Friday, 15 June 2012

Natural Gas Europe - The BTE Pipeline Blast: The Implications of Sabotage

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

At the end of May, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline carrying gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey blew up in the Turkish section. Full supplies were suspended until 11 June, whilst repair work was carried out on the line. The extent of the damage and the reluctance of Turkish officials to confirm the cause have led to widespread speculation that Kurdish militants were responsible.

If this is the case it underlines the ongoing security threats to gas supplies to Turkey, and highlights the risks which new pipelines to bring Caspian gas to Europe may face. Although Ankara has emphasised the importance of securing critical energy infrastructure, pipelines remain extremely vulnerable. Whilst the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) remains active, providing perfect security will remain impossible.

Information about the BTE blast, which took place on 29 May in or near the city of Kars, remains extremely scarce.  The route of the BTE pipeline runs through Turkey’s northeast and eastern regions, a little outside the PKK’s normal operating area of southeastern Turkey but certainly not out of their reach. A 2008 attack on the BTC oil pipeline took place in Refahiye, which is significantly west of Kars and also out of the PKK’s usual operating area.

Saturday, 9 June 2012


I will be in Astana for the next week attending a conference. Any readers based out here that fancy meeting up, do let me know on

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Fragile Détente on Turkey’s Kurdish Issue

Turkish politics recently has been like a rolling avalanche. Issues and controversies get picked up and never dropped; instead, they get tangled up together until every part of political life is made up of myriad, interlocking dramas.

For instance, the historic negotiations between the AKP government and the main opposition CHP over the Kurdish question cannot be disentangled from: the bad blood between the two parties, PM Erdoğan’s alleged authoritarian streak and his war of words with the pro-Kurdish BDP, the new constitution, the clampdown on the KCK, foreign policy, the aftermath of the Uludere airstrike, the role of the military in politics and the internecine battles between the military, government, and intelligence services.

With all that in mind, there are grounds for a bit of scepticism over the negotiations between the main parties to find a kind of grand bargain over the Kurdish issue. For one thing, there is no love lost between the prickly Prime Minister and the CHP’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has largely shed his professorial image after a series of bruising clashes with the government and with party rebels. The body language in this photo is pretty indicative of their frosty relationship.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

SCO Summit Promises Much, Delivers Little

The latest summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has finished in Beijing, with Afghanistan and regional security the main topics under discussion. But as always with the SCO, watching the power relationships within the Eurasian security bloc is as interesting as the summit itself.

The location of the summit rotates each year but holding it in Beijing did give the Chinese an opportunity to shape the agenda and show off a bit. President Hu Jintao hwas pretty active, stressing that the SCO supported a “a new security concept that allows its member states to firmly maintain their interests, explore development paths that are suited to their individual conditions and fight against ‘interventionism.’”

The mention of interventionism is a bit of red meat for the bloc’s authoritarian leaders, who are all increasingly concerned (for their own reasons) about the growing clamour for international action in Syria.

But the other aspects of Hu’s security concept may also be rhetorical support for Central Asian states, which often feel pressured by Russia on the political and economic fronts. This may be reading too much into it but it would tie into the narrative that China and Russia are increasingly competing in Central Asia, with Russia providing cash and weaponry but also demanding political influence, whilst China simply pours money into natural resources, agriculture and commerce.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Fighting Escalates Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

The shaky ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been severely tested this week by some of the worst violence for years. The clashes are alarming in both scale and location, and further fighting is very possible.

On 4 June three Armenian soldiers were killed and six wounded by Azerbaijani forces in a clash allegedly sparked by an attempted infiltration of Armenian-held territory. Azerbaijan, however, has claimed that the incident was a "provocation attempt" by Armenian forces. This was followed by news on 5 June that five Azeri soldiers were killed by what the Defence Ministry in Baku called Armenian "saboteurs".

This is one of the worst clashes in some time. Usually losses are confined to one side, and tend to be as a result of brief artillery duels, bursts of machinegun fire, or snipers. Whatever the truth of the 'incursions', the information available suggests that both sides attempted to seize positions held by the other at different points.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Natural Gas Europe - Black Swans in the Black Sea? Romania’s Gas and the Southern Corridor

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe. Original here.
The discovery of a major gasfield off Romania’s Black Sea coast back in February attracted a fair amount of attention. Preliminary estimates range from 42 to 84 billion cubic metres, according toOMV, which discovered the field along with ExxonMobil – a major find for Romania, and now the subject of talks with Bulgaria since part of the field lies in disputed waters.
Comparatively little attention has focused on the impact which the discovery might have on Europe’s Southern Corridor. If the field is as big as believed, and if the negotiations between Bulgaria and Romania can be settled amicably, then the race to bring Caspian gas to Europe could be changed from an unexpected direction.
In a nutshell, the development of significant gas reserves in the Black Sea – from the Khan Asparuh field and also from any new finds – would reduce the short-term imperative to supply gas from the Caspian to southeastern Europe.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Caspian Round-Up

Blogging has been very light of late. Normal service set to resume shortly. 

Some noteworthy stories which I will be looking at in more detail in the days ahead:

a)     Iran and Azerbaijan have continued to spar after the Eurovision contest. Iran’s navy is reportedly carrying out exercises along the maritime border with Azerbaijan; the Iranians have detained two Azeri poets and Baku has turned back a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader “in accordance with Azerbaijan’s legislation”; Ali Hasanov has slammed Iran’s ‘false clergy’; and Azerbaijan has reportedly signed a new, $300m deal to buy some new Israeli drones.

b)    In related news the Iranians have also been trumpeting their new oil discovery in the Caspian, which lies in the Sardar Jangal field discovered late last year. At the time I argued that the coordinates given would put the field in Turkmen waters but this was wrong – turns out that the field is actually in what would reasonably be considered Azerbaijan’s waters instead. I will be speaking on the subject in Astana in a couple of weeks, for those attending the Caspian Offshore conference. It could be potentially big news if Iran does push forward with drilling.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Georgia, Chechnya, And The Abkhazia 'Plot'

The blame game between Russia and Georgia over shady bombings and sabotage plans has been rumbling on for years now. In Abkhazia, ‘terrorist plotters’ are fingered as Georgian agents by Moscow and Sukhumi, whilst Georgia regularly detains ‘Russian spies’ accused of occasional bombings. Russia also occasionally accuses Tbilisi of supporting Islamist militants in the North Caucasus. Unravelling fact from fiction is never easy in these cases, but the tale has taken a rather surprising new turn.

Russian intelligence claims on 4-5 May to have foiled a plot by North Caucasus militant leader Doku Umarov to attack the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be staged in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi. The proximity of the site to the North Caucasus has been cited before as a cause for concern but there have been few credible hints of a plan to attack the games.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Richard Morningstar in Baku - Reliable or Uninspired?

Seeking to fill a gap in the Baku embassy which has hindered US policy in the region for months, the Obama Administration has nominated Richard Morningstar, longtime Caspian hand and current Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, as ambassador to Azerbaijan. He is likely to fare better in the nomination process than his predecessor Matt Bryza.

Bryza was sent to Baku in February 2011 after the White House gave him a recess appointment, a temporary fix to circumvent congressional opposition from Senators representing constituencies with large Armenian-American populations (Bryza is regularly accused of being too close to Azerbaijan and Turkey, and correspondingly biased against Armenia). His appointment ended in December, and he has since taken up the think-tank and conference circuit.

Charge D’Affaires Adam Sterling has been minding the shop in the absence of an ambassador. This is becoming the usual state of affairs – since Obama took office, the embassy has been run by a lower-ranking diplomat for the better part of two years. The perceived slight has provoked consternation in Azerbaijan, which was used to being assiduously courted by the US under the Bush Administration.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Hungarian Surprise Exposes Crisis of Confidence in Nabucco

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

In a surprise late-game announcement, Hungary has apparently switched its support from Nabucco to Gazprom’s rival South Stream pipeline, leaving the once-mighty pipeline consortium looking weaker than ever. If, as rumoured, Hungary’s MOL is pulling out of the project, it may – as analysts are already predicting - be a ‘terminal blow’.

The news emerged on 23 April at an event hosted by the European Policy Centre in Brussels, at which one of the speakers was Hungary’s controversial, Eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. When asked to comment on a 17 April meeting with Russia’s Gazprom at which two sides discussed giving South Stream “national significance status”, Orbán focused his response on the woes of Nabucco.

“Nabucco is in trouble”, he said, and that although he did not have all the details, “what I have seen is that even the Hungarian company MOL is leaving the whole project”. His comments prompted a flurry of articles saying that MOL was pulling out of the pipeline to bring gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field to Europe. A decision on either a southern or central European route will be made by June – if a central European route is chosen, the contest will be between BP’s South East Europe Pipeline and a shortened version of Nabucco.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Untangling Turkey’s Gas Pricing Knot

Leaked figures on the cost of Turkey’s gas imports, and sharp hikes in domestic electricity and gas prices, have refocused attention on the country’s energy strategy. With economic growth beginning to slow, the high price of imports may become an increasing burden. Analysis of the leaked figures suggest that, despite Turkey’s commercial stand-off with Iran, the real problem lies to the north.
On 1 April the government hiked domestic gas prices by 18.7%, with electricity prices (which are linked, since most power plants are gas-fired) rose 9.3%. The rises were intended to stop losses occurring at state energy firm BOTAŞ and followed three consecutive rises in gasoline prices last month.
Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, taking what some called a “defensive” stance on the issue, sought to deflect anger from both the opposition and the wider public by insisting that he too was displeased by the price hike but that it was unavoidable in the current climate. He said that the prices rose due to a weak lira and increasing oil prices on the back of geopolitical tensions, which had a knock-on effect on natural gas prices.
Most significantly, Yıldız asserted that the price rises would be even higher without the – still unspecified - discount obtained from Russia at the end of last year. That discount was obtained after Turkey gave permission for Gazprom’s giant South Stream pipeline to cross Turkey’s Black Sea waters.

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.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Ivanishvili 's underwhelming new team

Georgian billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili has unveiled the core team for his planned Georgian Dream - Democratic Georgia party, which will contest this year's elections. It's a pretty underwhelming list.

The eighteen-member "Initiative group" includes a footballer, an actress, a physics and statistics teacher, a 1992 Olympics wrestling champion, some academicians, his own spokesman, and the brother of deceased former PM Zurab Zhvania. Inexplicably, there are also four lawyers in the group - whether this reflects Ivanishvili's stated commitment to the rule of law, or his (understandable) fears about the government's use of legal pressures against him is debatable.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

New Cyprus Drilling Round Raises Tensions with Turkey

My latest post on Natural Gas Europe, about Cyprus's new drilling round and the risks of a Turkish retaliation. Original here:

A new oil and gas licencing round organised by the Republic of Cyprus is raising tensions with northern Cyprus and its Turkish backers. Although further drilling in the eastern Mediterranean will contribute to energy security in southern Europe, it may come at a high political cost.

The new round was announced by the Cypriot government on 13 February, with 12 offshore blocks available. The blocks being offered are located off the southern coast, where US explorer Noble Energy discovered a 5-8tcf field in December near the Israeli border. There are high hopes among explorers that the new blocks available will be equally productive.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Natural Gas Europe - Turkey Set to Join Black Sea LNG Project?

Below is my latest article for Natural Gas Europe, on Black Sea LNG projects. Original here:

Azerbaijan has temporarily halted a deal to sell liquefied natural gas to Ukraine, apparently owing to sudden interest by Turkey. Although the suspension is likely to be resolved, it reveals some interesting points for Black Sea energy security.

The two countries were due to sign a deal on liquefied gas transport across the Black Sea at the World Economic Forum in Davos, after a preliminary agreement was made in September.

The initial quantity was set at 5bcm per year, but by the end of the year Ukraine had decided to triple this to 15bcm: a dedicated LNG terminal, costing $1 billion, was due to be constructed in Ukraine by the Spanish firm Socoin to process the shipments. The LNG shipments, intended to start by 2014, would have helped Kiev to escape its politically and commercially punishing dependence on Russian gas. The project seemed to be ready to launch, and was discussed by Presidents Ilham Aliev and Viktor Yanukoych as late as 26th January.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Predicting the President's Popularity in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan holds its presidential ‘elections’ on Sunday, which will pit Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, president, Hero of Turkmenistan and Protector of the nation, against a field of political colossi including factory directors and a deputy mayor for agriculture. 

An excellent post on neweurasia gives a visual indication of the one-sided nature of the contest: all eight candidates are squeezed into a billboard filled with dense text, but the president – unlike his opponents - also has the luxury of appearing on huge posters everywhere across the country.

The contest is so one-sided that it is barely news, but some of the absurdities of the process are worth commenting on. Firstly, as the AP notes, none of the other state-approved candidates have explicitly asked for people’s votes. They have instead praised the president and his ‘epoch of new revival’, or else focused on marginal issues like “introduction of early maturing cotton varieties” and “taking Turkmenistan’s equestrian sport to the international level”.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

AKP claims new conspiracy against Turkey

Turkey’s mania for conspiracy theories has reached a rather impressive new level. Bülent Gedikli, deputy chairman of the ruling AKP, has now claimed that there is a “Neocon-Ergenekon brotherhood” against the government which - like some international league of supervillains - also includes Angela Merkel, Kurdish terrorists, opposition leaders, the Israeli President, American writers, and the interest-rate lobby.

The breadth of his claims for this 21st-century SPECTRE, and his likening it to a football team, makes me wonder if the whole thing is rather tongue-in-cheek. For one thing, who would put the professorial CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu up front?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Umarov jumps on the protest bandwagon

Is Dokku Umarov, the fiery leader of the North Caucasus insurgency, trying to revitalise the movement by jumping on the global protest bandwagon? According to a statement published by jihadist media outlet Kavkaz Center, Umarov has ordered the militants “to avoid attacks on civilian targets due to a process of civil protest that began in Russia, and the fact that people no longer accept Putin's policy.”

The civil demonstrations, Umarov argues, means that Russians no longer support the government’s heavy-handed strategy in the North Caucasus, and are thus exempt from reprisals. With an eye to the presidential elections in March, however, he says that the Russian population has a choice, to either support the existing regime and its “policy of murder and terror”, or choose a new one which will take a different approach.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

What the Crisis in Syria Holds for Turkish-Russian Relations

A piece I wrote on the crisis in Syria and Turkish-Russian relations has just been published by the always excellent Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs. The article was written in late December so things have changed a bit since then, but the fundamental premises remain more or less intact, I think. The paper can be found here: introduction below.

The truism that the Middle East is going through a time of upheaval is, for once, true. The Arab Spring, the US withdrawal from Iraq, the stand-off between Iran and the West, and the rise of Turkey, have redrawn the geopolitical map, and its new lines are not yet clear.

The new Middle East will not just affect the regional states themselves; it will also have implications for relations between states in a much wider area. One particular case is the relationship between Turkey and Russia: the turmoil in the Middle East underlines their shared views on some issues, but it has also led to substantial divergences between Ankara and Moscow. The Syrian crisis may fracture this relationship further.

Both Russia and Turkey share a core fundamental goal in the Middle East: stability. Both have reasons to fear radical Islamist movements arising in chaotic or ungoverned zones; both also have reason to fear regional conflicts and flows of weapons and refugees. Russia is of course further away, but as a Eurasian power it has strong concerns over instability in a neighbouring and strategic region.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Natural Gas Europe - Iranian Sanctions and European Energy Security

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

The news that BP’s Shah Deniz project in Azerbaijan will be exempted from sanctions on Iran is not all that surprising: however, it does shed light on the complexity of Europe’s gas supplies, and offers a hint of what the future could hold.

The Shah Deniz gasfield in the Caspian Sea is controlled by a consortium led by BP, which also includes a number of international firms, and, crucially, the Naftiran Intertrade Company. The huge project is key to the EU’s plan to bring Caspian gas to Europe, with over 1 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in place. The second phase, supplying 16bcm a year, is expected to come onstream by 2017.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

France, Turkey, and the Caucasus

The French Senate’s decision to ratify a bill criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide has already provoked a stinging response from Turkey. ‘Permanent sanctions’ are now on the cards, and in a capital display of petty politics, the mayor of Ankara has proposed renaming Paris Street, where the French embassy is located, to ‘Algeria Street’.

The expected freezing of ties between Paris and Ankara will have major ramifications for Turkey-EU ties and for the situation in the Middle East. It will also be another nail in the coffin of the Turkey-Armenia thaw, since neither government will now feel in the mood to compromise on the ‘historical dimension’ which was one of the protocols restoring diplomatic ties. That said, the eulogies for the rapprochement were read a long time ago so this shouldn’t be overstated.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Natural Gas Europe - Turkey puts Pressure on Iran over Gas Prices

Below is my most recent article for Natural Gas Europe: original here.

Following last month’s controversial deal with Russia on the South Stream pipeline, the Turkish government is trying to strengthen its hand with another energy supplier by threatening to take Iran to an arbitration court over a gas pricing dispute. Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said on 17th January that Turkey “shared with [the Iranians] our unease about the high gas price. They did not share the same view”.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

New interview with

Below the text of my most recent interview with Azerbaijan's Original interview here.

What can be Azerbaijan's role in global security as a new UN Security Council non-permanent member?

As well as ‘non-traditional’ threats like countering terrorism and tackling the proliferation of drugs and weapons, Azerbaijan’s geostrategic location makes it important for specific security issues. Firstly, there is the avoidance of armed conflict – in other words, preventing a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Secondly, acting as an increasingly important link in the transport corridor for NATO supplies to and from Afghanistan. This will become increasingly important as the war there begins to end, particularly if Russia restricts transit over its territory. This is less relevant to the Un Security Council but may still be important.

Thirdly, Azerbaijan is an extremely important state with regard to the crisis in Iran. As a neighbouring state Azerbaijan has a strong interest in avoiding both a nuclear-armed Iran and a war between Israel/the US and Iran. Baku is likely to be very active in the Security Council in assisting efforts to defuse the current crisis.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Terror plot in Baku: an Iranian connection?

Last month, I pondered whether the tension between Azerbaijan and Iran that had lasted through much of 2011 was finally ending. Ali Hasanov’s visit to Tehran, and the mutual protestations of respect and non-interference in each other’s affairs, seemed to suggest a truce in the war of words between the two.

But now this: the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry has announced it foiled a plot to assassinate foreign citizens (possibly diplomats) in Baku, supported and coordinated by the Iranian intelligence services.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Russia’s Iran war games: responding to threats, or making them?

There’s been some interesting reporting on Russia’s annual ‘Kavkaz’ war games and their connection with the situation in Iran. Unlike previous years, the exercises – scheduled for the autumn – are explicitly designed with events ‘in the Persian Gulf’ (i.e. Iran) in mind. Specifically, they revolve around the scenario that a US-Israeli attack on Iran creates ‘spillover’, that old buzzword of the armchair general, in the Caucasus.

Significantly, this year’s exercises will probably not be confined to Russian soil: they will include components in the Georgia’s breakaway, Russian-backed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and maybe in Armenia too.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Low expectations for new Karabakh summit

After a seven-month gap, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia are set to meet again on 23-24 January to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Once again, they will do so under the auspices of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; once again, they will almost certainly fail to make any progress.

The last meeting between the two presidents was in June, in the Russian city of Kazan. There were high hopes in advance, with the OSCE Minsk Group (co-chaired by Russia, France and the US, tasked with mediating the peace process) warning that if the two sides failed to make progress on agreeing to the ‘Basic Principles’, the peace blueprint would be scrapped and a new one produced.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Calling Erdoğan’s bluff, Kılıçdaroğlu raises the stakes

With Turkey’s political stand-off intensifying, I felt a brief follow-up to Monday’s post is needed.

That post discussed the implications of the arrest of former Chief of Staff Ilker Başbuğ as part of the increasingly vast Ergenekon coup investigation. But the criticism heaped on that arrest by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the opposition CHP, has opened a new and even more dramatic chapter in Turkey’s latest political crisis.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Ergenekon investigation gets out of control

The recent arrest of Turkey’s former chief of staff İlker Başbuğ, as part of an inquiry into alleged coup plots, prompted shockwaves in Turkish political circles. The investigation into the shadowy Ergenekon network has been rumbling on for years, claiming more and more high-profile victims in the military, the media and the academic world – but arresting the man who ran the military until 2010 is a remarkable new development. 

But that isn't the end of it: the leader of the opposition CHP Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is now under investigation for publicly slamming the government's use of the judiciary. With prosecutors calling for his parliamentary immunity to be lifted, is the Ergenekon investigation getting out of control?

Monday, 9 January 2012

New paper for Foreign Policy Centre - Comrades in arms, or a marriage of convenience? An analysis of ‘Georgian Dream’

My paper for the Foreign Policy Centre, on Georgia’s opposition alliance between Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania, has just been published here.

My main point is to have even a realistic chance of defeating President Saakashvili in October’s parliamentary election, the coalition has to work together and in harmony. Each of the partners bring something to the table: Alasania brings political experience and the common touch; Ivanishvili brings star power, and a vast war-chest for the unglamorous logistics of a nationwide campaign (the Republicans’ Davit Usupashvili is also in the coalition although with a much lower profile).

The biggest danger is that the coalition will crack up, as alliances in Georgia’s fractious political landscape tend to do, under the weight of its leading personalities. In particular, Ivanishvili already seems to be overshadowing his coalition partners.

If he ends up falling into the Messiah trap – “only I can save this country and I must do it alone” – he will become just one more player among Georgia’s myriad opposition parties. Unifying that opposition is going to be essential to breaking the government’s hold on power.

Natural Gas Europe - Turkey’s Bold Move Shakes up the Southern Corridor

My latest article for Natural Gas Europe is below. The original article can be found here:

The news that Turkey has given Gazprom’s South Stream pipeline permission to cross its territorial waters was, Vladimir Putin announced, a “New Year’s gift for Russia”. Just days before, Turkey had also given Azerbaijan’s SOCAR a valuable Christmas present with a deal approving the construction of the new Trans-Anatolian pipeline. These agreements close out a remarkable year for Eurasian gas politics which has seen old pipelines fall and new ones rise.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Playing politics with the Uludere airstrike

The Turkish airstrike on 28th December which killed 35 young fuel smugglers – rather than the PKK militants it was aimed at – has caused political shockwaves which show no sign of disappearing. Instead, the country’s main parties are increasingly engaged in a political mud-slinging match over the tragedy.

The governing AKP was initially caught on the back foot by the botched raid and the outpouring of public criticism it caused, particularly (and unsurprisingly) in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. The government has since sought to regain the initiative, promising compensation to those killed and ordering a full enquiry. Prime Minister Erdoğan has met the Chief of the General Staff, although he has “angrily dismissed” accusations that the raid was conducted on the basis of faulty intelligence from the National Intelligence Organisation.