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Caucasus Report: November 10, 2006


November 10, 2006, Volume 9, Number 38

SOUTH OSSETIA SEEKS TO CONTAIN OPPOSITION CHALLENGE. On November 12, presidential elections will take place in Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. Concurrently, voters in the unrecognized republic will be asked to vote in a referendum on whether they want South Ossetia "to maintain its status as an independent state and be recognized [as such] by the international community."

Aside from choosing a president on November 12, voters in Georgia's breakaway republic will be asked to vote in a referendum on whether they want South Ossetia "to maintain its status as an independent state and be recognized [as such] by the international community."

Even though the international community does not recognize either the election or the referendum as legally valid, both processes are evolving into a proxy standoff between Russia, which for the past decade has consistently sought to use South Ossetia as leverage against the Georgian leadership, and the central Georgian government in Tbilisi, which hopes to mobilize and capitalize on mounting domestic opposition to the incumbent South Ossetian leadership.

In a bid to neutralize that challenge, the South Ossetian Prosecutor-General's Office has brought criminal charges against candidates running in the "alternative" presidential election scheduled to take place the same day.

Eduard Kokoity, a 42-year-old former Komsomol activist turned businessman who was elected South Ossetian president in a runoff ballot in 2001, is seeking a second term, apparently with Moscow's backing.

The Georgian daily "Rezonansi" suggested on September 2 that Russia might prefer South Ossetian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev, but he is not among Kokoity's three registered challengers. They are government officials Inal Pukhaev and Leonid Tibilov, and a relative unknown, Oleg Gabodze, according to civil.ge on November 7.

In a November 8 interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Kokoity said that he is confident of re-election, and for that reason has not campaigned publicly. He is, moreover, likely to garner the votes of thousands of former residents of South Ossetia who fled to neighboring North Ossetia during the fighting of 1990-92. Six polling stations have been established on the territory of Russia's Republic of North Ossetia-Alania to enable those refugees to cast their ballots, regnum.ru reported on November 7.

But a further challenge has emerged in the form of the so-called National Liberation Union of Ossetians comprising domestic opposition to Kokoity, who is widely perceived as presiding over a corrupt and incompetent administration that takes its orders from Moscow and is either unable or unwilling to resolve the grave economic and social problems the enclave faces.

The National Liberation Union, which apparently enjoys the tacit approval, if not the open support, of the central Georgian government in Tbilisi, plans to hold an alternative presidential ballot on November 12. Voting will take place at 25 polling stations, primarily in Georgian-populated villages of South Ossetia that do not recognize Kokoity's authority and in villages with a mixed Georgian-Ossetian population.

Five candidates have registered for the "alternative" poll, one of whom, Maia Chigoyeva-Tsaboshvili, initially sought to run against Kokoity but was refused registration in early October on the grounds that she does not reside in South Ossetia. The other four are Gogi Chigoyev, Teimuraz Djeragoyev, Tamar Charayeva, and Dmitry Sanakoyev, who served as defense minister and then as prime minister for several months in 2001 under Kokoity's predecessor, Lyudvig Chibirov, but left South Ossetia for Moscow after Kokoity came to power, civil.ge reported on November 7.

Sanakoyev's brother Vladimir is chairman of the National Liberation Union. Earlier this week, the South Ossetian media launched a vicious campaign to discredit and compromise Dmitry Sanakoyev, accusing him of corruption, duplicity, and collaborating with Georgian intelligence, charges he denied in a November 9 interview with the Georgian television station Rustavi-2.

Some Georgian observers regard Dmitry Sanakoyev as Tbilisi's preferred candidate. His election manifesto envisages the restoration of the region's status as a republic within Georgia and a program of measures to spur economic growth, according to the Georgian television station Rustavi-2 on November 5. Georgian analyst Mamuka Areshidze has suggested that in the event of a Sanakoyev victory, the central Georgian government might seek to strengthen his position by granting him the post of vice president or deputy prime minister, according to Georgia Today on November 7.

Insofar as the combined Ossetian population (including refugees in North Ossetia) considerably outnumbers the Georgian community of South Ossetia, a victory for any one of the candidates in the "alternative" ballot would necessarily be contingent on many Ossetian voters rejecting the status quo that Kokoity represents -- continued economic hardship in the hope of eventual recognition of South Ossetian independence by the international community -- in favor of accommodation with Georgia.

The South Ossetian leadership has estimated the total number of Georgian voters as not exceeding 14,000 (of a total population of some 82,000). Moscow, however, is unlikely to countenance any weakening of its hold over South Ossetia, and could seek to engineer the outcome of the ballot to manufacture the appearance of a convincing victory for Kokoity, rather than risk a repeat of the crisis that erupted two years ago when its favored candidate for president of the similarly unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia was defeated in the first round of voting.

Kokoity has, predictably branded the alternative presidential ballot as a farce, and will doubtless reject the outcome. In his interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, he explained that the decision to hold a second referendum on independence was made in order to give the younger generation of voters, who did not participate in the previous referendum in 1992, a chance to register their views.

He went on to describe the planned referendum as "the highest form of democracy," and as a response to what he termed the "aggressive policies of the Georgian leadership" and the "double standards" that the international community is seeking to impose. "We are Europeans, and we want to live in Europe," Kokoity argued.

At the same time, he admitted that securing international recognition for his unrecognized republic would be a long and arduous undertaking. And he acknowledged that independence for South Ossetia is viewed as an intermediate stage toward the unification of the two Ossetian republics.

North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov has lobbied energetically for reunification since his appointment last year. But international recognition of South Ossetia currently looks utopian in light of recent statements by Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, affirming their support for Georgia's territorial integrity.

On October 25, Putin denied that Russia seeks to enlarge its territory at Georgia's expense by incorporating South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he suggested that those two unrecognized republics should seek to mend their differences with the Georgian government. (Liz Fuller)

RUSSIAN INTERIOR MINISTRY ADMITS CHECHEN RESISTANCE STILL POSES 'SERIOUS THREAT.' Following the deaths of Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev and veteran field commander Shamil Basayev on June 16 and July 10, respectively, Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials pronounced the Chechen resistance a spent force, numbering no more than a few dozen die-hard fighters. But more recent assessments indicate that the Chechen resistance numbers at least 700 men and still poses a "serious threat."

Russian assessments of the strength of the Chechen resistance have historically been approximate and contradictory, appearing sometimes to have been exaggerated or downplayed for purely political considerations.

The Russian daily "Kommersant," for example, on November 7 listed 14 separate estimates made between February 2000 and November 2006.

In August 2005, Taus Dzhabrailov, then-chairman of the pro-Kremlin Chechen State Council, gave the number of fighters as "somewhere between 800-1,000." One month later, presidential envoy to Russia's Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak said the number had recently increased to "around 1,500."

In mid-October, 2005, however, Colonel General Arkady Yedelev, commander of the Combined Group of Forces in the North Caucasus, cited a figure of just 800 fighters.

More recently, in the wake of the deaths of Sadullayev and Basayev, pro-Moscow Chechen officials have sought to portray the resistance as numbering only a few dozen men.

In August, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the resistance numbered no more than 50-60 men, while his deputy, Adam Delimkhanov, cited a figure of 60 Chechen fighters plus 20-30 "foreign mercenaries." Several hundred Chechen fighters are said to have responded to Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev's July appeal to lay down their arms and surrender. Even before the Russian State Duma formally adopted an amnesty in mid-September, up to 200 militants were said to have turned themselves in, with 50 fighters reportedly surrendering personally to Kadyrov in his home town of Gudermes on August 29 alone.

The deployment in early October of two platoons from the East and West battalions (predominantly composed of Chechen servicemen) to serve in the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Lebanon may similarly have been intended to send the message to the outside world that the war in Chechnya is definitively over.

But the record of military operations conducted by the Chechen resistance in September-October 2006, as posted on the websites chechenpress.org and kavkazcenter.com, tells an entirely different story.

Over that time period, resistance fighters have launched multiple operations on an almost daily basis, in which they claim to have killed or wounded dozens of Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen servicemen. In tacit corroboration of those claims, Colonel General Yevgeny Baryayev, who is commander of the Group of Federal Forces in the North Caucasus, admitted to a gathering of Russian military officials and Chechen government personnel in Grozny on October 12 that the combat situation was deteriorating.

Baryayev said the number of attacks and "acts of terrorism" by Chechen militants was on the increase, but did not divulge any casualty figures. He attributed the upsurge in resistance activity to their receipt of "a large sum of money."

Baryayev's comments followed Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov's appeal in September for Muslims worldwide to provide financial support. Umarov also issued instructions to his fighters in September on unspecified changes in tactics, according to kavkazcenter.com on October 29, although it is not clear whether there is any direct correlation between those orders and the upsurge in resistance activity over the past two months.

Speaking in Moscow on October 19, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov likewise admitted that the security situation in Chechnya remains tense, and that militants have stepped up operations in several districts, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on October 20.

Then, on November 3, Baryayev told a further meeting of security personnel in Grozny that young recruits are still flocking to joint the resistance ranks, and that Russian forces in southern Chechnya are using artillery against militant groups in the mountains in an attempt to pin them down, "Kommersant" reported on November 7.

On November 6, Colonel Nikolai Varavin, who heads the press center of the Regional Operation Headquarters of the Antiterrorist Operation in Chechnya, admitted openly that the resistance "poses a serious threat" which, he implied, the Chechen police are not up to the task of containing. Several days earlier, Varavin was quoted by regnum.ru as saying that young men from Ingushetia and Daghestan are also signing up to fight with the Chechen resistance.

Although Varavin did not say so explicitly, the loyalty of many members of the Chechen police force -- especially former resistance fighters who took advantage of earlier amnesties and were subsequently offered employment by Prime Minister Kadyrov in his so-called presidential guard regiment -- is open to question. Several months ago, Akhmed Zakayev, the London-based foreign minister in the Chechen Republic Ichkeria government, referred to up to 20,000 armed Chechens, including senior officials in the pro-Moscow administration who, he claimed, routinely aid and abet the resistance.

In an apparent move to improve the work of the pro-Moscow Chechen Interior Ministry, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently appointed a new first deputy interior minister, General Nikolai Simakov, who will assume responsibility for the work of the criminal police, according to "Kommersant" on November 7.

Alkhanov, however, argued at the November 3 meeting in Grozny that simply intensifying military activities will not break the back of the resistance, nor prevent young unemployed men from joining its ranks, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on November 7. He argued that creating thousands of new job opportunities would not cost any more than the ongoing military operation to wipe out the Chechen resistance.

Meanwhile, FSB Director Patrushev on November 7 told a session of the National Antiterrorism Committee that there is a "very real danger" of terrorist attacks against hydroelectric plants in southern Russia.

He said the committee "has intelligence suggesting that hydropower facilities" in Volgograd, Saratov, and Rostov oblasts and in Daghestan "are being targeted," adding that such attacks could "involve catastrophic consequences, paralyze the region [involved], lead to mass casualties, and cause serious economic losses."

"Vremya novostei" followed by noting on November 8 that the Chechen resistance threatened in 1999 to blow up a dam and bridges across the Volga, lenta.ru reported. The Chechen resistance Volga Front claimed responsibility in late September for an explosion that damaged a gas pipeline in Volgograd Oblast and vowed to strike again at Russia's energy system. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The American political elite got disgracefully drunk at the wake for the former USSR and remains in a state of protracted inebriation." -- Former Russian presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin, speaking on a recent visit to Washington (quoted by lenta.ru on November 6).

"Not only do we not have a sense of unity and solidarity, today the very existence and future fate of the Ossetian people and the republic are in jeopardy because of the national disintegration we are witnessing." From an article by Valery Dzutsev in the North Ossetian paper "Fydybasta," reposted on November 3 on ingushetiya.ru.

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