Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #113

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.

Former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili have left Georgian politics some time ago, one more voluntarily than the other, but the conflict between Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) continues to shape the country's political landscape to this day. In an effort to curtail the UNM's influence in the media, the Georgian Dream-led government is currently trying to shut down the influential pro-UNM private TV broadcaster Rustavi 2. This amounts to a declaration of war from the UNM's point of view. The Saakashvili party responded by calling for the resignation of the government and snap elections, to no avail. After Tbilisi's flirt with Gazprom added more fuel to the fire, the exchange of blows then escalated into all-out war a few days ago, when another Saakashvili-era rape video found its way onto the Internet:
UNM regional offices assaulted amid rape video scandal

United National Movement’s several regional offices were attacked in Georgia on Monday, in the wake of publication of disgusting video depicting rape of a detainee allegedly during the previous government.

Small crowds of 30 to 100 protested at Kutaisi, Batumi, Gori, and Ozurgeti offices demanding to ban the UNM. In several occasions a violent squabble happened between the protesters and UNM members. In Kutaisi protesters broke into the office but police managed to drive them out.
The UNM, former ruling party and currently the main opposition power, claims the protests have been masterminded by the authorities, as many members of the local authorities and local offices of the ruling Georgian Dream were present during the rallies.
“These groups have been mobilized by the authorities, which try to mitigate outrage for its attempts to seize Rustavi 2 (TV),” Nugzar Tsiklauri, MP, said to journalists. 
© Photo Transparency International Georgia

Georgian Government Determined to Destroy Saakashvili Party

Evidence suggests that the video was leaked by the Georgian government in order to ramp up the pressure on the UNM. The video first surfaced on a website in Ukraine, where Saakashvili has started a second career as governor of Odessa, and the leak coincided with the release of the latest poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) showing a sharp decline in support for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. While Saakashvili was celebrating the poll results on Facebook, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili appeared before to press to question the credibility of the NDI poll and draw attention to the rape video, which surfaced shortly after the poll was released. Garibashvili used the opportunity to highlight once again that the previous administration was a "sadistic regime, which was torturing [its] own population brutally." One day later, the attacks against UNM offices across the country started and Prime Minister Garibashvili made no move to stop the violence, quite the contrary:
PM: UNM Has ‘No Right to Remain in Politics’

PM Irakli Garibashvili said UNM opposition party is a “criminal organization”, which has “no right to remain in politics” and “aggression” against the party is “natural” after videos of sexual abuse of detainees by law enforcement officers, when UNM was in power, were leaked to public domain.

Speaking during a government session on Thursday morning, PM Garibashvili said, referring to UNM: “They should be grateful for the fact that over the past three years people have not done to them the same what is depicted in these videos – my remarks might be rude, but they deserve it.”

In his lengthy statement the PM also commented on ownership dispute over the Rustavi 2 TV and also said that the UNM should “give up plans for any kind of provocation”, otherwise warned that the opposition party “will get what it deserves” from the people.

Several Western-backed civil society organizations, such as U.S. government-funded Transparency International Georgia and George Soros' Open Society Georgia Foundation, condemned Garibashvili's remarks and called on the government to "immediately eradicate violent actions" and "refrain from aggressive rhetoric and public statements that incite violence." Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili also sounded the alarm and tried to calm the waves but Garibashvili and the Georgian Dream party are determined to crush the United National Movement once and for all. Amid the video scandal fallout, the government continued its campaign against Rustavi 2, much to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and other supporters of the broadcaster. And while President Margvelashvili was still trying to mediate, Georgia's security service took the fight against the UNM to a whole 'nother level:
Security Service Says Probe Opened into Alleged ‘Conspiracy to Overthrow’ Govt

The Georgian State Security Service said in a brief statement on Saturday it has opened investigation under article 315 of the criminal code involving “conspiracy to overthrow” the government.

It said that the probe was launched “based on operative-investigative activities carried out by the counter-intelligence department and information reported in the media outlets.”

The State Security Service has declined to elaborate on its statement. “Information reported in the media outlets”, noted in the security agency’s statement, appears to be a reference to a text, which was posted on a murky website called “Ukrainian WikiLeaks”, hosted and registered in Russia, and then re-printed or reported by some Georgian media outlets, including Imedi TV, on October 23. The text in question, veracity of which has not been substantiated in any way, is alleged to be a transcript of a conversation between Georgia’s ex-President and governor of Odessa region in Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, and one of the leaders of UNM opposition party Giga Bokeria in Istanbul airport on October 22. According to this text, carried by the website which is focused mostly on publishing unsubstantiated stories against Saakashvili, the two men were speaking about plotting an attack against Rustavi 2 TV personnel in order to then trigger mass protests against the government.
A few days before the Georgian State Security Service announced its investigation, Saakashvili and his former national security advisor Bokeria participated in the congress of the European People's Party in Madrid. Bokeria's wife Tamar Chergoleishvili, who was leading the recent protests against Tbilisi's talks with Gazprom, confirmed that she and her husband met Saakashvili at Istanbul airport but both denied the coup allegations. UNM leader Bokeria suggested that the government had made up the transcript and pointed out that this "shows that the current government is in agony." Prime Minister Garibashvili begs to differ and keeps launching one attack after another against the UNM. He emphasized that "time is up for them in Georgia." It remains to be seen whether or not his words will come true but it is safe to say that the conflict between the two parties won't be resolved anytime soon:
Georgian Energy Minister Speaks of Need to Buy Russian Gas

Energy Minister, Kakha Kaladze, said on October 20 that Georgia will have to buy gas from Gazprom on top of what the country is already receiving from Russia as a transit fee, claiming that “there is no possibility” to import additional volumes from Azerbaijan.

“There is no possibility to buy additional gas from Azerbaijan. If there was such a possibility then why were we buying additional volumes of gas from Russia, on top of what we were receiving as a transit fee, in previous years, including when [UNM] was in government?” he said.

UNM lawmakers dismissed Kaladze’s claims as a “lie.” MP Giorgi Gabashvili condemned government’s intention to increase Russia’s share in Georgia’s gas supplies as a “traitorous step” that would be a blow for country’s energy security.

Russia Lashes Out at ISIS Sponsors Who Tried to Seize Chechnya 

Georgia-Russia relations have improved since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power. Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian Prime Minister's Special Representative for relations with Russia, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin are scheduled to meet in Prague next month to continue talks on normalizing ties between the two neighboring countries. South Ossetia's plans to join Russia could impede the rapprochement but Moscow wants to postpone this issue indefinitely, for various reasons. Russia is currently focused on its campaign in Syria and the fight against ISIS, which might be expanded from Syria to Iraq or possibly even Afghanistan. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that Moscow's primary objective is to support the Syrian government, Western governments and media are still complaining that Russia is bombing the wrong terrorists. The Kremlin is less interested in differentiating between the various jihadist gangs, knowing full well that the real threat are the powers behind these groups and not "al-Qaeda" or "ISIS":
Lawmaker: IS sponsors once tried to break Chechnya from Russia

Sponsors of Islamic State, a terrorist group banned in Russia, once tried to break Chechnya away from Russia, the chairman of the State Duma lower house’s international affairs committee, Alexey Pushkov, said on Friday.

"Those behind Islamic State are the same people who were in the past destabilizing Central Asia and attempted to break Chechnya away from Russia," Pushkov said at talks with a delegation of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party.

"That is why, it not an abstract threat for us, and in carrying out our military operation in Syria we are indeed fighting for the strengthening of our own security," he said, explaining Russia’s stance.
© Photo Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Alexey Pushkov's words didn't get the attention they deserved. This marks the second time this year that a senior Russian politician has hinted at the Pentagon-led 'Gladio B' operations in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. In a two-hour documentary released in April, President Putin noted that, during the early 2000s, Russian intelligence agencies had gathered evidence proving that U.S. intelligence in Azerbaijan was supporting separatists in the North Caucasus. Putin recalled how Moscow's complaints were ignored and how his counterparts told him that "they had decided for themselves by then that Russia would cease to exist in its current form." Pushkov picked up where Putin left off by highlighting the connection to current events in Syria. Moreover, just a few days earlier, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had used a similar reasoning to explain why Russia has to get involved in Syria:
‘ISIS was created against Russia’ – Kadyrov

Islamic State was “created first of all against Russia” said the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, warning of the threat that the militant group and the conflict in Syria pose to Russia’s security.

“If we think that the Syrian issue will be resolved quickly and will not affect the security of our country, it is not true. I am sure they will show up. ISIS was created primarily against Russia,” Kadyrov said during a press conference in Grozny.

The Chechen leader has also offered to impose capital punishment on terrorists and those who “recruit, distort the [Muslim] religion, and misinterpret the Quran.”
Kadyrov is still waiting for Putin's permission to go to Syria and join the fight. In the meantime, the Chechen leader will have to make do with jihadists in Russia. Due to the military intervention in Syria, Russian law enforcement agencies feel compelled to present credible terror threats at home. In recent weeks, several plots have been foiled and dozens of suspects arrested. Each and everyone is now being linked to ISIS. Kadyrov's men played a vital role in foiling one of the high-profile "ISIS plots" and the Chechen President lamented that this hasn't been properly acknowledged by Moscow. Perhaps it would have been wiser to keep quiet about this issue considering that the foiled plot raises more questions than answers. But Kadyrov is not known for keeping quiet. He is still talking about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and vouching for the innocence of the main suspect who wants to clear his name:
'Send me to Syria to fight Isil,' Boris Nemtsov murder suspect asks Vladimir Putin

The former solider accused of murdering Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has asked Vladimir Putin to send him to Syria to fight Isil, in a bid to prove his "patriotism" and clear his name.

Zaur Dadaev, who denies involvement in the contract killing of Mr Nemtsov in February, wrote to Russia’s president last week to protest his innocence and complain that he had been tortured into giving a false confession.

He went on to ask Mr Putin that he be sent to join Russian forces in Syria to prove his "loyalty" and "innocence" on the field of battle.

Dostum's Offensive Exposes Turkmenistan's Border Woes

It is only a question of time before Russian volunteers will show up in Syria but Zaur Dadaev won't be one of them. As Russia's campaign in Syria is picking up pace, the Kremlin is stepping up its ISIS rhetoric. Listening to the Russian Foreign Ministry, one might get the impression that the Islamic State is about to take over Afghanistan as well. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned recently that ISIS has settled in 25 out of 34 Afghan provinces. This seems to be over the top. The Islamic State has managed to gain a foothold in Afghanistan but its Afghan branch has been largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar after being defeated by the Taliban in other provinces. Moreover, the group is already in disarray because one of its senior leaders suddenly realized that he had joined a bunch of thugs who don't care about Islamic principles. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Russia would feel compelled to support the Taliban in order to contain the ISIS threat:
A Taliban-Russia Team-Up Against ISIS?

A former Afghan Taliban governor and member of the group’s military committee, who does not want to be cited by name, tells The Daily Beast that “the American global attitude and the threat from ISIS makes for a convergence of Taliban and Russian interests, and we could not rule out further cooperation, depending on the emerging scenario in the Middle East.”

That is, if Russia proves successful in its Syrian venture to defend the Assad dictatorship (which is far from certain), the Taliban will be encouraged to increase their contacts and perhaps cooperation with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But for now the contacts with Moscow are being kept very quiet and often are conducted through cut-outs. The main venue for the talks is Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan’s embattled Kunduz province, whose intelligence operatives may have been involved with a substantial shipment of arms to the Taliban. The government and intelligence services of Tajikistan are understood by the Taliban to have remained close clients of Moscow.

As Joshua Kucera notes, the more plausible explanation for Tajikistan's arms shipment to the Taliban is "that Tajikistan had access to weapons that the Taliban wanted, and needed to get its soldiers back." The Taliban had captured four Tajik border guards and demanded weapons in exchange for their release. Curiously, The Daily Beast didn't mention Qatar's vital role in brokering the release of the guards but this would probably undermine the narrative of a larger Russian-Taliban cooperation. Afghan officials apparently don't read The Daily Beast and think they can trust the Russians. As Afghanistan descends into chaos, Kabul is turning to Russia for help. President Ashraf Ghani has asked Moscow for artillery, small arms as well as Mi-35 helicopter gunships and the recent Russia trip of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum seems to be paying off. Dostum has now returned to the frontline in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been gaining ground in recent weeks:
Dostum's Northern Offensive Highlights Ex-Soviet Ties

On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.

Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.

After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
Dostum returned to the frontline just after the Taliban had seized Faryab's Ghormach District, which borders Turkmenistan. Therefore, the Afghan Vice President lost no time in trying to retake Ghormach. On October 24, Afghan officials announced that government forces have regained control of the district. Dostum's forces also launched an offensive in Jowzjan province and managed to retake another district on the Turkmen border. Several dozen Taliban fighters were chased to an island in the Amu-Darya river, which divides Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. Only a few days after the Turkmen government was vehemently denying that there has been any unrest along its border, Dostum's offensive reduced Ashgabat's claims to absurdity. As the fighting reaches Turkmenistan's door step, Ashgabat can no longer deny the reality on the ground and Turkmen forces have to get involved:
Afghanistan-Turkmenistan Plan Joint Operation in Border Areas

TOLOnews correspondent Wali Arian who is embedded with troops in Khamab district of Jawzjan province has reported that the Afghan security forces have cleared the district from insurgents.

"We have regular contact with our Turkmenistan border forces, they have also certified their [Taliban] location, we will coordinate with them, they [Turkmens] have also moved on that side to attack them," Dostum said.

He went on to say: "We have also undertaken our own plans, you can see up to 100 heavy weapons deployed over there, they [Taliban] will be arrested. They will be arrested, if they resist, they will be eliminated."