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: 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

The New Great Game Round-Up: June 4, 2015

Saakashvili's Appointment Spells More Trouble for Transnistria, Tajikistan's War on Islam Backfires as OMON Commander Joins 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.

The disappearance of Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, commander of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry paramilitary squad (OMON), has caused a great stir in the Central Asian country. Tajik media reports suggested early on that Halimov had traveled to Syria in order to join the West's beloved terrorist army ISIS but his family dismissed these reports as "baseless" and portrayed him as a dedicated policeman and father of eight. While his brother insisted that Halimov had never spoken about ISIS, Asia-Plus quoted a friend as saying that he had turned into an ISIS fanatic. The story got even more confusing when Tajik law enforcement agencies denied a report by news agency TojNews claiming that Halimov had been arrested in Turkey while trying to cross into Syria with a fake passport. As the speculations were getting out of hand, ISIS eventually cleared up the mystery of Halimov's disappearance by releasing a new shiny propaganda video featuring none other than Tajikistan's missing OMON commander:

Missing Tajik Police Commander Appears On Internet, Says Has Joined IS A top Tajik police commander who has been missing for weeks has reappeared on the Internet, claiming that he has joined the Islamic State (IS) militant group in protest at official restrictions on religious observance back home.

In a video posted on YouTube, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry's Special Forces, known as OMON, singled out Tajikistan's crackdown on Islamic dress and limitations on public prayer as reasons for his radicalization.

Halimov, a father of eight, says that Tajik labor migrants "must stop serving infidels" in Russia and join IS in Syria and Iraq in order to establish Shari'a law in other countries, including Tajikistan.

Tajikistan's War on Islam Backfires as OMON Commander Joins ISIS

After vowing to bring jihad to Tajikistan and Russia, Halimov also added a threat for the United States: "We will come to your cities, to your homes, and we will kill you." The OMON commander turned ISIS fighter pointed out that he is well-prepared for future battles thanks to the counterterrorism training that he received on American soil: "Listen, you American pigs: I've been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims." State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala confirmed to CNN that Halimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the U.S. and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State's Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. While much of the media coverage focused on Halimov's training by Blackwater and his references to the U.S., some analysts suggested that his threats to Russia might be more significant. But one thing is certain: the radicalization of the OMON commander was driven by Tajikistan's repression against religious activities, which is now reaching grotesque proportions:

Tajiks Probe Fake Permits For Hijab, Beards Tajik prosecutors have launched an investigation into suspected fraud in connection with the sale of bogus permits to unsuspecting people hoping to avoid falling afoul of official efforts to combat religious extremism.

The "permits" -- which grant permission to Muslims to wear long beards in the case of men, or head scarves (hijabs) in the case of women -- purport to be from the State Committee for Religion and Traditions and Rites Regulations.

Officials at the Prosecutor-General's Office told RFE/RL on May 18 that investigations are targeting the "repeated forgery of documents" and the "incitement of religious, ethnic, racial, and social hatred."

In addition to targeting hijabs and beards, the Tajik government is now mulling a ban on names which sound too Arabic. This won't do much to calm the waves as more and more people question President Rahmon's ongoing secularization campaign. Halimov's defection to ISIS shows that radicalization of the population is a major problem and by no means limited to Tajikistan's poorer citizens, as is often said, but banning hijabs, beards and Arabic names is clearly not the solution. Shutting down schools affiliated with the shadowy movement of CIA puppet Fethullah Gülen makes much more sense. At the beginning of this year, the Tajik authorities announced that they are going to review the licenses of Gülen's schools and the review didn't end well for the Gülen movement. According to Tajikistan's Minister of Education and Science, the schools will be be shut down and reopened as state-run schools with different names. After taking the first step in the right direction, the Tajik regime should also consider taking measures against jihadi TV channels brainwashing the population:

Undeclared information war going on against Tajikistan

Several radical Islamic TV channels now broadcast to Tajikistan from abroad, Tajik journalist Nourali Davlat told Asia-Plus in an interview.

“These are Ahli Bayt, Tavhid, Fadak and Nour and Visoli Haq joined them this spring,” said the journalist. “These TV channels are engaged in brainwashing the youth in the Islamic world, especially in the Persian-speaking countries – Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.”

“Meanwhile, Afghan newspaper 8 Subh says this radical Islamic TV channels broadcasting to Afghanistan and Tajikistan have been established by Arabic sheikhs from the Persian Gulf countries,” said the journalist. “According to the newspaper, the Arabic sheikhs intend to spread war from Afghanistan to Central Asia’s countries. For this, the radical Islamic TV channels use problems existing in relationships between the governments and Muslim communities, in particular the problem of wearing beard or hijab, which is widely discussed in Tajik society.”

The democracy-loving petro-monarchies in the Gulf use every opportunity to find new comrade-in-arms in the fight for freedom and democracy in Syria, or wherever Washington deems it necessary. Halimov was not the first Tajik to join the terrorist gangs in Syria and he won't be the last one. Another high-profile Tajik fighter, Nusrat Nazarov, who came to prominence after claiming that 2,000 Tajiks are fighting for ISIS, was reportedly killed in Syria just recently. Tajikistan's Prosecutor General's Office has already opened criminal cases against 417 citizens on charges of mercenary activities. Halimov is the latest addition to the list. The defection of the former OMON commander highlights Tajikistan's struggle with extremism and it comes at the worst possible time considering that the country is currently trying to prevent a spillover of violence from Afghanistan. Dushanbe has lifted the ban on entry of foreign citizens to Gorno-Badakhshan but the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border remains volatile:

A joint military exercise conducted for Tajik and Russian servicemen in Gorno Badakhshan

A joint military exercise with a final phase featuring live-fire mission has been conducted for units of the Tajik national army and the 201st Russian military base in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported on May 21.

In connection with the possible deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, Russia pays a special attention to strengthening its borders with Central Asia’s nations and helps train personnel for the national armies of the Central Asian countries, the Russian Central Military District press center was cited by RIA Novosti as saying.

Renewed Hope for Afghan Peace Talks

Strengthened by the arrival of foreign fighters who were forced to leave Pakistan due to a large-scale military operation, the Taliban and other groups have been making inroads in northern Afghanistan. The neighboring Central Asian countries are keeping a very close eye on the situation as NATO-trained Afghan forces are struggling to fend off the insurgents. China is equally concerned. This year's spring offensive by the Taliban is particularly noteworthy for the strong involvement of foreign fighters. According to eyewitness reports, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens and Uyghurs are involved in the fighting. Beijing has been trying for months to restart the stalled Afghan peace talks and the presence of Uyghur fighters in northern Afghanistan is certainly an extra motivation for the Chinese to get the Afghan chaos under control. China's efforts to bring Kabul and the Taliban to the negotiation table have been undermined by Obama's decision to slow the "withdrawal" but Beijing won't give up that easily:

Taliban and Afghan Peace Officials Have Secret Talks in China

A peace envoy from Afghanistan met in western China last week with former Taliban officials with close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, in an attempt to keep open the possibility of formal Afghan peace talks, officials said Monday.

The meeting, hosted by China and, in part, organized by Pakistani officials, took place Wednesday and Thursday in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, which has mountainous borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan and is home to many Muslims.

The fact that China agreed to host the talks was the latest sign that Beijing is encouraging peace efforts and an end to Afghanistan’s 13-year civil war. In late 2014, two Afghan Taliban officials came to Beijing with Pakistani officials to discuss peace moves.

Although Beijing denied any knowledge of the talks and the Taliban rejected the reports as "propaganda," it is fair to assume that talks did take place and that they were brokered by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on behalf of the Chinese government. In recent months, China has been putting a lot of pressure on its all-weather friend to crack down on foreign fighters in North Waziristan and play a constructive role in the Afghan peace talks. It remains to be seen whether China's efforts to stabilize the region will be successful but they might have contributed to a rapprochement between Kabul and Islamabad. A few weeks ago, Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan's ISI signed a intelligence-sharing deal despite lots of opposition. Opponents of the agreement include NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil, former President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan's Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. Nevertheless, President Ashraf Ghani got his way:

Afghan Unity Government Split On Intelligence-Sharing Deal

Cracks in Afghanistan's unity government are appearing following the signing of a controversial intelligence deal with neighbor and archrival Pakistan.

According to an inside source, the divide over the memorandum of understanding signed this week between the two countries' spy agencies is evident at the highest levels of the Afghan government.

The source -- a government official who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity -- said Abdullah considers the document "unacceptable" and has made his opposition known to Ghani and senior security officials.

Since many other people share Abdullah's opinion, Ghani came under fire at home for selling out to Pakistan. In order to silence the critics, the Afghan President quickly wrote a letter to Islamabad demanding that the Pakistanis take stronger action against the Taliban. But behind the scenes Kabul and Islamabad are apparently pulling together. NED-sponsored Afghan newspaper Hasht-e-Subh quoted a source as saying that the Afghan government is going to issue 210 political passports to Taliban leaders. During the recent visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Kabul, it was reportedly agreed that the Taliban will be allowed to reopen their political office and that some of the Taliban leaders will be removed from the United Nations blacklist. One of the first steps is exchanging the Pakistani passports that they are currently using for Afghan passports. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, peace talks with the Taliban are probably the only way to stop the violence:

Wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan leave 150,000 dead, US study estimates

The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan have left nearly 150,000 soldiers and civilians dead since 2001, a new US study estimates.

Another 162,000 have been wounded since the US-led offensive that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, says the study by the Costs of War project, based at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

The war in Afghanistan is intensifying rather than moving toward an end, it added, as the number of deaths and injuries has increased significantly in recent years.

Saakashvili's Appointment Spells More Trouble for Transnistria

Although the U.S. and its allies have not achieved any of their objectives in Afghanistan, except for boosting the opium production, they are still hailing the Afghan war as a major success. When Georgian civil society activist turned Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli recently visited the war-torn country during her first foreign trip, she congratulated the Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan for proving that "Georgia struggles for global security alongside with the civilized world." These are of course exactly the words one would expect from a Rose Revolution veteran and Soros-approved politician. Khidasheli picked up where her predecessors left off and she will certainly do her best to lead Georgia into NATO. Meanwhile, her former Rose Revolution ally Mikhail Saakashvili is dominating the headlines once again. The disgraced Georgian ex-president has spent a lot of time in Kiev since the Euromaidan protests. Lately, he has been advising President Petro Poroshenko, presumably on how to start a war with Russia, but now he can finally do this himself - one more time:

Ex-Georgian president, wanted at home, becomes governor in Ukraine

Georgia's former President Mikhail Saakashvili, wanted by his country's prosecutors for embezzlement, abuse of power and politically-motivated attacks, has been appointed governor of Ukraine's Odessa region.

President Petro Poroshenko personally appointed Saakashvili to the post, saying the former Georgian leader is "a friend of Ukraine." In a statement at Saakashvili's nomination in Odessa, Poroshenko said the two had known each other for 25 years, since university days.

According to Poroshenko, Saakashvili "has proven with deeds, not words that he can not only give birth to creative ideas, but also put them into practice." He added Georgia's ex-president had changed his country "in the direction of transparency, effectiveness, anti-corruption, appeal for foreign investors, fair justice, protection of citizen's rights, democracy," something Poroshenko "would like to see very much" in Odessa.

"Delusional" does not even begin to describe Poroshenko's statement. Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Odessa is crazy, to say the least. It came as a huge surprise because the former Georgian President had rejected previous offers to take a post in the government saying that he doesn't want to give up his Georgian citizenship. He reiterated this only a few weeks ago but he suddenly changed his mind. This begs the question of whether Saakashvili had a change of heart or whether his friends in Washington told him to take the governor post. The timing of Saakashvili's appointment is curious. Some have suggested that Poroshenko is trying to reduce the influence of his rival Igor Kolomoisky but there might be more to this story. Odessa Oblast borders Moldova and more importantly Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. Only a few days before Saakashvili was named as governor of Odessa, Ukraine and Moldova began restricting Russian access to Transnistria:

Russian Troops In Transnistria Squeezed By Ukraine And Moldova

Ukraine and Moldova are restricting Russian military access to the breakaway territory of Transnistria, where Russia maintains about 1,500 troops.

Last week Ukraine's parliament voted to suspend military cooperation with Russia. And while much cooperation was of course already suspended, throughout the current crisis Russia has been able to use Ukrainian territory to supply its troops in Transnistria, a slender territory on Ukraine's western border. No longer.

Further complicating Russia's predicament, on May 25 the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Moldova has quietly been arresting and deporting Russian soldiers who try to fly into Moldova en route to Transnistria. Moldova hasn't stopped all Russian soldiers from traveling through its territory -- only those not in the Moldova-supported peacekeeping mission, and only those who don't give a month's notice that they will be traveling to Moldova. (Of the roughly 1,500 Russian troops stationed in Moldova, about 1,000 are in the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova, which Moldova does not support; the rest are peacekeepers regulated by the Joint Control Commission, which includes authorities from Moldova, Transnistria, and Russia.)

As The Saker and others have pointed out, there is a very real danger that Washington and its lackeys will try to provoke a conflict with Russia by squeezing Transnistria. A columnist in the Russian newspaper Izvestia warned a few days ago that Russia "seriously faces the prospect of a repeat of 08.08.08, now around Transnistria." Who better to run the crucial Ukrainian region of Odessa at this moment in time than the man who started the Russo-Georgian War in 2008? And Saakashvili is not alone. Ukrainian media reported that he will be joined by his former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, who is also wanted in Georgia. Adeishvili was reportedly appointed as chief prosecutor of Odessa. A few months ago, Tbilisi asked Kiev to extradite both Saakashvili and Adeishvili, to no avail. The Georgian authorities didn't object to Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Odessa but they heavily criticized the former president for renouncing his citizenship and they will certainly cancel it - sooner or later:

‘We’ll cancel Saakashvili’s citizenship when we want’

The Georgian government is not in a hurry to go through with the formal procedures that will strip ex-President Mikheil Saakashvilli of his native citizenship after being appointed governor of Odessa and acquiring Ukrainian citizenship.

“Let this issue hang over his head like a sword of Damocles. This is a political decision and we will make it when it is necessary,” Justice Minister Thea Tusulukiani said. In January Ukraine appointed as its Deputy Justice Minister former Georgian official Gia Getsadze, who served on various high-ranking positions in ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration till mid-2005.

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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: May 19, 2015

Another Week-Another Kadyrov Scandal, U.S. Proxy Georgia Wants Reward for Faithful Service & 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.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced last Wednesday during a meeting of the NATO Foreign Ministers in Turkey that the U.S.-led military alliance will maintain a presence in Afghanistan after the end of its current mission "Resolute Support" in 2016. Stoltenberg's announcement came as no real surprise. Hardly anybody believed that NATO would leave the strategically located country in the foreseeable future, if ever. In light of the deteriorating security situation, the U.S. and its allies don't even have to spend much time looking for a pretext. Despite years of training by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan security forces are not up to the task and as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko recently pointed out, "Afghan self-sustainment of its security institutions is long way away." American troops and taxpayers can look forward to losing more men and money in Afghanistan. To make matters worse, the Taliban and other groups lost no time in targeting areas, where the coalition troops have already left:

Afghan Officials: IS Militants Helping Taliban In Kunduz Officials in northern Afghanistan say Taliban fighters who launched an offensive against government security forces last month have been joined by foreign fighters from the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Kunduz Province Governor Mohammad Omer Safi told RFE/RL that the bodies of 18 foreign militants have been retrieved from areas where battles have been raging since April 24. He said they included militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Chechnya.

Tajikistan, CSTO Prepare for Afghan Spillover

Given that ISIS and the Taliban are usually fighting against each other in Afghanistan and not cooperating, it begs the question of whether the foreign fighters are really from ISIS or from other groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). After the Pakistani military launched its large-scale operation "Zarb-e-Azb" in North Waziristan last summer, many IMU militants left their safe havens in Pakistan for northern Afghanistan, contributing to an upsurge in violence in Kunduz and other northern Afghan provinces. Kunduz has seen some of the heaviest fighting this year. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes and the Afghan security forces are struggling to maintain control of the province. This has not gone unnoticed in neighboring Tajikistan. On their own admission, the Tajik authorities have already taken measures to address the issue but it is not exactly clear what they have been doing:

Tajikistan Reportedly Creates "Second Line Of Defense" On Afghan Border Tajikistan has created a "second line of defense" along the border with Afghanistan in response to the flare-up in fighting in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, government officials have said. "In connection with the battles between the security forces of Afghanistan and Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz, it's been decided to create a second line of defense, and it was carried out in recent days," said one government official. (Tajikistan newspaper Asia-Plus and Russian news agency Interfax seem to have gotten identical statements; Asia Plus identifies the source as a Ministry of Defense official.) The official didn't specify what is meant by a "second line of defense," and for much of the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border there is barely a first line of defense. Aid that Russia has promised to shore up border defenses has been slow to arrive, so it's not clear what might be forming this extra defense.

A few weeks ago, Russia tried to silence Tajik complaints about the slow pace of Russian military aid by promising more military aid. Russian officials lose no opportunity to assure their Tajik counterparts that they will support them if violence spills across the border. Given the latest developments, this could happen sooner rather than later. The Tajik authorities are not only worried about the flare-up in fighting in Kunduz but also about the alarming situation in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province. A "well-informed" Tajik intelligence official told TASS on Friday that the Taliban have taken control of almost 80 percent of Badakhshan province and that some fighters have already advanced right up to the Tajik-Afghan border. Reports from Afghanistan corroborate his statement. Although the Tajik intelligence official stressed that they don't expect the insurgents to cross the border, the Tajik government is playing it safe:

Foreign citizens temporarily prohibited from visiting Gorno Badakhshan Tajik authorities have suspended issuing permits to foreign citizens for visiting the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). Rezo Nazarzoda, the deputy head of the Committee for Youth, Sports and Tourism Affairs under the Government of Tajikistan, says entry of foreign citizens to Gorno Badakhshan has been temporarily suspended because of uneasy situation in Afghanistan’s districts bordering the region. “As soon as the situation in the neighboring country changes for the better we will resume issuing permits to foreign citizens for visiting Gorno Badakhshan,” Nazarzoda said, noting that tour operators know about that suspension.

It is difficult enough for the Tajik regime to control the vast mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan region without Taliban fighters causing trouble on the border. Therefore, Dushanbe is now looking for some assistance in dealing with the Afghan "spillover." Since Turkmenistan is facing the same problem, it was only natural for the two Central Asian republics to join forces. Both countries are reportedly trying to convince Kyrgyzstan of providing some military support, which won't do much to solve the problem given Kyrgyzstan's limited capabilities. In the end, it will fall to Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to prevent a spillover of violence from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The CSTO is already practicing for an emergency. On May 12, the Russia-led military alliance kicked off drills at the Harbmaydon training ground in southern Tajikistan near the Afghan border involving more than 2,500 troops, some 200 units of military hardware and about 20 combat aircraft:

Russian, Belarusian, Central Asian Troops Practice Rapid Deployment To Afghan Border Troops from Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are taking part in snap exercises to practice quickly deploying to the border of Tajikistan. The exercise is taking place amid heightened tension in Tajikistan, as fighting in northern Afghanistan has -- according to some officials -- the potential to destabilize Central Asia. The CSTO has tried to position itself as the guarantor of security in Tajikistan; in March the group's head said that CSTO rapid reaction forces could reach the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in three days if fighting broke out there. This exercise is taking place in Tajikistan's Khatlon province, just across the border from Kunduz province in Afghanistan, where heavy fighting broke out last month.

Another Week, another Kadyrov Scandal 

As if the border woes were not enough, Tajikistan is also struggling to contain the spread of radical Islam in the country. Terrorist recruiters don't have a hard time finding new cannon fodder for the war in Syria and arrests of suspected extremists are a regular occurrence. But if there is some truth to the speculations surrounding the recent disappearance of one of Tajikistan's top police leaders, the problem is even bigger than previously thought. Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the commander of Tajikistan's OMON, disappeared on April 23 telling his wife that he would be traveling on business for a few days. According to law enforcement sources, Halimov left Dushanbe on May 1 with about ten unemployed men and one day later they were seen at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. Rumor has it that they went to Syria to fight for ISIS. Halimov's family dismissed the media speculations as "baseless" but if Halimov was indeed seen in Moscow, it won't help his case. Many of the Tajiks fighting for ISIS or other terrorist gangs in Syria have been recruited in the Russian capital:

‘Congratulations, your brother’s become a martyr’ How Moscow’s migrant workers became Islamic State fighters The recruiters would explain to the migrants why they should leave Moscow. “You shouldn’t live like slaves. They don’t respect you here,” they said, and would go on to explain that in ISIL fighting wasn’t obligatory, that they would be able to lead a comfortable life and work without being humiliated or feeling demeaned. At these meetings they didn’t talk about the need to wage war against Tajikistan, or the need to take part in terrorist activities. They would offer between $5,000 and $10,000 to help get a newcomer all set up, and if you had a family you could get two to three times more. They explained that ISIL wanted you to bring your family, because ISIL is a “real state” which promises accommodation, while leaving your family behind could lead to “manipulation of your relatives.” The guest workers didn’t know which regions in Chechnya these recruiters came from. One can assume that some of them are from the Pankisi Gorge, a region of Georgia with a historic Chechen community.

Given the Pankisi Gorge's history as a breeding ground for terrorists, it wouldn't be surprising if some of the Chechen recruiters were from Georgia's notorious valley region. Another possibility is that some of them are from Turkey. The Turkish government support ISIS & Co. in any and every possible way and Turkey's Chechen community doesn't have much choice but to play along. But regardless of whether the Chechen recruiters are from Russia or abroad, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian authorities would be well advised to stop the recruitment scheme. Unfortunately, Kadyrov seems to have other things on his mind at the moment. After averting an attempt to pin the Nemtsov assassination on his close associates, Kadyrov made headlines with his order to shoot police from other Russian regions if need be and lately he has become embroiled in a marriage scandal in Chechnya:

Chechen Police Chief Marries Teen Bride Amid Mounting Scandal A Chechen district police chief was married Saturday to a 17-year-old local girl, weeks after reports that she was being forced to wed the already-married official sparked an uproar in Russia's media sphere. The bride, identified as 17-year-old Kheda (Luiza) Goylabiyeva in reports, looked pale in video footage filmed at Grozny's civil registry, where she married Nazhud Guchigov, who is reportedly somewhere in his late forties to mid-fifties. Russian media initially reported that Guchigov was 57, before later claiming he was in fact 46. The marriage has caused a stir among Russian media outlets, which Kadyrov has accused of inaccurately depicting the situation and meddling in the couple's private lives.

Although Kadyrov has banned early marriage and "bridenapping" in Chechnya, he was quick to endorse the controversial wedding. He dismissed reports that the 17-year-old bride was being forced to marry police chief Guchigov saying that "there is no force that could make parents in Chechnya marry their daughter against her will." That is doubtful to say the least. Annoyed at the media frenzy, the Chechen leader lost no time in sacking the republic's media and information minister for mishandling the scandal, and lo and behold, the teenage bride has now filed a complaint with Chechen prosecutors against Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina, who first broke the story. Kadyrov had already warned a few days earlier that those who have meddled in the couple's private lives will have to answer for their actions in court. Remarkably enough, besides dealing with all the marriage trouble, the Chechen Republic head also found the time to comment on the death sentence given to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:

Tsarnaev Framed by U.S. Intelligence, Chechen Leader Kadyrov Says Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov claimed Sunday that Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death last week, had been framed by U.S. intelligence agencies. "The news [of Tsarnaev's death sentence] did not surprise anyone," Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram page Sunday. "The American intelligence services, accused of being involved in the Boston tragedy, needed a victim […] I don't think that the Tsarnaevs [convict Dzhokhar and brother Tamerlan] committed the attack without the knowledge of the U.S. special services, that is if they did in fact commit the attack."

U.S. Proxy Georgia Wants Reward for Faithful Service

Kadyrov tends to blame Western intelligence agencies for anything. Despite that or rather because of that his Instagram posts are usually closer to the truth than Western media coverage. As some may recall, one of the many interesting puzzle pieces emerging after the Boston bombings was a report by Russian newspaper Izvestia claiming that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had attended seminars organized by a Georgian civic organization and the CIA's Jamestown Foundation, which were aimed at recruiting North Caucasus residents for U.S. operations. The report was based on documents from the Georgian Interior Ministry’s Department of Counterintelligence and attracted a lot of attention. Then-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili used the opportuntiy to discredit his nemesis Mihkeil Saakashvili and conceded that "there are suspicions that the authorities worked with terrorists and militants." What Ivanishvili didn't mention is that Georgia always supports Washington's terror operations in the region, regardless of who is running the country. That is why the Georgian authorities have little interest in cracking down on terrorist recruitment in the Pankisi Gorge:

33 year old Georgian from Pankisi dies in Syrian war Ibrahim Tsatiashvili, 33, left his home village Tsinubani two months ago. His relatives knew he was in Turkey. On Friday, they learned that he had died. It is not yet known whether he died fighting. Tsatiashvili had a wife and three children. He is at least the twelfth who dies in the Syrian war who has come from Pankisi Gorge, a valley in the northeast of Georgia, on the border with Chechnya. Mostly young people choose or, as locals believe, are recruited by a certain group, to leave Georgia through Turkey and go to Syria to join ISIS and fight mostly under the command of Omar al-Shishani, real name Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is also from Pankisi and is designated a terrorist by the United States.

Tarkhan Batirashvili aka Omar al-Shishani has come a long way. He started his terrorist career at a young age when he supported the pro-U.S. separatists during the Second Chechen War. Batirashvili then joined the U.S.-trained Georgian Army, where he distinguished himself time and again until he got discharged on medical grounds and put in jail for illegally harboring weapons. Within months of his release from prison, he became one of the most notable terrorist leaders in Syria before joining ISIS, where he is now among the top leaders. The U.S. has just put a $5 million bounty on his head, underscoring Batirashvili's status as one of the world's top terrorists. But he still has some work to do to catch up with U.S./NATO puppet Ayman al-Zawahiri who tops the list with a bounty of $25 million. Meanwhile, the U.S. is making sure that Batirashvili's former colleagues are ready to take on the evil Russians:

Georgian, U.S. Troops Launch Joint Drills Outside Tbilisi Two-week long joint U.S-Georgian military exercises, Noble Partner, started at the Vaziani training area outside Tbilisi on May 11. About 600 soldiers from the both countries are participating in the exercises, which aim at enhancing U.S. and Georgian NATO Response Force interoperability. “I want to remind everyone that although Georgia is not a NATO member state, it is voluntarily taking part in NATO Response Forces,” Georgian PM Irakli Garibashvili said in his speech at the opening ceremony.

Fortunately, Georgian officials remind us from time to time that the country is not a NATO member state otherwise one could get a wrong impression from observing the very close Georgia-NATO cooperation. Although the U.S. and Georgia have conducted several joint military exercises before, Pentagon officials emphasized that "Noble Partner" is the "most robust exercise" to date. While the troops were starting their drills, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was meeting with NATO chief Stoltenberg in Brussels. They reiterated the same phrases as usual about "Georgia moving closer to NATO" but for some people in Tbilisi that is not enough anymore. Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili demanded that the U.S. military alliance has to walk the talk, the sooner the better. After all, the Georgian government is doing its best to please Washington and confute accusations of being "pro-Russian":

New Georgian defense minister vows to sign air defense deal with France The new defense minister in Georgia promises to sign a disputed military deal with France about air defense. Her predecessor Irakli Alasania claims the reason he was dismissed last November was that he wanted to go ahead with the same deal.

His dismissal happened right after a trip to France in late October to negotiate a deal about procurement of air defense systems. He later claimed that while he was there, one of his staff, Mindia Janelidze, who later succeeded him as minister, called him on behalf of the prime minister and asked him not to sign the agreement. Alasania and other Free Democrats have since accused the government of having changed Georgia’s foreign policy course away from a pro-western one in order not to ‘anger Russia’.

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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: April 28, 2015

Putin Sheds Light On U.S. Terror Operations in the N. Caucasus, All-Weather Friends China-Pakistan Elevate Relations to New Level & 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.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has been making headlines on a daily basis in recent weeks, in large part due to the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the ensuing turf war between Kadyrov and elements in Russia's security apparatus. The investigation into the Nemtsov murder has turned the spotlight on Kadyrov's near limitless powers in Chechnya. This has long been a thorn in the side of some people in Moscow. Chechnya lives by different rules from the rest of Russia and investigators realized this lately when they tried to get access to suspect Ruslan Geremeev and his father, Federation Council member Sulieman Geremeev. But some people apparently didn't get the memo. On April 19, a suspected criminal was killed in Grozny during a special operation, which was carried out by members of the Stavropol police and Chechnya-based forces under the command of the federal government. Nobody deemed it necessary to inform the Chechen authorities of the operation and this didn't go down well with Kadyrov:

‘Shoot to kill’: Chechen leader’s row with Interior Ministry heats up Tensions continue to rise between the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian Interior Ministry. It follows the killing of a Chechen native by police from another Russian region during arrest. Grozny has accused the ministry of distorting facts. Kadyrov was outraged upon learning of the operation, as he said it was performed without the Chechen authorities being notified. “I officially state that if [armed people] turn up on your territory without you knowing about this – be they Muscovites or Stavropol natives – shoot to kill. We should be reckoned with,” Kadyrov said during a meeting with Chechen security officials.

Putin Sheds Light On U.S. Terror Operations in the North Caucasus

Russia's Interior Ministry responded by saying that Kadyrov's words are "inadmissible." Although the head of the Chechen Republic continues to insist that there is no conflict between him and federal law enforcers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the tensions. After the Chechen Interior Ministry launched an investigation into the "abuse of power" by Stavropol police, Federal Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin intervened and took over the investigation, which prompted Kadyrov to demand an explanation from Bastrykin. The antics of the Chechen leader are causing Russian officials quite a headache and rumor has it that Kadyrov has now been offered to take a job in the federal government. That way the Kremlin could limit Kadyrov's influence without causing too much trouble in Chechnya. And trouble in Chechnya is always a good thing to avoid, especially when the U.S. deep state plans to start another Chechen war. It is an open secret that the United States and NATO are pulling the strings behind the insurgency in Russia's North Caucasus but it is rarely mentioned in the media by Russian officials, which makes Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent interview all the more interesting:

Putin accuses US of supporting separatists in Russia In a new documentary, Russian President Vladimir Putin says intercepted calls showed that the U.S. helped separatists in Russia's North Caucasus in the 2000s, underscoring his suspicions of the West. The documentary showed Putin interviewed at the Kremlin in the dimly-lit St. Alexander's Hall. In excerpts released shortly before the film's broadcast, Putin said Russian intelligence agencies had intercepted calls between the separatists and U.S. intelligence based in Azerbaijan during the early 2000s, proving that Washington was helping the insurgents. Putin said he raised the issue with then-U.S. President George W. Bush, who promised Putin to "kick the ass" of the intelligence officers in question. But in the end, Putin said the Russian intelligence agency FSB received a letter from their "American counterparts" who asserted their right to "support all opposition forces in Russia," including the Islamic separatists in the Caucasus.

Azerbaijan has long played a key role in U.S.-NATO terror operations in the region. In this regard, the U.S. embassy in Baku hosted quite noteworthy meetings between 1997 and 2001, where U.S. military and intelligence officials met with the likes of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and terrorism financier Yasin al-Qadi. Close U.S. ally Azerbaijan and NATO member Turkey served as main conduits for the 'Gladio B' operations and there is some evidence to suggest that things haven't changed much over the years. Last Friday, Turkish "charity" IMKANDER held a rally in Istanbul to mourn the loss of Caucasus Emirate leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, who was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan a few days earlier. Kebekov's predecessor Doku Umarov had been honored with a similar rally last year. When IMKANDER is not organizing rallies for slain terrorists, the organization is attracting negative attention for recruiting "Syrian rebels":

'People In Pankisi Know Who's Recruiting Their Kids To IS' While the answers to these questions remain unknown, it is worth noting one important connection between Pankisi Kists fighting in Syria and a foreign group. Seyfullakh al-Shishani (Ruslan Machaliashvili) who pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra before his death in February 2014, had close ties to a Turkish NGO named Imkander, which helps refugees from the North Caucasus living in Turkey. Machaliashvili had become involved with Imkander when he lived in Istanbul before going to fight in Syria. Imkander, which is reportedly also involved with helping provide medical treatment for Chechens fighting in Syria, openly praised Machaliashvili in a funeral in absentia it held for him in Istanbul in February 2014.

As discussed last week, the terrorist recruitment in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge seems to getting out of hand, which has caused a storm of protest from parents and locals. Given IMKANDER's history, it comes as no real surprise that the Turkish "charity" is not only providing food to Pankisi residents but also recruiting new fighters for NATO's war in Syria. Russia has tried to put IMKANDER on the Al-Qaida Sanctions List, to no avail. The U.S. and Azerbaijan opposed sanctions against IMKANDER and the UK, France and Luxembourg blocked the Russian request in the UN Security Council. That explains perhaps Putin's suspicions of the West. After the U.S. and its allies recently refused to add ISIS to the Al-Qaida Sanctions List as a separate group, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out that both ISIS and al-Qaeda have emerged as a result of Washington's actions, which is a diplomatic way of saying what Putin hinted at in his interview. Lavrov said that he sees ISIS as Russia's main enemy now and there is certainly some truth to this:

Umar Shishani’s Right-Hand Man Calls On North Caucasian Jihadis To Join IS In Dagestan & Chechnya In a recent video address, Abu Jihad, a close confidante of Islamic State’s commander in Syria Umar Shishani, has called on jihadis in the North Caucasus to join those local groups who have pledged allegiance to IS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and not the Caucasus Emirate (CE). Abu Jihad is the nom de guerre of Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev, an ethnic Karachay from the North Caucasian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia. While Abu Jihad does not appear to have taken part in any military action on behalf of IS, in 2013 and 2014 he was frequently seen alongside Umar Shishani and has since become a prominent ideologue within IS’s North Caucasian contingent. More recently, he has begun reaching out to jihadis in Syria and the Russian Federation via regular Russian-language audio lectures on the Zello platform.

Taliban Trying to Match ISIS Brutality as Both Groups Clash

With the continued existence of the Caucasus Emirate in question, ISIS could become Russia's main enemy in the North Caucasus. The much-hyped terrorist group is expanding into several countries. Lately, ISIS's expansion into Afghanistan has been the main topic of conversation in the region. Russian and Central Asian officials lose no opportunity to hype the threat and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani even went as far as telling his friends in Washington during a recent visit that ISIS poses a "terrible threat" to Western and Central Asia. That is of course absurd but it is hard to deny that more and more jihadists in Afghanistan pledge allegiance to ISIS, much to the dismay of the Taliban. When a suicide blast rocked Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad last week, killing at least 35 people and injuring more than 100, suspicions quickly focused on ISIS but Afghan and NATO officials expressed doubts about ISIS's responsibility for the bombing and the group denied any involvement:

ISIS Now Says It Didn’t Bomb Afghanistan ISIS loyalists may have claimed credit for Saturday bombing that killed at least 35 people in eastern Afghanistan. But U.S. officials now believe that Taliban fighters—not the Middle East-based extremist group—carried out the strike. Had ISIS been responsible, it would have been among the deadliest attacks by the group outside the Middle East. What’s more, a spokesman for ISIS in Afghanistan denied that his group was responsible for the attack, which sparked outrage among Afghans. “ISIS was not behind the deadly blast in Jalalabad, and we condemn such an attack,” Sheikh Muslim Dost told The Daily Beast. “This is an act of the Pakistani agencies to damage reputation of the ISIS.”

If the "Pakistani agencies" would go to the trouble of staging a massive suicide bombing in order to damage the reputation of ISIS, is doubtful to say the least. The statement of Sheikh Muslim Dost should be taken with a grain of salt but it is possible that the Taliban were behind the attack. There are some indications that they are trying to match the brutality of ISIS. A recent wave of kidnappings and subsequent beheadings of members of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic group was also first blamed on ISIS but turned out to be the work of the Taliban. Shahgul Rezaye, a Hazara member of Parliament, explained it as follows: "They’re trying to show they are as bad as ISIS." As previously mentioned, publishing a biography of Mullah Omar won't be enough to stop jihadists in Afghanistan from abandoning the Taliban in favor of ISIS. The rivalry between the two groups has now reached a new peak:

ISIS, Taliban announced Jihad against each other Mashaal Radio has published a report stating that Daesh and Taliban group have announced Jihad against each other. Nabi Jan Mullahkhil, police chief of southern Helmand province has told Mashaal Radio during an interview that he has received documents in which both the terrorist groups have announced Jihad against each other. Mashaal Radio which is related to Azadi Radio quotes Mullahkhil as saying when the matter of peace talks between government and Taliban comes into discussion some intelligence agencies make new groups to keep the war ongoing in Afghanistan.

It appears that the war in Afghanistan won't end anytime soon. Washington's decision to slow the "withdrawal" has undermined the Afghan peace talks before they got started and due to the rise of ISIS, the Taliban are now even less inclined to make compromises. On April 24, the group launched its annual spring offensive "under the inspirational name of 'Azm' (determination)." While Ghani is still pretending that the NATO-trained Afghan security forces are able to defend the country, Afghanistan's elite is already fleeing to Europe amid increasing violence. Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors are keeping a wary eye on the situation. The Taliban are doing what they want on the Turkmen-Afghan border and northern Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan have also seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. A few days ago, Ghani and Interior Minister Ulumi visited Badakhshan province to check the security situation after the Taliban had launched a major attack in Badakhshan:

Taliban admit to beheading Afghan soliders ‘in revenge’ The Taliban admitted that its fighters beheaded seven Afghan soldiers during clashes last week in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. The Taliban acknowledged that the beheadings are “contradictory to rules of engagement,” but then justified the gruesome acts as revenge for Afghan soldiers mutilating Taliban fighters. In a statement released today on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s official media outlet, the jihadist group said it “launched its usual investigation” of the reports of the beheadings “as part of its Islamic and humanitarian responsibility.” The Taliban killed, captured, or wounded 33 troops after more than 250 Taliban fighters assaulted the district of Jurm in Badakhshan last week, according to news reports. Afghan forces claimed that 20 Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting.

All-Weather Friends China & Pakistan Elevate Relations to New Level

Since Badakhshan borders not only Tajikistan but also China and Pakistan, Beijing and Islamabad are also going to keep a close eye on the situation. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan last week to unveil energy and infrastructure investments totaling $46 billion in an effort to expedite the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The economic corridor aims to connect Pakistan's Chinese-managed Gwadar port to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is now the core of China's growth and security concerns. It is a risky project because it depends on stability in Xinjiang and Balochistan, two regions struggling with foreign-backed separatist movements. A spillover of violence from Badakhshan is the last thing that Beijing and Islamabad want to see. In exchange for putting up the money, the Chinese authorities expect their Pakistani counterparts to maintain stability in the country and provide security for Chinese workers:

Pakistan to Create Security Force to Protect Chinese Workers Pakistan’s military will assemble a 12,000-strong special security force to protect the Chinese workers and engineers expected to flood into Pakistan as part of a flagship $46-billion infrastructure program, Pakistani officials said. 

The size of the new security force reflects the ambitious scale of the Chinese construction plan, which would see work begin on dozens of projects starting this year. It also addresses Beijing’s long-running concerns with the safety of its workers abroad, particularly in conflict zones. Pakistan plans to devote nine army battalions and six wings of the civilian security forces to the new security unit, said Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Bajwa, in a statement late Tuesday.

Beijing has learned from negative experiences in Afghanistan and doesn't want to take any risks as the "all-weather friends" China and Pakistan proceed with the implementation of the mega project. Chinese media hailed Xi's visit to Pakistan, saying that both countries "upgraded their relations to all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation, eyeing perpetual friendship from generation to generation." This is not necessarily an exaggeration. China has just been granted operation rights for 40 years at Gwadar, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year, and the CPEC cements ties between the two neighbors even further. Pakistani planning minister Ahsan Iqbal described the project as a "game-changer for Pakistan" but it is actually a game-changer for the whole region. After Beijing recently offered Islamabad its help in constructing the Pakistani side of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, Iran lost no time in expressing its willingness to supply gas to China:

Iran backs pipeline to China under 'One Belt, One Road' initiative: ambassador Iran is seeking to extend its energy delivery network to China under Beijing's massive "One Belt, One Road" push to boost regional connectivity, Tehran's envoy has said. Ali Asghar Khaji, Iran's ambassador to China, said Iran would expand its railways, roads, ports, telecoms sector and energy security under a five-year development plan. "Setting up an extended network of energy pipelines would help regional security and development," he told the South China Morning Post. Iran says it has already built a natural gas pipeline to its border with Pakistan, which previously balked at constructing a link on its side amid threats of sanctions from Washington. But Islamabad was now seeking Chinese funding to build its portion, The Wall Street Journal reported this month. The deal comes amid a push to build an economic corridor between Pakistan's port city of Gwadar and western China's Xinjiang region.

As China redraws Eurasia's geopoliticial map, the U.S. sees its hopes dashed. Washington has long tried to sabotage the construction of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Strong U.S. pressure forced India to withdraw from the pipeline in 2009 and Pakistan was later also bullied into abandoning the project. Thanks to Beijing's efforts, the completion of the Peace Pipeline is now within reach and even an expansion to China seems possible. Depending on how the situation in Xinjiang and Balochistan develops, these efforts might pay off. After Xi Jinping visited Islamabad to inaugurate the CPEC, it didn't take long before Baloch nationalists dismissed the project as an attempt to "colonize" Balochistan and demanded a share of the financial benefits for the province. So it remains to be seen whether China and its allies will be able to implement the mega projects or whether Baloch "rebels" will thwart Beijing's plans:

Security Fears for China-Pakistan Corridor Ethnic Baloch rebels, who oppose Gawadar’s development while the province is not independent, have in the past blown up numerous gas pipelines and trains and attacked Chinese engineers. Earlier this month the Balochistan Liberation Front claimed an attack in the province that left 20 construction workers from elsewhere in Pakistan dead, the bloodiest separatist incident since 2006. 

Siddiq Baloch, editor of the Balochistan Express newspaper, said the rebels want to scare off investors and developers who are working with the Pakistani government—such as the Chinese. “There is the thinking that by doing this, they want to disrupt the working of the economy, disrupt the administration, challenge the administration in the area,” he said.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

                                                       

The New Great Game Round-Up: April 21, 2015

Nemtsov Murder Investigation Hits Brick Wall in Chechnya, Double Standards for Georgian Mercenaries Fighting Abroad & 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.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin held his 13th annual question and answer marathon session, Moscow police raided the office of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's "Open Russia" organization. The search came as no real surprise. After all, the Russian authorities have every reason to keep a close eye on dubious activities of the disgraced oligarch, who is the West's dream candidate for replacing Putin. Khodorkovsky claimed that the real reason for the raid was Open Russia's planned documentary about the role of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in the current government system. Although Khodorkovsky's words should always be taken with a grain of salt, his statement makes sense. Kadyrov's place in the current system is a hot topic, especially in light of the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. As discussed in the latest episode of Porkins Great Game, there have been some indications that elements in the Russian security apparatus are trying to pin the Nemtsov killing on Kadyrov and his men. Recent developments confirm this assumption:

Zaur Dadaev: investigators demand to testify against Ruslan Geremeev Shamsudin Tsakaev, an advocate of Zaur Dadaev, a defendant in the case of Boris Nemtsov's murder, requests investigators to re-interrogate his client. According to the advocate, Zaur Dadaev told him that the investigators forced him to testify against his colleague Ruslan Geremeev, the "RBC" reports. Initially, Zaur Dadaev has promised to show how Boris Nemtsov was murdered; however, the investigative experiment has failed, the "Rosbalt" reports. Zaur Dadaev claims that after his detention in Ingushetia on March 5, he gave a confession. After that, he was brought by plane to Moscow, where the investigators forced him to testify against Ruslan Geremeev. According to him, the text given to him by the investigators in Moscow mentioned a man with the name "Rusik": a person, who allegedly provided a pistol and a car to commit the crime, the "RBC" reports today. "There is no such person with the name Rusik. He is a mythical character invented by those who tortured me. I would never speak of Geremeev as 'Rusik', since for me, he is senior in rank and age," Zaur Dadaev told Shamsudin Tsakaev as quoted by the "RBC".

Nemtsov Murder Investigation Hits Brick Wall in Chechnya

Zaur Dadaev, the main suspect in the killing, has retracted his confession, saying that he was tortured and that he only agreed to sign the interrogation protocol in exchange for the release of a friend and colleague, who was detained along with him in Ingushetia. Dadaev is willing to undergo a lie detector test to prove his innocence and his new lawyer announced that he is changing his alibi. But regardless of whether or not Dadaev was involved in the killing, it has become clear that investigators are trying hard to implicate Ruslan Geremeev in the Nemtsov assassination. This is significant because Geremeev has close family links to State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov's cousin and designated successor. By implicating Geremeev in the killing, they are putting pressure on both Delimkhanov and Kadyrov. Geremeev is not a minor figure who can be sacrificed as easily as Dadaev. There have been conflicting reports about whether or not investigators were able to question Geremeev after he moved from Moscow to the heavily guarded Chechen village of Dzhalka but if Rosbalt is to be believed, Geremeev has now left Chechnya and presumably also Russia:

Geremeyev, Reported 'Organizer' of Nemtsov Murder, Said to Leave Russia Ruslan Geremeyev, the officer in the Sever Battalion who was reportedly the organizer of the Nemtsov murder, has left his native town of Dzhalka, Rosbalt.ru reports. A source says he has likely left Russia. Last week, investigators from the Investigative Committee who traveled to Chechnya were unable to gain access to Geremeyev. Says Rosbalt: 

Dzhalka is the native town of Adam Delimkhanov, a senator in the Federation Council and Alimbek Delimkhanov, the commander of the Sever Battalion. The police blockade of the village is removed, the guards have disappeared from the house where Geremeyev was supposedly located. He is no longer in Dzhalka, and there is no information that he has gone to another town.

Opposition leader Ilya Yashin, a close associate and ally of Nemtsov, alleged that Geremeev has moved to Dubai. Coincidentally, Kadyrov and Adam Delimkhanov just spent more than a week with Chechnya’s leading bureaucrats, top religious and security figures and their families in Dubai, where Kadyrov's private horse, Candy Boy, raced in the Dubai World Cup. The Chechen leader apparently deemed it best to stay out of public attention while the Nemtsov murder investigation was inching closer to Chechnya. Perhaps he also used the time to arrange Geremeev's escape. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities face a tough decision. Chasing Geremeev is like opening a can of worms. When Putin was asked during the Q&A session why investigators didn't get access to Geremeev, he evaded the question. There is no alternative to the current system in Chechnya and nobody wants to create unnecessary problems given that the situation in the North Caucasus could deteriorate again at any time:

IS militants may appear in Caucasus, Central Asia, Europe — Iran’s defense minister Countries supporting the Islamic State (IS) extremist organization may soon send militants to Central Asia, to the Caucasus and Europe, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said on Thursday at the 4th Moscow Conference on International Security. Western countries are trying to compensate for their military defeats by using the potential of terrorist groups, he noted. "Today, I must say with enormous regret that the countries that support IS and other terrorist groups conduct special training and logistical planning in order to send militants to Central Asia, to the Caucasus, to India. Western China and Europe in the future," Dehghan said.

Many jihadists from the Caucasus have joined ISIS and other terrorist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. According to Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, more than 1,500 ISIS fighters are from the North Caucasus. That explains why the situation in Chechnya and the surrounding republics has been relatively calm in recent years but Russian officials never grow tired of warning that these battle-tested jihadists could return home. Although ISIS fighters have not kept their word to "liberate" Chechnya and the Caucasus, ISIS has expanded to the North Caucasus with more and more militant leaders in the region pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, much to the dismay of the Caucasus Emirate (IK). In recent months, several Chechen and Daghestani commanders have retracted their oath of obedience to IK leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, also known as Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani. And in light of latest successful anti-terror operation in Dagestan, the continued existence of the Imarat Kavkaz is in question - now more than ever:

Russian troops kill leader of Islamic Caucasus Emirate Russian security forces killed Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, the emir of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Caucasus Emirate, during a special operations raid in the Russian Republic of Dagestan today. Since taking command of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) in 2014, Dagestani has supported al Qaeda and opposed the establishment of the rival Islamic State. Dagestani was killed by Russian troops after he and other jihadists were surrounded in a home in the town of Buynaksk, according to VDagestan, the official media branch of Vilayat Dagestan, an ICE “province.” VDagestan’s Arabic Twitter feed posted a photograph of the slain emir. Later, the photograph and a report of his death was posted on VDagestan’s official Arabic website. According to the website, Shamil Bulakhani, a “brother” and the emir of Dagestan’s Ontsokol district was also killed.

Double Standards for Georgian Mercenaries Fighting Abroad

Kebekov had thrown his weight behind U.S./NATO puppet Ayman al-Zawahiri and the al-Nusra Front. Following his killing, ISIS should be able to increase its influence among jihadists in Russia's North Caucasus. There is only one problem: insurgents in the North Caucasus have a short life expectancy. That is probably why many jihadists prefer to travel to Syria. Not only many Russian jihadists have made their way from the Caucasus to Syria. Georgia's Pankisi Gorge has also contributed some fighters, including the famous Abu Omar al-Shishani. The Georgian government and its NATO partners have long used the Pankisi Gorge as a base for "Chechen rebels" in the fight against Russia and it has been an ideal recruiting ground for the various terrorist gangs fighting in Syria. But as more and more young men from the region join ISIS, Tbilisi is coming under increasing pressure to take action:

Georgia toughens anti-terror legislation to include recruitment for IS Georgia is to make it a crime to be a member of a terrorist organization or take part in a paramilitary group in another country. The law was drafted after calls for the government to do more to stop the flow of youth joining the war in Syria. Not only participation in paramilitary groups abroad will be punishable, but also making propaganda for them or work to recruit new fighters.

The departure of two Pankisi high-schoolers for Syria was the straw that broke the camel's back. According to parents and Pankisi residents, border guards, airport officials, Wahhabis in Pankisi and the government all have to take a share of the blame. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to shift the blame on the previous government by claiming that 100 people left the Pankisi Gorge for Syria before his administration took over in late 2012 and only few people afterwards. Pankisi residents beg to differ. Blaming former President Mikheil Saakashvili usually works but this time Garibashvili won't get off the hook that easily. Tbilisi has demonstrated time and again that Georgian mercenaries fighting abroad don't have to fear prosecution. Although this might change for Georgian jihadists in Syria and Iraq, it is important to note that Georgian mercenaries in Ukraine have nothing to worry about:

Saakashvili Greets Suspected Georgian Mercenaries Fighting in Ukraine The former Georgian President turned Ukrainian Presidential aide met a group of former Georgian soldiers involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine; Mikhail Saakashvili praised them for their faithfulness to the "allied country," presented the soldiers with Easter gifts, and then prayed with them in the Kiev Church of the Nativity of Christ "for the victory of Ukraine in the war with Russia," according to the Russian daily Kommersant. Taking part in the Sunday meeting were about thirty suspected Georgian mercenaries from the Azov and Donbass battalions, as well as a group of instructors from the Patriot training center. They included Gigi Kalandadze, former Chief of Staff of the Georgian armed forces, who, along with the others, allegedly freely resigned from the Georgian army in order to fight in Ukraine, according to Saakashvili.

Saakashvili is completely in his element. It clearly bothers him that people in his home country argue that he his a greater enemy to Georgia than Putin. In Ukraine, Saakashvili is finally being appreciated and he can do what he does best - provoking a war with Russia and praying for victory. Dozens of Georgians have joined him and Kiev's forces need all the help they can get. A few days ago, another Georgian mercenary, Giorgi Janelidze, "died in Ukraine in an anti-terrorist operation," as Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Jalaghania put it. Considering that Janelidze was fighting for the infamous neo-Nazi battalion "Azov," some people will probably take issue with Jalaghania's version of events but the Deputy Foreign Minister emphasized that Janelidze's "heroism will be given appropriate honors" in Georgia. Tbilisi is now cooperating with Kiev to return the body. If it were not for Kiev's preference for Saakashvili-era officials, relations between Georgia und Ukraine would be rosy:

Interpol Drops ‘Red Notice’ for Ex-Justice Minister Adeishvili Interpol has withdrawn ‘red notice’ for Georgia’s ex-justice minister Zurab Adeishvili, who is wanted by Tbilisi for number of criminal charges, which his allies say are politically motivated. The Georgian prosecutor’s office said that in its notification Interpol cited “granting of a refugee status to Adeishvili by one of the countries” as the reason behind its decision to revoke red notice against Georgia’s ex-justice minister; prosecutor’s office said it does not know which country it was. At the time when the red notice was issued against Adeishvili, he was supposedly in Hungary, where he reportedly already had an asylum. Recently he has been informally advising Ukrainian authorities on reforms, according to his close allies and former Georgian officials now working in the Ukrainian government.

150 Tons of "Diplomatic Mail" Cause a Stir in Kyrgyzstan

Georgia's hunt for Saakashvili-era officials abroad has not been particularly successful so far because they are still enjoying Western support. To make matters worse, Saakashvili is free to plot his return and organize Maidan-style protests in Tbilisi. Given the fact that his allies have made it clear that they will take revenge for the persecution if they get the chance, the current Georgian government has every reason to be on guard. The putsch in Kiev has reminded governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia that they could fall victim to similar events at any time. This applies especially to countries in Russia's sphere of influence, such as Kyrgyzstan. The specter of a Kyrgyz Maidan has haunted Bishkek since last year, when the suspicious activities of the U.S. State Department's TechCamp project and the subsequent visit of George Soros raised a few eyebrows. Lately, Kyrgyz and Russian media went into frenzy over the delivery of 150 tons of "diplomatic mail" to the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek:

US Sends Mysterious 150 Tons of 'Diplomatic Mail' to Embassy in Kyrgyzstan Washington has remained tight-lipped on a report by the Kyrgyz newspaper Delo No. that a mysterious Ukrainian aircraft delivered 150 tons of cargo with the status of "diplomatic mail" to the US Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek late last month. According to the newspaper, the cargo was delivered during two separate flights by the AN-124 transport jet of the Ukrainian air carrier Antonov Avialinii. The flights took place between March 28 and March 30, and each time the plane was en route from the UAE capital Abu Dhabi to the Manas international airport. The newspaper recalled that in November 2013, the US Embassy in Kiev also received "diplomatic cargos" that were delivered by US Air Force transport aircraft.

Delo No. suggested that the plane might have been carrying cash which is intended for paying protesters, as was the case in Ukraine, where 60 million dollars in small bills emerged at Kiev's Maidan Square during the anti-government protests in late 2013 according to former Ukrainian spy chief Oleksandr Yakymenko. But the Kyrgyz paper pointed out that it is unlikely that the containers contained only dollar bills because they were too heavy. Other possible explanations put forward by Delo No. included "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek" and weapons. The latter theory was also endorsed by a source in Kyrgyzstan's security services. The source mentioned in this regard the U.S. arms cache, which was discovered in 2008 in a residential area close to the U.S. Embassy. At first, the U.S. Embassy Bishkek refused to comment on the 150 tons of unknown cargo before coming up with a somewhat plausible explanation:

US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan did decide to comment on delivery of “mysterious cargo” from UAE The US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan did decide to comment to 24.kg news agency on the delivery of "mysterious cargo" from the UAE. As the press service of the US diplomatic mission in Kyrgyzstan said, "it was usual ship with materials for a new embassy." It confirmed that this wasn't the first such diplomatic mail. "Cargo doesn't come on schedule but as needed," the Embassy added.

Embassy spokesman John Brown told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that they are building a new building because the number of embassy officials is increasing due to the "expansion of cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and the U.S." Which expansion of cooperation he was referring to is not clear. It is more likely that the number of embassy officials is increasing because the Americans are trying to compensate for the loss of Manas Air Base or because color revolution expert Richard Miles is planning his next coup. Miles was recalled from retirement to serve as interim chief of mission in Bishkek. This aroused suspicions understandably enough. It remains to be seen whether the mysterious cargo was just building materials for the new embassy building or part of an evil plot to topple the government but it is safe to say that the Americans' activities in Kyrgyzstan are under high scrutiny:

Young Patriots of Kyrgyzstan urge law enforcement agencies to ban activities of Human rights watch Young Patriots of Kyrgyzstan urge the law enforcement agencies to ban the activities of Human rights watch. They stated it today at a press conference. According to Emil Turumbekov, they "won't allow events such as the Ukraine to happen." "We are afraid of such organizations that can quickly mobilize. We demand to expel the head of the Organization Mira Ritman out of the KR and bring for responsibility for interference in the internal affairs of our country," he said.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

                                                       

The New Great Game Round-Up: April 14, 2015

Gülen Movement Uses Turkey's Uyghur Adventures to Attack AKP, Aliyev Discovers His Faith as Azerbaijan & GCC Eye Closer Ties & More!

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

At the beginning of this year, China's state-run Global Times shed light on Turkey's role in smuggling Uyghur would-be terrorists out of the country and funneling them into Syria or Iraq. It is likely that Beijing made the story public to put pressure on Ankara in the ongoing tug-of-war between China and Turkey over Uyghur refugees in Thailand. But interestingly, the Chinese authorities haven't been the only ones to draw attention to this issue in recent months. In an interview with Turkish daily Hürriyet at the end of last year, Washington's favorite Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer complained that the Turkish government has ignored requests to take action against Turkey-based illegal human trafficking networks bringing Uyghurs to Syria and Iraq. AKP officials and the Islamist press responded by calling Kadeer "an infidel" and "an American agent for sale." The latter characterization is not exactly inappropriate and Kadeer's statement indicates that some people in Washington are willing to reveal information about Turkey's role in the East Turkestan project in order to settle a score with the Turkish government. A recent report in the newly launched newspaper of the Gülen movement supports this assumption:

ISIL recruits Chinese with fake Turkish passports from Istanbul The Turkish daily Meydan has uncovered a network based out of Istanbul, recruiting and facilitating the transport of fighters from China’s autonomous Turkic Uighur Xinjiang region to Syria and Iraq. The network is based out of Zeytinburnu, a district on Istanbul's European side which is home to a community of Uighurs who live in Turkey. It is headed by Nurali T, a businessman who has been facilitating the movement of Uighurs from China to Syria and Iraq via Turkey since 2011. He is known by his code name Abbas. An individual who works for him, AG, says that a total of 100,000 fake Turkish passports have been produced, 50,000 of which have been shipped to China to be handed to fighters recruited to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Gülen Movement Uses Turkey's Uyghur Adventures to Attack AKP

Meydan quoted "A.G." as saying that more than 50,000 Uyghurs have made their way to Turkey via Thailand and Malaysia with these fake passports. A.G. claimed that most of the Uyghurs were caught by police after landing in Turkey and had their passports seized before they were released and sent to join ISIS. The modus operandi sounds familiar and much of the report doesn't seem far-fetched, except for the ridiculously high numbers. Regardless of whether or not there is some truth to the claims, the report shows that the CIA-backed Gülen movement is also prepared to throw the spotlight on Turkey's East Turkestan activities in order to discredit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his associates. The first issue of Meydan was published last Monday and it didn't take long before Gülen's new paper launched its first attack. Erdogan's mouthpiece Daily Sabah lost no time in responding to the report:

Gülenist media attacks Uighurs fleeing Chinese crackdowns with ISIS claims Uighurs who were forced to seek refuge due to the Chinese government's religious, cultural and language restrictions as well as ethnic discrimination policy faced a smear campaign by several Turkish media outlets that are associated with the Gülen Movement. In efforts to harm Turkey and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, fabricated Gülenist media reports claimed that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was given more than 100,000 fake Turkish passports under the government's authorization and these passports were used by Uighurs escaping to Turkey to enter Syria and join ISIS.

Our old friend Seyit Tümtürk, the go-to-guy for Uyghurs in Turkey, was once again chosen to set the record straight. Tümtürk lamented that Hizmet's smear campaign is "devastating" for Uyghurs living in Turkey and he emphasized that the Gülen movement "has placed its signatures under a great tyranny" by propagating these "baseless claims." As previously discussed, Gülen and his puppeteers in Washington don't flinch from exposing Turkey's role in U.S.-NATO terror operations when the information can be used against Erdogan. The Turkish power struggle has already revealed some of NATO's dirty secrets in Syria and now it is turning the spotlight on the East Turkestan project as well. China won't mind. The Chinese authorities are grateful for any information which can be used to justify the increasingly harsh anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang. Despite the ongoing violence, Xinjiang authorities claim that the overall situation in the autonomous region remains "stable and controllable." Xinjiang's stability becomes ever more important as China expedites more major projects in the region:

China to Build Pipeline From Iran to Pakistan China will build a pipeline to bring natural gas from Iran to Pakistan to help address Pakistan’s acute energy shortage, under a deal to be signed during the Chinese president’s visit to Islamabad this month, Pakistani officials said. The arrival of President Xi Jinping is expected to showcase China’s commitment to infrastructure development in ally Pakistan, at a time when few other countries are willing to make major investments in the cash-strapped, terrorism-plagued country. The pipeline would amount to an early benefit for both Pakistan and Iran from the framework agreement reached earlier this month between Tehran and the U.S. and other world powers to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. had previously threatened Pakistan with sanctions if it went ahead with the project.

Iran says that it has already completed its 560-mile portion of the pipeline and China is now giving Pakistan a hand to construct the Pakistani side of the project. The "Peace Pipeline" will run to Pakistan's Gwadar deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea, which is under Chinese management. Iranian gas could be shipped from Gwadar to China by sea or a new pipeline could pump the gas along the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Xinjiang. Given that China plans to ship less oil and gas across the Strait of Malacca, Beijing will probably prefer the second option. But this is only going to work if the situation in Xinjiang and Balochistan doesn't get out of hand. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. strongly oppose the construction of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline for obvious reasons and they will do their best to sabotage the project. The House of Saud is not amused about the latest developments. As Pakistan eyes closer ties with Iran, the Saudis are left out in the cold:

Pakistan declines Saudi call for armed support in Yemen fight Pakistan's parliament voted on Friday not to join the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, dashing Riyadh's hopes for powerful support from outside of the region in its fight to halt Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia had asked fellow Sunni-majority Pakistan to provide ships, aircraft and troops for the campaign, now in its third week, to stem the influence of Shi'ite Iran in what appears to be proxy war between the Gulf's two dominant powers. While Saudi Arabia has the support of its Sunni Gulf Arab neighbors, Pakistan's parliament voted against becoming militarily involved.

Aliyev Discovers His Faith as Azerbaijan & GCC Eye Closer Ties

Some Pakistanis could barely contain their joy and celebrated that "for once Pakistan does not dance to the unmelodious Arab tune." The Gulf Cooperation Council is still raging but it is doubtful whether the "oil-spoilt sheiks" will be able to convince Pakistan of changing its decision: "The sheiks can shoke on their fury for all we care." Fortunately for Riyadh, not all Iranian neighbors are fed up with the Saudis and their GCC friends. Azerbaijan is looking to strengthen its ties with the Gulf states and the best thing is: Azerabaijani leader Ilham Aliyev couldn't care less about the opinion of his people. Contrary to what some American politicians believe, Azerbaijan is not exactly a democracy. At the beginning of this month, Aliyev hosted the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in Baku to strengthen bilateral cooperation:

UAE and Azerbaijan forge deals Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, on Thursday held talks with Azerbaijan’s president during a two-day visit that resulted in bilateral economic and emergency readiness agreements. Sheikh Mohammed and president Ilham Aliyev discussed ways to strengthen cooperation with Azerbaijan, state news agency Wam said. Mr Aliyev voiced confidence in the results of the bilateral exchange, particularly in investment. Also on Thursday, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry issued a study on investment opportunities with Azerbaijan, Wam said.

A few days after Sheikh Mohammed's visit, Aliyev took his family on a trip to Saudi Arabia. The Azerbaijani leader is not known for his religious piety, quite the contrary, but he used the opportunity to pose for one photo op after another at Islam's holiest sites. During their visit to the holy city of Mecca, the Aliyev family and the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, performed the Umrah, which was extensively documented by camera. Besides all the posing, Aliyev also found the time to hold talks with Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and other Saudi officials. United in their subservience to Washington and in their love for democracy, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia maintain close ties. According to Aliyev, the two countries "are brothers and friends." And in order to put a check on Iran, Saudi Arabia wants to expand cooperation with its brother and friend in all fields:

Saudi King holds talks with Azerbaijan’s president Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in the royal palace at the capital Riyadh on Sunday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. The president’s visit signals the GCC’s intention of strengthening ties with central Asia states, especially Azerbaijan, according to Mohamad Al Salami, a Riyadh-based researcher on Iranian affairs. “By strengthening economic, cultural, and political ties with central Asian states, which border Iran, GCC states would force Iran to reassess its political stance on issues in the area,” Al Salami told Al Arabiya News Channel.

Considering that Azerbaijan is already touting itself as an economic bridgehead for Arab states, it is safe to say that Baku is not averse to supporting the GCC plans. A big plus of working with the Gulf states is that they won't criticize democratic deficits or the worsening human rights situation in Azerbaijan, in contrast to Baku's Western partners. Human Rights Watch and several other NGOs just called on the European Olympic Committees to speak out against Azerbaijan's crackdown on activists and journalists and urge Baku to release political prisoners ahead of the first European Games in Azerbaijan. It remains to be seen if the Azerbaijani authorities will be swayed by this criticism. Aliyev & Co. know that they can get away with almost anything as long as they don't question Azerbaijan's close energy and military cooperation with the West:

Azerbaijan, US to agree on military co-op Azerbaijan and the United States will agree on the issues of bilateral cooperation in the defense sector, the message of the defense ministry of Azerbaijan said Apr.8.

During the conference, the participants discussed the work carried out in the defense sector between the two countries, the prospects for bilateral cooperation, as well as the project of the “Work plan on military cooperation for 2016 between the armed forces of Azerbaijan and the US European Command.”

Turkey Alarmed As Kardashians Draw Attention to Armenian Genocide

In the end, human rights are only of secondary importance. Washington would never threaten to end its military cooperation with Azerbaijan in response to Baku's relentless crackdown on critics. The country in the South Caucasus is too important as proxy for the U.S. and NATO. Vital NATO member Turkey plays a decisive role in this regard because it is Azerbaijan's closest ally. The two countries maintain very close military ties and regularly conduct joint military exercises. Moreover, they also share a common enemy: neighboring Armenia. As previously mentioned, when relations between Washington and Baku soured, Aliyev turned to his buddy Erdogan for support and he used every opportunity to emphasize the common struggle of both countries against "the invader Armenia, that is laying down groundless claims against Turkey and Azerbaijan." Against this backdrop, it comes as no real surprise that there are some claims about Turkish military involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict:

Azerbaijan denies presence of Turkish soldiers on contact line with Armenia

Azerbaijan has denied reports from the Armenian side that the country has Turkish soldiers fighting on its side on the contact line between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops.

The battles along the line of contact between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops involve only Azerbaijani servicemen, who are fit with the most modern weaponry and equipment, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry told Trend Apr. 7.

The ministry was commenting on a recent report spread by Armenian media about an alleged involvement of the Turkish servicemen in the battles along the line of contact as part of the armed forces of Azerbaijan.

Irrespective of these claims, Armenia is currently out of sorts with Turkey. Tensions between Yerevan and Ankara have been rising in recent weeks as the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide approaches. The Turkish government spares no effort to discourage people from using the word "genocide" to refer to the mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. When Pope Francis called it "the first genocide of the 20th century" and urged the international community to recognize it as such, Ankara lost no time in recalling its Vatican envoy. But to make matters worse for Turkey, Pope Francis hasn't been the only immensely popular figure to draw attention to the Armenian Genocide. American reality TV star Kim Kardashian visited Armenia for a couple of days with her family, rapper husband Kanye West and camera team to explore the Kardashians' ancestral homeland and shoot new episodes for the TV series, making the PR disaster for Turkey perfect:

Kardashian sisters will continue fighting for Armenian Genocide recognition The Prime Minister of Armenia, Hovik Abrahamyan, on Thursday received members of the famous American Armenian Kardashian family (photo). The PM underscored the Kardashian’s contribution to the international recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide, and their visit to Armenia ahead of the Genocide Centennial. Abrahamyan stressed the fact that the Kardashian family, just like the other Armenians worldwide, do not forget their roots, and they make Armenia more recognizable by visiting their historical homeland.

Thanks to Pope Francis' comments and the Kardashians' efforts, the Armenian Genocide received more media attention than Turkey would like. While the Armenian press is celebrating the unprecedented interest in Armenia, Turkish media is very concerned that the Kardashians' visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial "can be propaganda of genocide recognition on American TV channels." So Turkish officials will probably watch the next episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians very closely. As Turkey is trying to make the best of a bad job, Azerbaijan is probably relieved that the Kardashians didn't show more interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But perhaps that is planned for the next season. Meanwhile, Armenia is preparing the official commemoration ceremony on April 24 and that includes removing some misguided individuals who want to exploit the anniversary for political purposes:

Armenian Opposition Group Leaders Sent To Pretrial Detention Five leaders of an Armenian opposition group have been sent to pretrial detention. A spokeswoman for Armenia's Investigative Committee, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL on April 10 that the five leaders of the Constituent Parliament group had been sent to pretrial detention for two months. The Constituent Parliament had announced plans to organize antigovernment protests during events on April 24, marking the 100th anniversary of what Armenia considers genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks.

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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: April 7, 2015

Russia Promises More Military Aid to Silence Tajik Complaints, Putin Concerned About Future Unrest in Russia & 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 ISIS threat in Afghanistan has been hyped by everyone and his brother ever since the first ISIS flag was seen in the war-torn country. It didn't take long before some insurgents left the Taliban to join the new hip terrorist group. As the rivalry between the two groups escalated, wannabe Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even went as far as calling Taliban leader Mullah Omar "a fool and illiterate warlord." Predictably, Mullah Omar didn't respond to the insult. The Taliban leader has not been seen or heard from in years, fueling speculation that he is already dead. This is now becoming a major problem for the Taliban because al-Baghdadi has declared himself "Caliph" of the world's Muslims, finding a sympathetic ear with more and more jihadists. In an effort to counter the growing influence of ISIS in Afghanistan and to remind the world that Mullah Omar is still relevant, the Taliban just published a 5,000-word biography of the reclusive Taliban leader but it is highly doubtful whether that will be enough to stop more insurgents from pledging allegiance to ISIS:

Uzbek Group In Afghanistan Pledge Allegiance To Islamic State

A group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan, claiming to be from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), says it is pledging allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group. A person calling himself Sadulla Urgenji said the IMU no longer views Taliban leader Mullah Omar as leader since he has not been seen for some 13 years and, "according to Shari'a," can no longer be leader. Urgenji said his group was recognizing the authority of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State group.

Russia Promises More Military Aid to Silence Tajik Complaints

The statement was made in a recently released video that purportedly shows IMU members beheading an Afghan soldier. Urgenji announced that the IMU has captured 30 Afghan soldiers in retaliation for the arrest of several female IMU members in Faryab Province and he warned that more soldiers will be beheaded unless the Afghan authorities agree to swap prisoners. Faryab Province has seen substantial militant activites in the past year, much to the dismay of neighboring Turkmenistan. Considering that the IMU has operated alongside the Taliban in the region up until now, it will be interesting to see how the pledge of allegiance to ISIS affects the relationship between the IMU and the Taliban. While the situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border continues to make headlines, another Central Asian country is also extremely worried about its Afghan border and alarmed at the ISIS threat, whether real or perceived:

Tajikistan alarmed by IS activity at its border with Afghanistan Tajikistan is alarmed by the activity of Islamic State’s armed groups close to its border with Afghanistan, a spokesman for the republic’s State Committee for National Security told TASS on Wednesday in comments on the border situation.

"Over the recent time, we have been witnessing movements of armed groups in the [northern] Afghan provinces of Tahar and Kunduz about 60-80 kilometers from the zone of responsibility of our Pyandzh border guard detachment," the officer said. He said the aim of this activity was not yet clear, but such concentration of armed groups was alarming, as routes of terrorist groups went through areas not controlled by the Afghan government forces.

Not everyone shares this assessment. Afghan border police chief Mohammad Shafiq Fazli dismissed concerns about the security situation on the border as "baseless" after Nikolay Bordyuzha, head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), commented on the issue saying that CSTO forces could be at the border in three days and repel any threat emanating from Afghanistan. Moreover, Tajik independent terrorism expert and security service veteran Davlatkhoja Nazirov told Asia-Plus in an interview last month that world powers such as the United States and Russia are hyping the threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups to the make the country more pliant on regional policy issues. There is certainly some truth in this but Tajik officials have done their part as well and concerns about militant activities in northern Afghanistan are not completely unfounded. The issue was high on the agenda during the recent CSTO meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe and Tajik officials used the opportunity to complain about the failure of some members to come up with the promised military aid:

Tajikistan says CSTO decision on strengthening border security with Afghanistan not working Tajikistan is not satisfied with the implementation of the decision of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on assistance in strengthening the security at the border with Afghanistan, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Sirodzhdin Aslov following the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CSTO countries in Dushanbe on Thursday. “We analyzed the progress of the Council's decisions on the provision of assistance to Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border. The decision has not been implemented fully so far, therefore, the partners were urged to undertake the practical measures to implement this decision,” said Aslov.

In September 2013, the CSTO agreed to support Tajikistan in strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border but only Belarus and Armenia have fulfilled their obligations so far and Tajikistan is still waiting for some of the promised military aid. Tajik officials have complained a few times about the slow pace of Russian military aid in recent months and the latest complaint was probably also directed at Moscow. Interestingly, shortly after the Tajiks vented their anger at the CSTO meeting in Dushanbe, Russian business daily Kommersant quoted unnamed sources in the Russian General Staff as saying that Russia is prepared to supply about $1.2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to Tajikistan within the next few years to fight ISIS. According to the sources, most of the aid will be second hand hardware, some of which will apparently come from Russia's military base in Tajikistan [emphasis mine]:

Russia to increase the number of its troops in Tajikistan The number of troops deployed at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan will be increased 1.5-fold during the next five years — from today’s 5,900 up to 9,000, Major-General Yevgeny Tubol, the 201st base commander, told journalists on April 3, the Ozodi radio (the Tajik service of Radio Liberty) reported. The general also said that the base is currently receiving new types of military equipment. 

In his words, the military equipment currently used at the base will be modernized and passed over to the Tajik army.

Putin Concerned About Future Unrest in Russia

In order to increase the number of troops at the military base in Tajikistan, Russia won't even have to send Russian soldiers to the country. The Russian military can recruit unemployed Tajiks instead. At the beginning of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that allows foreigners not only to serve in the Russian military but also to fight for Russia. And a few weeks later, Tajikistan's parliament paved the way for its citizens to do so. If the ISIS fear-mongering is to be believed, this will happen sooner rather than later. Russia appears to be preparing for more unrest in Central Asia, which indicates that Russian officials either believe their own fear-mongering or don't believe that Washington's new Central Asia policy is really about "countering violent extremism." Syrians can tell you a thing or two about it. That seems to have been on Putin's mind as well when he addressed Russia's top security officials during a board meeting at the end of last month:

Russians trained by ISIL may be used against home country People with origins in Russia are being trained by a number of international terrorist organizations and may be used against their home country at some point, President Vladimir Putin said. "People with origins in Russia and some other CIS countries are being trained in the so-called conflict hotbeds, for instance, by ISIL in Syria and a number of other countries and may be eventually used against us, Russia, and our neighbors," Putin said at a meeting of the Federal Security Service Board. So, it is important to take additional measures towards severing international contacts and resources of terrorists, "blocking their arrival in and departure from Russia, and stopping their movement around regions, including new constituent territories of the Federation, Crimea and Sevastopol," the president said.

When ISIS terrorists release one of their ludicrous videos threatening to shoot the next video in Dushanbe or in the Kremlin, hardly anybody is shaking with fear but the Russian authorities have every reason to be worried about the number of jihadists from CIS countries in Syria. According to Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Sergey Melikov, more than 1,500 terrorists from the North Caucasus are fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Melikov also claimed that at least five veterans of the Syrian war were killed during counterterrorism operations in Russia in 2014. Regardless of whether or not that number is correct, it is safe to say that only few terrorists have returned so far. Thanks to the jihadists' focus on Syria, the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively calm and due to the Ukrainian crisis, many Russians are now much more optimistic about the situation in the North Caucasus with Kadyrov being one of the biggest winners of this change of opinion:

Russians have more trust in Kadyrov The number of Russia's residents, who express trust in the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, has increased by 22% as compared with 2006, said the "Levada-Centre". More and more people treat the situation in Chechnya as peaceful and calm; and 33% of respondents believe that this is a result of Kadyrov's activities. In April 2007, there were 18% of such respondents; and in November 2011 – only 13%. Only 3% of respondents are sure that Chechnya will separate from Russia, while in 2007 the figure was 11%.

As previously discussed, Kadyrov needs every support he can get because his enemies in Moscow are currently trying to take him down a peg or two. Hardly a day goes by without new reports about the Nemtsov killing and the ongoing investigation. The Russian authorities are reportedly looking for Ruslan Geremeev, who is too close to Kadyrov's No. 2 Adam Delimkhanov to play the fall guy, and the main suspect Zaur Dadayev reiterated that he was forced into a confession as more and more questions emerge. Meanwhile, Kadyrov picked up another award and started to focus on the annual Warrior Competition in Jordan, where his special forces will represent Russia and do their best to beat the Americans. Up until now, there is no indication that Putin could drop his most loyal regional leader. The Russian President knows full well how important it is to maintain interethnic and interfaith harmony in Russia. That is why he just created a new government agency to this end:

Experts: Putin's New Ethnic Affairs Agency Aims to Thwart Political Threats President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to launch a government agency charged with maintaining interethnic and interfaith harmony in Russia is a bid to prevent foreign powers and internal opposition factions from seeking to exploit a weak spot in Russia's power structure, analysts told The Moscow Times. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a series of state bodies ostensibly designed to deal with ethnic issues. But since 2001, when the Ministry of Federal Affairs, National and Migration Policy was disbanded, the country has lacked a government organ dedicated exclusively to maintaining harmony between Russia's many ethnic groups.

Alasania at Loggerheads With Georgia's "Pro-Russian" Government

It is not hard to guess which "foreign powers" Putin had in mind when he made this decision. Inciting interethnic hatred has long been Washington's preferred strategy, not only in Russia. Therefore, it comes as no real surprise that the newly established Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs will be headed by a former FSB commander who served in Chechnya and saw at first hand how dangerous these destabilization efforts are. As often discussed, the U.S. can count on several allies when it comes to destabilizing the North Caucasus. Russia's two neighbors in the Caucasus and vital NATO member Turkey are probably the first ones which come to mind. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are united in their hostile policy vis-à-vis Russia but that is not all. The three countries form a strategic triangle and maintain very close political, economic and military ties, as can be seen from projects such as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) or the frequent trilateral meetings:

Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan vow to boost cooperation Defense Ministers from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia have repeated their desire to boost cooperation in a bid to enhance peace, welfare and stability in the region. The ministers' remarks came during a press conference following their meeting at the Tblisi Marriot Hotel in the Georgian capital of Tblisi.

Georgia's Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze said the cooperation of the three countries would continue with high-level activities, adding: "This (military) cooperation only aims to provide peace in the region."

Russia and Armenia surely beg to differ with Janelidze's claim that closer defense cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan "only aims to provide peace in the region." Although the new Georgian Defense Minister picked up where his popular predecessor Irakli Alasania left off, Alasania's firing is still a hot topic in Georgia. The former Defense Minister recently claimed that he was fired because he wanted to sign an agreement to acquire air defense systems from France, which was met with fierce opposition from former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is still pulling the strings behind the scenes, and current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. As usual, Alasania implied that Ivanishvili and Garibashvili were trying to appease Moscow but his claims were denied by Garibashvili, Janelidze and France's ambassador to Tbilisi who stressed that the Georgian government doesn't oppose the arms deal:

Accusations Fly in Georgia’s Potential French Arms Deal Georgian Defense Minister, Mindia Janelidze, has strongly denied his predecessor Irakli Alasania’s allegations and said that talks on purchasing air defense system from France are continuing. Usually media shy Defense Minister Janelidze had to appear twice on TV late on Friday evening giving interviews separately to public broadcaster and Maestro TV, claiming that contrary to allegations voiced by Alasania, leader of the opposition Free Democrats party, negotiations on arms deal with France is well on track and will have “its logical conclusion.” He, however, also said that “rumors” and political “speculation” has harmed this process “to some extent.” French ambassador in Tbilisi, Renaud Salins, said on April 3 that “discussions” continue on this matter.

It is not the first time that the "pro-Russian" government in Tbilisi has come under pressure for "appeasing" Moscow and it won't be the last time that the likes of Alasania and Saakashvili make these kind of allegations but Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration is irreversible, as Georgian officials often emphasize. That was also one key take-away from Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's state of the nation address, which was again snubbed by Garibashvili and several government members. Other key points of Margvelashvili's speech were that the feud between him and Garibashvili harms the country, that Georgia's NATO integration "is not directed against anyone" and that Russia is evil. It is hardly surprising that the U.S. and the EU see no reason to complain about Tbilisi. Alasania, Saakashvili & Co. advocate a more aggressive policy than their masters in Washington and Brussels. Perhaps Alasania should think about moving to Kiev where he can act out his wildest fantasies alongside Saakashvili:

Ukraine Rejects Georgia’s Request for Extradition of Saakashvili Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine said on April 1 it declined Tbilisi’s request for extradition of Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who now serves as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s adviser. Saakashvili is wanted by the Georgian authorities on multiple criminal charges, which he denies as politically motivated. Court in Tbilisi ordered Saakashvili’s pre-trial detention in absentia in August, 2014. “As a result of review of [Georgia’s extradition request] Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine has concluded there is a significant risk that extradition request for Saakashvili was made by the competent Georgian agency with the purpose of his prosecution for political motives,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement on April 1, adding that extradition of Saakashvili would be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights.

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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