Friday, May 22, 2015

New Georgian Cabinet Wins Confidence Vote, But Rift Remains

Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli is one of just four new names in the cabinet.

A reshuffle of Georgia's government has done little to narrow political rifts in the former Soviet republic, which faces economic instability and persistent concerns about Russia's intentions nearly seven years after the August 2008 war over South Ossetia.

Following a protracted and acrimonious debate that dragged on beyond midnight, parliament approved the composition of the new cabinet in an 87-38 vote in the early hours on May 9. 

Predictably, the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) faction voted against the new government. So, too, did the Free Democrats -- despite Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's efforts to secure support of the faction that quit the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition after he dismissed Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in November 2014.

The composition of the cabinet remains largely unchanged, with just four new appointees: Tina Khidasheli (Republican Party) as defense minister; Gigla Agulashvili (Republican Party) as environment and natural resources minister; Nodar Javakhishvili as infrastructure and regional development minister; and Tariel Khechikashvili as minister for sport and youth affairs.

The objections of the parliamentary opposition factions to the new line-up focused less on the individual nominees than on the perceived shortcomings of the government's economic policy, as reflected in the ongoing depreciation of the national currency. Since November, the lari has lost approximately 32 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar.

ENM lawmaker Zurab Japaridze accused the government of mishandling the situation and predicted that the situation would continue to deteriorate. He contended that with the exception of Economy Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, "whom nobody listens to," the government "has no the economy works."

Garibashvili had predicted during a meeting with ENM lawmakers on May 7 that the Georgian currency would "begin to stabilize in the next two-three weeks."

Garibashvili has argued repeatedly that the lari's fall is not the result of flawed economic policy. He has called it the inevitable consequence of the wider strengthening of the dollar and the recession in Russia, which has contributed to a 22.8 percent decline in remittances from abroad during the first three months of this year. But he spread the blame wider during his address to parliament before the vote on the new cabinet, criticizing the National Bank for not having intervened "more actively" to prop up the lari.

The National Bank has intervened five times this year to support the currency, most recently selling $40 million on April 28, when the lari plummeted to a 16-year low against the dollar.

But Azim Sadikov, who heads the International Monetary Fund representation in Tbilisi, was quoted on May 9 as warning against further pressure on the central bank to shore up the lari, arguing that it should be allowed to float. Sadikov added that "this is not the time to allocate blame," and urged the government and the bank to work together to identify and remedy existing "weaknesses."

In his address to parliament, Garibashvili recapitulated the cabinet's achievements since GD trounced the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, sweeping Mikheil Saakashvili's party from power a year before his presidency ended. The prime minister said the time had now come to progress to "a very important stage of development" in which there were new jobs and "each and every citizen can benefit from the results achieved in healthcare, agriculture, economy, education, or in other sectors."

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili was more explicit, enumerating what he said were the three major challenges Georgia faces.

The first is the security situation: Usupashvili said Georgia faces a persistent danger from an aggressive and unpredictable Russia, enhancing the need to preserve domestic political stability.

The second is to implement -- before parliamentary elections due in the fall of 2016 -- reforms of the prosecutor's office, the Interior Ministry (from which the intelligence and security services are to be decoupled), and the electoral system. Last month, in his capacity as a rank-and-file parliament deputy, Usupashvili endorsed a memorandum drafted by several parties that have no parliament seats calling for changes to the electoral law to reduce the number of parliament mandates allocated under the majoritarian system (currently 73 of the total 150), or even switch to a 100 percent proportional system.

Any move in that direction could, however, exacerbate the long-standing tensions between Garibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who issued a statement on April 28 arguing for the transition to a wholly proportional system with the aim of creating what he termed "a pluralistic political environment."

The third challenge Usupashvili listed is the need to create jobs and bolster the economy. According to official data, unemployment among Georgia's able-bodied population of 2.3 million is between 14-15 percent. That figure does not reflect the high percentage of people who describe themselves as self-employed.

-- Liz Fuller

Georgian President Implicitly Criticizes Appointment Of New Defense Minister

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili publicly questioned the rationale for replacing Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, who was appointed in early November 2014.

The renewed vote of confidence in the Georgian cabinet necessitated by the resignation of three ministers last month has underscored yet again the tensions and disagreements within the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. Some observers have questioned whether the new cabinet, which includes just three new members, will receive the required vote of confidence in parliament.

The former ruling United National Movement (ENM), which holds 50 of the 149 parliament mandates, has already said it will not vote for the new cabinet, as it will be unable to extract Georgia from the current economic crisis. So too have the Free Democrats, who hold eight mandates.

The ENM is seeking a meeting with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has long been at odds with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, most recently over his refusal to vacate the grandiose presidential palace constructed for his predecessor, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Margvelashvili publicly questioned the rationale for replacing Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, who was appointed in early November 2014. Margvelashvili made clear he will submit the new cabinet nominations to parliament for its approval only at the end of the statutory seven-day period for doing so, during which time he hopes "our political leadership will take a balanced decision." The president does not have the constitutional right to block or reject outright ministerial nominees.

The outgoing cabinet had been in power for just nine months. In late July 2014, Garibashvili replaced five ministers and moved two more to different posts on the grounds that following the signing one month earlier of an Association Agreement with the EU, Georgia required "bolder and more efficient" ministers prepared to take risks in order to deliver fully on GD's election promises.

Since then, seven of the total 19 ministers have either been dismissed or submitted their resignation. According to the Georgian Constitution, the departure of seven ministers automatically requires a renewed confidence vote from parliament in the renewed cabinet.

Initially, Garibashvili said he would appoint replacements only for the ministers of sport and of the environment. The announcement of the new cabinet lineup was, however, unexpectedly postponed from April 30 until May 1, and encompassed the nomination of Tinatin (Tina) Khidasheli, a lawyer and Republican Party parliament deputy, to succeed Janelidze as defense minister. Khidasheli is married to parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili.

Garibashvili explained Khidasheli's nomination in terms of ensuring the Republican Party, as a junior partner in the GD coalition, is adequately represented. The party has only six parliament mandates, of GD's total 87, and three ministerial portfolios. New Environment Minister Gigla Agulashvili is a Republican, as is Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili.

Garibashvili said Khidasheli's biography, her track record as chair of the parliament committee for Eurointegration, and her engagement on the part of Georgian servicemen were all well known. At the same time, he said Janelidze, whom he described as a consummate professional, will return to his previous post as head of the state security and crisis management council subordinate to the prime minister's office.

How competent Janelidze, 36, is to address the major new security problems Georgia currently faces is questionable, however. The country has become a transit corridor for insurgents from the North Caucasus en route for Syria via Turkey to swell the ranks of Islamic State (IS) group. Kists (Georgian Chechens) from the Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia are similarly reported to have headed for Syria to join ISIS, including a female high-school student aged 17. At least 12 are believed to have been killed.

In light of that continuing exodus, the Georgian parliament discussed last month in the first reading, but failed to vote on, legislative amendments criminalizing leaving the country with the intention of joining terrorist or other illegal armed groups.

A lawyer who, like Usupashvili, began her career in the NGO sector, Khidasheli is Georgia's first woman defense minister. (Of the former Soviet republics, only Latvia and Lithuania have ever appointed a woman to that post.) She has already met with Army Chief of Staff General Vakhtang Kapanadze and reaffirmed her belief that "our main goal -- to become a NATO member as soon as possible -- is achievable."

Khidasheli has also solicited advice from those of her predecessors as minister who are not either on trial, serving a prison term, or wanted on criminal charges. Gia Qarqarashvili, who served as defense minister from May 1993-March 1994 under then-State Council Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, praised the invitation but said that health problems precluded his accepting it. Davit Tevzadze, who held the post from 1998-2004, was similarly noncommittal. 

-- Liz Fuller

Federal Investigators Take Over Probe Into Police Operation In Grozny

The move underscores the fact that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov "no longer has a monopoly on the use of force in Chechnya, the ground could give way under his feet," and he could lose power, one analyst says.

Federal Investigative Committee (SKR) Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin has intervened in the public dispute between Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and the federal Interior Ministry over the special operation conducted in Grozny on April 19 in which a Chechen man, Dzhambulat Dadayev, was shot dead.

On April 24, Bastrykin closed the criminal case launched by the SKR's Chechen subsidiary after Kadyrov alleged that police from Stavropol and personnel from the Temporary Operative Grouping of Organs and Subunits (VOGOiP) deployed at the Khankala military base near Grozny acted illegally in not informing the Chechen Interior Ministry prior to mounting the operation to apprehend Dadayev. At the same time, the SKR's Main Investigative Administration for the North Caucasus has opened its own "objective and unbiased" probe into the circumstances of Dadayev's death

In other words, responsibility for determining whether the Stavropol police and VOGOiP personnel violated either the law or internal regulations has been transferred from the republican to the federal level. That move underscores the fact that, as Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the International Crisis Group told the website Caucasian Knot, Kadyrov "no longer has a monopoly on the use of force in Chechnya, the ground could give way under his feet," and he could lose power.

Kadyrov has demanded from Bastrykin an explanation for his ruling.

Also on April 24, Kadyrov rejected as untrue from start to finish the statement the previous day by the federal Interior Ministry saying that the Stavropol police had indeed informed their Chechen counterparts in advance, in accordance with ministry regulations, of their intention to apprehend Dadayev. (Dadayev was not, according to the Chechen police, related to Zaur Dadayev, the main suspect in the February 27 murder in Moscow of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.)

According to a VOGOiP officer quoted by the daily Kommersant, the requirement that local police should be informed in advance of impending special operations does not extend to federal structures, including VOGOiP, which are empowered to act anywhere in the Russian Federation.

Kadyrov, who is himself an Interior Ministry major general, implied that the Russian interior minister may have been deliberately provided with incorrect information by his subordinates.

Video footage of the meeting of police and security personnel in Grozny at which Kadyrov ordered his security personnel to open fire on police, whether from Moscow or Stavropol, who encroach on Chechen territory without prior notification has been removed from the Chechen State TV and Radio website.

Meanwhile, a statement in the name of State Duma deputies and Federation Council representatives (whether or not only those from Chechnya is not clear) was posted on the Chechen government website condemning the "illegal" intervention of the Stavropol police and VOGOiP units, which it argued was negatively perceived by a population still traumatized by the fighting of recent decades.

The statement further deplored what it termed attempts by unnamed media outlets to misconstrue Kadyrov's "emotional and perfectly predictable on the part of any human being" reaction to that intervention with a view to destabilizing the political situation across Russia.

The Kremlin initially refrained from commenting on Kadyrov's criticism of the Interior Ministry operation in Grozny, other than to say, "we saw it, we heard it, we read it." On April 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, again told the TASS news agency that "there is nothing here to comment on," noting at the same time that the Chechen Interior Ministry organs were subordinate to the federal ministry. Peskov likewise refrained from commenting on media speculation that Kadyrov had been offered a federal government post. 

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya

De Facto South Ossetian President Dismisses Foreign Minister

De facto South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov dismissed David Sanakoyev (above), but appointed him a state adviser.

The confrontation in Georgia’s breakaway Republic of South Ossetia triggered by the majority Yedinaya Osetia (One Ossetia) party’s campaign to force the resignation of de facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev is over.

On April 22, two days after One Ossetia withdrew the no-confidence vote on Sanakoyev from the legislature’s agenda, de facto President Leonid Tibilov dismissed Sanakoyev, but at the same time appointed him a state adviser.

That move is unlikely, however, to put an end either to the open antagonism between One Ossetia, which controls 20 of the 34 parliament mandates, and the three minority parties, or to One Ossetia's constant criticism of the executive branch. One Russian observer has predicted that that party will now seek to undermine other senior officials whom it wishes to see replaced by one of its own nominees, such as the Supreme Court chairman or the minister for information and the press.

Most observers attribute One Ossetia's dislike of Sanakoyev, who lost the presidential runoff ballot to Tibilov in March 2012, to the fact that he made public in mid-January an amended version of the new draft framework Treaty on Union Relations and Strategic Partnership between South Ossetia and the Russian Federation, which formally recognized the region as an independent sovereign state in August 2008.

One Ossetia's chairman, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, who had called in January 2014 for a referendum on South Ossetia’s incorporation into the Russian Federation to be held concurrently with the parliamentary elections in June of that year, favored the initial draft of that treaty, which envisaged a far closer degree of "integration" with Russia than Tibilov and other political parties were apparently prepared to condone. Specifically, it provided for the subsuming of South Ossetian defense and security organs into their Russian counterparts and empowered Moscow to take decisions regarding the region’s security.

Bibilov blamed Sanakoyev for One Ossetia's failure to have the revised draft amended to its liking, and duly called for a vote of no confidence in him for his imputed failings as foreign minister. That vote was passed on March 13, with 19 of the One Ossetia's 20 parliament deputies voting in favor, but Tibilov declined to dismiss Sanakoyev.

One Ossetia then scheduled a second no-confidence vote, but it failed to take place on April 15 as planned because legislators from the three minority factions failed to appear for the planned session. Bibilov attributed that move to pressure by unnamed members of the executive branch. But the heads of the three parties in question denied this, explaining that they saw no grounds for a no-confidence vote in Sanakoyev and resented what they termed the chronic failure of the majority ever to take their views into consideration.

Tibilov summoned separately first Bibilov, whom he warned that the parliament should not seek to meddle in the work of the government, and then the leaders of the other three parliamentary parties. He sought to impress on all of them the need to "try to reach a compromise” and to adopt “a constructive approach" to resolving the problems the region faces.

Tibilov further deplored the fact that most legislative initiatives originate with the executive branch, rather than lawmakers, a criticism that Bibilov rejected as misplaced. Bibilov told journalists on April 17 that One Ossetia planned to call for a second no-confidence vote in Sanakoyev at the session scheduled for April 20.

In the event, however, not only did that session not take place; One Ossetia issued a terse statement on April 20 saying that following talks between Tibilov and Bibilov, and "in the interests of preserving political stability," the party has withdrawn "for the moment" from the legislature's agenda the question of a repeat no-confidence vote in Sanakoyev. That vote would have required a quorum of 22 deputies, and a simple majority to pass, in which case Tibilov would have had no choice but to dismiss Sanakoyev in line with the Republic of South Ossetia Constitution.

The reasons for One Ossetia's volte face are unclear. Judging by published summaries, Bibilov certainly came off worse in a live televised debate on April 17 during which the chairmen of the other three parties repeated their accusations that their opinion is routinely ignored, and former parliament speaker Stanislav Kochiyev affirmed publicly that the no-confidence vote was merely "a pretext."

It is, however, equally possible that Bibilov was subjected to behind-the-scenes pressure. As for Sanakoyev's dismissal, analysts asked by the website Caucasian Knot to comment said unanimously that Bibilov cannot claim the credit for it, and it will not enhance his chances in the presidential election due in 2017.

Yevgeny Krutikov, who writes for Vzglyad, suggested Tibilov may have come to view Sanakoyev as a liability, not because of One Ossetia's criticism, but as a result of an automobile accident last week in what Krutikov termed "strange and compromising circumstances." Sanakoyev reportedly escaped with cuts and bruises after the government Lexus he was driving overturned.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:South Ossetia

Kadyrov Warns Federal Interior Ministry

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said that gunfire on the streets could have made a negative impression on visiting foreign business delegations.

For reasons that can only be guessed at, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has picked a new fight with Moscow.

His target is the federal Interior Ministry, whose Temporary Operative Grouping of Organs and Sub-Units (VOGOiP) deployed at the Khankala military base in Grozny reportedly provided assistance to police from Stavropol Krai who mounted an operation in the city on April 19, without informing the Chechen Interior Ministry.

That operation culminated in the fatal shooting of a man whom the Stavropol police said was wanted on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm (when and to whom is not clear). He was identified as Dzhambulat Dadayev, a resident of Chechnya; it is not clear whether he is related to Zaur Dadayev, the primary suspect in the February 27 murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Kadyrov has criticized the killing of Dadayev on multiple grounds. Meeting the following day with senior government and security personnel, he argued that the Stavropol police had "no legal grounds" for mounting the operation to apprehend him. He said the failure to warn the Chechen Interior Ministry in advance constituted "a serious violation."

He implied that the operation could have resulted in civilian casualties among tourists from elsewhere in the Russian Federation and fans who travelled to Grozny for a soccer match between the local team and Moscow Dynamo (which ended in a goalless draw), and that gunfire on the streets could have made a negative impression on visiting foreign business delegations (he did not specify where from).

Kadyrov subsequently claimed that the VOGOiP and the Stavropol police acted illegally by not giving the Chechen police advance notice of the operation, and warned that he had issued orders that in the event of a recurrence, the Chechen side will open fire on the federal units involved. At Kadyrov's insistence, the Chechen administration of the federal Investigative Committee has begun a probe of the circumstances of the shooting.

On April 22, three days after the incident, Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, head of the federal Interior Ministry's Main Administration for the North Caucasus Federal District, travelled to Grozny to meet with Kadyrov, who being only an Interior Ministry major general is, on paper, junior to him. Kadyrov was quoted as elaborating on his earlier complaints about the shooting of Dadayev. Specifically, he said the participants wore masks, which is illegal, and there was no official arrest warrant for Dadayev. 

At the same time, Kadyrov made a point of praising Chenchik personally for "doing a great deal to ensure peace in the North Caucasus." He said Chenchik had assured him that he was personally monitoring a probe into the operation.

Also on April 22, Kadyrov's close associate, Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadzhiyev, released a statement similarly describing the joint police operation as illegal. He claimed that Dadayev was gunned down in cold blood, even though, according to eyewitnesses, he was walking toward the police with his hands up. The police who shot him reportedly said that "he killed one of ours," without elaborating.

Nukhadzhiyev further said there was evidence that the Stavropol police had been bribed by unnamed figures in Daghestan with whom Dadayev was embroiled in a dispute. Like Kadyrov, Nukhadzhiyev said the actions of the Stavropol police were illegal, "if not criminal." They had also acted illegally, he continued, in co-opting the federal units based in Khankala.

To what extent Kadyrov's and Nukhadzhiyev's complaints are justified is debatable, however. The website Caucasian Knot quoted an unidentified VOGOiP representative as denying that the police who killed Dadayev violated the law in any way. That source said that Dadayev had committed "a serious crime" in Stavropol, he was located in Grozny, and police were deployed to intercept his car. He said Dadayev rammed a police car and then opened fire, and was killed by return fire. Opening a criminal investigation in those circumstances is, the source said, "absurd."

A Chechen police official told Caucasian Knot that technically, Kadyrov is justified in complaining that Stavropol police did not alert their Chechen colleagues, as internal regulations require them to do so. He acknowledged at the same time that that requirement is frequently disregarded, including by Chechen Interior Ministry personnel who have on numerous occasions launched similar operations in neighboring Ingushetia and Daghestan.

There have also been countless reports over the years of abductions of and reprisals against unarmed civilians by masked Chechen security personnel.

Meanwhile, the Russian daily Kommersant reported on April 23 that lawyers for Nemtsov's four children have formally requested that investigators question Kadyrov about the murder in light of what they termed Kadyrov's "long-standing conflict" with the slain opposition leader. It's conceivable that by playing up the imputed illegal police operation that culminated in Dadayev's death, Kadyrov hopes to divert public attention from the implications of that request.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya

Four Men Jailed In Daghestan In Connection With Sufi Sheikh's Murder

Magomed Gadzhiyev (left to right), Akhmed Israpilov, Magomedali Amirkhanov, and Shikhmirza Labazanov attend a court hearing in Makhachkala on April 21.

Daghestan's Supreme Court has sentenced to life imprisonment three men found guilty of abetting the suicide bomber who blew herself up in August 2012 at the home of respected Sufi Sheikh Said-Afandi Atsayev (Chirkeisky), killing him, herself, and six other people. 

A fourth man accused with them of banditry, illegal dealing in weapons, and abduction for ransom was sentenced to 12 years in a strict-regime labor camp.

The four men are Shikhmirza Labazanov, 33, Magomedali Amirkhanov, 39, and Magomed Gadzhiyev, 25, and Akhmed Israpilov. All pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them, except for Labazanov, who admitted having driven the suicide bomber part of the way to the village of Chirkey where Atsayev lived, but insists he was unaware she planned to kill Atsayev.

Lawyers for all four men said the sentences were both too harsh and illegal, insofar as they failed to take into account major discrepancies between the testimony of the four accused.

Within weeks of Atsayev's killing, investigators had reportedly identified the suicide bomber as Alla Saprykina, a Russian woman who had converted to Islam, taken the name Aminat, and married three successive Daghestani militants, all of whom were killed.

Her handler was named as Aleksei Pashintsev, 24, a Russian from Belgorod who had joined the North Caucasus insurgency and, under the nom de guerre Abdul-Malik, assumed command of a group of insurgents based in the Daghestani town of Buinaksk. Pashintsev was said to have accompanied Saprykina on the day of the killing from the village of Komsomolskoye in Kizilyurt district, where she had been living for the previous six months, to the sheikh's home in the village of Chirkey.

Saprykina had reportedly tried three months earlier, in May 2012, to kill Atsayev the same way, but on that occasion she was not admitted to his presence.

In December 2012, however, the National Antiterrorism Committee announced the detention of Labazanov, Amirkhanov and Gadzhiyev, identified as members of the Gimri subgroup of the North Caucasus insurgency, on suspicion of having aided and abetted Saprykina. The fourth man, Akhmed Israpilov, was arrested one month later.

The website Caucasian Knot, however, quoted unnamed Daghestani security officials as saying Labazanov, Amirkhanov, and Gadzhiyev were not on the list of wanted insurgents, although they were under surveillance as likely volunteers to provide assistance and support to them.

Magomed Shamilov, who heads an independent labor union for Interior Ministry personnel, was quoted as expressing doubt that the three played any role in Atsayev's killing.

Outsourced Investigation

In light of the cult status that Atsayev had enjoyed in Daghestan, and the fact that his "murids" (disciples) included numerous members of the police and security organs, Moscow investigators assumed responsibility for the investigation. They duly combined the case against Labazanov, Amirkhanov, and Gadzhiyev with that of two brothers from Daghestan, Shamil and Makhulava Sidikbekov, accused of a botched attempt in 2012 to kidnap Moscow-based businessman Yury Surlevich. (Surlevich managed to escape; he is said to have identified Labazanov as one of the men who tried to abduct him.)

The investigation was completed by late March 2014, but the trial began only in September of that year and was adjourned repeatedly, on one occasion because Amirkhanov's defense lawyer, Murad Magomedov, was assaulted outside the courtroom and beaten so badly his jaw was broken in two places. In November 2013, two houses belonging to members of Amirkhanov's family had been destroyed in an apparent arson attack.

According to the official indictment, Labazanov, Amirkhanov, and Gadzhiyev provided cover, accommodation, and transport for Saprykina and helped her assemble the explosive device she used. They were said to have acted at the behest of Magomed Suleymanov, "qadi" (supreme Islamic legal authority) of the Daghestan insurgency wing, who, according to the daily Kommersant, had pronounced a death sentence on Atsayev with the hope of triggering an armed conflict between Daghestan's Sufi and Salafi congregations.

Labazanov, a former police officer, was said shortly after his detention to have confessed to driving Saprykina from Gumbetov Raion to the village of Komsomolskoye in Kizilyurt Raion, from where she took a taxi to Atsayev's home. Among the material evidence produced by the prosecution was Saprykina's mobile phone, which she was said to have used to maintain contact with Labazanov, and which reportedly yielded an exchange of text messages with him. Eight days prior to the sheikh's killing, Daghestan's Supreme Court had approved a request to monitor calls to and from Labazanov's mobile phones. Labazanov nonetheless repeatedly denied being aware that she planned to kill the sheikh by blowing herself up in his immediate vicinity.

During the pretrial investigation, Labazanov is said to have spoken in detail about how he got to know Suleymanov, his involvement in two abductions for ransom, and discussions among insurgents about the possibility of killing a deputy interior minister.

Testifying in court last month, however, Labazanov distanced himself from that incriminating testimony which he said he had given in response to threats directed at himself and members of his family.

Amirkhanov, who describes himself as a businessman, told the court that he "was never a member of any [insurgent] band" and that he had nothing to do with Atsayev's death. He said Labazanov asked him to accompany him to Makhachkala on the day in question, that Saprykina left them in Komsomolskoye, and that shortly afterward Labazanov turned back, saying he had forgotten the car papers and didn't want to risk being flagged down by traffic police.

Amirkhanov admitted to being acquainted with Suleymanov, a former classmate, but said he had had no contact with him since they graduated from school. Amirkhanov also said he was subjected to torture by electric shock immediately after his detention in December 2012.

Gadzhiyev, who faced only one charge, of being an accessory to murder (the prosecution claimed Saprykina stayed at his home in the run-up to the killing), similarly denied any role in it. He admitted having accompanied Labazanov and Saprykina to Komsomolskoye, driving ahead of them in a second car to alert them in the event of a police patrol ahead, but said he and Labazanov were going to inspect a car he wanted to buy. Gadzhiyev said the prosecution failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the terrorism charge against him; his lawyer argued that he simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In addition to his imputed involvement in Atsayev's killing, Labazanov, together with Israpilov, was accused of the abduction for ransom of hydrologist Vladimir Redkin in August 2010 and the attempt to snatch Surlevich. The Daghestani wing of the North Caucasus insurgency reportedly funds its activities largely by engaging in kidnappings for ransom and extorting protection money from businessmen and government ministers.

According to the indictment, Labazanov had got to know Israpilov on the hajj in 2010, and on their return to Makhachkala, Labazanov solicited Israpilov's assistance in breaking into Redkin's apartment to kidnap him, for which Labazanov later paid him 600,000 rubles ($11,233 at the current exchange rate). Israpilov, however, said he had never met his co-defendants until the trial began, and he had nothing to do with Redkin's abduction.

-- Liz Fuller


Caucasus Emirate Leader Killed In Daghestan

The Caucasus Emirate saw many fighters defect to the Islamic State group under the leadership of Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Amir Ali Abu-Muhammad.

The North Caucasus insurgency has confirmed that one of the insurgents killed during a counterterror operation on April 19 on the outskirts of the Daghestani town of Buinaksk was Aliaskhab Kebekov, aka Amir Ali Abu-Muhammad, the Avar theologian who was chosen in early 2014 to succeed Doku Umarov as leader of the Caucasus Emirate that Umarov had proclaimed in 2007.

According to the National Antiterrorism Committee, a total of five militants were killed when security personnel stormed the house in which they were holed up. One was Shamil Gasanov (Balakhansky), seen here swearing allegiance to Said Arakansky, commander of the Daghestan wing of the insurgency. Earlier reports suggest two of those killed were women.

Kebekov, who was 43, was born in Daghestan's central Shamil district, and studied Arabic and Islamic theology first with local clerics and later in Syria. He returned to Daghestan in 2005 and taught for a while in a madrasah (religious school) in Tarki before joining the insurgency in 2010.

Erudite, articulate, and occasionally sarcastic, Kebekov was the first non-Chechen to head the insurgency, and, as he himself readily admitted, the first with no combat experience. He construed jihad not as the low-level insurgency of the past 15 years, but as a clandestine ideological struggle within society as a whole, in which "we must juxtapose our system to that of the infidels in all directions: political, economic, informational."

He explained that "when we call on you to join the jihad, that does not mean immediately taking up arms, on the contrary, it is a call to labor intelligently ("грамотно") on the path of Allah, together with the community, in subordination to one's commander, but in a way that does not arouse suspicion.... We don't need you to leave home and head for the forest, there is no need whatsoever for this, as jihad knocks at the door of every Muslim."

In line with that vision of a predominantly political and ideological struggle, Kebekov sought to dissuade the fighters under his command, and especially women, from undertaking suicide bombings. Whether or not as a direct consequence of Kebekov's exhortations, the number of police and security personnel killed and wounded in Daghestan last year fell dramatically to 21 and 70 respectively, compared with 88 killed and 163 wounded in 2013. The number of insurgents killed declined only slightly, however, from 171 in 2013 to 163 in 2014.

Initially, lower-level commanders across the North Caucasus pledged loyalty to Kebekov. But late last year, two senior Daghestani commanders publicly affirmed their allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi; veteran Chechen commander Makhran Saidov and his deputy Usam followed suit soon after. A recent analysis posted on, the website of the Daghestani insurgency wing, acknowledged that "a good half" of Daghestan's insurgents had switched their allegiance to the IS group.

Even before Kebekov was killed, the defection of dozens if not hundreds of its fighters to IS raised the question whether the Caucasus Emirate remains viable as either an ideology or as a fighting force. Counterterror operations such as the one in which Kebekov and Balakhansky died are reported regularly both in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where a fighter with a Ukrainian surname and his Muslim common-law wife were killed last week. 

Chechen Successor?

The obvious candidate to succeed Kebekov as Caucasus Emirate head is veteran Chechen field commander Aslambek Vadalov, of whom a fellow fighter observed that "he never loses his cool, even when you're in the forest, surrounded by the enemy, and you think there's no escape."

Vadalov, who joined the Islamist wing of the Chechen resistance during the 1994-96 war, was one of the masterminds behind the August 2010 attack on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi.

That the Chechen insurgency wing is the only one with the capacity to launch a coordinated military operation is clear from its two-pronged attack on Grozny in December 2014, in which at least 14 police and security personnel were killed and a further 36 wounded.

-- Liz Fuller


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.