Friday, 27 May 2011

The PKK's election campaign of violence

Yesterday's bomb attack in Istanbul, which wounded seven people, has so far gone unclaimed. But the government has pointed the finger at the PKK, and in the absence of more concrete evidence, it seems likely that the Kurdish militants were indeed responsible. The group has promised attacks in the run-up to the general election, according to officials, and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan threatened "a great war" if the government did not open serious negotiations by June 15, three days after the election.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Turkmen gas field confirmed as world's second-largest

It's official. Turkmenistan's enormous South Yolotan gas field, which caused a flurry of excitement (and not a little scepticism) back in 2009, has been confirmed as the world's second-largest. The UK firm Gaffney Cline, which provided the initial heady estimate of between 4 and 14 trillion cubic metres (tcm), has announced that the field is actually estimated to contain up to 20 tcm. This would make it second-largest in the world, behind the South Pars/North field, shared by Iran and Qatar.

The announcement isn't exactly a game-changer, as it's been known for some time that South Yolotan was a very significant find. But it does confirm that not all of the extravagant figures thrown out by officials in Ashgabat are exaggerations. Turkmenistan is unequivocally at the top table of natural gas states now. Markets and policymakers will have to continue upping their game in dealing with the regime of President Berdymukhammedov - as challenging as that may be.

The announcement by Gaffney Cline coincided with the opening of the country's Second International Gas Congress and Exhibition, at which President Berdymukhammedov announced (with characteristic restraint) “In the epoch of new Revival and great reforms Turkmenistan takes specific steps to diversify pipeline infrastructure to ensure reliable, stable and long-term transit of energy to world markets".

Gas exports to Europe were specifically mentioned, although Nabucco was not (unsurprisingly, given the myriad problems it currently faces). Ashgabat has made plain recently that it does want to sell to Europe one way or another, as well as upholding its burgeoning commitments to China, South Asia, and Iran.

The confirmation of South Yolotan's size means that Turkmenistan can actually begin delivering on all these promises. Which will provide a handy source of income to maintain the government's architectural ambitions.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Is Armenia playing it both ways with the CSTO and NATO?

Joshua Kucera over at Eurasianet has flagged up some interesting statements by Armenian officials, affirming that the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) would intervene on Yerevan's side in a new war with Azerbaijan. The Armenian Defence Minister has said that the Moscow-led regional security bloc would provide "an appropriate response" to any "potential aggression", i.e. from Baku over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But as Josh notes, Nagorno-Karabakh is not legally part of Armenian soil and therefore not bound by CSTO provisions on mutual defence, so an Azerbaijani attack to retake Karabakh would not legally trigger CSTO intervention. And some Armenian analysts have viewed the cautious attitude of CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha, and his call to avoid hasty statements and provocations, as the bloc "washing its hands" of Karabakh.

This may be a storm in a teacup. The Defence Minister's statements were made at a conference in Yerevan on May 20 entitled the “CSTO and South Caucasus: Regional Peace and Security Perspectives”, organised by the Defence Ministry and the CSTO itself, so it is hardly surprising that he emphasised the positive cooperation that Armenia has with the bloc.

In this light, it's interesting to consider the news from a couple of weeks ago that Armenia is to triple its troop contingent in Afghanistan, from 45 to 130, in support of the NATO mission there (Armenian soldiers are currently guarding an airport in Kunduz). There is even talk of doubling this increased contribution, up to 260 personnel.

This isn't on the level of eager NATO aspirant Georgia, with around 1000 troops in volatile Helmand. But for a country with so stated NATO ambitions, and with such a reliance on the CSTO, mooted as an alternative or even a rival to the Atlantic Alliance, it does show remarkable flexibility. Looks like Azerbaijan isn't the only state in the neighbourhood who can have a 'multi-vector foreign policy'.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Turkish elections: Nationalist officials defect and join Kurdish party

From yesterday's Hurriyet, it seems that the nationalist MHP party's current woes are leading its members to find sanctuary in unlikely places:

"The MHP’s local leader in the Başkale district of the eastern province of Van, Ömer Bozkurt, and all 16 members of the local executive board submitted their resignations to the District Election Board on Monday. The group later visited the election office of Kemal Aktaş, an independent candidate supported by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP."

Hurriyet points out that the surname of the defector to the pro-Kurdish group means Grey Wolf, which is a neat irony.

A changing of the electoral landscape in the south-east, or a sign of the MHP's disintegration?

Monday, 23 May 2011

Book Review: Houman Sadri - Global Security Watch: The Caucasus States

My review of Professor Houman Sadri's Global Security Watch - The Caucasus States has just been very kindly published by Professor Fevzi Bilgin, editor of the excellent Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs.

Republished below, original at the Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs.

The Bahçeli Tapes and Turkey's Electoral Maths

First it was the Republican Peoples Party (CHP). Now it's the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which is falling prey to a sex-tape scandal which is rocking Turkish politics, just weeks before national elections.

The MHP tapes, which were leaked anonymously online, show high-ranking officials from the right-wing party in a variety of compromising situations with young women. To date, ten senior MHP members have resigned over the scandal.

It echoes a similar scandal last year, when a videotape was released showing the septuagenarian CHP leader Deniz Baykal apparently having an affair with a CHP deputy. Baykal subsequently resigned and his successor, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has weighed into the latest scandal, joining the MHP's leader Devlet Bahçeli in blaming the ruling AKP for leaking the tapes.

The government has angrily denied the claims, and leading AKP figures have joined the chorus of criticism surrounding the tapes' publication, arguing that underhand surveillance had no place in politics. But the willingness of Prime Minister Erdogan to turn the accusation around, suggesting that Kılıçdaroğlu himself was responsible for the Baykal tape and that the CHP and MHP had formed a 'gang alliance', suggests that the AKP is using the tapes for political advantage, regardless of who released it.

In any case, the MHP is haemorraghing officials and support and is likely to fall below the 10% vote threshold for entry into Parliament. In this case the electoral maths becomes complex and critical. MHP voters would have their second choices distributed amongst the other parties, which may allow the AKP to reach the hallowed 367-seat supermajority. This would remove the need for a referendum to rewrite the constitution, imposed after the military coup of 1980 - a vital task, it is widely agreed, but one that rings alarm bells among those who detect a creeping authoritarianism in Erdogan's aggressive populism.

So the fate of the constitution, and by extension Turkish democracy itself, can (without too much exaggeration) said to rest on the second choice votes of nationalist MHP voters. Which way will they lean? Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar argues that some MHP voters are more likely to turn to the AKP, but that others, particularly in Western Anatolia, may support the CHP. In 2007, both provinces in which the MHP came out top saw the AKP placed in second place.

This scenario would be ideal for the government, but the 'revamped' CHP under Kılıçdaroğlu may be a more appealing option for MHP voters, even though to date Kılıçdaroğlu has yet to offer a coherent platform beyond more democracy/peace/prosperity.

Given the rapidly shifting political landscape, it would be rash to make any predictions. It's not impossible that Bahçeli may actually resign as MHP leader, as demanded by the leakers of the tapes, which would almost certainly cause the party to implode. In any case, the chances are that the MHP will not make it into Parliament, leaving this as a two-horse race between Erdogan and Kılıçdaroğlu, and who can offer more concessions to the MHP's nationalist, right-wing core voters. Expect some strident nationalism on offer from both the AKP and the CHP in the weeks ahead.

Nabucco agreement to be signed, again

Call it déjà vu or excessive optimism. The Turkish government has announced that on June 6, stakeholders in the Nabucco project to bring Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to Europe via Turkey will sign a new agreement - one of many, many declarations of good intentions made over the past few years.

This is despite the fact that the pipeline is widely considered to be moribund. In early May even the Nabucco company bowed to the inevitable and declared that the project's timeline was being revised - delayed, in other words, due to a total lack of guaranteed supply commitments.

There appears to be no sign that this lack of suppliers is changing anytime soon. In announcing the June 6 meeting, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said that the consortium will try and secure Azeri gas for the pipeline, but that if Baku turns down the request, it will look to Turkmenistan, Iraq and Iran. As Caspian-watchers will be aware, all of these present their own obstacles, whether political or commercial. The fact that Azerbaijan's commitment is still up in the air, despite so many promises of participation by Baku, really underlines how tenuous the whole project remains.

Exactly what the June 6 agreement will contain is not yet clear. It's likely to be an attempt to reaffirm the consortium members' commitment to Nabucco, reassuring potential investors and European governments. Nabucco chief executive Reinhard Mitschek has been similarly bullish, denying speculation that the partners were planning to downgrade the project. He attributed the setback to delays over purchasing agreements for the Shah Deniz II field in Azerbaijan. 

Maybe so. But negotiations over Shah Deniz II have dragged on exactly because Baku is unwilling to put all its eggs in the Nabucco basket whilst nobody else commits gas and the EU scrabbles around for financing. Baku's hedging is understandable when Russia and Iran are interested in buying Shah Deniz gas, and have a track record of actually putting their money where their mouths are.

Moving the Georgian parliament - divide and rule?

Georgia appears to be going through one of its periodic cycles of street protests. Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets broke up anti-government protests in Tbilisi and Batumi over the weekend. The fact that only a few thousand took part, and that several anti-government groups boycotted the demonstrations, suggests that the country's opposition forces are still incapable of mounting a serious challenge to President Saakashvili.

Still, the opposition are building up an upcoming Egyptian-style 'Day of Rage' as a big deal: former defence minister and leader of the (admittedly minor) Georgian Party, Irakli Okruashvili, has declared that this Wednesday, May 25, will “hit a final blow to the Saakashvili regime” and has called on the army to side with the people. The lack of a unifying opposition candidate and a sense of 'protest fatigue' in Georgia means that despite the bombast, chances are that the 'Day of Rage' will not be as significant as its organisers are claiming.

But given Georgia's history of street politics, and the tradition of protestors surrounding and storming key buildings, a recent push by the government to relocate the Parliament from Tbilisi is raising eyebrows. The plan was originally agreed in September 2009, and involved splitting the legislature's work between Tbilisi and Kutaisi, around 220km west of Tbilisi. But last week President Saakashvili suggested that the parliament would move all its operations there after the 2012 elections.

The government insists that the move is designed to boost regional development and reduce the country's overreliance on Tbilisi. But as points out, after 2012 Georgia's new constitution will come into force, under which the country will become a parliamentary republic. So relocating the parliament would mean relocating the whole of the government, leaving the newly ceremonial President to rattle around in Tbilisi on his own.

In light of the political climate, one wonders if shifting the Parliament isn't a case of divide and rule. Saakashvili seemed to hint as much when he said that all of Georgia's problems cannot be settled on Rustaveli Avenue. Moving the seat of government to Kutaisi, whilst the country's cultural heart remains in Tbilisi, would reduce the ability of protestors to focus their struggle on one key location. Repeating the Rose Revolution by storming the parliament in Kutaisi would not have quite the symbolic impact of doing so in Tbilisi.