The New Great Game Round-Up: October 20, 2015

Turkmenistan to CIS: ‘Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here!,’ United National Movement Protests Georgia's Talks with Gazprom & 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.

Islamabad's recent offer to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table for renewed peace talks with the Afghan government is just one example of Pakistan's influence over the Taliban movement in general and its new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in particular. According to some Taliban sources, Pakistan is now taking a two-pronged approach in dealing with the movement. On the one hand, the Pakistani authorities are backing Mansoor and negotiations with Kabul but, on the other hand, they are also supporting the hawkish anti-Mansoor faction in order to keep the new supremo in check and continue the fight in Afghanistan. A senior Afghan intelligence official confirmed this, pointing out that Pakistan recently helped Mansoor's rival Abdul Qayyum "Zakir" launch large-scale offensives in the south of the country, which prompted Mansoor to offer Zakir to become his first deputy or Taliban shadow defense minister. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note that the United States is now implicating Pakistani intelligence in the Taliban's takeover of Kunduz as well:

APNewsBreak: US analysts knew Afghan site was hospital American special operations analysts were gathering intelligence on an Afghan hospital days before it was destroyed by a U.S. military attack because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity, The Associated Press has learned.

The special operations analysts had assembled a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance, according to a former intelligence official who is familiar with some of the documents describing the site. The intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons. After the attack — which came amidst a battle to retake the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from the Taliban — some U.S. analysts assessed that the strike had been justified, the former officer says. They concluded that the Pakistani, believed to have been working for his country's Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, had been killed.

U.S. Keeps Troops in Afghanistan as Kabul Takes Desperate Measures 

The Associated Press emphasizes that it is unclear whether the responsible commanders knew about these reports or that the site was a hospital. But although the U.S. keeps changing its story every few days, it is becoming more and more evident that the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz was deliberately targeted. The American military's "unannounced and forced entry" into the hospital compound immediately after the bombing suggests that Washington is not telling the whole truth. Interestingly, there is no public evidence to suggest that a Pakistani was killed in the attack, which makes the allegations against the ISI even more curious. Meanwhile, government forces have managed to drive the Taliban out of Kunduz - the Taliban claim to have withdrawn by their own choice "to avoid further civilian casualties" - but the situation remains highly volatile. The fall of Kunduz has put Afghanistan back on the map and U.S. President Barack Obama used the opportunity to announce that thousands of American troops will stay in the country when he leaves office:

Citing 'very fragile' security in Afghanistan, Obama slows pace of U.S. troop withdrawal Reversing policy on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he will prolong the 14-year-old U.S. military engagement there, effectively handing off the task of pulling out troops to his successor. Calling it a "modest but meaningful" adjustment to winding down the American presence in Afghanistan, Obama said Afghan forces were not yet as strong as they needed to be given a "very fragile" security situation and the United States will maintain a force of 9,800 through most of 2016. Obama had previously aimed to withdraw all but a small U.S.-embassy based force in the capital, Kabul, before he leaves office in January 2017. Under the new plan, troops will be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017 and will be based at four locations - Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

It comes as no real surprise that Obama won't keep his promise to end the war in Afghanistan. First of all, Obama is not known for keeping his word, and second, it has long been painfully obvious that the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the deteriorating security situation. U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani and the American military, which had been lobbying for slowing the withdrawal, immediately welcomed Obama's decision but the announcement also engendered criticism. The Taliban reacted as expected, emphasizing that this "means they aren't sincere about a peaceful solution to the Afghan crisis." Russia's Foreign Ministry joined in the criticism as well and stressed that "this forced step is another graphical evidence of the full blunder of the 14-year Washington military campaign and its allies in Afghanistan." And nothing illustrates this better than Kabul's latest idea:

Afghan Plan to Expand Militia Raises Abuse Concerns With the Afghan security forces gravely challenged by Taliban offensives, the government is moving to rapidly expand the troubled Afghan Local Police program by thousands of members, Afghan and Western officials say. The move to expand the police militias, prompted by the disastrous loss of the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban almost three weeks ago, is being described by officials speaking privately as an attempt to head off panic in Afghan cities threatened by the insurgents. But the expansion also amounts to an open admission that the United States’ main legacy in Afghanistan — the creation of nationalized police and army forces numbering more than 350,000 members — is failing under pressure even before any final American military withdrawal. On Thursday, President Obama called off that pullout, originally due at year’s end, leaving 9,800 American troops in the country for at least another year.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is part of the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan. U.S. planners created the ALP in 2010 to support the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). General David Petraeus modeled the program after the 'Sons of Iraq' initiative. Many ALP members are former Taliban who are now on the payroll of the United States. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen when the money dries up. But the biggest problem are the serious human rights abuses at the hands of ALP units, which are nothing more than village militias with AK-47s. Contrary to what the name suggests, Afghan Local Police members don't have police powers and don't care about the law. Although ALP forces have repeatedly been accused of all kinds of heinous crimes, including torture, rape and murder, Kabul is now planning to expand the program. This shows that the Afghan authorities are becoming increasingly desperate in the face of Taliban advances across the country:

Another Afghan district falls to the Taliban Reports from the northwestern province of Faryab indicate that the Taliban has overrun yet another district in Afghanistan. Ghormach, a district that borders Turkmenistan, is now effectively under Taliban control, according to the jihadist group and the Afghan press. The fall of Ghormach took place just 10 Days after the Taliban seized the districts of Garziwan and Pashtun Kot in Faryab; the Afghan government later claimed to have liberated Garziwan. On week prior, the Taliban attempted to seize control of Maimana, the provincial capital of Faryab. The two districts are on the outskirts of Maimana, and control access from the east.

Turkmenistan to CIS: Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here!

Ghormach's seizure by the Taliban is not only noteworthy because the district borders Turkmenistan but also because warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum and his family are still being celebrated for the successful government offensive in Faryab province. As previously discussed, the success in Faryab was short-lived. The insurgents picked up where they had left off as soon as Dostum returned to Kabul. Faryab has long been one of the most contested provinces in Afghanistan and it looks as if this won't change anytime soon. To make matters worse, the situation on the Tajik border isn't much better either. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about Russia's possible return to the Tajik-Afghan border. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov fueled the speculations in the run-up to last week's Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting, which focused on the issue:

Russia, ex-Soviet states to jointly defend borders in crisis The leaders of ex-Soviet states, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, responded to growing instability in Afghanistan on Friday by agreeing to create a joint task force to defend their bloc's external borders if a crisis arises. The move could mean that Russian troops, as part of collective forces, will be deployed to Afghanistan's borders as the U.S.-led coalition gradually withdraws from the country, leaving behind a power vacuum. They agreed on the creation of what is described in a summit document as a "grouping of border (forces) and other institutions from CIS member states designed to resolve crisis situations on the external borders".

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to convince his CIS colleagues that closer military cooperation is necessary because the situation in Afghanistan is "close to critical". However, it remains to be seen how much this agreement is actually worth. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, for his part, remarked after the meeting that the CIS is pretty much useless and that the issues discussed "are detached from reality." Disagreements between CIS members have often rendered the organization useless. So Karimov might have a point. At any rate, Russian President Putin and Kazakh President Nazarbayev used the latest CIS meeting in Kazakhstan to draw attention to the alarming situation in Afghanistan and to call for closer cooperation in dealing with the problem. Whereas Tajikistan welcomed the initiative, Turkmenistan preferred to deny that there is any problem and to attack anyone who suggests otherwise:

Turkmenistan Strongly Denies ‘Incidents’ at Afghan Border Turkmenistan has registered no incidents at its border with Afghanistan, the Central Asian state's government said on Friday, denouncing as untrue a remark by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The strongly worded statement came ahead of a meeting of ex-Soviet nations to discuss the security of Afghan borders, among other issues, and followed comments by Nazarbayev who said he was aware of "incidents" that had happened at the Afghan-Turkmen border, but did not elaborate. "The Turkmen side expresses its extreme concern and incomprehension with regards to such a statement by the president of Kazakhstan about the situation on Turkmenistan's state border, which is untrue," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Turkmenistan's strongly worded statement indicates that Nazarbayev struck a nerve by bringing up the situation on the Afghan border. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry was not impressed by the harsh words coming from Ashgabat and defended Nazarbayev's remarks. After all, it is absolutely ludicrous to deny that there has been unrest on the Turkmen-Afghan border. Last year, Turkmen forces even crossed the border in order to drive the insurgents back and there have been several "incidents" ever since. According to the foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, the Turkmen military has stationed up to 70 percent of its combat-ready military equipment along the Afghan border. The Turkmen government is obviously aware of the alarming situation in northern Afghanistan, but for some reason Ashgabat is now trying to play down the issue. Perhaps this has something to do with Turkmenistan's efforts to push the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, regardless of whether or not that makes any sense:

Hunt on for leader to lay $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline The four-nation consortium has revived the search for a leader to help lay the $10-billion TAPI gas pipeline, laying bare the lack of confidence among the countries to go ahead on their own and threatening to delay the project further. Just two months back, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India had agreed to co-own the project with TurkmenGaz, the state-owned firm of Turkmenistan, expected to make the majority investment in laying the 1800-km pipeline that would begin the construction work in December. Now again the timeline looks shaky. "The key challenge is to select a consortium leader or a partner. We are still looking for one," said BC Tripathi, chairman of GAIL, the state-run firm that represents India in the consortium. The top executives of GAILBSE 1.97 % and other state companies representing three other nations have been negotiating the terms between themselves and figuring out the nuances of the project for the last two months since the oil ministers of the four countries agreed in Ashgabat to go on their own without waiting for a firm with experience in laying and operating pipeline to lead the consortium.

United National Movement Protests Georgia's Talks with Gazprom

Although a TAPI consortium leader is nowhere to be found and the Taliban are making themselves at home on the Turkmen-Afghan border, Turkmenistan is already starting with the construction of the ambitious pipeline project in an attempt to diversify its gas exports. In order to lessen the increasing dependence on China, the Turkmen authorities are also turning to Japan and still promoting the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea should serve as a warning to supporters of the Trans-Caspian project but Ashgabat and Baku refuse to give up on the pipe dream. Azerbaijan's efforts to strengthen its position in the energy market suffered recently an unexpected setback when close ally Georgia announced its plans to buy more gas from Russia and Iran. The words of Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze caused a great stir and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili had to travel to Baku to calm the waves:

Georgian PM Reaffirms ‘Friendly, Strategic’ Relations with Azerbaijan PM Irakli Garibashvili said on October 12 that Tbilisi’s relations with Baku will remain “friendly and strategic” and dismissed talk of “diversification, replacement of Azerbaijani gas” supplies as “utterly absurd”. 

Georgian Energy Ministry said late last week that Tbilisi was open for talks with Gazprom on possible gas supplies for private entities in Georgia in order to, as Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and his deputy put it, “diversify” energy supplies for the country. Kaladze, who met Gazprom chief executive in Brussels in late September, reiterated on October 12 that private entities might be interested in purchasing Russian gas if the price is acceptable. After the Georgian Energy Minister spoke about possible gas supplies from Gazprom last week, PM Garibashvili made a brief and unannounced visit to Baku on October 10, where he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, triggering speculation in Tbilisi that the surprise visit aimed at mending ties after potential fallout caused by Tbilisi’s suggestions over Gazprom gas supplies.

Georgian opposition parties tried to exploit the situation and some people went as far as alleging that the government plans to revise the country's relations with Azerbaijan. Garibashvili vehemently denied this and assured everyone that things will stay as they are. The Georgian Prime Minister stressed that talks with Gazprom are just about a possible increase of transit of natural gas to Armenia. Neither President Giorgi Margvelashvili nor the Georgian opposition were entirely convinced by Garibashvili's words. Last Friday, Tbilisi police detained Tamar Chergoleishvili, the head of pro-Saakashvili TV channel Tabula TV, one of her producers and another activist when they were hanging up posters mocking former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Gazprom. One day later, a few hundred protesters gathered in front of the central government building to protest against the negotiations with Russia's energy behemoth:

Tbilisi Protests Russia’s Gazprom On Saturday, at the State Chancellery, the protest ‘No to Gazprom’ rallied against Gazprom’s possible entrance into the Georgian energy market. Energy giant Russia is believed to attempt to re-enter Georgia and is said by some to be a non-trivial tool for the Russian government to manage political processes on the ground. The concerns arose after the government initiated talks with Russian energy company Gazprom. The rally involved politicians, public activists and members of the National Movement, as well as concerned citizens from all over Georgia. Tabula, a political magazine, organized the protest action against Gazprom’s possible entrance into the Georgian energy market.

Tamar Chergoleishvili is not only the head of Tabula TV but also the editor-in-chief of the Tbilisi-based Tabula magazine. Tabula is known for its pro-United National Movement (UNM) views, which is hardly surprising considering that Chergoleishvili is the wife of senior UNM leader Giga Bokeria. As mentioned last week, the opposition party is currently trying to prevent the government from taking control of another important pro-UNM media outlet. According to the latest polls, neither the Georgian Dream ruling coalition nor the UNM have benefited from the endless fighting. Although many voters are disappointed by the government, the UNM isn't gaining any support as more and more Georgians don't know which party they should vote for. But more worrying for the West are the rising pro-Russian sentiment and the declining support for joining the European Union and NATO:

NDI Poll on Foreign Policy Issues

Number of Georgian respondents who support “government’s stated goal to join the EU” has dropped by 17 percentage points over the past year to 61%, according to a public opinion survey, commissioned by the NDI and fielded by CRRC in August. Asked whether they support or not Georgia joining Russia-led Eurasian Union, 31% responded positively, same as in April 2015, and 46% negatively, up by five percentage points from four months earlier. When the respondents were offered a choice between two answers – “Georgia will benefit more from joining EU and NATO”, and “Georgia will benefit more from abandoning Euro-Atlantic integration in favor of better relations with Russia” – 45% chose the former and 30% the latter.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 13, 2015

U.S. Tries to Keep Georgia in Line, Afghanistan Turns to Russia for Help as Taliban Gain Ground & 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.

New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor faced a lot of opposition within the movement, when he officially took over from Mullah Omar two months ago. Several leading Taliban commanders decided to go their own ways and Mullah Omar's family only reluctantly endorsed the new supremo. Despite all that, the Taliban have stepped up their game in the first few weeks of Mansoor's reign, dashing Kabul's hopes that the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death would weaken the group. It seems like an eternity ago that Kabul and the Taliban were holding peace talks to stop the fighting. At the end of July, the two sides were about to meet in Pakistan for the second round of talks when Afghan intelligence leaked Omar's death to the press, thereby unleashing a new wave of violence. After the Taliban demonstrated their power in Kunduz, Pakistan renewed its offer to restart the talks and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reminded his Afghan colleagues that they should have kept their mouth shut:

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif says working for revival of Afghan peace talks The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he is trying to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban group which was stalled by the announcement of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death. In televised remarks to the media Nawaz said “The news of Mullah Omar should not have been broken just before the start of the second round of talks.” Sharif further added “We are now trying to resume the (peace) process and pray to God to crown our efforts with success.”

Afghanistan Turns to Russia for Help as Taliban Gain Ground

Given that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) more or less controls Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the Pakistani government should be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, or at least the faction that is interested in talks with Kabul. Mansoor supported the reconciliation process and authorized the delegation for the first round of talks. That is why several top Taliban commanders turned against him. U.S. Gen. John F. Campbell, the top commander of U.S. and allies forces in Afghanistan, just told the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee that 60 percent to 70 percent of the Taliban movement may ultimately be reconciled with Kabul but that is of course still a long way off. As for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, they will have no choice but to talk to Mansoor and his Pakistani backers if the Taliban continue to gain ground across the country:

Afghan Taliban’s Reach Is Widest Since 2001, U.N. Says The Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, according to data compiled by the United Nations as well as interviews with numerous local officials in areas under threat. In addition, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan over the past two weeks has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices around the country — the most it has ever done for security reasons — according to local officials in the affected areas. The data, compiled in early September — even before the latest surge in violence in northern Afghanistan — showed that United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme,” more than at any time since the American invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.

As The New York Times pointed out, the United Nations' assessment is at odds with Gen. Campbell's rosy assessment in his recent testimony to Congress. The top U.S. commander even had the nerve to play down the alarming situation in Kunduz, while at the same time, the U.S. was using the latest crisis to tell its NATO allies that they will probably have to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has already endorsed the idea. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is seeking help from other countries as well. Last week, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum visited Grozny and Moscow to ask for Russian support in the fight against ISIS. During his meetings with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and top Russian officials, Dostum commended Russia's campaign in Syria and stressed that Kabul needs Moscow's support because "ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead." This clearly resonated with his Russian hosts:

Afghanistan's Dostum Turns To Old Ally Russia For Help "The Russian side is committed to support and help Afghanistan in terms of helping its air and military forces," Dostum's spokesman, Sultan Faizy, told RFE/RL by telephone. "We're lacking air support, weapons, ammunition. We need a lot of backing and support to fight against terrorism." But Faizy said that would not mean direct military intervention by Russia, which is still mindful of the 1979-89 war that killed some 15,000 Soviet soldiers and has repeatedly said it would not send troops to Afghanistan. Faizy said that Moscow had promised to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan and "see what they can help with."

An Afghan parliamentary delegation also visited Moscow to ask for support. Russian Federation Council member Igor Morozov told TASS that the Afghans cited a lack of helicopters as the reason for the Taliban takeover of Kunduz and Morozov used the opportunity to have a dig at the Americans. Zamir Kabulov, President Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, announced after the meetings that Moscow and Kabul are planning to sign a deal on the delivery of several Mi-35 helicopter gunships later this month. That is music to the ears of Afghan Air Force (AAF) commanders who have repeatedly complained about the useless MD 530F helicopters provided by the United States. Whether or not Russia considers extending its "anti-ISIS" bombing campaign to Afghanistan, remains unclear. Kabulov dodged the question when he was asked but he provided an explanation for the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan:

ISIS training militants from Russia in Afghanistan, 'US and UK citizens among instructors' Russian officials accused Washington of orchestrating the deterioration of security in Afghanistan and the expansion of Islamic State there. “It seems like someone’s hand is pushing freshly trained ISIL fighters to mass along Afghanistan’s northern border. They don’t fight foreign or Afghan government troops,” Kabulov said. He added that on several occasions Taliban groups that refused to join Islamic State were “set up” to be targeted by airstrikes. “The Afghan Army practically has no aircraft. Only the Americans do. These details bring some very bad thoughts and concerns. We have to take them into account and draw conclusions accordingly,” he said.

Russia Sends Helicopters to Alleviate Tajikistan's Border Woes 

Kabulov emphasized that the Afghanistan branch of ISIS numbers already 3,500 fighters despite emerging only one year ago. Russia's military intelligence chief Igor Sergun added that the Islamic State's expansion in Afghanistan is in line with Washington's long-term goal of destabilizing Central Asia and "surrounding Russia and China with a network of regimes loyal to America and hotspots of tension." As the situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorates, Russian officials seem to be stepping up their ISIS rhetoric in an effort to justify further military involvement in the region. Although the Russians are clearly exaggerating the threat posed by ISIS, the increasing activities of insurgents on the Tajik-Afghan border cannot be denied. Tajikistan's intelligence agency claims that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have massed in close proximity the border and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently briefed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the latest developments during a meeting in Sochi:

Tajikistan 'Extremely Concerned' About Situation Along Afghan Border President Emomali Rahmon has said Tajikistan was "extremely concerned" about the situation along the Tajik-Afghan border. During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on October 6, Rahmon said the situation in Afghanistan was "getting worse by the day." "Practically, fighting is going on along more than 60 percent of the Tajik border with Afghanistan," he added.

Russian President Putin also voiced concerns about the deteriorating situation on the border but both leaders agreed that there was no need for boosting Russian military presence in Tajikistan. Apparently this didn't include helicopters. One day after the meeting between Putin and Rahmon, a Russian Defense Ministry official announced that Russia will reinforce its 201st military base in Tajikistan with Mi-24P attack and Mi-8MTV transport and combat helicopters. The helicopters will be stationed at Ayni Air Force Base, which was renovated with $70 million from India a few years ago. Both India and Russia have been trying to gain control of the base, to no avail. The Tajik Defense Ministry just clarified that Russia can use the base but it remains under Tajik control. Russia's military presence in the country is a controversial issue because Russian soldiers are not always on their best behavior:

Russian officer sacked for assaulting Tajik taxi driver A court at Russian’s military base in Tajikistan has delivered a judgment over the case of Russian officer Denis Borisenko, who was charged with assaulting a Tajik taxi driver and stealing his vehicle. Under a ruling handed down at the court at the Russian military base, Senior Lieutenant Denis Borisenko was sacked and he will pay compensation (60,000 Russian rubles (RR) to local tax driver Dilshod Khoushov. According to investigators, Borisenko was drunk when he attacked Khoushov and drove away in his car. Borisenko later hit another vehicle and was detained at the scene. 

A few weeks ago, two other Russian soldiers were convicted of killing a Tajik taxi driver and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Such crimes and similar incidents reignite the never-ending debate about Russia's military presence in the country from time to time but the Tajik government hasn't been swayed by the criticism. In fact, Dushanbe has never been easily swayed by criticism. Washington has apparently realized this and preferred to keep quiet while the Rahmon regime was cracking down on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Even after the IRPT had been branded a terrorist organization, the U.S. only voiced mild criticism in an emailed statement, which went largely unnoticed. Meanwhile, the Tajik authorities are coming up with evermore charges against arrested IRPT lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov and the remaining top officials of the Islamic Renaissance Party:

Tajik Prosecutors Say 23 Islamic Party Officials Arrested Tajik prosecutors say 23 top officials of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (HNIT) have been arrested, many on suspicion of leading a deadly mutiny by a serving deputy defense minister in early September. The Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office said on October 6 that criminal probes are under way against the party officials who face charges including terrorism, inciting religious and racial hatred, and attempting to seize power by force. Many also face forgery, fraud, and other economic crime charges.

U.S. Tries to Keep Georgia in Line

As Tajikistan continues its crackdown on the IRPT without much resistance from the West, Georgia is probably wondering what the secret is. After the Georgian authorities recently tried to shut down pro-opposition private TV broadcaster Rustavi 2, the United States immediately reprimanded the government and U.S. Ambassador Ian C. Kelly met with Rustavi 2 executives to assure them that the U.S. Embassy "is closely following" the case. Rustavi 2 has long been a thorn in the side of the current government due to its close ties to former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM). Three opposition activists were detained for assaulting a lawmaker from Georgian Dream ruling coalition during a rally in support of Rustavi 2 in front of the parliament building. The UNM has tried to exploit this by calling for a snap election but even other government critics reject the idea:

Free Democrats against holding snap election The Free Democrats has rejected a proposal by the National Movement to hold a snap election one year before the next scheduled one. The Free Democrats has now ruled out supporting a snap election. The party was a member of the Georgian Dream coalition but withdrew in November, when party leader Irakli Alasania was dismissed as defense minister. Also the foreign minister and minister of Euro integration resigned in protest and are now active members of the Free Democrats. Maia Panjikidze, the former foreign minister, said Tuesday that the Free Democrats do not support holding a special election. She said there is indeed dissatisfaction about the government, but it is a signal for them to feel responsibility. However, she said, only one year is left until the parliamentary election. 

Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats would like to remove the "pro-Russian" government of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili sooner rather than later but they won't join forces with the UNM to this end. In Georgia, the crimes of the Saakashvili regime haven't been forgotten. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is now considering to take a break from prosecuting Africans and Serbs to investigate one of these crimes: the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. Much to the dismay of Moscow, the statements coming from The Hague and Saakashvili's reaction suggest that an investigation is going to be every bit as "objective" as previous ICC "investigations." After all, the ICC would never dream of going after a would-be NATO member. Georgian Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli underlined Tbilisi's commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration once again during recent meetings with EU and NATO officials in Brussels but the Georgians have no illusions:

Georgian Deputy FM: MAP Not Expected at NATO Warsaw Summit

Georgia is not likely to get NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the alliance’s summit next year in Warsaw, Deputy Foreign Minister, Davit Dondua, said. According to him the Georgian officials and diplomats’ rhetoric abroad in communication with NATO partners is different from messages they try to use for domestic consumption in Georgia. He said that although knowing that there is a little chance for MAP, Georgia is still pushing the issue intensively in its talks with NATO partners as a “bargaining” tool in order to then get at least something; but domestically, he said, the authorities do not want to prioritize MAP in order not to create false expectations, because it will then cause frustration, which will be exploited by the “Russian propaganda” in Georgia.

Georgia's quest for NATO membership has played into the hands of the "Russian propaganda" and contributed to a rise of pro-Russian sentiments in the country, as more and more people began to realize that Georgian soldiers are dying in Afghanistan for nothing at all. Equally worrying for the West are Tbilisi's latest efforts to expand economic cooperation with Russia and Iran. Georgia wants to diversify its gas imports away from Azerbaijan, which provides about 90 percent of the country's gas imports at the moment. That is why Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze met last month with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller to discuss Russian gas supplies. To make matters worse, Khaladze announced a few days ago that Georgia is not only talking about additional supplies from Russia but also "actively working in respect of Iran." This didn't go down particularly well in Washington:

Deputy FM Says Georgia Told by U.S. not to Rush into Full-Scale Cooperation with Iran Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Davit Dondua, said the U.S. has asked Tbilisi to “refrain from full-scale cooperation” with Iran until Tehran fully complies with the Vienna nuclear deal reached in July. “We have permanent contacts with our American colleagues, who are asking us to refrain from full-scale cooperation with Iran and from becoming open [for Iran] for now – until all the commitments agreed in Vienna are fulfilled and until Iran is given final green light,” Dondua said on October 9. “We are telling our American and other friends that we remain committed to the policy and sanctions pursued by [the West] in respect of Iran, but you should also take into consideration specifics of Georgia’s situation. Iran is a regional state, our important partner, including from the economic point of view, and we want some sort of space for maneuvering,” Dondua 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

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 6, 2015

China Keeps Mum on Violence as Xinjiang Marks 60th Anniversary, If ISIS Won't Come to Kadyrov-Kadyrov Will Come to ISIS & 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.

After the Taliban shocked the world by seizing the northern Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, the Afghan government pulled out all the stops to retake the city. Leaving the strategic city of 300,000 in the hands of the Taliban would create major problems for Afghanistan and neighboring countries, given the fact that Kunduz is an important transport hub for the north of the country and a gateway to Central Asia. For example, the distance to Tajikistan is only about 70 kilometers (44 miles). Aware of city's importance, Taliban fighters tried to win residents over with a "charm offensive" but they quickly fell back into old patterns. As government forces were struggling to launch a successful counterattack, U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani was coming under increasing pressure. He tried to shift the blame on others and replaced the governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar Safi, who had just reappeared after watching the fall of the provincial capital from abroad. But despite rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Ghani could not hide the fact that the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the situation and that they need help to retake the city:

More US airstrikes as special forces join fight against insurgents outside Kunduz American special operations troops joined the battle around Kunduz on Wednesday, exchanging fire with Taliban fighters near the airport where Afghan forces withdrew after ceding control of the city two days before, the U.S.-led coalition announced. U.S. aircraft carried out more airstrikes against Taliban forces threatening the Kunduz airport, where Afghan government are regrouping after fleeing the city Monday. The increased American support follow signs that Afghan forces are struggling in the face of the massive Taliban assault, which has plunged the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani into the deepest crisis of its first year in office.

U.S. Bombs Hospital to Help Afghans Retake Kunduz

After three days of intense fighting, Afghan forces, led by U.S.-trained special forces from the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) and supported by U.S. special forces, eventually managed to retake control of key areas in Kunduz on October 1. According to local officials, more than 300 insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani jihadists, were killed during the battle. Afghanistan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Murad Ali Murad, who was in charge of the operation, said that the Taliban had planned to stage a major propaganda coup by bringing their new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor to Kunduz. Security forces foiled this plan but government claims that the entire city had been cleared of insurgents were swiftly contradicted by residents who pointed out that the Taliban are still controlling several party of Kunduz. While ground forces were trying to eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance, the American military was ramping up its airstrikes across northern Afghanistan, with dire consequences:

Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan At least 19 people were killed when a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike, sparking international outrage. The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” Accounts differed as to whether there had been fighting around the hospital that might have precipitated the strike. Two hospital employees, an aide who was wounded in the bombing and a nurse who emerged unscathed, said that there had been no active fighting nearby and no Taliban fighters in the hospital. 

Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini and other Afghan officials, on the other hand, insisted that Taliban fighters had entered the hospital and were using it as a firing position. Given that Afghan officials have a long history of distorting the truth to cover up their own crimes and the crimes of their Western partners, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) strongly denied the claims and pointed out that "these statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present." As MSF rightly noted, "this amounts to an admission of a war crime." Notwithstanding the obvious hypocrisy, the U.S. initially tried to play the 'collateral damage' card but Gen. John F. Campbell later confirmed that MSF was right:

US commander says Afghans requested US airstrike in Kunduz The U.S. airstrike that killed 22 at a medical clinic in northern Afghanistan over the weekend was requested by Afghan forces who reported being under Taliban fire, and was not sought by U.S. forces, the top commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan said Monday. Gen. John F. Campbell made the statement at a hastily arranged Pentagon news conference. He said he was correcting an initial U.S. statement that said the airstrike had been in response to threats against U.S. forces. "We have now learned that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces," Campbell said. "An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck. This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf."

Afghan officials are probably having second thoughts about the "Taliban threat" after Campbell tried to shift the blame on the Afghans, basically admitting that U.S. and Afghan forces committed a war crime. As MSF emphasized, the Americans had the GPS coordinates of the hospital and knew exactly what they were bombing. But the attack comes as no real surprise considering that the hospital has previously been targeted by Afghan security forces who were "irked" by its policy of treating the wounded from all sides of the conflict. Thanks to the latest attack, they finally got what they wanted. Doctors Without Borders announced on October 4 that it was forced to withdraw from Kunduz after U.S. jets destroyed its facility amid a growing humanitarian crisis in the city. Security forces have now regained control of most of the strategic provincial capital but there is no end in sight to the fighting in northern Afghanistan:

Taliban overruns another 2 districts in Afghan north As fighting in the city of Kunduz continues, the Taliban seized two more districts in the Afghan north.`The district of Wardoj, which has switched hands in the past, and Baharak were overrun during Taliban assaults over the past two days, the jihadist group and Afghan officials reported. Dawlat Mohammad Khawar, the district governor for Wardoj, “confirmed that the Afghan security forces have retreated from Wardoj following hours of gun battle with the Taliban militants,” Khaama Press reported. Additionally, the Taliban overran the Baharak district in Badakhsan. “On Friday Mujahideen stormed the district and after intense fighting with the enemy and soon seized control of the district as well as overrunning a number of the checkpoints based near the district headquarters for the security arrangements,” the Taliban stated on Voice of Jihad. 

China Keeps Mum on Violence as Xinjiang Marks 60th Anniversary

Badakhshan was relatively stable as long as troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were stationed there but after they handed over control to the Afghan security forces, the province turned into one of the most contested areas in Afghanistan. Neighboring Tajikistan and China are keeping a close eye on the situation. Beijing's efforts to stop the violence by facilitating peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban suffered a major setback at the end of July when Afghan intelligence spilled the beans on Mullah Omar's death. It remains to be seen whether or not new supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor will stick to previous understandings that Omar reached with Beijing regarding Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities would prefer not having to worry about Uyghur jihadists on Afghan territory given that Uyghur jihadists on Chinese territory are already causing enough problems:

China slams a lid on news of violence from its western frontier Earlier this month, a knife-wielding gang attacked security guards at a coal mine in Xinjiang, a volatile region in the northwest of China. By the time the attack was repelled, at least 40 people had been killed or injured, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, which quoted a local state security chief about the incident four days after it occurred. Chinese state media still hasn’t reported on the Sept. 18 coal mine attack, more than two weeks later. It’s only the latest example of what appears to be a Chinese government news blackout on growing violence in Xinjiang, an oil-rich region crucial to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan for a Silk Road economic development belt stretching across Asia. Other unpublicized incidents include a police shooting of eight suspects in June; the police killing of two men in May after they reportedly attacked a patrol; and a Han Chinese town official knifed to death, also in May.

Whereas Chinese media tries to keep a lid on bad news from Xinjiang, U.S. propaganda outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA) continues to rub salt into the wound. Thanks to the help of the local authorities, RFA won't run out of useful material anytime soon. In addition to frequent terrorist attacks, there are plenty of absurd anti-terror measures to talk about. One of the more reasonable ideas is to teach Chinese soldiers Uyhgur folk dances and songs in an effort to improve relations between the military and the local population. As Chinese officials emphasize time and again, the military plays a vital role in safeguarding the stability of the autonomous region. At the end of September, Beijing released a 20,000-word white paper on ethnic equality, unity and development in Xinjiang, lauding the "tremendous achievements" in the region and highlighting the fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The white paper was issued on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Xinjiang's founding on October 1, 1955:

China stresses stability, security on Xinjiang's founding anniversary Top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng on Thursday said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, stressing counterterrorism as the focus of the current work. Yu, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, made the remarks at a grand rally in Urumqi, the regional capital, marking the 60th anniversary of the autonomous region's founding. "The three forces (separatism, terrorism and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang and the common enemies for people of all ethnic groups. We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities strictly and lawfully and fight the three forces," Yu said.

Yu Zhengsheng and other central government officials toured Xinjiang ahead of the anniversary festivities to pose for a few photo ops and to check how the fight against the 'three evils' is going. During their tour, Yu made the case for expanding an aid program for Xinjiang in order to help the region fight terrorism. According to the Xinjiang white paper, Beijing has poured more than 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.2 trillion) into the autonomous region between 2010 and 2014. Yu's statements indicate that this is only the beginning, as the Chinese government spares neither trouble nor expense to ensure Xinjiang's long-term stability and security. If recent media reports are to be believed, these efforts could also include Chinese military involvement in Syria. Chinese naval expert Zhang Junshe dismissed the reports as rumors but the growing presence of Uyghurs in Syria has certainly not gone unnoticed in Beijing:

Uighur jihadist group in Syria advertises ‘little jihadists’ The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an al Qaeda-affiliated Uighur jihadist group that is operating in Syria, recently released a video that includes photos of children with weapons and jihadist garb accompanied by an Uighur-language nasheed [A cappella Islamic music]. The children were described as “little jihadists” on the TIP’s official Twitter feed. This is not the first time that the TIP has shown children in training. In July, the group first publicized a training camp in Idlib, which appears to be in the same area. Several of those photos depict the children learning how to operate AK-47’s, sub-machine guns, and other handguns. In both cases, many of the children appear to be Uighur, but it is possible that some are native Syrians. The group’s former military leader was a native Syrian and the group has featured other Syrians in its ranks before.

If ISIS Won't Come to Kadyrov, Kadyrov Will Come to ISIS

Considering Turkey's meddling in "East Turkestan" and Syria, it is hardly surprising that the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is being linked to Turkish intelligence. Much to the dismay of Turkish officials, Uyghurs in and around Jisr al-Shughur are now at risk of being killed by Russian airstrikes. As Ankara is seeing its hopes dashed, Turkish Islamist "charities," such as IMKANDER and Özgür-Der, took a break from supporting NATO-backed jihadists in Syria and elsewhere to protest against Russia's intervention. These protests won't stop Russia's campaign in Syria but they could encourage Moscow to make another attempt at putting IMKANDER on the Al-Qaida Sanctions List. However, Russian officials have no illusions about the West's "War on Terror." Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who keeps eliminating IMKANDER's beloved terrorist leaders, just emphasized again that "the main target of the West is Assad and not the 'Iblis State' terrorist organization." Therefore, Kadyrov asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for permission to take matters into his own hands:

Kadyrov asks Putin to allow Chechen infantry to fight in Syria The head of the Chechen Republic has asked the Russian president to send Chechen units to fight Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Syria, adding that his fighters have sworn to fight terrorists till the end. “This is not idle talk, I am asking for permission to go there and participate in special operations,” Ramzan Kadyrov said in the Friday interview with the RSN radio. “Being a Muslim, a Chechen and a Russian patriot I want to say that in 1999 when our republic was overrun with these devils we swore on the Koran that we would fight them wherever they are,” the Chechen leader said. “But we need the Commander-in-Chief’s decision to do this,” he emphasized. According to the Russian Constitution, the president is also the commander-in-chief of the military forces.

Ramzan Kadyrov's expertise in fighting terrorism is well-known. That is why another former warlord, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, visited Chechnya the other day to get some advice from him and ask for Russian support in the fight against ISIS. The Chechen leader was immediately hooked and assured Dostum that Russia won't let Afghanistan down. Some people in Moscow want to get rid of Chechnya's "enfant terrible" and probably wouldn't mind sending him to Afghanistan or Syria but President Putin counts on Kadyrov to maintain order and stability in Chechnya, by all available means. This includes public naming and shaming of ISIS supporters. Although there have been a few isolated cases of attempted ISIS recruitment in Chechnya, the group has not been able to get a foothold in the Chechen republic. Local security forces are doing their best to nip the threat in the bud, forcing the Islamic State to focus on neighboring Dagestan:

IS's North Caucasus Affiliate Calls For Recruits To Join It In Daghestan The Islamic State extremist group's North Caucasus affiliate, Wilayat al-Qawqaz (Caucasus Province) has issued a call for would-be militants in Russia to join it and fight against Russian forces rather than joining IS in Syria. In a video message released last week by Furat Media, IS's official Russian-language media wing, the leader of IS's Caucasus Province in Daghestan, Abu Mukhammad Kadarsky (Rustam Asilderov), said this was the wish of IS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Despite the propaganda, IS's Caucasus Province is weak and unlikely to attract large numbers of recruits to swell its ranks in the forests of Daghestan, particularly as winter draws near.

The Islamic State's Caucasus Province got off to a bad start. Its first official attack in Russia, allegedly targeting Russian army barracks in Dagestan, was just made-up and now the group is struggling to find new recruits. Wilayat Qawqaz owes its existence to the defection of several Caucasus Emirate (IK) commanders. This has crippled the once powerful terrorist organization and seems to have caused some bad blood between the groups. IK's affiliate in Syria was really upset when the Russian "kuffars" didn't target ISIS positions during their recent bombing campaign. It is not exactly a secret that Moscow's primary objective is to support the Syrian government against all terrorists, regardless of whether they belong to ISIS or "moderate" groups "vetted" and armed by the United States. And another important objective is to prevent Russian jihadists fighting in Syria from returning to Russia:

Russian Jailed For Fighting Alongside Islamic Militants In Syria A Russian man from the city of Tyumen has been sentenced to two years in jail for fighting with Islamic militants in Syria. The regional branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) says Vitaly Makarov, a convert to Islam, was found guilty by a court of taking part in military operations in Syria in 2013-2014 with an illegal armed group loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group. FSB First Deputy Director Sergei Smirnov said earlier this month that some 2,400 Russians are fighting alongside IS militants and other extremist Muslim groups in Syria and Iraq.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: September 29, 2015

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires, Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options & 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.

With the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine dominating the headlines, the latest escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has gone largely unnoticed. It all started on September 24, when Azerbaijani forces shelled Armenian villages in the northeastern Tavush region close to the border. Mortar and gunfire killed three civilian women, aged 41, 83 and 94, and wounded four other residents. It was the highest number of civilians killed in one day for quite some time. Moreover, targeting villages with mortar fire is not a common tactic and has only rarely been seen since the end of the war in 1994. As Armenia called on the international community to get involved and prevent a further escalation of the conflict, Azerbaijan tried to play the innocent by using Israel's tried and tested 'human shields' rhetoric. But it quickly became clear which side is provoking an escalation:

Four Armenian Servicemen Killed by Azerbaijani Fire Four Armenian servicemen were killed today in an offensive operation launched by Azerbaijan on Sept. 25. Norayr Khachatryan (b. 1995), Robert Mkrtchyan (b. 1995), Harout Hakobyan (b. 1997), and Karen Shahinyan (b. 1997) of the Artsakh Armed Forces were killed in the Azerbaijani attack, announced the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) Ministry of Defense. According to the Ministry, Azerbaijani forces used Turkish-made TR-107 rocket launchers in the attack. Intensive shelling reportedly took place on Sept. 24 and 25. A day earlier, 83-year-old Parakavar resident Baydzar Aghajanyan and Berdavan residents Shushan Asatryan, 94, and Sona Revezyan , 41, were killed by Azerbaijani artillery fire targeting Armenian border villages in Armenia’s Tavush province. Four other residents were also wounded in the attack.

Azerbaijan Kills Armenian Grannies, Blames Armenia

True to form, after killing seven Armenians in two days, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of escalating the conflict in an attempt to derail negotiations between the countries' Foreign Ministers and the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in New York. Ironically, that is exactly the strategy that Azerbaijan has been using time and again in the run-up to important meetings and negotiations. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs were not swayed by Baku's antics and urged the warring parties to accept an OSCE mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations. Armenia has already agreed to discuss the details of the mechanism and Azerbaijan is now under pressure to follow suit. The month of September has taken a turn for the worse for Baku. Two weeks ago, Azerbaijani officials were chuffed to bits, thinking that they have a golden opportunity to claim the moral high ground in the conflict with Armenia:

Armenian 'Activist' Defects To Azerbaijan An Armenian man has defected to archrival Azerbaijan in a case that is sure to rankle in Yerevan. Vahan Martirosian, who says he is the head of an NGO called Internal National Liberation Movement, told reporters in Baku on September 18 that he had requested political asylum in Azerbaijan. There is no NGO by that name in the official registry. Martirosian slammed the policies of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, calling them anti-Armenian, and said Azerbaijani media are the only source offering "truthful information" about the current situation in Armenia.

Azerbaijani media is not exactly known for offering "truthful information" about anything but Martirosian went even further in his efforts to please his new hosts. The Armenian "activist" vowed to draw the international community's attention to the "criminal regime" of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and claimed that most people living in Nagorno-Karabakh would vote to join Azerbaijan if they were allowed to hold a referendum. Martirosian's strange Baku press conference perplexed not only the Armenian authorities but also the country's opposition and civil activists because they couldn't recall ever meeting him during protests in Armenia. Ruzanna Marguni, the woman who accused Martirosian of stealing $3,800 from her apartment before he left the country, described him as "a skillful fraudster." This being the case, Martirosian's defection is not the propaganda coup the Aliyev regime had been hoping for and it won't help to deflect attention from Azerbaijan's crackdown on journalists and human rights activists, which is once again causing tensions between Baku and the West:

Aliyev Goes On The Attack Against EU Values Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has thrown down the gauntlet in the face of criticism from the European Union, accusing the bloc of being "anti-Azerbaijani" and mocking European values amid the ongoing refugee crisis. During a joint press conference with visiting Czech President Milos Zeman in Baku on September 15, Aliyev blasted a recent European Parliament resolution that condemned his country's human rights situation and called for the release of all political prisoners and imprisoned journalists. Speaking earlier on September 15 at the opening ceremonies of a new school in Baku, Aliyev called on the country's youth to stay away from "foreign influence and the so-called Western values that our people do not share."​

Aliyev and Co. were furious about the latest "anti-Azerbaijani" European Parliament resolution. Baku responded by canceling the planned visit by a European Commission delegation and by suspending its participation in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, an inter-parliamentary forum of the EU and its eastern neighbors which was established as part of the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative. Some Azerbaijani lawmakers have even called for rethinking Azerbaijan's participation in the Eastern Partnership. As usual, Baku's anger about "anti-Azerbaijani" activities is not only directed at Brussels but also at "some circles" in the United States. After cracking down on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) at the end of last year, the Aliyev regime is now going after Voice of America and other foreign media outlets. And last but not least, Azerbaijan continues its half-hearted campaign against the U.S.-backed Gülen movement, much to the joy of Turkish President Erdogan:

Azerbaijan deports Turkish citizens for Nur movement propaganda Turkish citizens, suspected of promoting the Nur movement in Azerbaijan, were deported from the country.   The Yasamal district court fined Turkish citizens Sunkur Nurulla and Senol Miktat AZN 2000 under article #300.04 (violation of the law on religious freedom) of the Code of Administrative Offences.   Under the court decision, they were deported from Azerbaijan. In addition, 5 Azerbaijani citizens faced fine AZN 1500.

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires

If Aliyev eventually wants to get rid of the Gülen movement altogether, he can ask his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon for advice. Rahmon is currently demonstrating how to rid oneself of pesky opposition groups. Government forces had a hard time catching former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda but the Tajik regime is now making the best of the situation by using Nazarzoda's rebellion to crush the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) once and for all. To this end, they have come up with an elaborate plot linking Nazarzoda and the IRPT, putting even the most ludicrous conspiracy theories to shame. On September 17, Tajikistan's Prosecutor General's office set the stage with an official statement saying that IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri had ordered Nazarzoda to establish 20 small criminal groups. Charitable foundations of foreign countries allegedly provided the funding. This story is becoming more convoluted and more implausible day by day:

Tajikistan State Media Rants Undermine Uprising Account In providing updates to its would-be insurgency and smears of the opposition almost daily, Tajikistan’s government has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility.

A dispatch circulated by Khovar state news agency on September 26 reaches new heights of implausibility. The story contends that the alleged renegade deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had plotted his uprising since 2010 in collusion with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). Allegations that plotting should have been happening for so long at the highest level is at best an astonishing admission of incompetence by Tajikistan’s security structures. Alternatively, Dushanbe is spinning a yarn in full confidence that nobody within the country, including all the diplomatic stations based there, will dare to question its narrative.

International extremist organizations, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. and the EU have all featured in recent Tajik state media ramblings about the alleged Kabiri-Nazarzoda plot. Ironically, Washington has been remarkably silent on Tajikistan's crackdown and just showcased its support of the Rahmon regime by donating tactical equipment worth $260,000 to the country's OMON unit, which made headlines a few months ago when its commander defected to ISIS. Khovar lashed out at the U.S. nevertheless. Even Russian analysts, who are usually quick to blame unrest in Central Asia on the West and/or extremists, had to take flak because they dared to cast doubt on the government's narrative. Dushanbe's main problem is that the narrative doesn't stand up to scrutiny, as the Tajik authorities learned when they confronted IRPT deputy leader Mahmadali Hayit with a member of Nazarzoda's group:

IRP deputy leader confronted with member of Abduhalim Nazarzoda’s group His defense lawyer, Jamshed Yorov, says Hayit was confronted with one of members of mutinous general’s armed group on September 22. “The men said that Mahmadali Hayit and IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri allegedly met with General Abduhalim Nazarzoda on March 6 and drew the plan of attacks on the government institutions and distributed public positions among them,” they lawyer said. “Hayit, however, managed to prove that there was no such a meeting. At that time, Hayit was at IRP’s head office to hold a post-election meeting. All accusations were rebutted,” Yorov noted.

Predictably, the Tajik authorities couldn't take the embarrassment. Jamshed Yorov's colleague Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is also defending the Islamic Renaissance Party, was pressured to abandon his clients and later detained after he refused to play along. Buzurgmehr's detention came shortly after the Prosecutor General's office formally charged the 13 arrested IRPT members with creating a criminal organization. They face between 15 and 20 years in jail if they are found guilty. As Buzurgmehr told RFE/RL's Tajik service before his arrest, the IRPT members deny having anything to do with Nazarzoda's rebellion and the creation of criminal groups. It appears that this won't stop the Tajik regime from prosecuting them. However, instead of putting all their efforts into destroying the IRPT, the Tajik authorities would be well advised to pay more attention to the alarming situation on the Afghan border:

Islamic Jihad Union claims to control areas along Afghan-Tajik border

The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an al Qaeda and Taliban-linked group that operates in Afghanistan, has claimed it controls large areas of the northern border with Tajikistan. While the IJU’s claim cannot be independently confirmed, the jihadist group released several photos of a small team of fighters purportedly crossing the Amu Darya River in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. It is unclear exactly where the crossing took place, but it likely occurred in the district of Qala-i-Zal, the only district in Kunduz that borders the Amu Darya River. The northern Kunduz districts of Imam Sahib and Dasht-i-Archi, which also border Tajikistan and the Panj River, are considered to be contested or controlled by the Taliban. The IJU is an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which joined the Islamic State this past summer. The IJU swore allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir, and has been active in the Taliban’s “Azm” spring offensive.

Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options 

As if the IJU's announcement was not worrying enough, the Taliban have been making significant progress in Kunduz province in the last few days. The provincial capital has been under siege for months and was already on the verge of falling to the Taliban earlier this year. After keeping the insurgents at bay during the summer, government troops eventually lost the fight for Kunduz on September 28, when the Taliban managed to take over the city. One of their first actions was to release 700 prisoners - most of whom were Taliban - from Kunduz city prison. New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor lost no time in commenting on his first major victory and urged residents to cooperate with the city's new masters. As the world reacted with shock to the news, the Afghan government tried to play down the devastating defeat and vowed to retake the city but that is easier said than done:

Afghan Forces Seek to Regain Kunduz, Major Northern City, From Taliban A day after the Taliban took their first major city in 14 years, a counterattack was underway Tuesday, but ground forces sent from other provinces to recapture the northern city, Kunduz, were delayed by ambushes and roadside bombs, officials said. American forces carried out an airstrike outside the city Tuesday morning, said Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the United States forces in Afghanistan. He did not specify the target, but said the strike was carried out to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces. Ghulam Rabbani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said ground forces from Kabul and the northern province of Balkh had been repeatedly ambushed by the Taliban on their way to Kunduz. Some of the reinforcements were waiting in nearby Baghlan to meet with the forces from Kabul, said Col. Abdul Qahar, an Afghan Army spokesman in the north.

In addition to offensives in Kunduz and Helmand province, Taliban fighters have also been consolidating their grip on areas in eastern Afghanistan, where they just overran a U.S.-built military outpost on the Pakistani border. As discussed last week, warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum succeeded in driving back the insurgents in Faryab province but his victory was short-lived. All in all, the security situation in Afghanistan is alarming, to the say least. To make matters worse, the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State recently launched its first attack on Afghan security forces. Up until then, ISIS had largely focused on fighting the Taliban. The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed and even the U.S. is now acknowledging the threat after initially playing down the issue. In light of the Taliban's largest victory in years and the rise of ISIS, the timing of General John Campbell's testimony before Congress about the U.S. "withdrawal" could hardly be any better:

U.S., Allied Military Review New Options for Afghan Pullback U.S. and allied defense officials, increasingly wary of White House plans to scale back the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, are reviewing new drawdown options that include keeping thousands of American troops in the country beyond the end of 2016, American and allied officials said. The top international commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, has sent five different recommendations to the Pentagon and to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Brussels, each with its own risk assessment, officials said. Some officials worry that too large a cut could cause the Afghan government to come under increased pressure from the Taliban and other militants, officials said. Others believe a smaller force of several thousand Americans still could be effective at backing the Afghan government.

The options range from keeping the current U.S. presence of about 10,000 toops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 to continuing with the planned drawdown to a force of several hundred troops by the end of 2016. Taliban leader Mansoor has already announced his preferred option, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Washington is probably not going to consider this option and the continued presence of thousands of U.S. contractors is a non-negotiable matter, anyway. The only ones leaving Afghanistan currently in record numbers are Afghans, much to the dismay of the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he wants to tackle the problem by introducing a "combination of security and economic measures." He didn't specify which sort of measures he was alluding to but Kabul's social media campaign is definitely not going to stem the tide:

Afghanistan Tries To Stem Tide Of Migration 'Brain Drain' "Don't go. Stay with me. There might be no return!" That's the message Kabul is sending to Afghans thinking of abandoning their home country for a new life in the West. The Refugees and Repatriations Ministry has launched a slick social-media campaign to get its message out, and doesn't pull any punches in its effort to dissuade Afghans from making the jump to Europe. Graphics being circulated on Facebook and Twitter show that the ministry is using a healthy dose of stark images and guilt to urge Afghans to fulfill their patriotic duty and stay on to help rebuild their war-torn nation.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: September 22, 2015

Tajikistan Exploits General's Rebellion to Crush IRPT Once & for All, Kadyrov Takes Unique Approach in Dealing with ISIS Recruitment & 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 last week, the leaders of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan gathered in the Tajik capital Dushanbe for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The summit came at an inconvenient time for host Emomali Rahmon, who was struggling to quell a small rebellion led by former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. Rahmon had sacked Nazarzoda immediately after identifying him as the mastermind of the attacks that rocked the country on September 4. The renegade general subsequently fled with his supporters toward Romit Gorge, about 45 kilometers east of Dushanbe, and kept the Tajik authorities on their toes for several days. Nazarzoda's rebellion overshadowed Tajikistan's 24th independence anniversary as well as the CSTO summit and left dozens of people dead until the general was eventually eliminated on September 16:

Tajik Mutineer And Special Forces Commander Killed In Battle Tajikistan's authorities say they have killed the fugitive general who mutinied two weeks ago. In the fight, however, the commander of the most elite special forces unit in the country, the Alfas, was killed as well. The former general, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed on September 16 at 14:00 local time after a day-and-a-half-long battle in the Romit Gorge at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and State Committee on National Security said in a joint statement. During the fighting, the chief of the Alfas, Colonel Rustam Khamakiyev, and three other officers of the Alfas and OMON (a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry) were killed, the statement added.

Tajikistan Exploits General's Rebellion to Crush IRPT Once and for All 

The motive for Nazarzoda's mutiny remains unclear and there are many different theories about what caused the violence, ranging from a coup attempt to the always popular Islamist angle. However, the most likely explanation seems to be that the former Deputy Defense Minister went rogue after being warned about an impending prosecution against him. Nazarzoda was a field commander of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during the Tajikistani civil war and joined the Defense Ministry in 1997 after the government signed a power-sharing deal with the UTO. Despite the power-sharing deal, the Tajik regime has tried to neutralize a number of former UTO commanders over the years. The crackdown on political opponents is now again picking up pace. At the end of last month, the Tajik Justice Ministry banned Central Asia's only officially registered Islamic party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and Nazarzoda's rebellion offers a perfect opportunity to crush the IRPT once and for all:

Tajikistan Pins Recent Violence on Islamic Party Slowly, over months and years, the government of Tajikistan has been eroding the peace accord that ended the civil war. On September 4, a pair of attacks in and near Dushanbe set off a chain of accusations that have seemingly ended with the final closure of the country’s most prominent opposition party*. If the state is to be believed, a constellation of bogeymen connived to overthrow the government right under the defense ministry’s nose. The Tajik Prosecutor-General’s office released an official statement today linking the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), its exiled leader Muhiddin Kabiri, and (until the day of the attacks) Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. The statement says that Nazarzoda, on behalf of Kabiri and the IRPT, established 20 “small criminal groups” in recent years. The two attacks in early September–in Vahdat and Dushanbe–were preceded by an influx of “so-called charitable funds of foreign countries.”

Nazarzoda in the past had links to the IRPT when both were part of the United Tajik Opposition fighting against the government but even then his connections to the party were tenuous at best. Dushanbe's claims that Nazarzoda was a member of the IRPT don't hold water. Nevertheless, the government lost no time in blaming the Islamic Renaissance Party for the outbreak of violence. IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri rejected the accusations and argued that Nazarzoda's motives rather lie in the government's "erroneous" policies. Kabiri has been living in self-imposed exile since March because he had seen it coming. While the manhunt for Nazarzoda was still underway, the Tajik authorities launched an all-out attack on the IRPT. Police seized the party's property and began arresting the remaining IRPT leaders in Tajikistan. As for Muhiddin Kabiri, he hasn't been forgotten by the Tajik regime as well:

Tajikistan reportedly turns to Interpol over IRP leader The Interior Ministry of Tajikistan is reportedly preparing documents to turn to Interpol over the Islamic Revival Party (IRP) leader Muhiddin Kabiri. An official source at the Interior Ministry says the documents for detention and extradition of Kabiri will be sent to the country where he is probably living now. “Criminal proceedings have not yet been instituted against Muhiddin Kabiri, but the Prosecutor-general’s Office is going to institute criminal proceedings against him one of these days,” the source added.

The latest crackdown may very spell the end of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Warnings that the party's closure will cause its members to go underground and join extremist groups have apparently fallen on deaf ears in Dushanbe. In the eyes of Tajik President Rahmon, most opponents are terrorists anyway. That is also a popular view among Rahmon's CSTO colleagues. As usual, threats of terrorism and extremism were high on the agenda during the CSTO summit in Tajikistan and the deteriorating situation in northern Afghanistan was of course discussed as well. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev raised a few eyebrows when he went as far as to link Tajikistan's border worries with the Nazarzoda rebellion. However, the most noteworthy statement regarding the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border came from a Kommersant source close to the CSTO Secretariat:

Russia may deploy soldiers on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan: CSTO The Russian forces may return on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan amid fears the deteriorating security situation may affect the security of Central Asian countries, it has been reported. A source close to the Secretary General of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has said the return of Russian forces on Afghanistan-Tajikistan border is not unlikely. According to the Russian newspaper – kommersant, the Russian forces may return once they receive a request from the government of Tajikistan.

Dostum Urged to Fight ISIS after Short-Lived Success in Faryab

Up until now, Dushanbe has only requested technical assistance from the CSTO and another source pointed out that the current situation does not require the continued presence of Russian forces or CSTO contingents on the Tajik-Afghan border. In the meantime, Russia is encouraging the Afghan government to deal with this problem on its own by offering more military hardware in exchange for Afghanistan's provision of security along the Tajik border. It is doubtful that this will be enough to secure the border considering the bad shape of the Afghan security forces despite years of training by the United States and its allies. Moscow is not impressed with the results of NATO's mission in Afghanistan as President Putin emphasized once again during the CSTO summit. In addition to the escalating violence, the Kremlin is worried about the rising opium production. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, raised this issue recently at the UN Security Council:

ISIL Gains Control Of Several Drug Trafficking Routes From Afghanistan The Islamic State (ISIL) extremist group has taken control of a number of drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan, Russian envoy to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said Thursday. The envoy urged the UN Security Council to closely monitor and respond quickly to developments in the drug situation in Afghanistan, as international terrorist groups use drug trafficking to fund their activities. "There is information that a group of militants from ISIS [IS] already control a part of the routes of illegal drug supply from the Badakhshan Province [in northeastern Afghanistan]," Churkin said.

Taliban fighters are constantly causing trouble in Badakhshan but Churkin's assertion that ISIS controls a part of the drug supply routes from the province comes as a surprise. It is not the first time that Russian officials have highlighted the connection between ISIS and the Afghan drug trade. Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, claimed last year that ISIS "obtains fabulous profits by providing half of the total heroin supply to Europe via destabilized Iraq and some African countries." After suffering a few setbacks in Afghanistan, ISIS has gained a foothold in the war-torn country and is now vying with the Taliban for influence. As the fighting between the two groups escalates, some people are pinning their hopes on First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to destroy ISIS' stronghold in Nangarhar province and repeat the success of his Faryab campaign. They seem to have missed that Dostum's success in Faryab didn't last very long:

Troops Battle Insurgents in Faryab After Short-Lived Clearance Despite weeks of military clearing operations in Faryab, to rid the area of insurgents, the militants immediately returned to their old battle field following Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum's return to Kabul. In August, Dostum donned his military uniform and joined troops on the Faryab frontline. After only a few weeks they cleared the area. However, peace was short-lived and insurgents have once again overrun the area.

Two months ago, Dostum and the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor agreed to join forces with government troops in order to subdue the insurgents in northern Afghanistan. Noor has recently followed Dostum's example in leading military operations in the north but as Dostum's short-lived success in Faryab shows, defeating the insurgency won't be easy. While the government is stepping up its efforts, the Taliban are trying to settle differences that emerged after the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death. Mullah Omar's family and several other leading Taliban figures didn't approve of new supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Instead they preferred Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob. After weeks of infighting and intense negotiations, Yaqoob and his family eventually agreed to a power-sharing deal and pledged allegiance to Mansoor, much to the dismay of the remaining Mansoor critics:

Afghan Taliban divided as talks between two factions fail The Afghan Taliban may split into two factions, said a spokesman for one group on Saturday, because they cannot agree who should be leader following the death of their founder.  

On Saturday, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a spokesman for the anti-Mansour faction, said talks between Mansour and the dissatisfied commanders had failed. Niazi's comments come after Omar's son Yaqoob and brother Manan swore allegiance to Mansour this week. Omar's family had initially opposed Mansour but agreed to support him after he agreed to a list of their demands. Niazi said Mansour had threatened to cut Taliban funds that Manan had been receiving if he did not support Mansour's leadership.

Kadyrov Takes Unique Approach in Dealing with ISIS Recruitment

A split of the Taliban into two factions would complicate the messy situation in Afghanistan even further and drive more Taliban fighters into the arms of ISIS. The much-hyped terrorist group has managed to establish new branches in several countries by wooing jihadists away from other groups. The Islamic State's "Wilayat Qawqaz" in the North Caucasus is a prime example of this highly successful franchise model. ISIS' Caucasus branch made headlines at the beginning of this month when it claimed responsibility for its first official attack in Russia, which allegedly targeted barracks of the Russian army in southern Dagestan. Unfortunately, security forces and local residents were quick to deny that an attack took place and pointed out that the supposed target doesn't even exist. To make matters worse for "Wilayat Qawqaz," ISIS recruiters in Chechnya are facing unexpected problems:

Chechen Leader Takes Unique Approach in Dissuading Youths From Joining ISIL Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov has taken a blunt approach to flushing out pro-ISIL extremist sentiment in his republic, holding direct face-to-face talks with youths suspected of supporting the terror group, Chechen television channel Grozny has reported. At the event, conducted earlier this week, Kadyrov faced down several young men, who he shamed for voicing their sympathies for the terror group on social media. The talk was attended by local Imams, the heads of municipalities, and the youths' parents; it was then broadcast on Chechen television. Speaking at the event, parents noted that they had tried to raise their children to become pillars of support for their families, devout Muslims and worthy members of their communities and their country. They emphasized that they did not need sons "who betrayed family, relatives, friends, Islam and the Chechen people."

Kadyrov made it quite clear to the humiliated ISIS supporters that "there's no place in Chechnya for anyone who even glances in the direction of ISIS." The Chechen leader is well known for his unorthodox measures and never shies away from causing a scandal. Lately, Kadyrov picked a fight with the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk city court over a ruling that labeled a booklet containing quotes and commentary on verses from the Quran as "extremist." He vowed to appeal the court ruling and branded the responsible judge and prosecutor "national traitors and shaitans [devils]" - a term that is usually reserved for terrorists. Kadyrov also didn't mince his words when he added his two cents to the debate on the alleged participation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in the First Chechen War. While it seems highly unlikely that Yatsenyuk fought in the North Caucasus, other Ukrainians definitely supported the "Chechen rebels" and two of them just went on trial in Chechnya:

Russia puts Ukrainians on trial for Chechnya killings Two Ukrainians went on trial in Russia on Tuesday accused of murdering dozens of Russian soldiers in Chechnya in the 1990s while fighting with separatists in a nationalist hit squad. The powerful Investigative Committee said that the supreme court of Chechnya in Grozny began hearing the case of Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpyuk, both of whom are charged with murder and belonging to a militant organisation. The men have been held in pre-trial detention for over a year after being arrested separately when they came to Russia last year.

Klykh and Karpyuk are accused of being members of the infamous Ukrainian ultranationalist group Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People's Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), which bears all the hallmarks of NATO's 'Gladio' operations. Since its inception in late 1990, UNA-UNSO participated in several conflicts against Russia or Russian-backed forces, ranging from the War in Abkhazia to the First Chechen War. Last year, the group caught again Russian authorities' attention when its members featured prominently in the Euromaidan movement. Chechnya's supreme court will probably use this opportunity to make an example of the two Ukrainian defendants after Ukrainian nationalists repeatedly voiced support for their "Chechen brothers" and even celebrated the terrorist attack in Grozny last December. Although the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively quiet in recent months, the local authorities have to keep their guard up all the time:

Another Imam Shot Dead In Russia's North Caucasus An imam in Russia's Daghestan region in the North Caucasus has been killed. The Investigative Committee of Russia says two masked men shot dead Magomed Khidirov early in the morning of September 9 while he was on his way to a mosque in Novy Kurush. The killing of Khidirov, 34, came three weeks after another Islamic cleric, Zamirbek Makhmutov, 32, was shot dead in Russia's Stavropol region neighboring Daghestan.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: August 12, 2015

Russian Soldiers Cause a Stir in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan Refuses to Give Up on Pipe Dreams & 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 recent confirmation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar has aggravated the alarming situation in Afghanistan. New Taliban supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is struggling to stop the factionalism that has been fueled by Omar's death and the Afghan peace talks have been put on hold for the time being. Many of Mansoor's critics oppose the talks with Kabul and favor Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob as Taliban leader. A few days ago, Afghan parliament member Abdul Zahir Qadir created a stir when he claimed that Yaqoob was assassinated in the Pakistani city of Quetta on behalf of Mansoor and Pakistani intelligence agencies. The Taliban immediately denied the claims but Yaqoob's whereabouts are still shrouded in mystery. As more and more leading Taliban figures come out in opposition to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, senior members of the movement are meeting in Pakistan to resolve the dispute:

Taliban Hold Open Meetings in Pakistan to Discuss Leadership

Senior members of the Taliban are reportedly holding open meetings in Pakistan to discuss the disputed appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the group's new chief in the wake Mullah Omar's death. Several top Taliban leaders have expressed strong opposition to Mansour's leadership, calling him a puppet of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Sources within the Afghan government told TOLOnews on condition of anonymity on Thursday that scores of Taliban members - including both those who agree and disagree with Mansour's appointment - met with clerics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan on Wednesday to resolve the dispute over Omar's successor.

Taliban Strain Pak-Afghan Ties with New Wave of Terror

As many as 300 clerics or ulema reportedly met in Pakistan to mediate between the rival groups. Influential Pakistani cleric Sami ul-Haq, the "Father of the Taliban," was chosen by both sides to lead the reconciliation efforts. Haq has endorsed new Taliban leader Mansoor and he tried to convince Mullah Omar's family of doing the same by telling them that people would never forgive them if they "wasted sacrifices of thousands of Afghan Mujahideen by creating divisions within the Taliban movement." Mullah Omar's only surviving brother Abdul Manan Niazi, who is the anti-Mansoor faction's spokesman, said that they are willing to accept any decision taken by the ulema. The religious scholars are expected to announce their decision within the next few days. Predictably, the huge Taliban meetings didn't go unnoticed in neighboring Afghanistan. Many Afghans were furious about the fact that the Taliban were allowed to meet openly in Pakistan while unleashing a new wave of terror in Afghanistan:

Attacks on army, police and U.S. special forces kill 50 in Kabul A wave of attacks on the Afghan army and police and U.S. special forces in Kabul have killed at least 50 people and wounded hundreds, dimming hopes that the Taliban might be weakened by a leadership struggle after their longtime leader's death. The bloodshed began on Friday with a truck bomb that exploded in a heavily populated district of the capital and ended with an hours-long battle at a base used by U.S. special forces. It became the deadliest day in Kabul for years. The Islamist insurgents claimed responsibility for both the police academy attack and the battle at the U.S. special forces base, though not for the truck bomb.

Friday's attacks ended a period of relative calm in Kabul and heralded the start of a terror campaign shaking Afghanistan. One day after the attacks in the Afghan capital, up to 29 people were killed in the northern province of Kunduz when a Taliban suicide bomber targeted members of an irregular anti-Taliban militia and on Monday another Taliban suicide bombing struck Kabul, killing five people and injuring a least 16. Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh was quick to point out that new Taliban leader Mansoor is trying to show his critics that he remains committed to fighting the Afghan government. Considering that one of Mansoor's first actions was to distance himself from the peace talks, Saleh may have a point. Furthermore, Saleh emphasized Pakistan's role in enabling such Taliban attacks and this issue has also been highlighted by many other Afghans, including President Ashraf Ghani:

Afghan President Points Finger at Pakistan After Bombings in Kabul Under pressure after a wave of deadly bombings in the Afghan capital, President Ashraf Ghani on Monday accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to mass gatherings of Taliban fighters in its territory, where such attacks are planned. Mr. Ghani’s words, a sharp break from the conciliatory tone he had taken toward Pakistan for much of his first year in office, came just hours after a suicide car-bomb struck a crowded entrance of the international airport in Kabul, leaving at least five people dead and 16 wounded. Attacks in the Afghan capital over the last four days have left nearly 70 people dead and hundreds wounded. After the news of Mullah Omar’s death, Mr. Ghani told his ministers that Pakistan had promised him that no new Amir ul-Momineen, as the Taliban call their leader, would be selected on its soil and that no large gatherings of the Taliban would take place to give him legitimacy. But within days, not only had Mullah Mansour replaced Mullah Omar and been endorsed in large ceremonies in Quetta, but also he had announced that his new deputy would come from the Haqqani network, an aggressive organizer of terrorist attacks that has strong links to the Pakistani military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

A senior Afghan official recently suggested that Sirajuddin Haqqani's was mainly promoted to Mansoor's deputy because of his networks in urban areas. It appears that he already used these networks. The attacks in Kabul bore many of the hallmarks of the Haqqani network, reinforcing Ghani's argument that "war is declared against us from Pakistani territory." Ghani essentially buried the peace process on Monday by saying that he no longer wanted Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the table. Instead he urged the Pakistani authorities to destroy the group's sanctuaries in Pakistan. As usual, the Pakistanis have other ideas. However, the overt influence over the Taliban also entails all kinds of problems. Mansoor's critics are trying to exploit this issue for their own political ends and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) cited the same point as a key reason for pledging allegiance to ISIS. Mullah Omar's death has been a gift from heaven for ISIS in Afghanistan and the group spares neither trouble nor expense to woo more fighters away from the Taliban:

ISIS release horrific execution video, claiming to be filmed in Afghanistan The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group has released a new execution video claiming to be filmed in eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. A group of ten men is shown being blown up after forcing them sit on Improvised Explosive Device (IED) planted beneath them in the ground. They have been accused of apostasy and supporting the Taliban militants in their fight against the ISIS affiliates and being the supporter of ISI.

Turkmenistan Refuses to Give Up on Pipe Dreams  

As ISIS and the Taliban are trying to outdo each other in terms of barbaric crimes, the violence is escalating all over the country. Women and children are dying in record numbers and the Afghan security forces have been suffering casualties at an "unsutainable rate" for quite some time. To make matters worse, Kabul is losing even more fighters due to desertions. That is why local militias are playing an increasingly important role, especially in northern Afghan provinces such as Faryab. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is now personally leading the fight in Faryab to take the pressure of the local pro-government forces, which were unable to cope with the Taliban on their own. He would have preferred to bring his own 9,000-strong militia to the frontline but President Ghani didn't allow this for various reasons. Nevertheless, Dostum didn't travel to Faryab without support. He took his two sons along to show his determination. Not only Afghanistan is counting on the Dostum family to win the fight on the Turkmen border. Turkmenistan is already pushing ahead with ambitious plans:

Consortium Leader Picked for Trans-Afghan Pipeline The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction. Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence. Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.

French energy giant Total and several other foreign majors initially evinced interest in leading the consortium, but only on condition of getting a stake in the Turkmen gas field that will feed the pipeline. Turkmenistan refused to accept this condition, prompting one company after another to back out of the project. Even as Turkmenistan was coming under increasing pressure to diversify its gas exports, the Turkmen authorities didn't budge an inch. However, they didn't want to give up on the pipeline either. In a last-ditch attempt to implement the project, Ashgabat proposed to put Turkmengaz in charge of constructing the pipeline. The three other TAPI countries were apparently every bit as desperate as Turkmenistan and endorsed the idea despite Turkmengaz's lack of capacity and experience. Although the construction is scheduled to begin in December, TAPI's actual implementation remains highly doubtful and the same is true of Turkmenistan's other pipe dream:

NATO: We'll Help Protect Trans-Caspian Pipeline

NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said. The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition. But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it...

Lahue pointed out that the construction of the Trans-Capsian gas pipeline is technically possible and suggested that NATO's "protection" could remove political obstacles. Given that Washington and Brussels are the driving forces behind the Trans-Caspian project, Lahue's bold statement comes as no real surprise. Russia and Iran, the project's opponents, have seen it coming. That is why they convinced the other Caspian states of rejecting a foreign military presence (i.e. NATO) in the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan desperately wants to diversify its gas exports, and even more so after the recent dispute with Gazprom over unpaid deliveries, but Ashgabat will think twice about asking NATO for "protection." Currently, Turkmenistan's only viable pipeline project is the fourth branch line of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which could yield at least a small-scale expansion into Kyrgyzstan's energy market:

Kyrgyz, Turkmen leaders discuss energy and transport issues Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have agreed to move forward in building a railroad and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Kyrgyzstan during Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's official visit to Bishkek on August 5. It is Berdymukhammedov's first official visit to Kyrgyzstan. "The construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will be implemented in the very near future," Berdymukhammedov said after his talks with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev.

Russian Soldiers Cause a Stir in Tajikistan

Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer Line D and is already looking forward to getting millions of dollars in transit fees every year. The poor Central Asian country needs the money more than ever after remittances from labor migrants in Russia, which account for almost half of the country's GDP, declined sharply in recent months due to Russia's economic problems. One could argue that Tajikistan is suffering from Western sanctions as much as Russia. But Tajikistan's close ties with Russia are also creating other problems. The never-ending debate about Russian military presence in the country was recently reignited after a group of drunken Russian soldiers in their underwear got into a brawl with local Tajik men who confronted them about their rude behavior. And just as the Tajik government was trying to assure its people that Russian soldiers don't enjoy "judicial impunity," Tajiks were reminded of another controversial incident last year:

Tajik Murder Trial Starts For Russian Soldiers Two Russian soldiers suspected in the killing of a Tajik taxi driver last year have gone on trial in the capital, Dushanbe. Russian army's deputy platoon commander Fyodor Basimov and former military unit commander Ildar Sakhapov were arrested in August last year after taxi driver Rahimjon Teshaboev, 36, was found dead near Dushanbe. An autopsy revealed that Teshaboev, a father of three, was severely beaten before his throat was slashed.

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/081115_GGR4.pngAccording to the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Ildar Sakhapov admitted to killing the taxi driver. The judge said that Basimov had just assisted Sakhapov who had planned the murder. Two correspondents from RFE/RL's Tajik Service attended the trial and filmed a few minutes. The presiding Russian judge had granted them permission to do so but the present Russian officers were apparently not big fans of "anti-Russian U.S. propaganda tool" RFE/RL. As RFE/RL and others like to point out, hosting Russian military bases entails a few problems but that applies to foreign military presence in general. Moreover, the escalating violence in northern Afghanistan has reinforced Dushanbe's decision to let the Russians stay in the country for the foreseeable future. Instead of kicking out Russian soldiers, the Tajik authorities are going after Western-backed schools:

Tajikistan greenlights take over of Gulen-run schools Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has authorized the take over and renaming of a network of schools run by the U.S.-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, in the country, according to Tajikistan's national news agency NIAT Hovar. In accordance with the decision signed by Rahmon, seven schools run by the Selale Educational Institution are going to be turned into public schools, and renamed as "schools for gifted children", the agency said. The decision to shut down the Gulen-run schools, and reopen them as state-run schools with different names was announced in May.

Gülen's schools in Tajikistan have been under high scrutiny for months, and with good reason. The Tajik regime sees the potential radicalization of the population as a major threat to its rule. This has led to some questionable decisions. The defection of Tajikistan's OMON commander to ISIS served as a warning that Dushanbe's war on Islam does more to fuel radicalization than to stop it but Rahmon & Co. didn't learn their lesson. Although experts are warning that the closure of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) will cause its members to go underground and join extremist groups, the regime is doing its best to destroy the IRPT. In doing so, the Tajik authorities risk boosting the terrorist recruitment that they are trying to stop. Tajikistan recently requested Interpol to put 16 Tajik ISIS fighters on the wanted list and announced that the list could be expanded significantly:

Tajikistan puts 16 people fighting for Islamic State on wanted list through Interpol

Interpol has put on the wanted list 16 Tajik citizens who are accused of involvement with the Islamic State terrorist group at the request of Tajikistan, a spokesman for Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS) told TASS on Friday. He noted that "the list of wanted Islamic State supporters could grow to 600 and more people." "More than 600 our fellow countrymen are fighting in the ranks of Islamic State, their names and presumable locations in Syria, Iraq and partially in Afghanistan, are known to the country’s law enforcement agencies. Criminal cases against them have been opened under the "mercenary activities" article," the spokesman said. "Explanatory work is conducted among relatives of Islamic State supporters, other methods are used, which made it possible to return several young people to their home country."

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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

         

The New Great Game Round-Up: August 5, 2015

Turkish Meddling in Xinjiang Overshadows Erdogan's China Visit, Russia: ISIS Comes- NED Goes & 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.

On July 31, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were scheduled to meet in Pakistan for the second round of the recently launched Afghan peace talks. The first round of talks in the hill resort of Murree just outside Islamabad was hailed as a "breakthrough," raising hopes that the warring parties could come to an agreement. Pakistan's efforts to facilitate the meeting and the attendance of Chinese and U.S. officials signaled widespread support for the peace talks. But just as people were getting their hopes up, two days before the next meeting in Pakistan, BBC's Afghan Service dropped a bombshell by reporting the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Two weeks earlier, the Taliban leader had purportedly endorsed the peace talks in a statement posted on the Taliban's official website, making the reports of his death all the more surprising. It was not the first time that Mullah Omar's death has been reported but this time everyone agreed that Mullah Omar was dead:

Afghan government formally confirms death of Mullah Omar The government of Afghanistan formally confirmed the death of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. A statement by the President Palace said “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan.” The statement further added “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

Mullah Omar's Death Spoils Afghan Peace Talks

Pakistan reportedly confirmed the death as well and the U.S. deemed the reports credible. According to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi in April 2013. A former Afghan Taliban minister and member of the central leadership mentioned the same time of death and added that Omar died of tuberculosis. Last but not least, Mullah Omar's family and the Taliban leadership officially confirmed the death after Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been chosen as Omar's successor. As usual, the Taliban put their own spin on the whole story by claiming that "Mullah Omar never visited Pakistan or any other country except Afghanistan" but all parties agreed to finally acknowledge the death of the long-time Taliban leader and move on. However, the choice of Mullah Omar's successor didn't go down well with everyone:

Mullah Omar's son says he cannot support new Taliban leader

No sooner had the Taliban selected a new chief to replace Mullah Omar than deep fractures emerged on Friday, as the former leader's son said he rejected the choice of successor. Mullah Yacoob, Mullah Omar's oldest son, said he and three other senior leaders walked out of a meeting called to elect a leader, and were demanding a wider vote. “I am against the decision to select Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as leader,” he told The Associated Press.

Signs of deep fractures within the Taliban movement have already surfaced during the Afghan peace talks. Mansoor endorsed negotiations with Kabul, whereas battlefield commander Abdul Qayyum "Zakir" went as far as threatening to join ISIS if the talks continued. Zakir is now spearheading efforts to form a new leadership council that would replace the existing Quetta Shura because he wants to see Mullah Omar's son Yacoob as the new supremo. With the Taliban in disarray, the prospects for the Afghan peace talks are bleak. Although Mansoor is clearly more inclined toward dialogue, he felt the need to pander to his audience by distancing himself from the peace process. Moreover, he offered to meet his critics and address their grievances. Mansoor emphasized the "need for unity" as "the world tried its best to create rifts in our ranks." His top priority is to stop the factionalism that has been fueled by Mullah Omar's death. Otherwise, the Taliban are also going to lose more fighters to ISIS:

IMU Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization. The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip. This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.

Mullah Omar's jihadist credentials have long prevented more insurgents from joining ISIS. The confirmation of his death is going to have profound ramifications for the Taliban movement and the Afghan peace process. Remarkably enough, shortly after his death was finally confirmed, Pakistani media reported that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, has also been dead for some time. Members of the Haqqani family and the Taliban immediately denied the reports and published a statement purportedly quoting Jalaluddin Haqqani as mourning the loss of Mullah Omar and giving his backing to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Jalaluddin Haqqani's son Sirajuddin was recently named as Mansoor's deputy. Considering that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, there is some evidence to suggest that Pakistan used Mullah Omar's death to put more easily controllable leaders in charge of the Taliban. After all, the Pakistani authorities don't want to take any chances in light of the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [emphasis mine]:

Any attempt to obstruct, impede CPEC will be thwarted: COAS The army chief on Friday reiterated that any attempt to obstruct or impede the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be thwarted. According to a statement issued by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on Friday evening,, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif congratulated the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA) on its 88th anniversary. He also commended the deep ties between Pakistan and China. Gen Raheel also fired broadsides at state and non-state actors trying to destabilise Afghanistan. “Our cooperation for regional stability will squeeze space for state and non-state actors for a stable Afghanistan,” the statement added.

Turkish Meddling in Xinjiang Overshadows Erdogan's China Visit

It remains to be seen whether or not the 'all-weather friends' Pakistan and China will be able to walk the talk. Given that new Taliban leader Mansoor has to put his house in order first, it is unlikely that the Afghan peace talks will resume anytime soon. As the Taliban are already killing each other over Mansoor's appointment, China is also getting worried about how Mullah Omar's death will affect previous understandings with the Taliban regarding Xinjiang. Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura normally promised Beijing not to allow Uyghur jihadists to operate autonomously or launch attacks against China from Afghan territory. These kind of guarantees are more difficult to obtain when dealing with various warring factions. The Chinese authorities spare neither trouble nor expense to convince other state and non-state actors of supporting China's war on terror. Mullah Omar and the Taliban more or less kept their promises but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not to be trusted in this regard:

Turkish president opposes terror against China Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed to cooperate with China to fight against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) during his visit to Beijing, a clear signal that observers say indicates Turkey is ready to remove obstacles in Sino-Turkish ties and seek closer economic cooperation. 

During his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Erdogan said that Turkey will respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, oppose any terrorist acts against China, including those launched by ETIM, and will not allow any force to harm Sino-Turkish ties. He added that Turkey is also a victim of terrorism, China Central Television reported.  Zan Tao, an expert on Turkey affairs and an associate professor at Peking University, told the Global Times that Erdogan's remarks about ETIM are very clear and strong, compared with his previous remarks over similar matters.

Erdogan's visit to China came at a crucial moment in Sino-Turkish relations. China is Turkey's second-largest trade partner and both countries want to boost economic cooperation in order to build a new Silk Road but disagreements over China's Uyghur minority have strained the relationship significantly in recent months. Beijing publicly reprimanded Ankara twice for its support of the East Turkestan independence movement by revealing damning information about Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terror operations. The latest disclosure was prompted by an ongoing row over Uyghur refugees in Thailand and a vicious propaganda campaign during Ramadan, which has given rise to anti-China sentiments in Turkey. In the run-up to his China trip, Erdogan eventually tried to defuse the situation as Asians in Turkey were about to get lynched. A few days ago, the Turkish President then continued his reconciliation efforts in Beijing, much to the dismay of the East Turkestan crowd at home:

Erdoğan’s ’terrorism’ reference regarding Uighurs draws public criticism Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's use of the term “terrorism” in reference to Uighurs -- an ethnic Turkic minority in western China -- while in Beijing where he pledged to cooperate with the Chinese government to combat terrorism, including activities by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have drawn fierce criticism from the Turkish public as well as opposition lawmakers. "For the president of Turkey, these remarks were not proper. Just to make a gesture to China, Erdoğan's remarks are not only misleading and wrong, but also will encourage Chinese officials to treat Uighurs as they used to do in the past," veteran Turkish diplomat and former deputy for the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Faruk Loğoğlu told Today's Zaman. "Considering the fact that Uighurs have been subjected to restrictions and pressure over their identity and religion, this reference to ETIM would likely to undercut righteous struggle of Uighurs to fully realize their cultural and religious rights," said Oktay Vural, deputy chairman of opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The far-right MHP and its paramilitary youth wing, the Grey Wolves, have been leading Turkey's fight against Asian tourists and "China's brutality in East Turkestan" but Erdogan and the Turkish government are doing their bit as well. Ankara's support of the East Turkestan independence movement is being exposed more and more. A few weeks after Beijing complained that Turkish diplomats in Southeast Asia are handing out travel documents to Chinese Uyghurs, Reuters revealed lately that the documents even list "East Turkestan" as their nationality. Erdogan's pledge to respect China's territorial integrity and to support Beijing's war on terror should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. Even Ankara's flirt with a Chinese air defense system cannot disguise the fact that relations between the two countries remain uneasy. To make matters worse, Turkey's favorite terrorist group has recently called on China's Uyghurs to join its "caliphate," which means more work for Turkish border guards:

Turkey detains 457 Syria-bound 'foreign terror' suspects Almost half of the 457 people detained by Turkish authorities on the Turkish-Syrian border between January 1 and June 30 are Chinese nationals, Turkish Armed Forces sources told Anadolu Agency Wednesday. According to the sources, out of the 457 people detained, 241 are Chinese, 13 British, seven Afghans, five Germans, two Americans, one Australian, five Azerbaijanis, one Bangladeshi, five Belgians, one Brazilian, two Bulgarians, one Danish, one Moroccan, 12 French, 30 Palestinians, six South Koreans, five Dutch, one Kazakh, two Maldivian, one Egyptian, one Romanian, 56 Russians, two from Trinidad and Tobago island, one Slovakian, nine Saudis, six Tajiks, two Tunisians, 29 Turkmen, three Uzbeks, two Iranians, two Spanish and two Italians.

The suspects were detained at the Turkish border when they tried to enter Syria illegally and were being treated by authorities as suspected “foreign terrorist fighters", the sources added.

Russia: ISIS Comes, NED Goes

The exceptionally high number of Chinese nationals detained on the Turkish-Syrian border suggests that either the Turkish authorities are deviating from standard operating procedure by actually preventing Uyghurs from crossing into Syria or previous estimates of Uyghur fighters in Syria were dead wrong. Turkey has now officially declared war on ISIS but wannabe caliph al-Baghdadi and his minions don't have to be afraid because the Kurds are the real target. Only a small fraction of the more than 1000 "terrorist suspects" recently detained in Turkey were ISIS supporters while over 80 percent of the suspects were linked to the PKK. The Russian authorities can consider themselves fortunate to have convinced the Turks of arresting two suspects linked to ISIS recruitment in Russia. LifeNews just reported that the man in charge of ISIS recruitment in Russia has been identified and that two of his subordinates in Turkey were detained. This comes shortly after ISIS made headlines in the North Caucasus:

Russia says security forces kill 14 Islamist militants Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) forces killed eight Islamic State militants on Sunday and six other Islamist rebels on Monday in the North Caucasus, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said. NAK said the rebels killed on Sunday in the republic of Ingushetia were involved in "terrorist crimes" including killing law enforcement officials and extorting money. NAK identified one of those killed in Ingushetia as Adam Tagilov, who it said was behind fighting in the city of Grozny, capital of Chechnya, that killed more than 20 people — policemen and militants — in December 2014.

The killing of eight ISIS "rebels" on Sunday was one of the first major incidents involving ISIS in Russia. Given that ISIS has taken over from the Caucasus Emirate as the leading terrorist group in the North Caucasus, it was certainly not the last one. Russian officials have been hyping the ISIS threat from day one and the actual emergence of ISIS supporters in the North Caucasus provides the perfect pretext for ramping up the war on terror. Human rights activists have their work cut out but they have to look for new sources of funding if they don't like the "foreign agent" label. After the Kremlin has long been threatening to go after organizations that receive funding from abroad, they are now finally walking the talk. The Russian NGO "Committee Against Torture," which has long been a thorn in the side of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, was one of the first groups to adapt to the new circumstances:

Igor Kalyapin announces creation of "Committee to Prevent Torture" The "Committee against Torture" (CaT), liquidated because of being put on the registry of "foreign agents", will be replaced by the "Committee to Prevent Torture" (CPT). The new organization will continue working in Chechnya, said its chairman Igor Kalyapin. "This week we'll submit documents (to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of the Russian Federation – note of the "Caucasian Knot") on the liquidation of the organization; and on the following week, the CaT ceases to function. On August 3, another interregional organization – the "Committee to Prevent Torture" – will start working," the TASS quotes Mr Kalyapin as saying. He stressed that the new organization will not receive any foreign funding and will exist "solely on donations of Russian citizens," the RIA "Novosti" reports.

Russian NGOs will now have to make do without grants from the U.S. government, George Soros and other generous foreign sponsors. Although Russia is just following the example of the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the U.S., the West is of course freaking out. On July 21, Russia's Justice Ministry issued warnings to the Committee Against Torture and 11 other Russian NGOs that were identified as "foreign agents." The MacArthur Foundation, which is one of the foreign NGOs on Russia's "patriotic stop list," announced shortly thereafter that it is closing its branch office in Moscow because the new regulations make it "impossible to operate effectively" in Russia. George Soros' Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are just two of the many high-profile NGOs on the "patriotic stop list." The Khodorkovsky Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Jamestown Foundation and others could join them soon. These organizations are at risk of being banned from Russia:

U.S. National Endowment for Democracy Becomes Russia's First 'Undesirable Organization' The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S.-based international organization that exists to promote democracy, was declared an “undesirable organization” Tuesday by Russia's Prosecutor General's Office, meaning all its activities are banned on Russian soil. “Using the capabilities of Russian commercial and non-commercial organizations under its control, the National Endowment for Democracy participated in work to recognize election results as illegitimate, to organize political action with the goal of influencing government policy, and to discredit Russian army service,” the Prosecutor General's Office said in an online statement. Earlier this month, senators of the Federation Council — the upper chamber of the Russian parliament — proposed a list of 12 foreign NGOs whose work they said posed a threat to national security and who should therefore be declared undesirable. The NED was one of them.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: July 29, 2015

Terror Spreads Across China as Uyghurs Explore New Escape Routes, Kyrgyzstan Cancels Treaty Because U.S. 'Sought Chaos' & 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.

As the situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorates further, the neighboring Central Asian states as well as Russia and China are becoming increasingly worried about a possible spillover of violence. The United States, on the other hand, has dismissed these concerns from the beginning and continues to insist that the security situation in Afghanistan poses no threat to the neighboring 'stans. This is a bold claim in light of the territorial gains by the Taliban and other militant groups in Faryab province, which borders Turkmenistan. A few days ago, insurgents blew up an electricity tower in Faryab, disrupting electricity supply to the provincial capital Maymana and four other districts. It was the second time in one week that the power supply lines have been cut due to the fighting. Since pro-government militias are retreating in most areas and Maymana is in danger of falling to militants, the Afghan government wants to launch a major military operation in the province as soon as possible:

Major operation on the way in northern Faryab province A major military operation is due to kick off in northern Faryab province of Afghanistan to clear the under the control of the Taliban militants. The operation is expected to be launched jointly by the Afghan national security forces including Afghan special forces along with the anti-Taliban public uprising forces. A lawmaker representing northern Faryab province in the Lower House of the Parliament – Wolesi Jirga, told Radio Free Europe (RFE) that the operation will be conducted as per the instructions of the First Vice President. 

China, Pakistan Could Become 'Guarantors' of Afghan Peace Deal

First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and another equally powerful and controversial figure, the governor of Balkh province Atta Mohammad Noor, recently agreed to join forces in order to repel the insurgents in Faryab and other northern Afghan provinces. Noor has long criticized the government for ignoring the rising militant violence in the north. In the search for scapegoats, Dostum has lately also suggested that people inside the government "have paved the way" for the militants and he vowed to reveal the culprits very soon. Although the infamous Afghan warlord is not a friend of the Taliban, he pointed out that foreign fighters from Central Asia and China are the driving force behind the current militant offensive and not the Afghan Taliban. Moreover, Dostum asserted that he is now capable of dealing with the insurgency in northern Afghanistan thanks to the full backing of the government, which had not been the case previously. But given the alarming situation, Kabul doesn't have much choice:

Taliban Take Remote Afghan Police Base After Mass Surrender The Taliban took control of a large police base in a remote part of northeastern Afghanistan after some 100 police and border guards joined the insurgents following three days of fighting, security officials said Sunday. The loss of the Tirgaran base in Badakhshan province marked the largest mass surrender since U.S. and NATO forces concluded their combat mission at the end of last year. It highlighted the challenges facing Afghan security forces, which have seen their casualties soar in the face of stepped-up insurgent attacks. The police base, in the province's Wardoj district, had been cut off as heavy rains destroyed roads into the area, said Gen. Baba Jan, Badakhshan province's police chief. It wasn't clear why reinforcements hadn't been flown into the area, though the province's steep valleys often make aircraft landings difficult. 

While Afghan officials stated that the local police commander and his men defected to the Taliban and handed over the base's weapons and ammunition, the Taliban claimed that they managed to overrun the police base and capture the security forces. They substantiated their claims shortly thereafter by releasing 107 security personnel captured at the base. Badakhshan has seen some of the heaviest fighting since the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) left the province in the hands of the Afghan security forces. The ineptitude of the Afghan army and the growing presence of Taliban and foreign fighters have not gone unnoticed by neighboring countries. Especially Tajikistan has been sounding the alarm over the developments in Badakhshan province but China is worried as well. This is one of the reasons why Beijing is taking a leading role in facilitating the Afghan peace talks:

Afghan peace deal: Islamabad, Beijing ready to become ‘guarantors’ Pakistan and China are ready to become ‘guarantors’ of a possible peace deal between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, officials familiar with the development have said. “We are ready to go the extra mile. We are even willing to become guarantors for any peace agreement,” said a senior Pakistani official, who requested not to be named because of sensitivity of the issue. During the talks, the Afghan side demanded immediate ceasefire from the Afghan Taliban. However, the Taliban reportedly agreed to cease fire if Islamabad and Beijing become ‘guarantors’ to ensure that a ‘United National Government’ will be formed in Afghanistan. Another official said China is also ready to provide guarantees if all the negotiating parties accept this arrangement. Following the Murree talks, China had hinted at playing a more proactive role in brokering a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The noteworthy statement of the unnamed senior Pakistani official immediately attracted India's attention and the Press Trust of India (PTI) asked Beijing to comment on the report. China's Foreign Ministry evaded a direct response and only said that China will maintain close cooperation will all parties to bring about peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. After the first meeting between representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban in Islamabad went better than expected, most parties have high hopes for the second round of talks this week. China was expected to host the upcoming meeting but a senior Pakistani security official just confirmed that the negotiations will continue in Pakistan. With the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor making progress, it comes as no real surprise that Islamabad and Beijing are currently doing their best to facilitate the Afghan peace talks:

China-Pakistan economic corridor under construction Pakistan's army chief General Raheel Sharif has inspected a road network under construction in Balochistan Province, which is part of a China-Pakistan development project. The economic corridor project links Gawadar Port in southwestern Pakistan to northwestern China's Xinjiang. Sharif said the corridor will transform the lives of local people and boost the development of the region. The construction is being out by Pakistan's Frontier Works Organisation, a military administrative staff corps. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was launched as part of the "One Belt, One Road" initiatives to connect Asia and Europe proposed by China.

Terror Spreads Across China as Uyghurs Explore New Escape Routes

Given the ongoing security problems in Balochistan and Xinjiang, chaos in neighboring Afghanistan is the last thing that Pakistan and China need right now. The Pakistani military has vowed to protect Chinese workers and engineers, who will assist in the construction of the project, with a 12,000 strong special security force. In exchange for billions of dollars in investments, Islamabad has also taken some action against Uyghur jihadists and other foreign fighters seeking refuge in the Pakistani tribal areas. As usual, Beijing prefers to throw money at the problem. Lately, Chinese consulate officials have reportedly been offering money to Uyghurs in Pakistan for information about activists campaigning against Chinese rule in 'East Turkestan.' The Chinese authorities take no chances when it comes to the insurgency in Xinjiang but an incident in the capital of the northeastern Liaoning province two weeks ago served as a stark reminder that the Uyghur militancy is no longer confined to China's far west:

China says police shoot dead three Xinjiang 'terrorists' Chinese police in the northeastern city of Shenyang shot dead three knife-wielding Uighur militants screaming for Islamic holy war and wounded another on Monday as they tried to resist arrest, the government and state media said. "When police pursued the terrorist suspects, four terrorists armed with knives resisted arrest. Police fired shots only after the terrorists ignored warnings," the Shenyang public security bureau said on its official microblog late on Monday. The state-run Beijing News, citing the Liaoning provincial government, said the militants, from Xinjiang, were killed on Monday afternoon after police tried to enter a rented house during a raid.

Police said that the four were suspected of involvement in the "June 12 Hijra case" without elaborating what the case is about. 16 other people have been arrested in connection with the case. Hijra refers to the journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution. Chinese counterterrorism expert Li Wei pointed out that suspected terrorists used to travel to southern China but the "case in Shenyang suggests that the Hijra movement might have spread across the country." As previously discussed, the Chinese government has stepped up its efforts to prevent Uyghurs from crossing the border into Southeast Asia. When Tong Bishan from China's Ministry of Public Security recently exposed Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terror operations, he mentioned that more Uyghurs are now trying to leave via northeastern China due to increased security along the borders with Laos and Vietnam. One week after the shooting in Shenyang, China's state broadcaster highlighted the growing terrorist threat in the north by airing an interview:

China arrests Uygur suspect who planned 'bomb attack' on shopping mall Police foiled a terrorist plot to bomb a shopping mall in Hebei province, state media said on Monday, as it aired a “confession” by a suspect from the far western region of Xinjiang who said he had trained for the attack in Syria. The suspect from Kashgar said in a eight-minute video on China Central Television that he had fled to Syria via Turkey for “bomb-making training” in early 2013. He said he returned to China earlier this year, staying in Shijiazhuang, where he plotted to blow up a shopping mall. The case and confession could not be independently verified, but the report underscored Beijing’s concern that the threat of terror attacks was spreading.

Furthermore, the report underscored Turkey's role in facilitating the illegal migration and terrorist recruitment of Uyghurs. According to Beijing-based analyst Jiang Zhaoyong, the Chinese authorities "wanted the video to show the danger of having a pathway in Turkey for illegal migrants to flee to overseas terrorist groups." Predictably, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) spokesman Dilxat Raxit had a different take on the video. He dismissed the confession as an attempt to "hype up hostility against Uyghurs." Beijing is getting increasingly fed up with the WUC and its Western supporters. After the shooting in Shenyang, the Global Times launched a scathing attack on the WUC and the West, emphasizing that "Chinese people are clear that some Western forces are pushing the terrorist activities in Xinjiang." As recent developments have shown, these terrorist activities are now spreading across the country:

Chinese police catch two terror suspects, seize explosives and knives after tip-off Mainland police on Friday caught two terror suspects in a pre-dawn crackdown on an alleged terrorist group based in Wenzhou in the eastern Zhejiang province. Officers seized explosives, knives and other weapons and were investigating the case, the office said on Weibo. It did not give details about the suspects' ethnicity, their plots or the number of people involved.

Li Wei, director of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations' counterterrorism research centre, said the cases showed that separatists and religious extremists were exploring new routes to flee abroad for terrorist training.

Kyrgyzstan Cancels Treaty Because U.S. 'Sought Chaos'

Now it is up to the Chinese authorities to shut down the new routes. Poor intelligence and porous borders have long stymied China's efforts to stop Uyghurs from leaving via Southeast Asia but increased security along the boders with Laos and Vietnam appears to be paying off. Prior to that, many Uyghurs tried to cross into Central Asia via Kyrgyzstan. According to a Beijing-based diplomatic source, Southeast Asia became the preferred route for Uyghurs to flee the country only after Kyrgyzstan stepped up security at China's request. Joint Kyrgyz-Chinese border operations highlight the fruitful cooperation. Since Beijing is not in the business of giving awards to human rights activists, Kyrgyzstan's cooperation with China doesn't face the same difficulties as cooperation with Western partners. The U.S. just learned the hard way that the Kyrgyz government doesn't flinch from taking drastic measures if it feels offended:

Kyrgyzstan cancels cooperation treaty with United States Kyrgyzstan canceled a cooperation treaty with the United States on Tuesday, raising the stakes in a diplomatic row triggered by the award of a human rights prize to a jailed dissident. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariyev ordered his cabinet to renounce the 1993 Bilateral Agreement with the U.S. It will not be valid starting Aug. 20, the government said in a statement. The agreement provided for U.S. aid to Kyrgyzstan to be brought into and out of the country without the levying of taxes, customs duties or any other payment.

Moreover, the agreement ensured that U.S. personnel supporting military or civil aid programs in Kyrgyzstan were granted near-diplomatic status. Although renouncing the 1993 treaty is by no means tantamount to breaking off diplomatic relations, it is a significant step highlighting the deterioration of Kyrgyzstan's relationship with the United States. Washington didn't expect Bishkek to take such drastic measures in response to the human rights award for Azimjon Askarov. The U.S. said it was disappointed by the decision but reaffirmed that it will continue to provide assistance to the Central Asian country. USAID, which has been involved in a lot of projects in Kyrgyzstan, will now have to make do without its privileged status. Despite mounting criticism at home and abroad, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev defended the decision to cancel the agreement and went on the offensive:

Kyrgyz leader says U.S. 'sought chaos' by decorating dissident Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said on Monday the United States had sought to "create chaos" in his country by granting an award to a jailed dissident. "This (U.S. award) cannot fail to shock and, for Kyrgyzstan, this means ethnic instability and an attempt to create chaos," Atambayev told a news conference in a resort area outside the capital Bishkek. "It's just revolting. Someone needs instability in Kyrgyzstan. Someone wants these ashes to smolder all the time."

Atambayev warned that the award could nurture a dangerous "separatist mood" among Uzbeks by promoting the preconception that "there will never be justice in Kyrgyzstan" for the Uzbek community. Not everyone in the country shares Atambayev's views. Many people criticized the government for renouncing the treaty. Opposition leader Ravshan Zheenbekov even suggested bringing Prime Minister Temir Sariyev to justice for abuse of power because he was the one who signed the document. Some critics emphasized that the government probably didn't make this decision on its own but rather after getting some friendly advice from Moscow. This theory has also been promoted by the usual suspects in the media. Kyrgyz President Atambayev is clearly aware that it looks like Moscow was pulling the strings behind the scenes. Therefore, he decided to point out that Kyrgyzstan is not a Russian vassal:

Atambayev: Some Day, Russian Military Will Have To Leave Kyrgyzstan Kyrgyzstan's president has suggested that Russia's military base in the country will have to leave at some point, perhaps in an effort to signal that even as relations with the United States suffer, he doesn't intend the country to be a Russian vassal. "We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries," Almazbek Atambayev said at a press conference on July 27. He did suggest that the base's presence was still welcome today: the base's establishment "was due to threats which the republic can not withstand still today, so the decision on the opening of the base was correct and remains relevant today," he added.

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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

                                                       

The New Great Game Round-Up: July 22, 2015

U.S. Finds Pretext for Staying in Afghanistan as Warlords Join Forces, Saakashvili Fans Try to Exploit Georgian Border Woes & 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.

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.

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 "Ukrainian 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”.

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.

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.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: July 15, 2015

China Reveals Explosive Information to Give Turkey a Warning, India Eyes Central Asia as SCO Expands & 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.

Turkey's far-right National Movement Party (MHP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Grey Wolves, have been leading the protests against "China's brutality in East Turkestan." Korean tourists and the Uyghur cook of a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul were the first ones to learn that Turkish ultranationalists don't flinch from using violence to protest China's "Ramadan ban" or other Chinese misdeeds. Even after Turkish police had to rescue the Korean tourists, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli tried to play down the recent wave of ultranationalist attacks and defended the attackers by pointing out that Chinese and Koreans both "have slanted eyes." While MHP-linked groups began openly printing death threats against Chinese, Beijing warned Chinese citizens traveling in Turkey to be on guard and stay away from anti-China protests. Amid rising tensions, Thailand further aggravated the situation by sending 173 Uyghur women and children to Turkey and then returning about 100 Uyghur migrants to China:

Thailand sends nearly 100 Uighur migrants back to China Thailand confirmed on Thursday it had forcibly returned nearly 100 Uighur migrants to China, heightening tensions between Ankara and Beijing over the treatment of the Turkic language-speaking and largely Muslim minority. "Thailand sent around 100 Uighurs back to China yesterday. Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem. We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality," Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.

A group of more than 170 Uighurs were identified as Turkish citizens and sent to Turkey, and nearly 100 were identified as Chinese and sent back to China. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.

China Reveals Explosive Information to Give Turkey a Warning

Predictably, Washington and its favorite Uyghur exile group lost no time in commenting on the matter. The U.S. State Department condemned Thailand's deportation of the Uyghurs and urged the Thai authorities "to allow those remaining ethnic Uighurs to depart voluntarily to a country of their choice." World Uyghur Congress (WUC) spokesman Dilxat Raxit drew attention to the pictures of Uyghurs in hoods saying that the pictures showed they had been "stripped of their dignity." Beijing vehemently denied allegations of mistreatment or torture and rejected the criticism coming from the United States. The Chinese government was not amused when more than 170 Uyghurs left Thailand for Turkey, where they were welcomed by Raxit's colleague Seyit Tümtürk, but when ultranationalists in Turkey learned of Thailand's decision to return some of the remaining Uyghurs to China, all hell broke loose:

Thai consulate in Istanbul attacked after Uighurs deported Some 200 Turkish demonstrators stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul in protest at the deportation of dozens of Uighur Muslims to China, reports said on Thursday. The attack was the latest in a series of nationalist-tinted protests in Turkey during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan over China's treatment of the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uighurs in the north-western Xinjiang region. Nine people were arrested after the action at the consulate building in Istanbul late on Wednesday organised by a group calling itself East Turkestan Education Association, the Dogan news agency reported.

As previously highlighted, there is some evidence to suggest that the East Turkestan Education Association (ETESA) has been involved in recruiting Uyghurs for jihad in Syria. The Thai authorities surely know by now why the Istanbul-based Uyghur exile group has long been a thorn in Beijing's side. One day after the attack on the Thai consulate in Istanbul, another group of pro-Uyghur protesters attacked Thailand's embassy in Ankara and almost lynched a passing Asian tourist, assuming that the woman was Chinese, before attempting to break into the Chinese embassy. Turkish police eventually dispersed the protesters with pepper spray. Thailand immediately warned its citizens to "be on alert" and decided to close its embassy and consulate temporarily. While the Thai government tried to ease tensions by pointing out that it had rejected Beijing's request to return all Uyghur migrants held in Thailand, Turkey's state Anatolia news agency and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally conceded that media coverage of China's "Ramadan ban" does not correspond with reality:

Reports on Chinese practices in Xinjiang largely inaccurate, says Turkey’s Erdoğan Many news reports on China’s alleged restrictions on Muslim Uighurs during the holy month of Ramadan do not reflect reality, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, amid anti-Chinese demonstrations by Turkish nationalists over the treatment of the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region. His words come amid a spike in attacks against East Asian tourists in Turkey. Earlier on July 9, an Asian tourist was attacked by pro-Uighur protesters in Ankara as they assumed that she was Chinese. “I call on the public to be careful on this issue. I request for people not to rise to the bait of provocateurs. Security of life and property of all of our East Asian guests, who come to our country for work, travel and living, is our honor,” Erdoğan said, while also urging Turkey’s security forces to be more careful on the issue.

Erdogan seems to live by the motto 'better late than never.' Luckily for him, no Asian tourists have been lynched in Turkey before he set the record straight. After being bombarded with countless misleading reports about China's "Ramadan ban," hardly anybody noticed it when China tried to counter the propaganda and it is to be feared that the recent admissions from Turkey will be overlooked as well. Understandably enough, Beijing is fed up with Ankara's behavior and decided to give the Turks a warning by shedding more light on Turkey's passports-to-Uyghurs scheme. Shortly after the latest attacks in Turkey, a Chinese official from the Ministry of Public Security explained to a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing why Thailand had identified some of the Uyghurs as Turkish nationals and why the West should think twice before criticizing China for repatriating Uyghur migrants:

China says Uighurs being sold as 'cannon fodder' for extremist groups Uighurs from China's Xinjiang are being given Turkish identity papers in Southeast Asia by Turkish diplomats and then taken to Turkey where some are sold to fight for groups like Islamic State as "cannon fodder", a senior Chinese official said. "Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia will give them proof of identity," Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security's Criminal Investigation Department, told a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing on Saturday. Tong said that hundreds of Uighurs had been given documents by Turkish diplomats, especially in Kuala Lumpur, and then allowed into Turkey.

Taliban Rift Threatens to Derail Afghan Peace Talks

According to the Ministry of Public Security, 13 of the 109 Uyghurs repatriated from Thailand had fled China after being implicated in terrorist activities and another two had escaped detention. After the damning revelations in January, China has now exposed Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terror operations for the second time this year. But given the importance of the East Turkestan project for various factions in Turkey and the U.S., it is highly doubtful that this will stop the Turkish authorities from supporting their Uyghur "brothers." In addition to Turkey's meddling in Xinjiang, the volatile situation in neighboring Afghanistan is giving Beijing headaches as well. In recent months, China has pulled out all the stops to restart the Afghan peace talks. Obama's decision to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan complicated matters but Beijing's efforts are apparently paying off after all:

Afghan Government, Taliban Begin Two-Days of High-Level Talks Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives on Tuesday began two days of discussions in Pakistan, Afghan officials said, signaling a possible start to a formal peace process. The meeting was one of the highest-level contacts between the two warring parties in recent years, offering hope that a formal peace process aimed at ending the long-running conflict could soon begin. A senior Afghan official said U.S. and Chinese officials took part in Tuesday’s meeting as observers. Their attendance, together with Pakistan’s willingness to play host, is significant as it points to a broadening involvement of key players in a possible peace process. 

Members of the Haqqani network also attended the peace talks. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the meeting as a breakthrough because it was the first time that Kabul had sent an official team after several informal meetings between representatives from the two sides. While the Afghan delegation had the full backing of the Kabul government, the Taliban delegation had only been authorized by Taliban political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. His rival, battlefield commander Abdul Qayyum "Zakir," didn't approve of the meeting and threatened that he would either join ISIS with his men or set up another group if the talks continued. Considering that both delegations agreed to hold the next round of talks after the end of Ramadan, Mansour has to decide very quickly whether he wants to risk losing several thousand fighters to ISIS or end the peace process before it gets going:

Afghan Taliban seek ‘united national govt’ In a significant development that may lead to an elusive peace deal in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban have agreed to cease fire if Pakistan and China guarantee that a ‘united national government’ will be formed in the war-ravaged country. The Taliban representatives made this offer during crucial talks with senior Afghan government officials in the popular tourist resort of Murree Tuesday night. Officials from Pakistan, China and the United States also attended the closed door talks, suggesting the latest process has the backing of major international players. A senior government official familiar with the meeting told The Express Tribune that both sides exchanged a list of demands in an effort to take the process forward.

The Afghan side reportedly agreed to include the third-tier leadership of the Taliban in the government but the Taliban demand the inclusion of its first-tier leadership. As Kabul and the political leadership of the Taliban are inching closer to an agreement, the rift within in the Taliban could derail the peace talks at a crucial moment. If Taliban commander Zakir acts on his threats and leaves with his men, a peace deal won't be worth the paper it is written on. ISIS's Afghan affiliate, on the other hand, would certainly weclome this development. The group needs all the help it can get after losing several leaders in U.S. airstrikes. ISIS released an online audio clip to prove that its leader for Afghanistan, Hafez Saeed, was not killed along with his fellow jihadists but it is safe to say that the airstrikes have dealt a blow to Baghdadi's fans in Afghanistan. To make matters worse, Hezb-e Islami recently denied that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had called on his followers to support ISIS in the fight against the Taliban, as suggested by a statement circulating in Afghan media:

Hekmatyar's Afghan militants deny joining Islamic State An influential Afghan militant faction on Monday denied reports that it had shifted loyalty to Islamic State's budding movement in the region. A spokesman for Hizb-i-Islami, led by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said a statement that had circulated in Afghan media last week alleging Hekmatyar had thrown his support behind the ultra-hardline jihadist movement also known as ISIS was a fake. "It was not true. None of us had issued any such statement in support of ISIS in Afghanistan against the Afghan Taliban," spokesman Haroon Zarghoon said.

India Eyes Central Asia as SCO Expands

Clashes between ISIS and the Taliban have been escalating in recent weeks, underscoring the deteriorating security situation in the country. The chaos in Afghanistan is frequently discussed when leaders from the region come together and the latest meetings in the Russian city of Ufa were no exception to this rule. Last week, leaders from the BRICS countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gathered in Ufa for two noteworthy summits. Host Vladimir Putin wanted to use the opportunity to show his former colleagues in the G-7 that all the talk about isolating Russia is just wishful thinking and in light of the expansion of the SCO, even Western media was forced to admit that the Russian President might have a point. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Nepal joined the organization as dialogue partners, Belarus was upgraded from dialogue partner to observer state and, most importantly, India and Pakistan began the accession process, which will be finalized at the SCO summit in India:

India and Pakistan join Shanghai Co-operation Organisation The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation has embarked on a big enlargement process that could transform the club that includes China, Russia and four central Asian countries into a security and economic grouping stretching from eastern Europe to southeast Asia. SCO leaders decided on Friday to admit India and Pakistan as members and made Belarus an observer — a status that could eventually be upgraded to membership. The expansion marks a big diplomatic achievement for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who hosted the summit in the southern Urals city of Ufa, as it allows him to demonstrate that western sanctions have failed to isolate Moscow internationally.

Both India and Pakistan hailed the emergence of a new economic axis and Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif stressed that Putin's "efforts will enhance the political and economic scope of the Eurasian belt." One of the major issues discussed in Ufa was using the SCO to link the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with China's Silk Road Economic Belt. The final document of the SCO summit made no mention of this plan but Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng told reporters shortly thereafter that China and the EEU will start negotiations on an economic partnership agreement "as soon as possible." As Russia and China are looking to join forces in Central Asia, India also wants a piece of the cake. The BRICS and SCO summits in Ufa were just a stopover for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who embarked on an extensive Central Asia tour on July 6. Modi's tour brought some interesting news but especially a report in the Daily Mail ahead of his Tajikistan visit raised a few eyebrows:

India wants to expand footprint in Central Asia: Modi to ask Tajikistan for lease of ex-Soviet airbase Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to ask Tajikistan for the lease of a former Soviet airbase that was refurbished by India in 2007. Government sources told Mail Today that use of the Ayni airbase for the Indian Air Force, tops the agenda for discussion with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon when the prime minister arrives on a state visit on July 12.

India refurbished the base in 2007 but could not base fighters and helicopters there because of Russian pressure.

A Tajik government source immediately denied that the use of Ayni Air Force Base was on the agenda and there is no indication that Modi visited the base or that the issue was discussed. Given that both Dushanbe and Moscow have to agree to the lease, India's chances of using Ayni are slim anyway. Tajikistan was the last stop on Modi's Central Asia tour. Whereas security and counterterrorism cooperation were high on the agenda during his visits to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, talks in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan focused mostly on economic cooperation. One of the major projects discussed was of course the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Although the TAPI countries are still looking for a consortium leader, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and others have claimed that the construction will start this year. No one seemed to take the unpredictable situation in Afghanistan into account but Modi has now cast doubt on the planned route of the pipeline [emphasis mine]:

PM Narendra Modi pitches for early implementation of TAPI gas pipeline project Batting for early implementation of the USD 10 billion TAPI gas pipeline project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi today evinced India's interest in long-term investment in the energy sector in Turkmenistan as the two countries inked seven pacts and vowed to jointly combat terrorism in the region. Calling TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) project as a significant initiative in relationship between the two countries, Modi said possibility of land-sea route through Iran for the pipeline should be explored. The project was envisaged to take gas from Turkmenistan, which holds the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves, to India and Pakistan through Afghanistan.

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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

                                                       

The New Great Game Round-Up: July 8, 2015

Russia Rewards Armenia for Not Starting Another Maidan, Turkey's Anti-China Propaganda Takes Its Toll on Uyghurs-Koreans & 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 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the entire country was widely celebrated in the U.S. and many other countries but not everyone welcomed the decision. Western media, which is more concerned about LGBT rights in Russia than in any other country, awaited eagerly how Russians would react to the ruling. The Washington Post was dumbfounded when influential journalist Dmitry Kiselyov and other prominent Russian figures didn't react as expected but fortunately Western journalists still got the reaction they were looking for. What went largely unnoticed is that Russians are not the only ones who see the U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a "big mistake." Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili assured his compatriots that he will do his best to prevent legalizing same-sex marriage in Georgia. This resonates with many people in his country. More and more Georgians are wondering whether Euro-Atlantic integration is really worth the trouble:

Spurned by the West, Georgians look to Russia despite past quarrels In this fiercely pro-Western nation that fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, few thought the Kremlin could ever regain a toehold. But with the West backing away from Georgia’s path to E.U. and NATO membership after a year of conflict in Ukraine, pro-Russian sentiments are on the rise. “More and more Georgians are feeling they haven’t gotten anything tangible from the West,” said Shorena Shaverdashvili, a prominent Georgian journalist. “There isn’t more love for Putin and Russia. It’s just a realization that we’re left face-to-face with Russia and we have to deal with it.” “Georgia should be neutral, and it should be militarily free,” said Archil Chkoidze, the leader of Georgia’s Eurasian Choice, a coalition of pro-Russian groups that says it has nearly 16,000 members. Among the warnings about Europe that he passes to his members, he said, was that E.U. leaders are more concerned with cultural issues such as gay rights — deeply unpopular in a socially conservative nation — rather than the everyday lives of Georgian citizens.

Georgian Government Not Swayed By Rising Pro-Russian Sentiments

Western promotion of gay rights and NATO's refusal to grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) have contributed to a rise of pro-Russian sentiments in the country. Disappointment over the free-trade deal with the European Union is also a major factor. In June of last year, Georgia signed a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU as part of its Association Agreement. The result after one year is sobering. Georgian farmers are still struggling with EU food-safety standards and the benefit of the free-trade deal is debatable, to say the least. That is why support for signing the EU trade agreement is decreasing while support for joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union is increasing, as highlighted by a recent public opinion poll from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which shocked the West. The Georgian government has not been swayed by the changing public sentiment but it is becoming increasingly difficult for the West to reject Tbilisi's plea for NATO membership:

Georgia risks Kremlin fury with Nato overture

GEORGIA has vowed to press ahead with its attempts to join Nato, in a move set to provoke a furious reaction from Russia, which is hostile to any further expansion of the alliance. Tina Khidasheli, the defence minister of the former Soviet republic, said Nato was already “increasing its footprint” in her country and the next “logical step” would be an offer of membership. Khidasheli’s call came as Nato defence ministers discussed a potential upgrade of the alliance’s collective nuclear policy for the first time since the end of the Cold War, after an announcement by the Kremlin that it would add 40 warheads to its already vast nuclear arsenal.

Georgia's first ever female Defense Minister has picked up where her predecessors left off. Since taking office in May, Khidasheli has already visited NATO headquarters in Brussels twice and she lost no time in signing a controversial air defense deal with France. This came as a surprise to former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who had claimed that he was fired because the government tried to prevent him from signing a similar deal. Alasania's sacking sent shockwaves through Brussels and Washington but concerns that this could spell the end for Georgia's NATO membership ambitions were completely unfounded, as Khidasheli's statement once again shows. The rise of pro-Russian sentiments notwithstanding, the Georgian authorities remain committed to Euro-Atlantic integration and support Western projects as best they can. A few days ago, Georgia hosted Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and the talks focused primarily on the Southern Gas Corridor:

Turkmenistan’s President Visits Georgia, Discusses Gas Transit Project Energy projects, involving potential transit of Turkmen gas via southern corridor to Europe, were among the main issues discussed by the Georgian leaders and President of Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who is paying his first official visit to Georgia on July 2-3. President Margvelashvili said that “this cooperation is beneficial” not only for Georgia and Turkmenistan, but also for “the entire region and for many countries in Eurasia.” “Our joint transit and energy projects will make it possible to transit Turkmen energy resources to the European markets,” the Georgian President said.

Before Georgia can transit Turkmen gas to European markets, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will have to build the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. After Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan agreed to their maritime border in the Caspian Sea, proponents of the Trans-Caspian pipeline have again gotten their hopes up that the project will be implemented but Russia and Iran also have a say in this matter. Much to the delight of Turkmenistan, Georgia doesn't care much about what Russia has to say. In fact, the Georgian government loses no opportunity to support projects which are directed against Russia. Although the Georgian authorities are annoyed about the strong presence of former Georgian officials in Ukraine, they keep supporting the Kiev regime and turn a blind eye to the activities of former Georgian soldiers in Ukraine. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has done a tremendous job in luring other Georgians to Ukraine but not every one of his followers is up to the task:

Ukraine’s ‘Georgian’ minister resigns Embattled Ukrainian Health Minister, Alexandre Kvitashvili, resigned Thursday after harsh criticism by the parliament, Verkhovna Rada and even by his former boss and current informal leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. “The old system breaks down, bribery and other levies thrive in hospitals, and nothing has improved in recent years, but on the contrary, deteriorated,” Mikheil Saakashvili, the governor of strategic Odessa Oblast, said. Ukrainian media quotes Saakashvili as saying that Kvitashvili, who held the same position of the health minister in Georgia during Saakashvili presidency, hasn’t been ‘aggressive and active’ enough to carry out necessary reforms.

Russia Rewards Armenia for Not Starting Another Maidan

As Saakashvili is showing Kvitashvili & Co. how to be more "aggressive and active," the U.S. government is making sure that the disgraced former Georgian President and his minions don't run out of money. In light of the developments in Ukraine after the Maidan Putsch, it is not difficult to understand why Russian officials and media were freaking out when they saw thousands of protesters gathering in the Armenian capital Yerevan. Although many protesters had made it clear that they don't want to follow the Ukrainian example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov deemed it best to warn the West against any attempt to spark a color revolution in Armenia by exploiting "Electric Yerevan." Armenian Prime Minister Ovik Abramyan also pointed out that the movement could be hijacked by forces whose real goal is destabilizing the country. In contrast to Lavrov, Abramyan was not referring to the West but rather to the Armenian opposition and he did have a point:

Armenian politician arrives at Yerevan's Baghramyan Avenue with EU flag (PHOTOS) Paruyr Hayrikyan, leader of Armenia’s Union for National Self-Determination, arrived at Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue accompanied by several supporters, who carried the flags of Armenia and EU. The protestors began to shout angrily “Go away!” and urged Hayrikyan to remove the EU flag. Protestors qualify this step by Hayrikyan as a provocation. Responding to the journalists’ observations on whether such a step isn’t a provocation and won’t give a reason to foreign and specifically Russian media to present the protests in Baghramyan Avenue as Maidan, Harikyan said he’s not interested in that.

As protesters tore up the EU flag, they told Hayrikyan and his supporters in no uncertain terms: "Baghramyan is not Maidan, don't associate it with the latter!" That is exactly what the Kremlin wanted to hear. "Electric Yerevan" has made the Russian government very nervous. Moscow tried to appease the crowd by granting Armenia one concession after another but the protesters stood by their three demands, which can only be fulfilled by the Armenian government. Yerevan has merely offered to absorb the costs of the electricity price hike until an independent audit determines whether the planned price hike is justified. So the protests continued and Russia made another move. After granting Armenia a $200 million loan to buy Russian weapons, Russian defense industry sources leaked a few days ago to the press in Russia and Armenia which weapons the country might get:

Russia ‘Negotiating’ On New Missile Supplies To Armenia Russia is reportedly holding negotiations with Armenia on supplying it with sophisticated Iskander-M missiles that would significantly boost Armenian defense capabilities in the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan. “A contract has not been signed yet; negotiations are still going on,” the official TASS news agency quoted an unnamed source in the Russian defense industry as saying late on Thursday. The source gave no further details, saying that “all information about such contracts is secret.”

Details are scarce but when the news broke, it created a stir in Armenia and abroad because the delivery of Iskander missile systems could have serious implications for the military balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Given that Azerbaijan is not capable of intercepting Iskander missiles, one would expect that the report caused an outcry in Baku but Azerbaijani media preferred to downplay the issue. AzerNews advised Armenia "to improve its economic situation rather than frivolously spending the money on its military" and Trend suggested that Russia is just trying to sell more weapons to Azerbaijan. This view was shared by an Armenian newspaper, which argued that Russia granted Armenia the $200 million loan to keep the arms race going and provoke Azerbaijan into buying Russian weapons for billions of dollars. Regardless of whether or not there is some truth to these claims, it is safe to say that "Electric Yerevan" has prompted some major developments despite failing to achieve its goals:

Police End ‘Electric Yerevan’ Protests, For Now Riot police forcibly unblocked on Monday a central Yerevan avenue that has been the scene of a nonstop demonstration for the past two weeks against a controversial rise in electricity prices in Armenia. Only between 100 and 200 protesters remained camped out on Marshal Bagramian Avenue when the police began dismantling their barricade. They went on to carefully disperse the small crowd. No To Plunder, a youth group that launched the “Electric Yerevan” campaign, urged the protesters on June 28 to unblock Marshal Bagramian Avenue. Most protesters rejected the appeal. Nevertheless, attendance at the protests fell dramatically in the following days.

Turkey's Anti-China Propaganda Takes Its Toll on Uyghurs, Koreans

While Russia can stop worrying about the "anti-Russian" protests in Armenia, China would be well advised to keep a very close eye on the anti-Chinese protests in neighboring Turkey. As discussed in the last round-up, Turkey has been ramping up its East Turkestan propaganda in recent weeks. When Western media and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) started their annual propaganda campaign against China's "Ramadan ban," Turkey took the lead with media, politicians and other prominent figures all condemning "China's brutality in East Turkestan." The Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern" to China over Ramadan restrictions in Xinjiang and even raised the issue with China's ambassador in Ankara. Beijing was outraged and tried to set the record straight about the "Ramadan ban" but the anti-China propaganda was already having the desired effect:

Turks Protesting China Pick Random Chinese Food Restaurant, Trash It Turkish protesters stormed a Chinese restaurant in central Istanbul Sunday, shouting anti-China slogans, flinging blue paint and dropping a “dead” baby doll on a table. They were apparently protesting China’s bans on Ramadan fasting in the majority-Muslim region of Xinjiang. That region’s native people, the Uyghurs, speak a language related to Turkish, and some separatists prefer to call the region “East Turkestan.” Sunday’s instigators were members of a small nationalist group, whose ideology, Turanism, espouses unity among the world’s Turkic peoples. In a rally outside the restaurant, they flew banners reading “Long Live East Turkestan,” and chanted the slogans “Down with Red China” and “Murderous China, get out of Turkestan.”

Moreover, they beat the cook of the restaurant, thinking that he was Chinese. As chance would have it, the guy was a Uyghur Turk. The protesters were members of "Turancı Hareket Platformu," which seems to be affiliated with the Grey Wolves, the paramilitary youth wing of the National Movement Party (MHP). The far-right MHP finished third in the Turkish general election last month, winning more than 16 percent of the vote. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has been one of the strongest advocates of the East Turkestan independence movement. Recently, he was arguing with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about who has done more for their "Uyghur brothers." Given the history of the MHP and the Grey Wolves in 'Gladio' operations in Turkey, it comes as no real surprise that they are also playing a decisive role in Washington's East Turkestan project. A few days after the attack on the Chinese restaurant, anti-China protests erupted all over Turkey, once again led by the Grey Wolves:

Turks protesting against China attack Koreans ‘by mistake’

Turkish nationalists protesting China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims attacked a group of Korean tourists in the heart of Istanbul's old city yesterday, mistaking them for Chinese nationals. The tourists were rescued by riot police, who fired tear gas to disperse the attackers, members of the notorious far-right Grey Wolves closely affiliated with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Video footage by Dogan news agency showed a distraught Korean tourist telling reporters: "I'm not Chinese, I'm Korean."

Judging by the scenes in Istanbul, the Turkish authorities will have to tone down the East Turkestan propaganda if they don't want Asians to get attacked on a regular basis. China's Foreign Ministry lost no time in warning Chinese citizens traveling in Turkey to stay away from anti-China protests, pointing out that some Chinese tourists have recently been "attacked and disturbed." As if the situation was not already tense enough, Radio Free Asia reported a few days ago that 173 Uyghur women and children have arrived in Turkey after being held in Thailand for more than a year. A Thai lawyer told Reuters that they had left Thailand on a "secret charter flight" provided by Turkey. Shortly after our old friend Seyit Tümtürk from the World Uyghur Congress welcomed the Uyghur refugees in Turkey, Beijing criticized Ankara for supporting illegal migration. The response from Ankara was not long in coming:

Turkey says to keep doors open for Uighur 'brothers', irking China Turkey vowed on Friday to keep its doors open to ethnic Uighur migrants fleeing persecution in China, a stance likely to exacerbate Ankara's row with Beijing over its treatment of the largely Muslim, Turkic-language speaking minority.  U.S.-based Radio Free Asia reported that 173 Uighur women and children had arrived in Istanbul this week from Thailand, where they had been detained for more than a year by immigration authorities for illegal entry. Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic declined to comment on the report, but said Ankara would continue to welcome its "Uighur brothers", citing "cultural and historical bonds".

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: June 30, 2015

Kyrgyzstan- Color Revolution Expert Richard Miles Caught Red-Handed, WUC- Turkey Highlighting "China's Brutality in East Turkestan" & 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.

When the Armenian authorities reluctantly approved a request by the country's energy monopoly, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), to increase electricity tariffs from the beginning of August by 7 Armenian dram (1.5 U.S. cent), President Serzh Sargsyan and his government didn't expect that this could turn into a huge problem. They knew full well that ENA was trying to compensate for its losses, which had been caused by graft, but figured that the people would put up with yet another rate increase - the third one over the past two years. However, this time many Armenians decided that enough was enough. What started with a small sit-in in the center of Yerevan on June 19 soon evolved into huge protests on Baghramyan Avenue. As more and more people joined "Electric Yerevan," the government began to understand the gravity of the situation and tried to nip the protests in the bud:

Armenian Police Forcefully Disperse Yerevan Protesters, 18 Injured Armenian police used force and water cannons to clear a demonstration in central Yerevan overnight after a standoff with activists protesting against rising electricity prices. In the early hours of June 23, special police forces moved to disperse hundreds of protesters who spent more than nine hours seated in the street not far from the presidential compound. The protesters insisted that their actions were peaceful and demanded that President Serzh Sarkisian revoke the decision made by state regulators to raise electricity prices by 16 percent beginning August 1.

"Electric Yerevan" Sends Shockwaves through Armenia & Russia

Yerevan police arrested 237 people but released all of them shortly thereafter. Much to the dismay of the Armenian authorities, the crackdown didn't have the desired effect. The protests continued and more people joined in. To make matters worse, Russian, Ukrainian and Western media tried to use "Electric Yerevan" to push their own agendas, thereby inflaming tensions in Armenia and abroad. The fact that ENA is fully owned by Russian energy company Inter RAO was neither lost on the protesters nor on Western media, which pointed out that the protests were not only directed against the Armenian government but, by default, also against Russia. Although many Armenians went out of their way to stress that they don't want to turn "Electric Yerevan" into a Maidan-style color revolution, Russian officials and media were not easily convinced and kept insisting that this is another Western plot:

Russian Officials See 'Color Revolution' in Armenia Russian lawmakers said Wednesday that rolling protests on the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan could be the first stage of a "color revolution" similar to those that have toppled governments in post-Soviet countries including Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. "It's no use deluding yourself, all 'color revolutions' developed along these lines," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the International Committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, the RIA Novosti news agency reported Wednesday. Other lawmakers compared the demonstrations to the collapse of a pro-Russia government in Ukraine last year, a process the Kremlin characterizes as a foreign-backed coup.

Armenia has long been tipped as a Western 'regime change' target. Given that the country is Russia's only ally in the South Caucasus, it is hard to overstate the importance of keeping Armenia in Russia's sphere of influence. When Maidan mastermind Victoria Nuland and a high-level USAID official visited Armenia during their South Caucasus tour a few months ago, many people were already expecting the worst. So it came as no real surprise that Russian lawmakers believed "Electric Yerevan" to be the color revolution that everyone had been waiting for. It didn't help that the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia denied any U.S. involvement in the protests. Armenia's close relationship with Russia has been put to the test time and again in recent months. Russian arms deliveries to Azerbaijan and the murder of an Armenian family by a Russian soldier are still a hot topic in Armenia. Therefore, the Kremlin deemed it best to appease the protesters by making some concessions:

As Protests Continue In Yerevan, Russia Concedes To Armenia On Soldier Murder Case Russia has agreed to let Armenian courts try a Russian soldier accused of murdering seven members of an Armenian family after deserting Russia's major military base in the country. The move is a major concession by Moscow, and comes as large-scale street protests in Yerevan against Armenia's Russian-owned electricity company have been gathering strength. On June 26, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with a Russian government delegation to discuss energy fees, the issue that sparked the Yerevan protests. But the scope of the discussions was apparently wider than that, and Sargsyan's office issued a surprise announcement after the meeting: On top of that, Russia also apparently agreed to give Armenia $200 million in credit for arms purchases.

President Sargsyan thanked the Kremlin for helping him out but Moscow's concessions didn't stop "Electric Yerevan" and only whet the appetite of the protesters. Although the movement brought together many different people with different objectives and claimed to be leaderless, the protesters had agreed on three demands - the cancellation of the electricity price hike being the most important one. After initially refusing to listen to the demands, the government eventually offered to pay the additional costs until an independent audit determines whether the planned price hike is justified. Predictably, the protesters lost no time in rejecting the offer and vowed to continue the fight. However, ten days of protest have taken their toll on the people and a split within the movement has also played a part in contributing to the decline of "Electric Yerevan." So it remains to be seen in which form the protests will continue:

“No to Plunder”: Struggle at Baghramyan Avenue is politicized The struggle at Baghramyan Avenue is already politicized, this is the reason “No to Plunder” initiative decided to continue their actions at Liberty Square, member of the initiative group Vaghinak Shushanyan told reporters. “We are apolitical structure and we are dealing with the social problems, and our task is to cancel the decision to increase hike in electricity prices. This is the reason we continue our struggle at the square,” he added. Vaghinak Shushanyan previously urged the protesters to leave Baghramyan Avenue for Liberty Square and turn it into a tent city, because the logic of the struggle requires it. He also said that there are provocateurs at Baghramian Avenue who are trying to transform their civil claims into political one.

Kyrgyzstan: Color Revolution Expert Richard Miles Caught Red-Handed

Fears that the protests could be hijacked have been dismissed as "Russian paranoia" but it is noteworthy that Western propaganda outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Hromadske.TV, are showing great interest in "Electric Yerevan" and have been embraced by leading figures of the movement. The Russian Defense Ministry is probably keeping a close eye on "Electric Yerevan." They are developing a manual on countering color revolutions. Depending on how the situation in Yerevan develops, they might be able to add a few pages to the manual. But Armenia is not the only post-Soviet state in Russia's sphere of influence which deserves closer attention. Since last year, Kyrgyzstan has seen a number of suspicious developments suggesting that the U.S. is trying to start a Kyrgyz Maidan. Only a few weeks after the controversy surrounding the delivery of 150 tons of "diplomatic mail" to the U.S. Embassy Bishkek, the U.S. is now again making headlines in Kyrgyzstan:

Scandal in Kyrgyzstan After Protest Organizer Seen With US Diplomat A media scandal has broken out in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan following the posting of a YouTube video showing a protest organizer meeting with the American ambassador. On Wednesday, a few dozen people organized by civil society and rights groups gathered in front of the presidential building in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, protesting a government initiative to hold a referendum which would make changes to the country's constitution. Protesters attached portraits of government officials with their faces crossed out to the presidential building's gates, and carried banners saying "Do Not Sell the Country!" and "Do Not Rape the Constitution." But the scandal, which broke out on Wednesday evening, was over an anonymous YouTube video which showed protest organizer Nurbek Toktakunov, leader of local NGO 'Precedent', meeting with US Charge d'Affaires Richard Miles shortly after the protest.

Toktakunov tried to downplay the meeting by claiming it had been planned for a long time and had no relation to the protest. Regardless of whether or not that is true, meetings between local NGO leaders and American diplomats should always raise red flags - and even more when the American diplomat in question is Richard Miles. They don't call him a "genius of color revolutions" for nothing. Although Miles serves only "temporarily" as U.S. charge d'affairs in Bishkek until a new ambassador is found, his arrival in Kyrgyzstan was met with a lot of suspicion. Judging by the revealing video, which was presumably recorded by Kyrgyz and/or Russian intelligence, the fears were justified. Moreover, this scandal will reinforce Bishkek's decision to monitor the NGOs in the country. Despite strong opposition from the usual suspects, Kyrgyzstan's parliament recently gave the go-ahead for a 'foreign agents' bill:

Kyrgyzstan Passes 'Foreign Agents' Bill in Preliminary Vote After stalling for almost two years, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has overwhelmingly passed a bill that will have a chilling effect on the Central Asian country’s vibrant civil society, if it becomes law. Local media reported that legislators voted 83 to 23 on June 4 in favor of the “foreign agents” bill. The bill – which must go through two more votes in parliament before landing on the president’s desk – is modeled on a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that has been used to crack down on independent groups there. Kyrgyzstani rights activists fear that with Russia tightening its grip on the region, and lawmakers seemingly eager to please Moscow, the walls are fast closing in on free speech and other civil liberties.

Kyrgyzstan has indeed a "vibrant civil society." There are so many NGOs operating in the country that is difficult to keep track of all of them. The Ministry of Justice has already announced that it won't be able to carry out audits of the NGOs' financial activities, as proposed in the bill, unless its staff is being increased. Richard Miles was certainly relieved to hear that. Western opposition to the 'foreign agents' bill is not exactly grounded in a passion for democracy. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about possible attempts by the West to destabilize the country. Last month, Kyrgyz police detained as many foreigners in the city of Osh as they could find after mysterious text messages and rumors about an imminent revolution and interethnic conflict created a stir in the south of the country in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan riots. One of the messages said that the U.S. is distributing weapons to Hizb ut-Tahrir members, which is even more curious given the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir members usually refrain from using violence and focus on radicalizing others:

Hizb ut-Tahrir printing house found in south Kyrgyzstan A clandestine press has been found at a house in Kara-Suu district, Osh Region, in southern Kyrgyzstan, which printed literature of the banned international religious and extremist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Osh regional police spokesman Zhenish Ashirbayev told Interfax on Friday. The discovery was made during searches of the houses of eight local residents who were involved in propagating the ideas of the banned organization, he said. For his part, a regional police source said that whereas a few years ago Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters received literature from abroad, now they can print all necessary material locally, having all the necessary equipment. 

WUC, Turkey Highlight "China's Brutality in East Turkestan"

While the Kyrgyz authorities are trying to prevent Hizb ut-Tahrir and others from radicalizing the population in Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese authorities are trying to do the same in neighboring Xinjiang. And just as the Kyrgyz authorities don't care if they send a few innocent people to jail, the Chinese authorities don't care if they violate a few religious traditions. Every year, as Ramadan approaches, China's so-called "Ramadan ban" is hitting the headlines in Western media and the NED-funded World Uyghur Congress (WUC) comes out of the woodwork to remind everyone that "this will only lead to instability and conflict." Never mind that only few people are affected by the ban and that thousands upon thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang are still openly celebrating Ramadan. As regular readers of the New Great Game Round-Up may recall, Western media and the WUC like to exaggerate when it comes to China's Ramadan ban but the Chinese authorities do their bit as well:

'Many Uygurs like to drink': Chinese academic defends beer festival in Muslim region A Communist Party academic defended a government-organised beer festival in a mainly Muslim county ahead of Ramadan by saying that locals enjoyed alcohol, a state-run newspaper reported on Tuesday. Islam prohibits alcohol but authorities in Niya county, in the troubled Xinjiang region, held a beer drinking contest last Monday, three days before the start of Islam's holiest month, with cash prizes of up to US$160 for winners, the Global Times reported. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for exiled group the World Uygur Congress, slammed the festival as an "open provocation" to faithful Muslims.

As usual, our old friend Dilxat Raxit, the WUC's Sweden-based spokesman, used the opportunity to slam the Chinese goverment. Just a few days earlier, Raxit had already criticized that China is stepping up controls on religious activities in Xinjiang ahead of Ramadan. Predictably, Beijing didn't listen to Raxit's warnings that "this will only lead to instability and conflict." Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of Ramadan, Uyghur insurgents attacked police with knives and bombs at a traffic checkpoint in the city of Kashgar. The ensuing clashes left between 18 and 28 people dead. Considering that these kind of attacks happen on a regular basis in Xinjiang, it was not surprising that Raxit's "prediction" came true within a matter of days but even some of China's allies wondered after the attack whether the WUC might have a point. The latest outbreak of violence in Xinjiang was also noticed in Turkey, where many Uyghurs have found a new home after leaving China:

Actors, academics and politicians decry treatment of Uyghurs

After 28 people were killed in East Turkestan during the holy month of Ramadan, actors, academics and politicians in Turkey have raised their voices criticizing the Chinese government and calling for the freedom of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. In Ankara, the Ülkü Ocakları, a youth organization affiliated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), prayed at a funeral procession for those killed in East Turkestan, at the Mustafa Asım Köksal Mosque in Keçiören. Speaking after the prayer, Olcay Kılavuz, the head of the youth movement, gave a press statement where he declared that the red flag of Turkey and the blue flag of East Turkestan were equal. Kılavuz also said that members of Ülkü Ocakları would resume their struggle in favor of their brothers in East Turkestan, until their last breath. He added that the government was keeping silent about the killings and ongoing oppression in East Turkestan.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli echoed the remarks of Kilavuz and lamented on Twitter that "everbody is concerned about the fight between two terrorist groups in Kobane" but "nobody is speaking about China's brutality in East Turkestan." This didn't go down well with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took the criticism personally and responded in the usual manner. While Bahceli and Erdogan were arguing about who has done more to help "their brothers in East Turkestan," Turkish ultra-nationalists launched a campaign on social media promoting the "liberation of East Turkestan." As previously discussed, Turkey plays a decisive role in Washington's East Turkestan project. This has led to several disputes with China in recent months. The Chinese authorities tried to put pressure on Ankara by shedding some light on Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terrorism operations. And last but not least, they stepped up their efforts to prevent Uyghurs from fleeing to Turkey:

After Attempting to Join Her Husband in Turkey, Uyghur Woman Dies in Custody in Xinjiang A young ethnic Uyghur woman detained by Chinese police in February while attempting to flee the country to join her husband in Turkey has died in police custody in her native Xinjiang, according to sources in the region and in exile. Tursungul, 32 and described as healthy before she was taken into custody, died shortly after being taken to the Shaptol Township police station in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Peyziwat (Jiashi) county, a Uyghur living in Turkey told RFA’s Uyghur Service, citing sources in Xinjiang. “She died within a week and was buried somewhere by the police,” said the man, who had successfully escaped to Turkey with Tursungul’s husband some time before.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: June 23, 2015

Latest ISIS Defection Spells the End for Caucasus Emirate, Taliban Gaining Ground in Afghanistan & 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.

Every few days, Afghanistan is making headlines due to the deteriorating security situation in the country, the most recent example being the Taliban attack on the Afghan parliament on Monday. As Afghan lawmakers were trying to confirm a defense minister, a large explosion rocked the parliament building in Kabul. The attack by a suicide bomber was the signal for fellow Taliban fighters, who had taken positions in a nearby building, to open fire. After an intense firefight, security forces managed to kill all six gunmen but the latest Taliban attack, which left two civilians dead and 40 injured, raises again questions over the government's ability to maintain security. Statements by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid suggest that the purpose of the attack was to embarrass the "puppet administration" in Kabul "at a time which they were casting confidence vote for the minister of defense." It is safe to say that the Taliban achieved their goal. The Kabul government is looking increasingly shaky:

Taliban and Afghan Government Dispute Status of Kunduz After Taliban insurgents said Sunday that they were on the verge of taking their first city, Kunduz in the far north of Afghanistan, officials there expressed alarm as residents began to flee the area. But the central government in Kabul said there was no cause for concern. The Afghan government also announced Sunday that it had retaken the administrative center of Yamgan District, in northern Badakhshan Province, from the Taliban. But that only deepened the government’s credibility problem because just a week earlier officials in Kabul had claimed that they had already retaken Yamgan.

For months now, several districts in both Kunduz and Badakhshan Provinces in the north have gone back and forth between government and Taliban control, as the insurgents have intensified their fighting in parts of northern Afghanistan where they traditionally had been weak.

Taliban Gain Ground in Afghanistan, Call For Jihad Under One Flag

While the central government tried to downplay the situation in Kunduz province, local officials confirmed that Taliban and Central Asian fighters are advancing on the provincial capital after capturing Char Dara District. A few hours later, Kabul's statement looked even more absurd when it became clear that the insurgents had seized another district bordering the city of Kunduz. Afghanistan's fifth largest city is on the verge of falling to the Taliban and Mohammad Omar Safi, the governor of Kunduz, doesn't want to take any chances. Kunduz province is already facing a humanitarian crisis and if the Taliban conquer the capital, it won't get any better. The Afghan government is now under increasing pressure to act. One of the few good news coming from northern Afghanistan in recent weeks was Kabul's recapture of Badakhshan's Yamgan District but if the government forces don't manage to repeat this success in Kunduz, Tajikistan's fears of an Afghan spillover might come true:

About 1,500 militants mass in Afghan areas near the border with Tajikistan Commander of Tajik Border Troops Rajabali Rahmonali has warned of about 1,500 militants, including members of the Islamic State (IS) group, concentrating in the Dahsti Archi and Imam Sahib districts of Afghan Kunduz province along the Tajik border.  In a statement released at the 73rd meeting of the Council of Border Troops Commanders of the CIS member nations in Dushanbe, Rahmonali noted on June 18 that that there members of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Ansarullah among the militants concentrating along the Tajik border in northern Afghanistan.  “They are fighting against the Afghan government forces in the immediate vicinity of the border with Tajikistan,” Rahmonali noted. He expressed concern about a tense situation in the Afghan provinces of Takhar, Kunduz and Badakhshan, which directly border Tajikistan.

The possibility of a spillover of violence from Afghanistan was high on the agenda during the CIS meeting in Dushanbe. Sherali Khairulloyev, national security advisor to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, complained that many CIS members states had not lived up to their promise to support Tajikistan in strengthening its border defense and he called on the other border services "to actively cooperate with Tajik border troops in strengthening the CIS southern border." Khairulloyev emphasized that one of the main tasks of the Commonwealth of Independent States is to prevent the region from becoming a center of geopolitical confrontation between the major world powers, pointing out that "if the countries and secret services that have keen interest in the Islamic Caliphate project try and implement it through Afghanistan, the zone of political instability will then protrude to the CIS and China." While the U.S. doesn't seem to be worried about ISIS's expansion into Afghanistan, countries in the region and the Taliban would prefer al-Baghdadi & Co. to stay out of Afghanistan:

Taliban Warns IS Leader To Stay Out Of Afghanistan The Taliban has warned the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group against waging a parallel insurgency in Afghanistan, following several defections and reported clashes with militants loyal to IS. In a June 16 letter addressed to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Taliban insisted that "jihad (holy war) against the Americans and their allies must be conducted under one flag and one leadership." "The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims," said the letter signed by the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.

Mansoor argues that the Taliban movement is the only rightful representative of jihadist activities in Afghanistan, noting that the group has been endorsed by great jihadist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Moreover, he criticizes the Islamic State's actions in other countries and warns ISIS against dividing jihadists in other Muslim nations into two camps. Considering that al-Baghdadi doesn't respect Taliban leader Mullah Omar and doesn't care much for other terrorist groups, Mansoor's words will probably fall on deaf ears. The Taliban are now waiting for al-Baghdadi's response before they will "chalk out a strategy on how to deal with those who are using the name of the Islamic State to create disunity among the Mujahideen." This spells more trouble. Clashes between the Taliban and ISIS have been escalating in recent weeks, with the eastern province of Nangarhar turning into the epicenter of the conflict. Hundreds of families have already been displaced due to the fighting and recent developments suggest that the two groups won't settle their differences anytime soon:

Islamic State’s Khorasan province beheads former shura member who defected back to the Taliban The Islamic State’s Khorasan province is said to have brutally executed one of its former shura members, purportedly for defecting back to the Taliban last month. The execution, as well as the assassination of the Taliban’s shadow governor for Nangarhar province, likely by the Islamic State, preceded a warning by the Taliban’s deputy emir to the leader of the Islamic State to end discord between the jihadist groups in Afghanistan. The Islamic State released a video purpoting to showing the execution of Sa’ad Emarati, a senior commander as well as a member of the “Khorasan Shura,” the province’s executive council. Emarati’s head was placed on his back after it was removed.

Latest ISIS Defection Spells the End for Caucasus Emirate

Former Taliban fighters will now think twice before defecting back to the Taliban. Al-Baghdadi & Co. have shown time and again that they know how to deal with traitors and nasty rivals. The Taliban will have to be on their guard if they don't want to suffer the same fate as other prominent terrorist groups which have been sidelined by ISIS. One of the latest victims is the Caucasus Emirate (IK), formerly the most powerful terrorist organization in Russia. Ever since Russian security forces eliminated Emirate leader Doku Umarov and then a few months later his successor Aliaskhab Kebekov, the continued existence of the Imarat Kavkaz has been in question. Many Chechen and Daghestani commanders had already retracted their oath of obedience to IK leader Kebekov and defected to ISIS. This trend continued after Kebekov's killing and the latest defection may very well spell the end for the Caucasus Emirate:

ISIS opens a new front on Europe's doorstep: Chechan jihadi group with 'up to 15,000' fighters pledge allegiance to terror horde ISIS has spread its tentacles further around Europe after a major terrorist group which commands 'as many as 15,000' in the Caucuses region of southern Russia pledged its allegiance to it. The leader of the Caucuses Emirate, which has carried out over 900 terrorist attacks on Russian soil since its formation in 2007, personally declared his loyalty to ISIS commander-in-chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. 'We need to hurry up and unite so we can cut off the heads of the infidels,' Aslan Byutukayev says in a new propaganda video allegedly filmed inside the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya.

Although the Caucasus Emirate doesn't command 15,000 fighters and is not headed by Aslan Byutukayev, the Daily Mail was right to highlight Byutukayev's bay'ah to wannabe Caliph al-Baghdadi. Byutukayev is the leader of the Caucasus Emirate's Chechen wing and one of the most powerful insurgent commanders in the North Caucasus. As Chechen analyst Mairbek Vatchagaev noted, his defection to ISIS "buried the Caucasus Emirate once and for all." ISIS has accepted the bay'ah and lost no time in claiming a "Wilayat Qawqaz," which includes Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and "Kabika." Russian officials have been hyping the ISIS threat at home and abroad for quite some time, most recently at a meeting of the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center. Now they have finally a good reason to do so, which means that Russia's imams can look forward to more lessons on fighting ISIS recruiters:

Moscow's Muslim Leaders Get Lessons on Fighting ISIL Recruiters More than 300 imams from across Russia are taking part in an educational program to counter the influence of recruiters to militant Islamic organizations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Russian imams are taking courses to help them counter the influence of recruiters to radical Islam, with classes covering topics such as methods to communicate with young people, aspects of Islamic history, Islamic theology and secular subjects like politics and geography.

"In the course of the program we touch on difficult topics, which cause people to be attracted to radical movements," deputy head of the Moscow Islamic Institute, Rais Izmailov, told the Izvestiya newspaper.

After the recent scandal surrounding a 19-year-old Russian student who tried to join ISIS, Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the government's Investigative Committee, downplayed the issue of ISIS recruitment in Russia, saying that there have been only few cases. Many experts share this assessment and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolkoltsev emphasized that the law enforcement agencies are in control of the situation. In the end, the rise of ISIS in the North Caucasus comes down to a few defections from the Caucasus Emirate and doesn't pose a real threat but the Russian authorities will nevertheless use this opportunity to clamp down on terrorist recruitment and introduce harsher anti-terrorism measures. One wonders what Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov will say when he hears of ISIS's new "Wilayat Qawqaz." Kadyrov is usually quick to comment on these things but lately he has been busy trying to steer the Nemtsov murder investigation "in the right direction":

Kadyrov: One should look for Nemtsov murder trail in Ukraine and U.S. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov believes that Ukrainian special services could stand behind the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. "In my opinion, one ought to look for the trail of this crime not in Chechnya, but in Ukraine, SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) and subsequently in the U.S.," Kadyrov told Interfax on June 18. When asked whether or not he knows the whereabouts of Ruslan Geremeyev, whom the media call a possible organizer of Nemtsov's murder, Kadyrov said: "I know Ruslan Geremeyev very well. We fought against terrorists together. I know him as a patriot of Russia, and, in my opinion, it is a mistake to accuse him of these actions."

Not Everyone Escapes Georgia's Lax Criminal Prosecution

Kadyrov pretended that he had nothing to do with Geremeyev's escape via Chechnya and tried to pin the Nemtsov assassination on Chechen terrorist Adam Osmayev, who became famous for trying to kill Russian President Putin and is now fighting for the Kiev regime in eastern Ukraine. But in contrast to Kadyrov's close associate Geremeyev, Osmayev is not a prime suspect in the Nemtsov murder. Aside from the fact that he is hardly capable of organizing any assassinaton, Osmayev hailed Nemtsov as a "true hero" for condemning Russia's second war in Chechnya and "Russian aggression" in Ukraine. The new leader of the Dudayev battalion should be prosecuted for a number of crimes but the killing of Boris Nemtsov isn't one of them. If it were not for the coup d'état in Kiev, Osmayev would still be sitting in jail. Fortunately, the "new Ukraine" offers endless opportunities for every criminal who hates Russia:

New head of Odessa Police escapes prosecution in Georgia Georgia does not continue criminal proceedings against Giya Lortkipanidze, who on June 16 was appointed the head of the Odessa Police. This was stated by experts interviewed by the "Caucasian Knot". The Georgian Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) have no claims against Giya Lortkipanidze, the "United National Movement" (UNM) Party reports.

As previously discussed, former Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze has joined his old boss Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa. While Saakashvili is clearly in his element, Lortkipanidze seems to be less convinced of his new job but at least he won't have to worry about prosecution anymore. The two former Georgian officials can now pick up where they left off in Georgia: provoking conflict with Russia. During Saakashvili's rule in Georgia, Lortkipanidze was responsible for coordinating the recruitment and training of Chechen jihadists. The current government claims to have ended these terror operations but the increasing number of Georgian jihadists traveling to Syria has put pressure on Tbilisi. Critics were not impressed with the government's attempt to solve the problem by making a few adjustments to the anti-terrorism legislation and the recent special operation in Georgia's notorious Pankisi Gorge was not much better either:

Cousin of ISIS leader released from detention in Georgia The Georgian police have released four of the five Kistis (Georgian Chechens) who were earlier detained in the Pankisi Gorge (Kakhetia region, Eastern Georgia). According to Georgian media reports, among the released people is Merab Tsatiashvili, a cousin of Tarkhan Batirashvili, one of the leaders of the terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIS). The only person the police did not release is Ayuf Borchashvilia, imam of the village of Jokolo.

Borchashvili denied any involvement in terrorist recruitment in Pankisi. The special operation led to some tensions in the valley region. Borchashvili's family and friends staged a protest against his arrest but some Pankisi residents welcomed the operation, saying that the raid "was long overdue." Moreover, Georgian police also arrested three young men at Tbilisi airport as they tried to leave the country for Syria. The prosecution claims that the three were heading to Syria to join ISIS after they had been recruited by Borchashvili. This all begs the question of why it took the Georgian authorities so long to take some action against terrorist recruitment in the country. Perhaps they didn't want to ruin Georgia's chances of hosting a training camp for "moderate Syrian rebels" or they were just too busy buying weapons from NATO allies in order to demonstrate their commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration:

Georgia Finalizes Controversial Air Defense Deal With France Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery. Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.

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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

The New Great Game Round-Up: June 16, 2015

Poroshenko-Saakashvili Open Another Front in Ukrainian, Iran Backs Taliban to Counter U.S.-ISIS in Afghanistan

*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.

Ukrainian oligarch-turned-President Petro Poroshenko is not very popular among his people but at least his equally criminal friends continue to support him and that is what really matters. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was so thrilled about Poroshenko's first year in power that he wrote an op-ed for Newsweek lauding Poroshenko's reform program, better known as the "4-Ds"- de-regulation, de-bureaucratization, de-centralization and de-oligarchization(!). According to Saakashvili, his buddy Poroshenko "has succeeded in nation-building, at a rapid pace." Never mind that most Ukrainians think that Poroshenko and the current regime are to blame for Ukraine's economic problems and that they are not doing enough to stop the war in the country. One wonders what they will say when they realize that Poroshenko and Saakashvili are trying to open another front in this war:

Saakashvili announces plans to reinforce border with Transdniestria Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region Mikhail Saakashvili said on Tuesday he plans to reinforce Ukraine’s border with the unrecognized republic of Transdniestria. "We have two major tasks - to reinforce the border and curb corruption. Drug and weapons trafficking across this border mean nothing good," he told a news conference in Odessa.

Engineering works aiming to block movement of military hardware and contraband started at the Transdniestrian section of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border.

Poroshenko & Saakashvili Open Another Front in Ukrainian Conflict

As discussed two weeks ago, there is some evidence to suggest that the United States and its client regime in Ukraine want to provoke a conflict with Russia by squeezing Transnistria. Saakashvili is clearly not telling the whole story when he talks about reinforcing the border and curbing corruption. Transnistria's Foreign Minister Nina Shtanski recently pointed out that Ukrainian toops are massing at the border, causing panic in the pro-Russian breakaway state. A coalition of Transnistrian activist groups immediately sent an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him to protect the people in Transnistria and recognize the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Moscow's worst fears appear to be coming true. One ominous development cited by the Transnistrian activists was the deployment of S-300 air defense missile systems on the border, which would raise the stakes significantly:

Ukraine to place S-300 antiaircraft missiles on border with Transdniestria

Ukrainian authorities will deploy S-300 antiaircraft missile complexes on the border with Transdniestria - a mostly Slavic-populated breakaway region of Moldova that has existed as an unrecognized Dniester Republic since the early 1990. A report published by Odessa-based Taimer newspaper quoted the Ukrainian Defence Ministry officials as saying the missile complexes will be deployed in the Bolgrad district of the Odessa region. "Officials at the war ministry said the S-300 missiles will ensure defence of the country in the south of the Odessa region on the border with the Dniester Republic," Taimer said.

Reports of Ukraine deploying S-300 systems in the Odessa region have sent shockwaves through Transnistria and Russia. It is seen as "an ultimatum upsetting the possibility of an air bridge" between Russia and the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. Even the guys from Stratfor noticed the significance of this development: "Although the potential cost of interdicting Russian flights would be incredibly high and would essentially constitute a declaration of war against Russia, the deployment of these systems establishes the capability to do so." Only few people in Ukraine are crazy enough to shoot down Russian planes but it is probably worth mentioning that the new governor of Odessa is one of them. To make matters worse, Saakashvili is bringing in his old crew from Georgia. Media reports saying that former Georgian Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili will get a job in Odessa haven't been confirmed so far but former Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze is about to join his old boss:

The dark past of Saakashvili’s appointee in Odessa Gia Lortkipanidze served under President Mikheil Saakashvili when he was in power in Georgia. A Ukrainian media outlet now reports that Lortkipanidze will head the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s Odessa department, the city where Saakashvili is now the governor. His appointment is controversial, as there are questions asked about his background not only by the public in Georgia, but also by UNM members. For years, he was the deputy of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili (now in jail in Tbilisi), but he never received media attention until the so-called Lapankuri special operation on August 28, 2012. He was one of the leading figures in this operation. After the police operation, relations between him and Saakashvili, and with Data Akhalaia, became strained.

Saakashvili praised Lortkipanidze as "a man of absolute honesty" when he talked about his appointment during a news conference in Odessa. Georgian media seems to have a different take on the former Deputy Interior Minister. As regular readers of the New Great Game Round-Up may recall, the Lapankuri special operation refers to a shootout between Georgian special forces and Chechen militants in the Caucasus gorge of Lopota near the Russian border. An investigation by Georgia's Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili showed that the Saakashvili government "recruited, trained and equipped Chechens living in exile in Europe to join the North Caucasus insurgency." Nanuashvili’s report names Lortkipanidze as having coordinated the recruitment and training. So he is definitely the right man for the job in Odessa. Although the current government maintains that terrorist recruitment and training in Georgia ended with Saakashvili's rule, the country is still exporting a lot of jihadists:

Police in Georgia conduct special operation in Pankisi

Georgian police on Sunday carried out a special operation in Pankisi, a valley in the northeast of the country mostly inhabited by Kists, who are ethnic Chechens. Omar Al-Shishani, or Tarkhan Batirashvili, one of the field commanders of ISIS, was born and raised in Pankisi. He left for Syria a few years ago to join the war. His father and relatives still live in Pankisi. According to the most recent information, the special operation aimed at detaining those who allegedly have helped Georgians go to Syria, also because of suspected ties to ISIS.

Iran Backs Taliban to Counter U.S., ISIS in Afghanistan

It is remarkable that Georgia is now cracking down on terrorist recruitment considering that only a few months ago, the country was making headlines with an alleged offer to host a training center for NATO's "moderate Syrian rebels." The Georgian government would do anything to join the U.S.-led military alliance but more and more people in Georgia are beginning to question their NATO ambitions. Especially the country's huge contribution to the mission in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of 30 Georgian soldiers, is a contentious issue. About 880 Georgian soldiers are currently serving in NATO's Operation Resolute Support, meaning that the country is making the second-largest contribution after the United States. New Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli visited the soldiers in Afghanistan on her first foreign trip late last month to boost the troops' morale but it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell the mission in Afghanistan as a success:

Taliban seize villages in Sar-i-Pul Taliban militants have seized several villages in the Sayad District of northern Sar-i-Pul province. Officials say That Taliban captured these village after a clash with security forces that also left a policeman martyred and a militant killed. A security official said that Taliban launched the attack while security forces were offering Friday prayers.

After Badakhshan, Kunduz, Faryab and Badghis, the northern province of Sar-e Pol is now also in the grip of violence. The fighting in northern Afghanistan is intensifying day by day, the Afghan security forces are a mess and the government in Kabul is nothing but a "show." Not exactly the best conditions for ending the violence. Moreover, the insurgents are also fighting among themselves. Ever since ISIS gained a foothold in the war-torn country, the group has been trying to outstrip the Taliban. Former Guantanamo inmate Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who is now leading ISIS in Afghanistan, told BBC Persian in an interview that ISIS "found other ways to wage jihad after realizing Taliban are receiving instructions from Pakistani intelligence." Given the fact that neither ISIS's rise in the Middle East nor its rise in Afghanistan would have been possible without the support of foreign intelligence agencies, Dost and his fellow jihadists should probably avoid this topic:

ISIS rise in Afghanistan would threaten Russia and China: Karzai

The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group in Afghanistan would not be possible without the foreign backing.

“So, if you hear ever in the coming days, or months, or years that Daesh is on the rise in Afghanistan, and is strong and expanding militarily, it will mean that it is a foreign-backed force intending to destabilize the region, particularly Central Asia, China and Russia,” he added. Karzai put the blame for the rapid expansion of IS on “foreign interference” in Iraq and Syria saying that it was all “the result of events” there.

It is not difficult to guess which "foreign interference" Karzai was referring to. After sidelining its competitors in Syria, ISIS is now looking to expand in Afghanistan, much to the dismay of the Taliban. At the end of last month, ISIS's Afghan chapter released a video threatening the Taliban and in particular its camera-shy leader Mullah Omar. ISIS also vowed to take revenge for the fighters who had been killed by the Taliban in Nangarhar province in the middle of May. Shortly after the video was released, the group followed up its words with actions. ISIS captured and then beheaded 10 Taliban members in Nangarhar and used this for another propaganda video. While the U.S. is "taking time" to assess ISIS's expansion in Afghanistan, Iran has apparently seen enough and decided to take action. If anonymous officials and the Wall Street Journal are to be believed, Iran has begun to support the Taliban with cash and weapons in order to counter U.S. influence in the region and stop the rise of ISIS:

Iran Backs Taliban With Cash and Arms

When Abdullah, a Taliban commander in central Afghanistan, needs more rifles and ammunition, he turns to the same people who pay his $580-a-month salary: his Iranian sponsors. “Iran supplies us with whatever we need,” he said. Afghan and Western officials say Tehran has quietly increased its supply of weapons, ammunition and funding to the Taliban, and is now recruiting and training their fighters, posing a new threat to Afghanistan’s fragile security. Iran’s strategy in backing the Taliban is twofold, these officials say: countering U.S. influence in the region and providing a counterweight to Islamic State’s move into the Taliban’s territory in Afghanistan.

New Pipeline Projects Leave "Land Of Fire" Out in the Cold

Betting on the re-emergence of the Taliban is probably not the worst idea but the Israel lobby in the U.S. will certainly use this information to torpedo the Iran nuclear talks, which have "virtually stalled." A diplomatic source told Russian news agency TASS that the June 30 deadline may have to be postponed again. Europe is desperate for Iranian gas but as long as the sanctions remain in place, European countries will have to make do with gas from neighboring Azerbaijan. This has led some people in Baku to believe that Azerbaijan has major leverage over Europe and can pressure European leaders into endorsing the European Games in Baku. The absence of European leaders at the lavish opening ceremony of the Games didn't go down well in the energy-rich country and Trend News Agency's Aynur Gasimova lost no time in warning the Europeans that they might regret this:

Europe, it is time to stop playing with the Land of Fire. You can get burned Azerbaijan is known worldwide as the Land of Fire, and today Europe is playing with that fire. The result of playing with fire is for Europe itself to decide. But all the recent actions taken by the European countries’ leaders suggest that they aren’t complying with the “don’t play with fire!” rule. The entire world’s attention was focused on the opening of the European Games in Baku. But at the same time, this same place witnessed another important event. The heads of states, which today decide the fate of Europe’s security, gathered in Baku, however, Europe itself, because of its own stupidity, was not represented.

As Gasimova points out, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Turkmenistan used the opportunity to discuss major energy projects in Baku but the notion that Europen leaders missed out on important deals and are "sacrificing their citizens' energy security" is absurd. Most energy projects discussed in Baku are spearheaded by Brussels and are aimed at bringing gas from the Caspain Sea to Europe, bypassing Russia, except for Russia's Turkish Stream pipeline. After Russian President Putin let his Turkish counterpart Erdogan wait for a couple of minutes, as usual, the two leaders held "constructive" talks on the Turkish Stream project behind closed doors in Baku. Gazprom has sent the coordinates of the onshore section of the pipeline to Turkey and is doing its best to start the construction as soon as possible. Turkish Stream's progress has not gone unnoticed in Austria, where OMV is now looking for a new project after recovering from the loss of Nabucco and South Stream:

Die Presse: OMV May Be Planning 'Russian Nabucco' Gas Pipeline The future head of Austria’s OMV Rainer Seele appears to be planning a new route for Russian gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine jointly with Gazprom, according to Austrian newspaper Die Presse. According to the Austrian newspaper, the new route appears to resurrecting the closed gas pipeline project Nabucco – with one major difference: instead of carrying Caspian gas to Europe it will transport Russian and possibly Iranian natural gas via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Austria.

The original Nabucco pipeline project, officially buried in 2013, was designed to bring Caspian gas via Turkey and the Balkans to a central European hub in Baumgarten near Vienna in order to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Two years later there are signs that OMV is considering a 'Russian Nabucco pipeline', according to Die Presse.

Some people in Washington and Brussels will probably fall off their chairs when they hear of OMV's plans. The pipeline which was supposed to bypass Russia and Iran could celebrate an unlikely comeback by bringing Russian and Iranian gas to Europe. Reinhard Mitschek, the former managing director of the Nabucco consortium, will promote the new project. Mitschek had already tried to win Russia and Iran as suppliers for the old Nabucco project despite strong opposition from the United States. So he knows what he is getting himself into. Although Washington and Brussels spared no effort to build Nabucco, they had to settle for the smaller and less expensive Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which will eventually bring gas from Azerbaijan to customers in the EU. One wonders what the "Land of Fire" thinks of OMV's new Nabucco plans considering that Azerbaijan hasn't been mentioned as a gas supplier but the Aliyev regime is apparently too busy "promoting" the European Games:

Azeri government behind foreign media ban, say European Games officials A decision to ban some foreign media from attending the inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan this month rested with the government and was not taken by the event’s organisers, officials said on Saturday. Journalists, including the Guardian’s chief sports correspondent Owen Gibson, have been refused entry visas but organisers of the event in Baku said it was the government who was clearing individuals to enter the country based on their own set of criteria. Apart from media, several representatives from international human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also been blocked from entering the country, ruled by the Aliyev family since 1993.

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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

                                                       

The New Great Game Round-Up: June 9, 2015

Aliyev Regime Kicks Out OSCE, Afghan Spillover High on the Agenda During CSTO- SCO Meetings & 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.

After the United States has been bombing Afghan wedding parties for years, it should come as no real surprise that Afghan funerals are now becoming a popular target for U.S. drone attacks as well. The Afghan government was quick to assert that all victims were Taliban, pointing out that the funeral ceremony was for a slain Taliban commander. Therefore, according to Kabul's logic, all the mourners must have been Taliban too. Afghan MPs from the region and the Taliban beg to differ. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also stated that most of the victims were civilians and he condemned the U.S. drone strike in the strongest possible terms. Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who has been doing his best to please Washington since taking office, prefers not to comment on such incidents. Considering that Ghani is already under fire for a lack of leadership, the silence won't help his case:

Leader in Afghan north dismisses Kabul government as a 'show' Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful governor in northern Afghanistan, visited a local amusement park last week and grabbed a video arcade gun. Firing on fictional aliens made a break from the frequent target of his ire: the government in Kabul. Noor, a former general hardened in wars against the Soviets and Taliban but now suited and affluent, complains of a lack of leadership by President Ashraf Ghani and is angry his warnings of rising militant violence in the north were not heeded. "They told me that they will take action, but unfortunately they didn't," the governor of Balkh province told Reuters, recalling a warning he gave Kabul several months ago to prepare for more Taliban violence in the north. 

Afghan Spillover High on the Agenda During CSTO, SCO Meetings

Despite early warnings, the Kabul government has failed to stop the Taliban advances in the north of the country. The latest alarming development is the Taliban's capture of Badakhshan's Yamgan district. Badakhshan and other northern Afghan provinces have seen heavy fighting in recent months, thus the neighboring countries are getting increasingly worried about a spillover of violence. Tajikistan lost no time in taking measures to address the issue and appealed to its allies for support. Russia and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) immediately promised to help out but Russian military aid has been slow to arrive. Moscow tried to silence the Tajik complaints by promising more military aid and CSTO chief Nikolay Bordyuzha assured Dushanbe that CSTO forces could be at the Tajik-Afghan border within three days if need be. The situation in northern Afghanistan was again high on the agenda during the recent meeting of the CSTO Defense Ministers in the Tajik capital:

CSTO defence ministers agree to change military-technical policy A number of significant measures, including on upgrading the military-technical policy, will be taken following meeting of the Council of Defence Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) held earlier on Thursday in Dushanbe, CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha told reporters. "This concerns, above all, upgrading the organization’s legal framework and legislations of CSTO member-countries, especially in the light of issues we encountered during the transfer of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force to Tajikistan," Bordyuzha said after the meeting, reports TASS. The CSTO Secretary General noted that prior to the meeting the defence ministers had been received by Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, adding that the meeting "grew into a very serious discussion of the situation in the Central Asian region, the challenges faced by Tajikistan and other regional countries and the processes under way in Afghanistan."

Tajik leader Rahmon and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu also discussed the deteriorating situation in northern Afghanistan as well as military cooperation between the two countries. Shoygu stressed the importance of "enhancing the combat capabilities of Tajikistan's armed forces and the Russian military base deployed in Tajikistan" and vowed to implement the "extensive plans" both countries had agreed upon. In addition to the support from Russia and the CSTO, Tajikistan will get assistance from China. The Interior Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) were recently meeting in Dushanbe as well and China's Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun generously offered his Tajik counterpart technical aid with no strings attached - much to the delight of President Rahmon. Moreover, the two countries are reinforcing their cooperation in the fight against terrorism:

A joint exercise for Tajik and Chinese special operations forces to be held in Vahdat on June 6 More than 100 servicemen of special operations forces of the Ministry of Public Security of China have arrived in Dushanbe for participation in a joint anti-terror exercise that will be conducted at the mountain training ground that is located in the Marghov area of the Romit Gorge, not far from the Vahdat Township on July 6, according to the Tajik Interior Ministry press center. The purpose of the exercise is reportedly to rehearse coordination and interaction between the special operations forces of the Tajik Interior Ministry and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security in anti-terror mission in mountain terrains. Interior Ministers of Tajikistan (Ramazon Rahimzoda), Kazakhstan (Kulmukhanbet Kasymov), Kyrgyzstan (Melis Turganbayev), Russia (Vladimir Kolokoltsev) and Uzbekistan (Adham Akhmedbayev) as well as the Minister of Public Security of China (Guo Shengkun) will observe the exercise, the Interior Ministry press center reports.

The meetings in the Tajik capital underline growing concerns in the region about a possible spillover of violence from Afghanistan and the threat of ISIS, which is now being hyped even more due to the defection of Tajikistan's OMON commander. While the CSTO Defense Ministers and SCO Interior Ministers were traveling to Dushanbe, Moscow hosted an important meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers. Russian FM Sergey Lavrov used the opportunity to point out that ISIS is gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and he urged the SCO to play a bigger role in fighting ISIS in the war-torn country. To this end, Moscow is willing to strengthen cooperation with Kabul "in all spheres." Afghanistan is very much interested in closer cooperation with the SCO countries and wants to join the organization as a full member but the country still has to meet some criteria before it can follow Pakistan and India:

Welcome! SCO Foreign Ministers Agree to Grant Membership to Pakistan, India The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers decided to grant India and Pakistan the status of members of the bloc, which is to be confirmed at the SCO summit in July, Pakistan's ambassador to Russia told Sputnik on Thursday. "The council of ministers met yesterday and there is an agreement to allow Pakistan, along with India, to be upgraded [to SCO member states]. The decision of the council of ministers will be put forward to the summit in Ufa [in July]," Zaheer Janjua said. "We both [Pakistan and India] have requested for association with the SCO by becoming full member-states. Our application for a full member status is under active consideration. We are hopeful that this summit will endorse the membership of Pakistan along with that of India," he added.

Russia: Tough Life for ISIS, Human Rights Groups

The upcoming SCO summit in Ufa is shaping up to become the perfect opportunity for Russia to demonstrate the "international community" how isolated the country really is. Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted during the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting in Moscow that twelve new nations are showing interest in working with the SCO and he emphasized that the SCO's main projects, the New Silk Road and the Eurasian Economic Integration, are in the interests of all SCO members. One of Moscow's biggest concerns is that the U.S. and its allies could try to impede Eurasian integration and create problems for Russia and China by fueling conflict in the region, for example with the help of ISIS. Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolkoltsev told his counterparts during the recent meeting in Dushanbe that the Russian authorities have already taken measures to contain the ISIS threat at home:

ISIL recruitment spots in Russia known, under surveillance - Kolokoltsev Russia is concerned about new sources of instability threatening Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member countries, in particular, the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev told reporters on Friday. "In the past few months, the Russian law enforcement authorities have seized several dozens of persons on suspicion of terrorism. Fifteen members of terrorist groups have been killed," he said after a meeting of the SCO Council of Interior Ministers. He declined to disclose possible places where Russian and foreign citizens were recruited for the "jihad" and said that information was classified.

Russia's problems with terrorist recruitment have been documented time and again in recent years as more and more jihadists traveled to Syria from Russia. Moscow's Central Asian migrant workers are particularly susceptible to recruitment by ISIS and other terrorist groups but even Russian philosophy students fall for ISIS recruiters. Due to the fact that the Caucasus Emirate has been losing its leaders as well as its appeal, ISIS is also making inroads in the North Caucasus. One leader of a local militant group in Dagestan, who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, was just killed in a firefight with police after they stopped his car. Pledging allegiance to ISIS makes for headlines in Russia but it can have adverse effects on the insurgents' life expectancy. In Chechnya, even just spraying ISIS graffiti can get you into real trouble. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is known for his strong-arm tactics, regardless of whether that concerns dealing with terrorists or dealing with activists:

In Chechnya, Human Rights Group’s Offices Are Vandalized Cheered on by a small crowd, masked men vandalized the offices of a human rights advocacy group in Grozny, the capital of the Russian region of Chechnya, on Wednesday. Employees of the Committee Against Torture, some of whom fled through windows as the vandals smashed into the office with crowbars, said the local authorities had ignored calls pleading for help. They suggested that the attack was officially sanctioned by the government of Chechnya, which is led by Ramzan A. Kadyrov, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. It was not the first attack on the Committee Against Torture, which seeks to draw attention to human rights abuses in Chechnya and throughout Russia. In December, the group’s offices were firebombed.

Kadyrov stirred up the public against the Committee Against Torture at the end of last year when he implicated the group's head Igor Kalyapin in organizing the attack on Grozny on December 4. Shortly thereafter, the offices of the Committee Against Torture were firebombed after a huge rally against terrorism. This week's attack came again after a rally in Grozny, closely resembling last year's actions against the group. While Kalyapin and his colleagues filed a complaint over the inaction of the police, Kadyrov suggested that they had provoked the unrest themselves in order to attract more media attention and obtain more U.S. grants. The Chechen leader vowed to find those responsible for trashing the offices but this should be taken with a grain of salt. He is probably just trying to find out who deserves a thank-you letter. So it is not difficult to understand why Kalyapin and Co. prefer other investigators:

Russian Rights Group Doesn't Want Chechens To Probe Attack The leader of a prominent Russian human rights group whose office was trashed by unknown individuals in Grozny does not want Chechen authorities to investigate the incident. Igor Kalyapin, the chief of the NGO Committee Against Torture (KPP), said at a session of Russia's Presidential Council for Human Rights on June 4 that the doesn’t trust Chechen authorities and wants the incident to be investigated by officials from at least the regional level of the North Caucasus.

Aliyev Regime Not Interested in "Western Democracy", Kicks Out OSCE

Chechen Republic head Kadyrov demonstrates on a regular basis that he knows how to deal with pesky activists, journalists and dissidents but there are a few leaders from whom he can still learn a thing or two - Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev being one of them. In recent months, Aliyev has been making headlines with an unprecedented crackdown on critics. He didn't shy away from jailing U.S.-backed journalists and activists and even CIA propaganda outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was forced to close its Baku bureau. RFE/RL is still operating in the country but the U.S.-backed Azerbaijani opposition has been dealt a heavy blow. Aliyev knows exactly how far he can go without crossing the red line. As long as he doesn't come up with the idea of changing Azerbaijan's close energy or military cooperation with the West, Washington is willing to turn a blind eye to the democratic deficits:

U.S. to hold off democracy dialog with Azerbaijan until it makes sense Washington decided to hold off on carrying a bilateral dialogue over civil society and democracy with the Azerbaijani officials, TURAN’s U.S. correspondent was informed by the diplomatic sources. State Department official Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, was planning to visit Baku early last week to focus on current challenges between the two countries in a wave of an ongoing crackdown against civil society and western institutions in Azerbaijan. The trip, however, got cancelled at the last moment, according to the diplomatic sources, leading to rumors that the Azerbaijani side prevented it. Baku previously snubbed another top U.S. government delegation’s trip prior to 2013 presidential election,which was supposed to be lead by then DAS Thomas Melia on democracy and human rights.

Of course, the U.S. will never stop meddling in Azerbaijan and continue to support the opposition but the pro-government media doesn't mind pointing this out whenever the opposition holds a rally. With the 2015 European Games in Baku just around the corner, the Aliyev regime is getting worried that "anti-Azerbaijani circles" will step up their efforts to discredit the country. The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) was the first major European sports authority to join these "anti-Azerbaijani circles" and others will hopefully follow. Baku is already rallying the troops, in this case the pro-government media, which have been ordered to look out for any enemy propaganda about the Games. Aliyev's adviser Ali Hasanov also accused the UN representative for Human Rights and the OSCE of double standards, saying: "If this is Western democracy, then we do not need such democracy." Shortly thereafter, the OSCE was ordered to close its office:

Azerbaijan Orders OSCE To Close Baku Office The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says Azerbaijan has given it one month to halt its operations in the country and that Baku provided "no explanation" for the decision. OSCE spokesman Shiv Sharma told RFE/RL on June 5 that Azerbaijani authorities this week "informed us of their intentions of closing the office" of its project coordinator in Baku and that the 57-member security organization is "now assessing our options." The move comes amid heightened criticism of Azerbaijan's record on civil society and media freedoms by Western officials and international human rights watchdogs.

Unperturbed by all the enemy propaganda, Azerbaijan's pro-government news agency APA uncovered an evil plot by the European Union's mission to Baku and the Greek Embassy to keep Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos from attending the Games' opening ceremony. Understandably, the Embassy of Greece in Baku was "deeply outraged and unpleasantly surprised with unprecedented lies and unfounded accusations, spread by the local media." It is only fitting that Aliyev adviser Hasanov had praised APA & Co. for their "sound journalism" during his recent meeting with pro-government media. The head of Azerbaijan's Press Council, Aflatun Amashov, assured Hasanov that the media will do its best to "preserve the European Games in history." He also complained to Hasanov about the criticism on social media. Hasanov told him to ignore it but that's of course easier said than done:

Azerbaijani Diplomat Criticizes Government On Facebook, Sparking Scandal An Azerbaijani diplomat could be in hot water after he publicly criticized the government following a deadly Baku apartment-building fire. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry has launched an internal investigation into a scandal that erupted over the Facebook comments made by Arif Mammadov, the chief of mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's delegation to the European Union. Fifteen people died in the high-rise fire in May, prompting Baku residents to criticize the city's beautification efforts ahead of the inaugural European Games that will be held this month in the Azerbaijani capital.

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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