The New Great Game Round-Up: May 11, 2014

U.S.- Russia Struggle for Influence in Central Asia, Georgia Joining the New Cold War, Azerbaijan Fighting NDI Activists & 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.

At the beginning of this week, the Presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey gathered in Tbilisi for their first high-level trilateral summit. All three leaders praised the close ties and pledged to further increase cooperation between the countries. They discussed, among other things, a possible transition from bilateral to trilateral cooperation in the defense sector. Moreover, the Georgian side informed the guests from Azerbaijan and Turkey about the progress of the major railway project linking the three countries, which should have been operational by the end of 2013 but was delayed several times and is still not anywhere near completion [emphasis mine]:

Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey Reiterate Partnership with Trilateral Summit

The focus of the summit, according to the officials, was joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which is currently under construction and which will connect Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia.

According to Georgian Economy Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the railway is expected to be put into operation before the end of 2015.

Azerbaijan Fights NDI's Activists, Georgia Joins New Cold War

Azerbaijan and Georgia had planned to profit from the transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the United States by proposing a new route for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) evolving around the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. But the railway project will not be operational early enough to get any significant share of the NDN business, which means that the United States will have to rely on the NDN routes passing through Russian territory besides the problematic transit route via Pakistan. So far, Russia has refrained from shutting down the NDN in response to the reckless actions of the West in recent months. But if NATO continues to ramp up its Cold War posturing, this could obviously change. The latest delay of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway was not the only bad news for Washington on the day of the trilateral summit. While Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev met with his Georgian and Turkish counterparts in Tbilisi, Aliyev's crackdown on the Azerbaijani opposition made the headlines once more due to the sentences handed down to some of Washington's favorite youth activists:

Azerbaijan sentences eight opposition youth activists to jail

Azerbaijan sentenced eight opposition youth activists on Tuesday to between six and eight years in prison in a case that critics say highlights a government-led crackdown on dissent in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.

Eight activists of NIDA, an Azeri non-government youth movement, were jailed after being convicted on charges of hooliganism, possessing drugs and explosives as well as intent to cause public disorder.

All eight, aged between 18 and 28, were arrested in March 2013 during protests in the capital Baku against violence within the armed forces prompted by the death of conscript Jeyhun Gubadov at a barracks - the latest in a string of non-combat deaths under murky circumstances in the military.

Unfortunately, the report fails to mention one interesting character, who was detained twice along with NIDA activists after participating in the above-mentioned protests in March 2013. His name is Ruslan Asad and he is working as a Civic Program Assistant for the infamous National Democratic Institute (NDI). Furthermore, Asad is the co-founder of the OL! Movement, another civic movement in Azerbaijan similar to NIDA. In contrast to his fellow activists, Asad was released shortly after both arrests. Working for NDI pays off. But Asad's role in the protests only confirmed the belief of the Aliyev regime that the Azerbaijani opposition is being directed from NDI's Baku office and this led to a major dispute last year. Eventually the issue was resolved but activism and human rights are still the main points of contention between Azerbaijan and the United States:

In U.S. Calls To Hold Energy Rich Baku's Feet To The Fire Over Rights

The United States should hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights record, even as the energy-rich country has come into renewed focus as a potential key player in weaning Europe off of Russian gas in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, U.S. officials say.

“I feel strongly that as we work closely with Azerbaijan on energy issues, we must also engage them just as forcefully on the declining human rights situation as part of our overall concern for energy security in the region,” U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement to RFE/RL.

Even before the NIDA activists were sentenced, the Aliyev regime faced increasing criticism from the U.S. and the EU. Washington is always playing the human rights card if it seeks to put pressure on Baku. Considering the timing of these reports, the U.S. government's latest "concerns" about human rights abuses might have something to do with Azerbaijan's crackdown on the U.S.-backed Gülen movement. Azerbaijani President Aliyev will be careful not to antagonize his masters in Washington in a similar way like Turkish PM Erdogan. So while the Turkish Prime Minister is still teasing his NATO allies with a lucrative missile defense system deal, the Azerbaijani authorities are doing their best to please the U.S.-led military alliance. The same applies to the authorities in neighboring Georgia. Although NATO's enlargement did not work out the way it was supposed to in Ukraine, NATO can still count on several other Russian neighbors to support its anti-Russian campaign:

Alasania Calls for NATO 'Defensive Assets' in Georgia

Georgia’s Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, said in Washington on April 30 that in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, NATO allies should deploy “defensive assets” in Georgia.

Air defense and anti-armor capabilities – “this is something we need to put in Georgia and Russians will understand that you are serious,” Alasania told the Washington-based think-tank Atlantic Council’s “Toward a Europe Whole and Free” conference on April 30.

Rick Rozoff of Stop NATO explained in a recent interview the importance of the Atlantic Council and the significance of the term "Europe whole and free", which means no less than the consolidation of a unified Europe controlled by Brussels on behalf of the United States. During the conference U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's mask slipped, when he emphasized that "our entire model of global leadership is at stake" due to the Ukraine crisis. Georgian Defense Minister Alasania also stressed that the crisis marked a watershed. Before he met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon this week, Alasania justified his call for NATO "defense assets" in Georgia and dismissed the idea that this move would provoke Russia by saying: "That's the pre-Crimea thinking. There is a new reality. Russians are creating new realities on the ground." Meanwhile, another world-class warmonger, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, visited Georgia to demonstrate NATO's "support for Georgia's Euro-Atlantic ambitions". The Georgian government is expected to substantiate these ambitions by signing an Association Agreement with the EU next month and the Georgian leaders know what will happen if they pull a Yanukovych:

Sergey Lavrov – Ask EU and U.S. about their plans if Georgia doesn’t do what they expect

It would be my advice to ask the EU and U.S. about their plans if Georgia’s government doesn’t do what they expect, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Vienna, responding to the question from the broadcasting company “Imedi”, ‘ whether Russia-Georgia relations may tense, after Georgia signs the association agreement with EU. Lavrov says that addressees of this question are not Russia.

“We are not busy with changing the regimes, arranging colored revolutions, especially with brown spots, like it happened in Ukraine”, Russia’s Foreign Minister said.

U.S., Russia Struggle for Influence in Central Asia

Nowadays, color revolutions are frequently mentioned as a major threat by the authorities in Russia, China and Central Asia. Both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) want to prevent any Ukrainian-style color revolutions on their territory. Especially the 'stans could become the next targets for regime change. One reason for the coup d'état in Kiev was Washington's determination to thwart Ukraine's steering towards the Eurasian Customs Union. After the debacle in Crimea, the United States is now trying to maintain influence in Central Asia and this might imply more problems for the Moscow-led Customs Union:

How the West will oppose increased Russian influence in Central Asia

Most experts believe that the West, which would like to see a decrease in Russian influence in the region, will incite opposition in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to act. In Kyrgyzstan this process is already observable – Western-grant-funded non-governmental organizations are conducting counter-propaganda against the idea of pro-Russian integrative union. In connection with events in Ukraine, the West will do everything it can to strengthen this vector.

In the last few years, NGOs were increasingly involved in protests in Kyrgyzstan. These rallies are more often than not aimed at opposing Russian influence in the country, like for example the recent protests against the possible takeover of the Manas Transit Center by Russian companies. Predictably, the Eurasian Customs Union is a frequent target of demonstrations organized by Kyrgyz NGOs. Nevertheless, Bishkek is going ahead with Kyrgyzstan's accession to the Customs Union and there are only a few details left to clarify before the documents will be signed. Kyrgyz President Atambaev discussed the issue with Russian President Putin, when the CSTO leaders met in Moscow a few days ago. However, one CSTO leader was notably absent: 

Kazakhstan Skips CSTO Meeting in Moscow Today

A number of experts are noting that Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev was not present at tonight's emergency meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow, nor did he send representatives to the massive display of Russian armed forces, including the simulation of an ICBM launch on the eve of 9 May Victory Day celebrations.

Instead, he met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the
second-highest ranking American diplomat and the Obama Administrator's top expert on Russia.

This week, William Burns visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to "affirm the United States’ longstanding commitment to the security and prosperity of Central Asia". While the high-ranking U.S. diplomat met with two Central Asian leaders, Vladimir Putin showcased the preparedness of Russia's strategic and defensive forces to the Presidents of Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Russian head of state also shared his concerns about the rise of fascism and neo-Nazism in Europe with his fellow CSTO leaders. Although the informal summit focused on the Ukraine crisis, NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan was discussed as well. According to Sapar Isakov, chief of the foreign policy department of the Kyrgyz President’s Office, the CSTO will hold large-scale exercises in Tajikistan later this year to prepare for a deterioration of the security situation in the region. In the light of the CIA's latest masterstroke, this is certainly not the worst idea:

CIA, U.S. military at odds over Afghanistan pullback plan

The CIA also plans this summer to stop paying the salaries of Afghan paramilitary forces that it has armed and trained for more than a decade to help fight the Taliban-led insurgency in the country's east, near the Pakistani border. It is unclear what will happen to the militias.

Pentagon officials also are exploring whether the military can take over financial support of the CIA-backed militias to keep the Afghans from leaving the fight or switching sides, officials said. Some of the frontline units already have been disbanded, according to a report in the Daily Beast.

China's Railway Stations under Attack

China is currently experiencing at first hand what a rapidly deteriorating security situation means. Last week's terrorist attack at the important Urumqi railway station highlighted once again the terror problem in Xinjiang, which can be attributed to a great extent to Washington's East Turkestan project. German politician and former OSCE vice-president Willy Wimmer interpreted the recent high-profile attacks in Urumqi and Kunming as a warning to the Chinese authorities reminding them that China is also on NATO's hit list. Before Beijing had any time to respond to the Urumqi attack another railway station was attacked, this time in Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong province:

China Knife Attack: 6 Wounded In Stabbing Spree At Guangzhou Railway Station

Chinese police shot and wounded a suspect who attacked passengers at a busy railway station in southern China on Tuesday, leaving six people injured in the third high-profile assault on civilians at a train station in a little more than two months.

The latest incident happened late in the morning at the Guangzhou Railway Station, city police said on their microblog. Officers arrived as passengers were being hacked, and shot and subdued a male suspect with a knife after he failed to respond to a police warning, the statement said.

At this point, it is unclear whether there is any "Uyghur connection" to the attack in Guangzhou but the detained suspect will have plenty of time to explain his motivation. A migrant worker who helped to capture the assailant was rewarded with 5.000 yuan and celebrated by the Chinese media. Lately, the Chinese authorities have been trying to engage the population in the fight against terrorism by rewarding people who inform the government about "potential hazards to society", which include all kinds of things from growing beards to illegal religious activities. After the stabbing spree in Guangzhou, armed police patrols were enhanced nationwide and Beijing will introduce new anti-terror legislation next month. But this will not be enough to solve the persistent problem:

One assailant shot dead, another captured in attack on Xinjiang police

Police shot dead one assialant and captured another on Thursday in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, local authorities said in a statement.

The attack occurred at about 1:20 p.m. in the city of Aksu when police checked a suspect vehicle based on a tipoff from residents, said the statement.

On Monday, China released its first blue paper on national security focusing predominantly on terrorism. The report mentioned, for example, the threat posed by religious extremists who are "manipulated by hostile western forces". Finding a proper way of dealing with the terror threat, is one China's biggest challenges right now. In the wake of the latest attacks, some voices in the Chinese media have cautioned against neglecting the underlying social and economic problems of the conflict. But the Chinese authorities seem to prefer a hard-line approach and the deterrent effect [emphasis mine]: 

5 convicted in Kashgar on terror-related charges

Five people were recently sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for separatism and endangering national security, Xinjiang Daily on Thursday.

The trial of the five was jointly carried out by the municipal and prefectural people's courts in Kashgar. A gallery of more than 300 people, including local cadres and students, witnessed the trial.

The five were convicted in five separate cases of using secure digital memory cards with content from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement; using audiovisual materials downloaded from the Internet to spread jihadist ideas; instigating terrorism attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan; preaching extremist religious ideas to young people; and keeping machetes and other weapons for planned attacks. The prison sentences ranged from 7 to 15 years.

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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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