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Caucasus Report: November 14, 2005


14 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 40

WHAT LIES BEHIND RUSLAN NAKHUSHEV'S DISAPPEARANCE? Ruslan Nakhushev, a former KBG officer and head of the unregistered Islamic Research Institute in Nalchik, vanished on 4 November after leaving the Federal Security Service (FSB) office in Nalchik where he was summoned for questioning in connection with the multiple raids on police and security service facilities in the city on 13 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 November 2005). Subsequent Russian press reports of Nakhushev's efforts to prevent an upsurge of Islamic radicalism in the Kabardino-Balkariya Republic (KBR) shed some light on alleged connections between the Chechen resistance and the djamaats that have emerged in the KBR, and on the motives that impelled the predominantly Kabardian police force to target indiscriminately young men suspected of belonging to underground Islamic organizations. (According to Interfax on 21 June, there are over 20 Muslim youth organizations in the KBR that are not under the control of the republic's Muslim Spiritual Board.)

Russian media reports of the 13 October attacks quoted local police as identifying the participants as members of the Yarmuk djamaat whose members, including its alleged leader Muslin Ataev, they had earlier claimed to have wiped out in two shootouts in Nalchik in January and April of this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January and 2 May 2005). And the Chechen resistance website chechenpress.org on 17 October posted a statement by Yarmuk's press service confirming, first that its members participated in the Nalchik raids, and second, that Yarmuk is part of the Kabardino-Balkar sector of the Caucasus Front proclaimed in May by Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, the successor to slain Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov.

But according to an article by Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya published in "Novaya gazeta" and reposted on 7 November of kavkazweb.net, many of the young men rounded up by police since 13 October on suspicion of participating in the attacks belong to a different underground organization, the Kabardino-Balkar djamaat, most of whom until very recently eschewed violence and campaigned solely for freedom of worship. The Kabardino-Balkar djamaat was headed by Musa Mukozhev and Anzor Astemirov, both of whom were reportedly close to Nakhushev, whose institute served as a center for debate among Islamic scholars both from within the KBR and elsewhere. Mukozhev is reportedly a protege of former KBR mufti Shafig Pshikhachev who sent him to study Islamic theology in "the Arab East." Mukozhev reportedly developed into a brilliant and charismatic preacher who on his return to Nalchik began preaching at the mosque in Volnyi Aul, a Nalchik suburb, where he swiftly won a large following and a reputation as the republic's spiritual leader, according to Politkovskaya.

There was little or no contact between members of the largely peaceful Kabardino-Balkariya djamaat and the ultra-secretive Yarmuk. Politkovskaya claimed in her article that, at least until last year, the Kabardino-Balkar djamaat simply sought freedom of worship, in contrast to similar organizations in Chechnya and Ingushetia whose members aspire to an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus. And Mukozhev's insistence on the purely peaceful study of Islam earned him criticism from both Yarmuk and radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. But after the September 2004 hostage-taking in Beslan, North Ossetia, the KBR police began systematically warning members of the moderate Kabardino-Balkar djamaat to abandon their faith. And both Mukozhev and Astemirov were identified as suspects in last December's armed raid, for which Yarmuk claimed responsibility, on the Federal Anti-Narcotics Service in Nalchik, and early this year they both went underground. Astemirov joined Basaev, and is seen with Basaev on a video raids that was posted on the website kavkazcenter.com in late October of a meeting of field commanders prior to the Nalchik raids. Basaev subsequently claimed to have participated in the planning of that operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 October 2005). Mukozhev's current whereabouts are unknown.

In an interview given to "Kommersant-Daily" shortly before his disappearance and posted on 7 November on kavkazweb.net, Nakhushev emphatically denied that Basaev exercises any authority over the Kabardino-Balkariya djamaat. Nakhushev said that djamaat has its own amir, but declined to name him. "Basaev is a nobody here," Nakhushev affirmed in that interview. Politkovskaya for her part quoted a member of Mukozhev's congregation as suggesting that Astemirov joined forces with Basaev only because he was hunted into a corner and had no alternative.

According to kavkaz.memo.ru on 7 November, Nakhushev was not a practising Muslim; he was also a member of the pro-Kremlin party Unified Russia. But he nonetheless worked tirelessly as a mediator between young believers and the KBR authorities, trying to persuade the latter to halt police reprisals against the former. (Politkovskaya cited Nakhushev's account of an inconclusive meeting he set up in October 2004 between Mukozhev and KBR prosecutor Yurii Ketov.) Arsen Kanokov, who was confirmed as KBR president in late September, acknowledged Nakhushev's positive role, referring to him in a 3 November interview in "Novaya gazeta" as someone "who has offered help and assistance," but Kanokov's plans to meet with Nakhushev were thwarted by the latter's disappearance.

The question thus arises: if Kanokov considered Nakhushev a potential ally in his efforts to neutralize the perceived threat of an upsurge of radical Islam, who sought to prevent that alliance, and why? Newsru.com on 7 November quoted Nakhushev as reasoning that the "siloviki" -- the republic's law-enforcement and security agencies, whose heads were appointed by Kanokov's predecessor Valerii Kokov -- have a vested interest in perpetuating the perception of an Islamic threat in order to be able to demonstrate to their superiors in Moscow their success in countering that threat.

A Nalchik teacher recently quoted by "Kommersant-Vlast" similarly argued that "they want to hold on to power and to show [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that they control the situation" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 October 2005). That teacher continued, "the authorities have created Wahhabism [as a threat because] it is a good feeding trough. Money is disbursed from the budget for the struggle against religious extremism, and when the militia conducts cleansing operations against Muslim groups, even more money is given out." In order to support this kind of a campaign and hence their own positions, the teacher continued, the authorities need "to create an image of the enemy and to guarantee themselves a victory over that enemy" by the display of massive force. "Then in Moscow people will think that without [such local officials] the world will collapse."

Newsru.com on 7 November quoted "Kommersant-Daily" as writing that Kanokov wants to fire KBR Interior Minister Khachim Shogenov and other unnamed "siloviki" whom he "inherited" from Kokov, but that the Russian Interior Ministry refuses to endorse those dismissals. Meanwhile, the KBR Interior Ministry shows no sign of letting up on its relentless pursuit of believers and their families. In an appeal to the KBR authorities posted on 7 November on ingushetiya.ru, Valerii Khatazhukov, head of the Kabardino-Balkariya Human Rights Center, said that the relatives of young men killed or detained during the Nalchik fighting are being subjected to pressure, even the threat of eviction from their homes. Some of those families have appealed to the KBR prosecutor to bring criminal charges of violating believers' rights and religious discrimination against Shogenov and other senior law-enforcement officials, kavkaz.memo.ru reported on 8 November. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER KARABAKH STRONGMAN UNVEILS OWN POLITICAL PARTY. General Samvel Babayan, the once powerful ex-commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's army, convened on 10 November the founding congress of his new political party, which he claimed will neither support nor oppose Armenia's leadership. "We don't think we should be left-wing or right-wing, opposition or pro-government," Babayan told reporters during the gathering, which was attended by hundreds of activists and representatives of other political parties. "I will say what I think is right. Whether that will hurt someone is not my problem."

"If you want me to curse the president of the republic, I will do that," said Babayan. "But that's not what I need. What I need is to solve issues. You can't do that by mud-slinging." Babayan also denied that his party called Dashink (Alliance) will serve as a political base for his potential presidential ambitions. "I was not and will not be a presidential candidate," he said. "I didn't enter Armenian politics in order to get a post. I want to be useful to society. I have already earned a place in our history."

Dashink, Babayan continued, will concentrate on more apolitical issues like "decentralization of government" and reform of Armenia's judicial system. But he pointedly refused to express an opinion on President Robert Kocharian's draft constitutional amendments that deal with those issues.

Among the prominent politicians who addressed the Dashink congress were Vazgen Manukian of the opposition National Democratic Union and Vahan Hovannisian of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun). Both men praised the former strongman and said they look forward to cooperating with his party. "We are acquiring a reliable and credible partner and perhaps ally for our struggle for social justice and against corruption," declared Hovannisian.

Ironically, Babayan was known for anything but respect for the rule of law when he commanded the Karabakh army from 1993-1999. A former car mechanic who rose to prominence during the war with Azerbaijan, he was the Armenian-controlled region's most powerful man at the time, controlling much of its economic activity and tolerating little dissent.

Babayan's star began to fade in late 1999 when he lost a power struggle with Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In March 2000, Babayan was arrested and subsequently convicted of masterminding a botched attempt on Ghukasian's life. He never pleaded guilty to the charges, denouncing the 14-year prison sentence handed to him as politically motivated. The 39-year-old general was unexpectedly released from prison in September 2004, fueling speculation that he may have cut a deal with Kocharian. According to that theory, Babayan was set free to help the Armenian leadership implement a possible unpopular peace deal with Azerbaijan.

Babayan has repeatedly dismissed such claims. Still, he has clearly softened his formerly hard-line position on resolving the Karabakh conflict. He noted on 10 November that a peaceful settlement requires another referendum on independence in Karabakh. The idea of such a referendum is reportedly at the heart of a peace accord discussed by the conflicting parties at present. Incidentally, representatives of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party as well as the opposition People's and Hanrapetutiun parties were conspicuously absent from the Dashink congress. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I must say frankly, even if I hurt somebody, that our courts are not independent at present." -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, speaking on 5 November at Yerevan State University (quoted by "Aravot").

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