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Umarov's U-Turn


Has Doku Umarov (in video said to be from earlier this year) resisted a forced resignation, or just reevaluated his decision?

Has Doku Umarov (in video said to be from earlier this year) resisted a forced resignation, or just reevaluated his decision?

Doku Umarov has disavowed as "totally fabricated" a video clip in which he passed on leadership of the North Caucasus insurgency to a successor.

In the video, posted on August 1, Umarov announces that he is stepping down as emir of the North Caucasus and appeals to the leaders of the fighting units in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria to pledge loyalty to his designated successor, Aslambek Vadalov. That clip, together with one in which three Chechnya-based field commanders praise Vadalov as a worthy successor to Umarov, has been removed from the websites kavkazcenter.com and hunafa.com on which they were originally posted.

In a brief video clip dated August 2, Umarov says that "in light of the situation that has arisen in the North Caucasus I consider it impossible to lay down my powers as emir." He did not elaborate. He also affirms that he is in good health. Commenting on his decision to step down, field commanders Tarkhan and Mukhannad both noted Umarov's poor health.

Fighting Back?

There are at least two possible explanations for Umarov's inconsistency. First, he may indeed have been forced to step down by a group of younger field commanders.

Some Russian commentators have suggested that the younger generation of commanders either rejected Umarov's readiness to target the civilian population, or alternatively did not consider him an effective military leader. In the video footage made public on August 1, Umarov explained his decision to step down in terms of the need to hand over responsibility to a younger and more energetic fighter.

Akhmed Zakayev, leader of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria government in exile -- who has for years claimed that the North Caucasus emirate was a plot by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to discredit the concept of an independent Chechen state and that Umarov had unwittingly become their pawn -- suggested to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on August 2 that the younger commanders may have resented, and wanted to be free of, the influence and control of the Russian security services.

If this is indeed the case, it is logical that the FSB would do all in its power to keep Umarov as nominal head of the insurgency. The reported death within the next few days/weeks of Vadalov and/or of the commanders who supported his bid for power would substantiate that hypothesis.

...Or Changed His Mind?

Second, Umarov may have been speaking the truth when he said the situation in the North Caucasus had changed so drastically since his original decision to step down that he no longer considers that course of action appropriate. It is not known for certain when the video clip in which Umarov announced his resignation was filmed; but the clip posted on July 24 in which Umarov designated Vadalov as his deputy (and thus as his successor in the event of his death), was filmed in June after the capture by the FSB of Ingush commander Magas on June 9.

What events Umarov was referring to is unclear. On July 30, kavkazcenter.com, which is run by veteran idealogue Movladi Udugov and routinely carries Umarov's statements, carried an article detailing a purported new plot by the FSB. The article claims that the Kremlin now wants to fragment the North Caucasus insurgency, which it fears is becoming a real threat to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

To that end, according to kavkazcenter.com, it plans to have Umarov killed; replace Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov; and then broker a peace agreement (on the lines of the one that ended the Tajik civil war in 1997) between Kadyrov's putative successor, former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantamirov, and the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency. Rumors circulated in Grozny in March that North Caucasus Federal District head Aleksandr Khloponin would soon appoint Gantamirov to his staff.

There are, admittedly, major flaws in the purported new plan, not least whether Kadyrov would agree to be shunted into the far-less-prestigious post of Russian deputy interior minister and whether the Chechen fighters would agree to lay down their arms in return for government posts.

And even if successfully implemented, that scenario would not address the problem posed by the resistance in the northwest Caucasus by the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai (KBK) jamaat that is geographically closest to Sochi. The KBK jamaat has belatedly claimed responsibility for the sabotage last month of the Baksan hydroelectric power station.

A second hypothetical possibility is that one or more of the fighting units outside Chechnya to whose leaders Umarov appealed to swear loyalty to Vadalov may have refused point-blank to do so, thereby triggering a split in the insurgency ranks on the lines of that kavkazcenter.com claims the FSB hopes to bring about. The KBK jamaat website, islamdin.com, posted on August 3 a long treatise replete with quotations from the Koran arguing the need to submit unquestioningly to emirs' decisions and warning of the negative consequences of any attempt to oust an emir.

Zakayev's website, chechenpress.org, construed that posting as a refusal by the KBK jamaat to accept Vadalov as insurgency leader.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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