Friday, 30 March 2012

Bankers and Bombers in Kazakhstan

The Kazakh authorities claim to have foiled a major terror plot linked to fugitive banker and persona non grata Mukhtar Ablyazov. According to the Prosecutor General, Ablyazov provided $25,000 to Alexander Pavlov, who has been on the run since 2009 and who has served as Ablyazov’s personal bodyguard since 2005.

The money was allegedly used to buy bombs which would be set off in a number of locations in downtown Almaty on March 24, including parks and office buildings. The government says that the attacks were intended to “frighten the population, create an atmosphere of chaos and panic and destabilise the social and political situation in the country.”

Ablyazov was once Energy and Industry Minister before he fell from grace and set up an opposition party. Although he managed to regain favour, things changed when BTA began to collapse in 2008. He fled to the UK soon afterwards, claiming persecution. He is currently wanted for $4.5 billion in embezzlement and fraud.

He was able to stonewall the torturous court proceedings, although he lamented that being stuck between his luxurious office and his nine-bedroom mansion was “not dissimilar to a prison”. But when a UK High Court judge sentenced him to 22 months in February for contempt of court, he promptly vanished, allegedly on a bus to France. He has filed an appeal in absentia, which BTA is seeking to remove.

With the latest twist, the government is looking to paint Ablyazov as not just a crook but a dangerous terrorist with links to “representatives of radical religious groups”. This is not new – Ablyazov was, to begin with, also accused of masterminding the deadly unrest in Zhanoezen last December in connection with Rakhat Aliev, another of the exiled oligarchs. Both accusations seem paranoid or farcical by turns.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Murky Story of Israel’s ‘Azerbaijan Airfields’

The Iran-Azerbaijan-Israel triangle is one of the foreign affairs subjects du jour, and most of it is fairly basic rehashing of the same points, but Mark Perry at Foreign Policy has come up with something eye-opening:

"The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."

According to US officials Perry spoke to, Israel has a quiet and informal agreement to base its aircraft at disused Azerbaijani airfields in the case of an attack on Iran. Although they would take off from Israel, the challenges posed by fuelling such a long mission means that having a handy nearby airbase to return to – such as Azerbaijan – would make things a lot easier.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Natural Gas Europe -‘Nabucco West’ Heralds the End of the Southern Corridor Vision

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe. Original available here.

Nabucco is dead – long live Nabucco. That seems to be the message of the revised concept for the huge, flawed Caspian pipeline. Although some changes were necessary given the challenges facing the project, the implications for the EU’s Southern Corridor strategy, and its broader policy goals in the region, are serious.
Nabucco has been declared all but dead for several months due to lack of confirmed suppliers, lack of financing, shifting trends in global gas markets, and competition from more nimble rival pipelines. It remains on the table as an export option for Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz Phase Two gasfield, but was widely considered to be the least likely choice.
In particular the unexpected decision by Turkey and Azerbaijan to build a Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, thus replacing much of Nabucco’s planned route with a smaller capacity, essentially turned the project into a south-eastern European pipeline (or southern Europe if the pipeline runs to Italy).

Monday, 26 March 2012

Evaluating Turkey’s ‘new’ Kurdish strategy

After clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces left at least 13 dead, and amid growing concerns over the role of the Kurdish militants in Syria, the Turkish government’s new strategy towards the Kurds has been leaked to newspapers - but it is already coming under fire for being vague and uninspired.

The renewed fighting in Şırnak and Siirt comes on the heels of Nowruz celebrations which were marred by clashes between Kurds and police in towns across the south-east. Police also found a number of explosive caches across the country in PKK-targeted operations. It seems that the winter lull in fighting is over.

The Kurds are also emerging (or rather, re-emerging) as a crucible of tension between Ankara and Damascus. As Turkey has grown increasingly hostile to the Assad regime, there has been speculation that Damascus will rebuild its relationship with PKK cadres in Syria as a proxy against Turkey. This is despite high-level warnings from Turkey.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Natural Gas Europe - Kiev and Ashgabat Try to Rekindle Long-Distance Relationship

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe - original available here:
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov visited Ukraine in early March, in an apparent effort to rekindle their neglected long-distance relationship. Their shared interest in reducing Russian control over their gas exports and imports has given them common ground, but the hard realities of geography mean that rebuilding the relationship will be a very difficult task.
Berdimuhammedov’s trip to Kiev produced little of substance. Local media mainly reported that the Turkmen leader and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych signed a raft of standard agreements on culture, science, humanitarian affairs, and interstate economic cooperation - no further details were provided and no concrete deals were signed.
There was also no breakthrough on the main purpose of the trip, as reported by Ukrainian officials - the resumption of direct gas supplies between Ashgabat and Kiev. Energy Minister Yuriy Boiko insisted that a dialogue was continuing but the absence of a deal, whilst expected, shows how far there is to go. The restoration of direct gas supplies was also the subject of Yanukovych’s visit to Ashgabat in September, which also produced no deals.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

'Civil war' talk causes a stir in Georgia

Nobody expected the campaigning for Georgia's upcoming parliamentary election to be polite or restrained, but the last few days suggest that the mud-slinging between President Saakashvili and the opposition is beginning in earnest.

On 15 March the three leaders of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition spoke at a meeting with foreign diplomats in Tbilisi. Irakli Alasania, head of the Free Democrats and widely considered to be one of the country's more pragmatic and level-headed political operators, (certainly more so than his political ally Bidzina Ivanishvili) launched a stinging attack on Saakashvili, his former boss. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Azerbaijan and the Iran Crisis: Stuck in the Middle

An article I wrote for CESRAN's Political Reflections magazine is now online here. The article discusses the current tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, looking at some underlying trends and factors. 

The main takeaway is, essentially - this crisis isn't easy for Baku. As with Turkey, the much-cherished dream of a multi-vector foreign policy (or zero problems with neighbours, or strategic balance, or whatever you want to call it) is fine in theory but comes under great strain when local geopolitics doesn't go your way. Maintaining that balance requires astute statecraft, compromise, and more often than not a good deal of diplomatic insincerity.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Natural Gas Europe - Analyzing Turkmenistan’s Gas Exports After the Election

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe - original available here:

Last month Turkmenistan’s autocratic President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov won a near-unanimous ‘victory’ of 97%. His opponents were state-approved factory managers and local officials – there was never any doubt about the result.
The lack of popular pressure for reforms or new policies means that few changes are expected on the policy front. However the start of a new term (what state media are dubbing an “era of great happiness”) has provided an opportunity to reshuffle the energy sector and reconfirm the country’s commitment to different energy export routes. The question of gas supply to Europe will be one of the dominant issues facing the Turkmen leader in his second term, and he is already showing new signs of commitment to that goal.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Empty Words On Nagorno-Karabakh

I have complained before about the vagueness of the OSCE Minsk Group, its emphasis on form over substance, but the mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process – Russia, France and the US - seem to have outdone themselves this time in empty diplomatese:

“The Co-Chairs presented a plan for the sides to put into action the joint statement made by Presidents Medvedev, Aliyev, and Sargsian on January 23 in Sochi.  Building on the two Presidents' joint commitment to accelerate reaching agreement on the Basic Principles, the Co-Chairs proposed steps to assist the sides in furthering work on the framework for a comprehensive peace settlement.”

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Riots break out in northern Azerbaijan

Clashes between security forces and protesters have been reported in the northern Azerbaijani town of Quba. RFE/RL says that the fighting broke out when videos surfaced of local governor Rauf Habibov calling local residents "traitors" because they sold land to Azeris from other parts of the country. His comments were a response to whistleblowing allegations of graft against the governor.

Habibov met with protesters but refused to step down, and large crowds gathered and began clashing with security forces who responded with tear gas and water cannon. At least four people have been injured and the governor's house apparently burnt. RIA Novosti has the number of demonstrators at 10,000 although this seems inflated - footage and other reports suggest a few hundred, which seems more likely given that the population of the town is estimated at just 38,000 (stats available here).

Speculating on the Istanbul bombing

Istanbul was hit by an explosion this morning in which sixteen people, almost all of them police officers on a passing bus, were wounded (none of them seriously. Reports suggest that a remote-controlled bomb went off as the bus passed. The attack took place in Sütlüce, near the district office of the ruling AKP and the headquarters of one of Turkey’s largest business associations.

It’s still very early, but nobody has yet claimed responsibility. This being Turkey, there are a wide variety of potential suspects ranging from the feasible to the conspiratorial which it is worth running through.