help us harvesting if they dare to take such risk.” 

U.S. Finds Pretext for Staying in Afghanistan as Warlords Join Forces

In light of the deteriorating situation on the border, some people in Georgia were speculating about Russia's motivation for redrawing a section of the border. Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli was asked whether this could be a form of retaliation for the recent signing of two major arms deals in France but she rejected the idea and vowed to continue strengthening Georgia's defense capabilities. The "pro-Russian" government in Tbilisi wants to go ahead with the country's Euro-Atlantic integration despite all warnings from the Kremlin and rising pro-Russian sentiments in Georgia. As previously discussed, more and more Georgians are wondering whether it is really worth the trouble. Western promotion of gay rights doesn't go down well in the Caucasus and NATO's refusal to grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) has also left its marks. Georgians have a hard time understanding why their soldiers are still dying for NATO in Afghanistan although the U.S.-led military alliance is not willing to accept the country. About 880 Georgian soldiers are currently supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan and it doesn't look like as if the U.S wants the leave the country anytime soon:
Islamic State could trip up U.S. plans to leave Afghanistan

The emergence of militants in Afghanistan claiming allegiance to Islamic State could disrupt White House plans to remove the remaining U.S. troops in that country by the end of next year.

Islamic State has provided new ammunition to Pentagon and Afghan officials seeking to persuade the White House to reverse its decision to pull out U.S. troops. Their argument, in effect, is that Islamic State could grow and the same security collapse that occurred in Iraq could happen in Afghanistan if the U.S. removes its troops as planned.

Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Sunday that President Obama’s pledge to withdraw most of the 9,800 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 was made before the appearance of Islamic State. He said the militant group has contributed to a worsening overall security situation in the country this year.

The rise of ISIS has definitely contributed to the worsening overall security situation in Afghanistan, but until now, Washington had always played down the issue while Russian and Central Asian officials were hyping the threat. It is even more curious that General Campbell made this statement after the U.S. reportedly dealt a heavy blow to ISIS in Afghanistan by taking out the top leadership. As the U.S. is looking for a new pretext for staying in Afghanistan, the peace process is gaining momentum. While the Afghan Taliban are holding talks with Kabul, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are trying to broker peace between the Afghan Taliban and ISIS. In light of all the harmony, even Taliban leader Mullah Omar couldn't remain silent any longer and purportedly issued a statement recognizing the peace talks with the Afghan government as "legitimate." Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was delighted to hear the good news because the peace talks are Kabul's last hope to save the country:
Is Faryab Province Quickly Slipping From Afghan Government Control?

The situation in Afghanistan's northern Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan, has become critical. Militants who started attacks in the province in early July have seized more than 100 villages in little over a week.

On July 15, the chief of the Faryab Provincial Council, Sayed Abdul Baki Hashami, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that local pro-government paramilitary groups are retreating in almost all areas of Faryab and that the provincial capital, Maymana, is in danger of falling to militants.

Hashami said these local pro-government forces, which he called the "People's Resistance Front," are the province's only defense against enemy forces in Faryab. Despite government promises to launch an operation in the province to repel the militants, he said, there are no signs on the ground of that happening.
Militants in Faryab have been causing trouble for quite some time. Last year, neighboring Turkmenistan sent troops across the border in an attempt to drive back the insurgents that had settled on the border. Turkmenistan's "invasion" and subsequent land grabbing infuriated local residents but they have been on their own as the Afghan government was either unable or unwilling to get the situation in Faryab under control. The situation has now gone from bad to worse. The Tabliban are gaining ground and according to some unconfirmed reports, a number of Turkmen soldiers have recently died in clashes on the border. Kabul is coming under increasing pressure to act. A few days ago, Afghanistan's First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum traveled to Faryab to promise support. He even stated that he is ready to go to the frontline if need be. Furthermore, Dostum agreed to join forces with longtime government critic Atta Mohammad Noor to stop the Taliban advances in the north of the country: 
Ata Mohd Noor, Gen. Dostum and Mohaqiq to launch joint operations in North

The acting provincial governor for northern Balkh province of Afghanistan Ata Mohammad Noor said Friday that joint operations will be launched to clear northern parts of the country from the militants.

Speaking during a ceremony to mark the first day of Eid al-Fitr in Mazar-e-Sharif city, Noor said the operations would be launched based on an agreement reached with First Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and First Deputy CEO Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq.

He also criticized the reconciliation process with the Taliban group and warned that the peace efforts would not yield a positive result if the Afghan people and political parties are not consulted.

Kyrgyzstan Claims to Have Foiled ISIS Attack on Russian Air Base

Noor is arguably one of the most powerful figures in Afghanistan. He has repeatedly criticized the government for ignoring the rising militant violence in the north and not listening to his warnings. Noor and Dostum already fought side by side against the Taliban in the United Front but more often than not the two warlords have been fighting each other. Therefore, this alliance might create more problems than it will solve. Dostum has set a deadline of one week for the Taliban to lay down arms and join the peace process before the new alliance will take up the fight. Although the peace talks are making progress, the fighting in northern Afghanistan is about to escalate. Central Asia is keeping a close eye on the situation. The 'stans have been hyping the Afghan spillover and ISIS threats for months. After Turkmenistan and Tajikistan got a taste of the Afghan spillover, Kyrgyzstan is now claiming the first ISIS attack:
Kyrgyz security police say they foiled two Islamic State attacks

Six militants killed by security forces in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek on Thursday belonged to Islamic State, the security police said on Friday, adding they had captured another seven members of the same group who were planning attacks.

"Yes, they were all Islamic State members," Rakhat Sulaimanov, spokesman for the GKNB security police, told Reuters. "Another seven were caught during the operation yesterday."

"They had planned two terrorist attacks - one in the central square (of Bishkek) during today's prayers ending the month of Ramadan, and another one at the (Russian) airbase in Kant," he added.
© Photo KLOOP.KG

Considering that the shootout in Bishkek raises more questions than answers, the claims by the Kyrgyz authorities should be taken with a grain of salt. It is not exactly clear how they arrived at the conclusion that the killed militants were ISIS members. The leader of the group was reportedly Zhanbolat Amirov, a Kazakh national who had escaped from a Kyrgyz prison last month after being convicted of illegally crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Another Kazakh who had accompanied Amirov the whole time reportedly blew himself up when police tried to apprehend him on July 2. Depending on which media outlet you want to believe, the number of Kazakh citizens in Amirov's group varies significantly. According to GKNB spokesman Sulaimanov, they had all pledged allegiance to ISIS and even gotten a large amount of money from Syria. Apparently they also received support from a former member of Kyrgyzstan's parliament:
Former Kyrgyz MP held for aiding terrorists

A former member of the Kyrgyzstan parliament was arrested on Monday on suspicion of aiding terrorists who were planning attacks in the capital Bishkek, the security service said.

The National Security State Committee (NSSC) said the former Ak Zhol party MP -- whose name was not disclosed -- was arrested at the Manas International Airport near Bishkek while trying to leave the country, Xinhua reported.

"The detained ex-MP aided terrorists with funds and provided them with weapons," the NSSC said.

The NSSC also found that the former MP had direct contact with the Islamic State.
It would be interesting to know which country the arrested suspect was heading for. The shootout in the Kyrgyz capital and subsequent arrest of a former MP indicate that fears of a surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia were not entirely baseless. Given the fact that the Russian air base in Kant has been identified as one of the targets, Russia will be tempted to use this episode to beef up its military presence in Kyrgyzstan and tighten its grip on the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. is losing ground. The exposed meeting between U.S. charge d'affairs Richard Miles and a local NGO leader has validated Bishkek's and Moscow's suspicions that color revolution expert Miles is up to no good. As relations between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan are reaching a new low, the official explanation for expanding the U.S. embassy in Bishkek is looking increasingly ludircous. The latest spat centers on the award given to a jailed Kyrgyz human rights activist whom the Kyrgyz government sees as a criminal guilty of inciting ethnic hatred and violence in the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan riots: 
Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry Summons U.S. Envoy Over Askarov's Award

The Foreign Ministry handed a protest note to U.S. Charge d'Affaires Richard Miles on July 17, a day after the State Department conferred the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on Azimjon Askarov. His son, Sherzod, accepted it on his behalf.

The Kyrgyz government said in a statement that the decision "contradicts the friendly relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and can damage the government's efforts to consolidate interethnic harmony."

The government also said it intended to unilaterally denounce a 1993 Kyrgyz-U.S. cooperation agreement.