The New Great Game Round-Up: July 7, 2014

West's Attempts to Woo Kazakhstan Doomed to Fail, China's Ramadan Ban & WUC Propaganda & More!

*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.

The situation in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has been very tense since the start of the one-year-long anti-terror campaign but the people in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi were particularly anxious on this Saturday because it marked the fifth anniversary of the July 2009 Urumqi riots, when almost 200 people were killed and over 1.700 injured in a series of violent riots over several days. Beijing accused the NED-funded Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and its leader Rebiya Kadeer of planning the riots. Although the Chinese government did not back up this allegation with sufficient evidence, it is not implausible considering the WUC's close ties to Western intelligence and its key role in Washington's East Turkestan project. As usual, Kadeer and the WUC blamed the violence on government repression and the police's use of excessive force. This does not explain the takfiri mobs terrorizing Uyghurs and Han Chinese alike during the riots but nobody is going to deny the repression of the Uyghur population, which is now making the headlines once again:

China Restricts Ramadan Fasting In Xinjiang

Students and civil servants in China's far western region of Xinjiang have been ordered not to take part in fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

Statements posted on July 2 on websites of schools and government agencies say the ban aims at protecting students' wellbeing and preventing the promotion of religion in schools and government offices.

Statements on the websites of local Communist Party organizations said members of the officially atheist party also should not fast.

China's Ramadan Ban & WUC Propaganda

It is important to note that the ban applies first and foremost to government officials and to a lesser extent to teachers, whereas students are not allowed to pratice their religion in school anyway. This policy has been in place for years and thousands upon thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang are still openly celebrating Ramadan but the Western media likes to make fuss about it year after year using the same headline: "China bans Ramadan." And who is the go-to-guy for Western media when it comes to this issue? Of course Dilxat Raxit, the Sweden-based spokesman of the WUC, who laments that Chinese authorities are encouraging Uyghurs to eat free meals and warns that "these kind of coervice measures [...] will create more conflict". Raxit is very busy these days since the anti-terror campaign provides ample opportunity to attack the Chinese government:

China Sentences 113 to Prison in Xinjiang Region

Courts in the Kashgar area of the western Chinese region of Xinjiang have sentenced 113 people to prison terms for a wide range of crimes, including organizing and taking part in terrorist organizations, according to a state media report from Xinjiang.

Four of the people were given life sentences, and the prison terms for the others varied. The report, which was posted online Sunday afternoon, also listed other crimes among the violations: inciting ethnic hatred, harboring criminals, bigamy, drug trafficking and possession, and attempting to destroy evidence.

The Associated Press did not forget to include Dilxat's warning of "extreme forms of resistance". Otherwise the Western public might ask the wrong questions after the next terrorist attack in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities were only recently reminded of the fact that the 'East Turkestan forces' are supported from abroad. A high-level delegation from China was told during its trip to Israel that about 1.000 Chinese jihadists are receiving military training at a base in Pakistan. Jacques Neriah of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) presented this information to the Chinese visitors as well as material on the involvement of thousands of terrorists from China and Central Asia in the Syrian conflict. Beijing is of course aware of Pakistan's role in the various jihadi operations but the Chinese government has indulged so far. However, a few weeks ago, after the major terrorist attack on a market in Urumqi, Beijing stepped up the pressure on Islamabad and the Pakistani government has been conducting a major anti-terror operation in North Waziristan ever since:

Jet fighters target militant hideouts, kill Uzbek militants in North Waziristan

Pakistani jets bombed militant hideouts in a North Waziristan tribal agency on Saturday, killing scores of Uzbek and local insurgents in a massive ongoing offensive against the Taliban, the military said.

"Most of the terrorists killed in strikes were Uzbeks," the statement added without providing casualty figures. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Al Qaeda affiliate, has had a large presence in tribal belt since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

A local news service reported that the suspected militant hideouts in Daigan, Poikhel and Muhammadkhel areas were targeted and destroyed during the airstrikes. So far, more than 400 suspected militants – mostly foreigners – have been killed during the operation.

As previously discussed, the "success" of this operation is questionable for several reasons but China is apparently content with the actions of its close ally. If Pakistan's handling of the situation will contribute to solving China's East Turkestan problem, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Beijing is looking to ensure the stability of another country neighboring Xinjiang: Kyrgyzstan. China's support of infrastrucutre projects in the Central Asian country was already mentioned last week and more details about Chinese investements emerged this week. China will contribute over $1 billion to the construction of Kyrgyzstan's section of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline and Chinese state-run corporation Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) will invest more than $1 billion in the modernization of Kyrgyzstan's Manas, Batken and Issyk-Kul airports. So the Chinese might be taking over Manas after Russia's Rosneft refused to buy the majority of shares of the airport. Despite all of this, some problems strain Sino-Kyrgyz relations:

Kyrgyzstan: Chinese Workers Deported After Riot at Strategic Refinery

According to Kyrgyz and Russian press reports, 39 Chinese migrants downed tools, blocked entry to the facility and took several Kyrgyz employees hostage on June 30. Police fired shots into the air to break up the protest, according to a police source

Twenty-five of the migrants were working illegally, police say, and have been deported. The rest have been fined.

The riot coincided with payday and the Chinese appear to have felt shortchanged. According to Kyrgyz media outlet Knews, citing local police in contact with the refinery’s Chinese director, the migrants were angered that pay was being withheld to cover the cost of their transport from China.

West's Attempts to Woo Kazakhstan Doomed to Fail

While China is primarily focused on economic cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, Russia is also striving to maintain close military ties with the strategically located Central Asian republic. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu used this week's meeting of the CIS Defense Ministers' Council in Astana to discuss with his Kyrgyz counterpart the supply of arms and military equipment. Shoygu also held bilateral meetings with the Defense Ministers of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. He had ample time to concentrate on these meetings given the limited cooperation within the CIS. In fact, it can be argued that the CIS is dead, although some people are still in denial about it. It is of little help that CIS member state Azerbaijan is now a NATO proxy and that the U.S-led military alliance is trying hard to remove one post-Soviet state after another from Russia's sphere of influence:

Estonia to represent NATO in Kazakhstan

Estonian Embassy in Astana will represent NATO in Kazakhstan starting from January 1, 2015, Tengrinews reports citing RIA Novosti. Estonia will acts as NATO’s representative for two years.

According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia Urmas Paet, Central Asian countries are important partners for NATO. “In response to the recent changes in the realm of security and the end of the Afghanistan mission, it is important to develop friendly relations with Central Asian countries. In this regard, Estonia can act as a secure bridge in NATO and Kazakhstan relations,” Paet said.

Paet believes that designation of Estonia for the diplomatic role in Central Asia testifies of trust of the North Atlantic Alliance to Estonia. “The main goal of the embassy is to popularize the work and plans of NATO and strengthen relations with the host country (Kazakhstan),” the Minister added.

NATO's chances for success in Kazakhstan are minimal at best. Astana is admittedly concerned about becoming too dependent on Moscow and likes to emphasize its "multi-vectored foreign policy" but that does not mean that the Kazakh authorities are considering closer ties with NATO. It comes as no real surprise that Estonia's Foreign Minister Urmas Paet is doing NATO's bidding in Central Asia considering his role in the Ukraine crisis. If it wasn't for the leaked phone call between Paet and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, many people would still fail to realize how far Washington and Brussels are willing to go in order to remove a country from Russia's sphere of influence. The Eastern Partnership initiative of the European Union has played a decisive role in this regard and Brussels is of course also at work in Central Asia:

Brussels hosts negotiations on new agreement between Kazakhstan and EU

The seventh round of negotiations on the new agreement on expanded partnership and cooperation between Kazakhstan and the European Union was held in Brussels, according to the press service of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. 

"Kazakhstan and the European Union reaffirmed their interest in conclusion of agreement in the least time possible designed to expand and upgrade the existing agreement on partnership and cooperation signed in 1995," the report said.

The increased strategic interest in Kazakhstan once again noted in Brussels as a regional power, while stressing that the country is the only country in Central Asia, with which the European Union is negotiating on the agreement of the second generation.

Both sides agreed to hold a final round of negotiations in the fall of this year in the Kazakh capital Astana. But in the light of the birth of the Eurasian Economic Union, there will be some limits to cooperation betweeen Kazakhstan and the EU. Although Armenia's accession to the economic bloc is currently being delayed, the involved parties are very much convinced of the project and are now even considering the creation of a regional payment system:  

Central Bank Mulls United Payment System for Customs Union

The Russian Central Bank is considering creating a payment system that would extend across the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, a senior Central Bank official said Wednesday at a banking conference in St. Petersburg.

"We are discussing this issue within the Customs Union and it would be interesting to implement this project together with our partners from Kazakhstan and Belarus," said Georgy Luntovsky, the regulator's deputy head.

Luntovsky declined to give a time frame for the system's implementation across the Custom Union, but said he believed it "would be executed."

Azerbaijan Shuts Down NDI, Looks East

Armenia and Kyrgyzstan will eventually join the soon-to-be Eurasian Economic Union and other post-Soviet states might follow but it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan is one of them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized last month that Azerbaijan had not been formally invited either to the Customs Union or the Eurasian Economic Union and there are good reasons for this. After all, we are talking about a country, where it is difficult so say who is more subservient to the United States and the EU, the government or the opposition:

Azerbaijani opposition calls government to sign association agreement with EU

A broad range of Azerbaijani oppositional forces have urged the government to promptly sign the association agreement with the European Union. At the same time, they expressed their negative attitude to the prospect of Azerbaijan's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEC).

About 100 Azerbaijani representatives of political parties, civil society activists and media professionals have adopted a document entitled "Declaration on Azerbaijan's attitude to the Association Agreement with the European Union".

The Aliyev regime has been doing its best to please the West and is regularly praised for its contributions to NATO but there are some contentious points, such as the fight against NGOs or the recent crackdown on the Gülen movement. Especially the government's campaign against the U.S-backed Azerbaijani opposition has strained relations between Baku and Washington. It is not a secret that the Azerbaijani opposition is being directed from the Baku office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Therefore, the Aliyev regime has tried to put an end to NDI's meddling in Azerbaijan on numerous occasions and, according to Turan news agency, these efforts were finally successful:

NDI office in Baku is officially closed 

Today, the office of the U.S. National Democratic Institute in Baku was officially closed, according to informed sources in Washington. In fact, the Office ceased to function in March, after the authorities accused this structure of financing subversive youth against the government of Azerbaijan.

In particular, the head of the presidential administration, and previously, the law enforcement agencies have stated that with money from the NDI youth groups prepared in Azerbaijan  the analogue of the "Arab Spring." The NDI representative in Baku, Alex Grigorevs, was declared the chief "saboteur", and the government was so afraid of him, that banned his return to Baku and pick up his personal belongings and dog.

A number of sites working for the Azerbaijani authorities  "suddenly" got copies of bank documents proving that the representative of NDI debited during the year about 2 million dollars. Those sites who call themselves human rights, argued that money was sent to facebook revolution in Azerbaijan. Irrefutable "proof", according to the authors of publications, was that NDI has provided a grant for the youth organization NIDA, seven members of which were arrested and announced the organizers of the failed revolution.

After the U.S. and the EU had toppled the Yanukovych-led government in Ukraine, the Azerbaijani authorities became increasingly wary of Washington's activities in Azerbaijan and they made it perfectly clear that similar "Maidan events" will be stopped in Azerbaijan. Some people even called for the removal of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar in response to an interview by the American diplomat. In public, Morningstar is still hailing the strong partnership between the U.S. and Azerbaijan but there are some continuing differences and it is safe to say that Washington kept a very close eye on the recent China trip of Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister [emphasis mine]:

China, Azerbaijan pledge stronger ties

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in Beijing on Tuesday, and both agreed to boost China-Azerbaijan ties.

Calling the two countries good friends and partners, Yang said they have maintained sound momentum in the development of diplomatic ties since their forging, citing enhanced political trust, fruitful cooperation and strengthened friendship.

Mammadyarov, for his part, said Azerbaijan attaches great importance to its ties with China, and firmly supports China on issues regarding Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Azerbaijan hopes to beef up cooperation with China in all fields, he said.

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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

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