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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.
Last week's round-up dealt with the power struggle in Georgia and the interesting discovery of several arms caches. After the Georgian authorities found more weapons and surveillance videos, President Saakashvili came clean a few days ago and admitted that the caches were set up on his order:
President Saakashvili said on June 23 that arms caches, which the Interior Ministry says it found in Samegrelo region, were in fact those secret storages which he instructed to create after the August, 2008 war as part of a broader defensive plan in case of resumption of aggression against the country.
This prompted some talk about an impeachment of the Georgian President and Prime Minister Ivanishvili mentioned the possibility of an arrest following October's presidential election, when Mikheil Saakashvili will leave office after his second term as President. The struggle is apparently taking its toll on the Prime Minister and Ivanishvili announced his plans to leave after the next election as well. But until then, he is debunking the claim of being a Russian puppet. During this week's visit of NATO's senior political governing body, the North Atlantic Council, Georgian PM Ivanishvili reinforced that "joining NATO as soon as possible" is a priority for his country.
Thus Tbilisi is cementing its military ties with Washington and Prime Minister Ivanishvili headed to Israel to talk with the closest ally of the United States:
"Today vital topics are the preservation of peace and the fight against terrorism, and the experience of Israel in this area are very important for Georgia, and we intend to cooperate in this field," Ivanishvili said.
Israeli PM Netanyahu emphasized the great relations between the two countries and expressed his desire to "to expand this relationship in every way".
Closer military cooperation is not Washington's only objective in the region. There are also efforts to keep the countries in the Eurasian Balkans under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund [emphasis mine]:
A new Institute of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) training course has started in Georgia. The event was officially launched by the Minister of Finance Nodar Khaduri and IMF resident representative in Georgia Azim Sadykov.
The seminar is attended by representatives of the Ministries of Finance of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, as well as officials of the Ministries of Finance and Economy of Georgia, the National Bank and the Statistics Service of Georgia.
Azerbaijan Bonding With NATO/GCC
Georgia's neighbor Azerbaijan is reaching out to Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well. Recently Baku hosted a forum of the heads of Diasporas of Turkic states, which was seen as an important step towards the "unification of the Turkic world". Furthermore, the Azerbaijani government strengthened its diplomatic ties with the paragons of democracy in the Gulf:
Minister Mammadyarov noted that the two countries enjoy high level political dialogue and there is a need for the advancement of bilateral cooperation across other areas such as trade, tourism and economic cooperation.
The Kremlin will be delighted about more Saudi "tourism" at Russian borders. Especially since the expansion of Wahhabism is already becoming a major problem. Azerbaijani support for terrorism in Russia wouldn't be surprising, given the country's long history as shelter for Chechen freedom fighters. But not all terrorists manage to reach the NATO proxy and this week Ilnur Akhmetshin's trip from Dagestan to the Azerbaijani capital was cut short:
It is reported that he is an active member of the "Jamaat Islami" terrorist group. In the mid-2000s, carrying out a task set by Chechen field commanders, Ilnur Akhmetshin arranged an explosion at an oil pipeline in the Volga region and then hid from justice under eight different names.
Baku's increasing cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its leading members is another cause for concern in Moscow:
In order to become a NATO member you need to adjust your military budget. A few Israeli drones are an auspicious start but the more the merrier:
"For comparison, I can say that our military budget was $163 million in 2003, while it reached $3.6 billion last year. This year, it reached $3.7 billion. This shows that army building is a priority issue. The biggest spending of our budget falls to the army and it is natural. We have purchased the most modern equipment in past years."
"For comparison, I can say that the entire budget of Armenia is about $2 billion. What it means is that Azerbaijan's spending on military purposes is twice as big as all of Armenia's expenditure. Strong Azerbaijan can speak with weak Armenia in any language. We give preference to negotiations just to maintain stability in the region," he said.
Aliyev's justification for the high defense spending is arch enemy Armenia, where three suspected Azerbaijani spies were arrested lately. The two neighboring countries have been in conflict over the disputed region Nagorno-Karabakh for two decades. Moscow is supporting its CSTO partner and recently deployed several Iskander-M systems to Armenia amid deteriorating relations with Baku.
TAP Beats Nabucco West
However, not everybody in Russia is bothered by Azerbaijan's leader and his confrontation policy with the Kremlin. The President of Russian oil giant LUKOIL, Vagit Alekperov, the other day expressed his full support for Ilham Aliyev. But maybe there is a connection between this statement and LUKOIL's negotiations with the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) about new projects.
The oil and gas sector accounts for 83% of direct investments in Azerbaijan and so the most important news this week was the decision of the Shah Deniz consortium:
Austrian energy company OMV has announced that the consortium developing Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz-2 natural-gas and oil field has rejected using the proposed multibillion-dollar Nabucco West pipeline.
The decision means it's likely the shorter and cheaper Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will be used to carry the gas extracted from under the Caspian Sea to the European market.
As usual, Washington started the celebration too soon. The construction of TAP is expected to start in 2015, while Gazprom's South Stream is making good progress and might be able to deliver its first gas by the end of 2015. Recent steps taken by the state-controlled Russian energy group already put pressure on the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline:
The reason why the European potential buyers are now able to negotiate such a low price with the consortium is that they have strong bargaining chip - thanks to Gazprom. During last six months Gazprom did two rounds of an impressive discount for its European customers and also have been renegotiating the price setting mechanism - for instance agreeing to increase the percentage of the hub price indexation to the LTCs.
For the countries in the TAP pipeline – Greece got 12% discount (current LTC will be expiring in 2016 already; negotiations on contract extension are ongoing), Italy 11%. All the Balkan countries got from 12 to 24% discount for Russian gas. Interestingly, Gazprom has publicized all figures of discount and gas price for its customers in Europe in January of 2013.
Russia's Problem in Dagestan
Meanwhile Moscow is following Baku's example and strengthening its cooperation with the notorious petro-monarchies:
“It is the first significant success of investment cooperation between Russia and the United Arab Emirates, and it is important that the Russian infrastructure is among key investment targets of this fund,” Putin said on Thursday at a business dinner with heads of the world’s leading infrastructure funds.
Last week we observed the willingness to put business first and this applies here as well. NATO's proxy, better known as the United Arab Emirates, is engaged in several suspicious activities in Central Asia and contributes to Russia's three main security challenges. In order to counter the threats, efforts against illegal migration are being increased:
Furthermore, the spreading of extremism has to be prevented to maintain stability and security:
The situation in the Republic of Dagestan is still highly volatile and serves as a cautionary tale:
Support for the militants is not only coming from abroad:
There are various ways to approach the difficult issue. Local lawmakers believe that re-socialization is reasonable as long as the insurgents don't have "blood on their hands”:
Lawmakers in Dagestan, a restive republic in Russia’s North Caucasus, support granting amnesty to rebel insurgents who return to a peaceful way of life, members of the local parliament told RIA Novosti on Tuesday.
If this doesn't work the law enforcement agencies will count on new technology:
The Dagestani Interior Ministry will purchase Eyeball R1s of ODF Optronik (Israel) for 295,000 rubles that can be thrown into buildings to spy on militants occupying them, Izvestia reports.
Afghan Drugs Everywhere
But terrorism is not the only problem in Dagestan:
Large quantities of narcotics reach Russia via Central Asia:
The "stans" serve as transit countries with severe consequences for the population [emphasis mine]:
Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates, accounting for 74 percent of global production in 2012. Those narcotics continue to pass relatively unhindered from Afghanistan through Central Asia for markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the way, they wreck havoc, as increasing numbers of Central Asians succumb to heroin addiction and HIV.
Afghanistan's role as the world's largest opium producer was once again confirmed by the new UN drug report and it is not hard to figure out who the biggest profiteers are.
Drugs spread from the occupied country across the whole region:
Faced with this situation, combating of drug trafficking is becoming more and more important for the Collective Security Treaty Organization:
Terror in Xinjiang
China is affected by narcotics as well and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization mentioned drug trafficking among its key challenges at the recent meeting in Bishkek:
The pledge came in a communique released after a one-day meeting of defense department leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan here.
According to the communique, the SCO defense chiefs also agreed to strengthen cooperation in crushing separatism, extremism, and drug-trafficking based on their share of responsibilities.
But separatism and extremism are even more cause for concern in Beijing right now. China's autonomous region of Xinjiang was rocked by a terror campaign this week:
Knife-wielding mobs attacked the township's police stations, the local government building and a construction site, stabbing at people and setting fire to police cars, officials with Xinjiang's regional committee of the Communist Party of China confirmed.
Seventeen people had been killed -- including nine policemen or security guards and eight civilians -- before police opened fire and shot dead 10 rioters, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
Later on, the death toll rose to 35 and reports by Radio Free Asia mentioned at least 46 killed people:
The violence this week in a remote township in China's troubled Xinjiang region is believed to have been more serious than reported, with at least 46 people killed following an attack on police and government establishments by disgruntled ethnic minority Uyghurs, according to local officials and residents.
It is safe to say that the situation in Xinjiang is rapidly deteriorating:
The Lukchun incident came nearly a month after at least 12 Uyghurs were killed in a blast apparently triggered by explosive devices they were carrying while being pursued by police in Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture, local officials had told RFA. The group was killed when they were cornered by police after they eluded a house-to-house search by police in Ghorachol town in Awat county, local town official Adil Semet said.
A week ago, authorities in Xinjiang sentenced 19 Uyghurs to jail for alleged crimes linked to "religious extremism", Chinese media reported. Rights groups said the sentences were meant to send a message to Uyghurs in the lead-up to the upcoming Urumqi violence anniversary.
On Friday, the unrest continued when more than 100 people attempted to invade a police station:
The terrorists, riding on motorcycles, used knives as weapons and attacked a local police station in the city's Moyu county, witnesses said. Local police quickly got the situation under control and are still searching for other suspects. That afternoon, some 200 unidentified people also attempted to incite trouble at a major shopping area in another part of the city. The situation was diffused quickly by local police with no casualties.
Media outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) are already spinning the story and trying to blame the Chinese government's "repression of Uyghurs" for the violence. Given the history of these two broadcasters, this is hardly surprising. RFE/RL was launched by an American anti-Communist organization called the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE). The CIA director responsible for Project MKUltra and Operation Mockingbird, Allen Dulles, founded NCFE. Early members of the organization included Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry Luce and the U.S. expert for psychological warfare, C. D. Jackson. Although the Central Intelligence Agency officially stopped funding RFE/RL in 1972, it is still very much a CIA propaganda project.
Radio Free Asia has been called a CIA broadcast operation by Beijing and there is evidence to support this accusation. Even Brookings Institution's Catharin Dalpino criticized RFA for its unbalanced reporting:
"Wherever we feel there is an ideological enemy, we're going to have a Radio Free Something," she says. Dalpino said she has reviewed scripts of Radio Free Asia's broadcasts and views the station's reporting as unbalanced. "They lean very heavily on reports by and about dissidents in exile. It doesn't sound like reporting about what's going on in a country. Often, it reads like a textbook on democracy, which is fine, but even to an American it's rather propagandistic."
Well, if this comes from the same establishment think tank, which wants to "bleed" Syria to death, you can imagine how bad it is. The reporting of RFA and RFE/RL is perfectly aligned with U.S. government policy:
China strongly opposes claims by the United States that it has been discriminating against and imposing restrictions on Uygurs and Muslims, in the wake of a recent terror attack in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Recent riots in Xinjiang have probably less to do with Beijing's repression of Uyghurs than with NATO's Operation Gladio B and the United States' aim to establish a new state called East Turkestan within Chinese borders.
China is obviously aware of this [emphasis mine]:
Many foreign forces would like to see turbulence in Xinjiang, but those with a little analytical sense know this can hardly be reality. Unless China as a whole sinks into turmoil, Xinjiang will never be in a chaotic condition as a politically separate part of China.
And will take necessary measures:
China will impose severe punishment on those taking part in violent crimes, Yu said at Saturday's meeting, which was attended by officials from across Xinjiang.
Law enforcement agencies should severely crack down on violent terrorist activities, with precautionary and preemptive measures, to guarantee social stability in Xinjiang, Meng said.
Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here