Thursday, July 24, 2014

Video Banned Chechen Movie Screened At Moscow Film Festival

A screen grab of the film "Ordered to Forget," which looks at a reported atrocity that occurred during the Chechen-Ingush deportation of 1944.

The Chechen film "Ordered to Forget" («Приказано забыть») which tells how some 700 residents  of the Chechen village of Haybakh were burned alive at the time of the February 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's orders, was screened on June 20 at the Moscow International Film Festival.
The premiere had originally been scheduled to take place in Grozny last month, but Russia's Ministry of Culture refused to certify the film for public distribution on the grounds that, since the archives of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD, the forerunner of the present-day Interior Ministry) contain no evidence that the atrocity ever took place, the film constitutes "a falsification of history" that  could give rise to interethnic hatred, according to its Chechen producer Ruslan Kokanayev.
According to Kokanayev, it was intended to give an impression of life in the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) during the period 1939-1945, i.e. at the height of the Stalinist terror. "We try to show that the story of Haybakh is interwoven human tragedies," he explained. "Some were forced to give orders, others to carry them out. A few tried to resist, a few refused to kill [people]." 
WATCH: A trailer for the film "Ordered to Forget"
Sulban Khasimikov, director of the Grozny film studio, said the movie, which was financed by Chechen businessmen, is not about the 1944 deportation as such. He said it is in part a love story, which at the same time showcases the customs and traditions of the Chechen people and the "difficulties" of life at that time.
Kokanayev says the Ministry of Culture did not raise any objections when he first submitted the scenario for approval, and that, when the finished film was first screened in Moscow in early February, Union of Cinematographers of Russia First Deputy Chairman Sergei Lazaruk praised it and said he hoped it would be a success. Kokanayev plans to contest the ban in court.
The rationale for the Haybakh killings was shockingly banal: Stalin's Mingrelian henchman Lavrenti Beria had issued orders that the entire Chechen and Ingush nations (an estimated 485,000 people) were to be rounded up, loaded onto trains and deported to Kazakhstan and Central Asia within 15 days (February 23-March 9).  Some local officials realized that they would be unable to meet that deadline due to logistical constraints (inclement weather conditions, lack of transport or gasoline), and so, rather than incur the wrath of the regime by failing to comply, they simply killed the population of some villages on the spot.
In Haybakh, some 700 people, including twin infant boys born that morning, were herded into a barn that was set alight. Those who tried to escape the flames were mown down by mortar fire. Some 200 people died on the same day in the Ingush village of Targim. Similar mass killings took place in the Chechen mountain village of Melkhesty and at Kezenoy-Am, the mountain lake that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov is transforming into a resort.
In his landmark "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes,  including the deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Karachais, Kumyks, and other ethnic groups, and gave the green light for their rehabilitation and return home. 

It was Khrushchev, too, who ordered the first investigation into what happened in Haybakh after meeting with Dziyaudin Malsagov. As a senior official in the Checheno-Ingush ASSR Justice Ministry, Malsagov had witnessed the events first hand and subsequently submitted written reports, first, in January 1945, to Stalin, and then  to U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers Chairman Georgy Malenkov.
The findings of the Khrushchev-era probe were never made public, however, and Haybakh remained a taboo subject until the late 1980s, when then CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policy of glasnost. First to raise the issue was young journalist Said Bitsoyev, now deputy editor of the Moscow daily "Novye izvestiya." In response to his article, the prosecutor's office in Chechnya's Urus-Martan district opened a criminal case in 1989.
Ruslan Tulikov, former ideological secretary of the local Communist Party district committee, now deputy administrator of Urus Martan district, described in a recent interview how he and a group of others began digging in the ruins of Haybakh and found charred bones, together with coins, earrings and spent bullets. He recalls how Malsagov showed up a few days after they started digging and explained to them precisely what happened.
Both Kokanayev and the Chechen authorities have challenged the Ministry of Culture's claim that no documentary evidence of the mass killing exists.  Chechen parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov told the official Chechen daily "Vesti respubliky" in early June that "we have such documents and they will be made public in the next few days."  He mentioned in particular Malsagov's letter to Malenkov.  But neither that missive nor any other relevant materials have appeared in the Chechen press to date.
Kokanayev, for his part, told Caucasus Knot that, in writing the script for the film, he drew on the expertise of a group of Chechen scholars who co-authored a book on the Haybakh killings based partly on the testimony of witnesses. (One of those authors, Salamat Gayev, was five years old at the time; he, his mother, and three siblings managed to escape death by hiding in the surrounding forest.) Kokanayev further points out that the film includes at the very end footage of Mumadi Elgakayev, one of the last remaining eyewitnesses, a few months before his death. He is unable to speak for weeping.
-- Liz Fuller

Ingush Parliamentarian Seeks Putin's Protection After Criticizing Republic Head

Akhmed's Belkhoroyev is not the first person to make allegations of corruption and mismanagement concerning Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (pictured).

Just nine months after his reelection for a second term as Republic of Ingushetia head, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov is once again facing allegations of corruption and mismanagement on the part of the regional government.
Such allegations are not new: for years the opposition Mekhk Kkhel (shadow parliament) bombarded Moscow with denunciations of Yevkurov and his entourage, and pleas to replace him. Then, in June 2013, 17 political parties and groups convened a congress in Moscow at which delegates demanded not only Yevkurov's resignation, but also the holding of a referendum on whether the republic head should be elected by popular ballot or by the parliament.
This time, however, the criticism of Yevkurov came neither from the Mekhk Kkhel nor the broader informal congress, nor from indefatigable oppositionist Magomed Khazbiyev, but from Akhmed Belkhoroyev, an Ingush parliamentarian who began his career in the Interior Ministry, and Israil Arsamakov, a former advisor to Yevkurov. 

Belkhoroyev, 28, is the sole representative in the Ingushetian legislature of the A Just Cause party. In May 2013, he was the only lawmaker to vote against amending the republic's constitution to abolish direct elections for the post of republic head.
One month later, he told the Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that it was endemic corruption and the republican leadership's inability to bring about any improvement in socioeconomic conditions in Ingushetia, which are among the worst in the entire Russian Federation, that impelled some 50,000 Ingush (out of a total population of 412,500) to sign a petition demanding such direct elections in the hope of voting Yevkurov out of office.

The Ingushetian human rights organization MASHR designated Belkhoroyev as one of its 2013 "heroes of civil society" for "decency in discharging his official duties."

Ingush parliamentarian Akhmed BelkhoroyevIngush parliamentarian Akhmed Belkhoroyev
Ingush parliamentarian Akhmed Belkhoroyev
Ingush parliamentarian Akhmed Belkhoroyev

Belkhoroyev repeated his criticisms of Yevkurov earlier this month. On June 9, he was quoted by the daily "Izvestia" as accusing Yevkurov of devoting his entire energy to undermining his political opponents rather than focusing on improving the socioeconomic situation.

Belkhoroyev said the republic is mired in corruption; that embezzlement of federal funds is "the norm;" that both the Russian Constitution and the law are routinely ignored; and that official statistics are falsified to show a steady decline in unemployment.
Arsamakov, for his part, told "Izvestia" that the process of creating a civil society has not even started in Ingushetia. He said the lack of employment prospects impels young men to "head for the forest" to join the Islamic insurgency, while government officials ignore the region's problems rather than seek solutions to them.
Moscow Unmoved
A commentary in "Moskovsky komsomolets" titled "Is Yevkurov Losing Control?"  characterized the situation in even more apocalyptic terms as "an undeclared civil war" replete with "the killings of innocent civilians, abductions, interclan conflicts and political intrigue."
Belkhoroyev's allegations of corruption and embezzlement are apparently not unfounded. Just days earlier, "Izvestia" had reported that a probe conducted early this year by the North Caucasus Federal District Directorate of the Russian Prosecutor General's office revealed "a whole series of gross violations" in the use of budget funds that could jeopardize the successful implementation of a 79-billion-ruble ($2.23-billion) federal development program for Ingushetia approved by the Russian government in 2009.
Bekhoroyev has since appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for protection, claiming to have received threats from Timur Khamroyev, head of the Interior Ministry Center for Combatting Extremism. Both in his appeal to Putin and in a separate letter to the Investigative Committee at the Prosecutor General's office, Belkhoroyev enumerated three instances of the recourse to torture by Republic of Ingushetia Interior Ministry personnel.



Meanwhile, Yevkurov convened a meeting with senior siloviki, parliamentarians and Security Council officials at which he made pejorative comments about Belkhoroyev and Arsamakov, thereby indirectly corroborating the former's charge that he spends too much time and energy trying to neutralize his political opponents.
The recently published effectiveness ratings for the heads of the 85 federation subjects nonetheless suggests that the Russian leadership is still inclined to believe Yevkurov's version of the state of affairs in Ingushetia.

Yevkurov ranked in joint 35th-38th place in that rating, in the second category (a score of 65-75 out of a maximum 100), after Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov (7th-9th place with a score of 92), Rashid Temrezov (Karachayevo-Cherkessia, 19th-20th ) and Ramazan Abdulatipov (Republic of Daghestan , 21st-22nd), but ahead of Aslanchery Tkhakushinov (Republic of Adygheya, 46th-48th),  Yurii Kokov (Kabardino-Balkaria, 65th-69th) and Taymuraz Mamsurov   (North Ossetia, 75th).
At the same time, it is conceivable, as this blog has hypothesized once before, that as long as the Kremlin continues to regard Yevkurov as a valuable counterweight to Kadyrov, any efforts to undermine him are a waste of time and energy.
Sergei Melikov, whom President Putin appointed in early May to head the North Caucasus Federal District, is currently touring the region and meeting one on one with republic heads. He has not yet visited Magas, but when he does, the published reports of his talks with Yevkurov may yield some indication of how seriously the Kremlin takes Belkhoroyev's corruption allegations.


-- Liz Fuller

Chechnya’s Mufti-For-Life Sidelined

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov received the support of the previous mufti.

Meeting on June 11 in Grozny’s central mosque, Chechnya’s religious leaders unanimously elected theologian Salakh Mezhiyev as their new mufti. Mezhiyev replaces Sultan-hadji Mirzayev, who at the proposal of then Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was elected Chechnya’s mufti for life four years ago. On June 3, it had been announced that Mirzayev, 49, is no longer able to discharge his duties due to ill health. His first deputy, Magomed Khiytanayev, was “temporarily” appointed acting mufti in his place.

Ill-health was the reason adduced in May 2005 when Mirzayev was first appointed mufti in place of Akhmad-hadji Shamayev. Shamayev admitted, however, that the real reason he stepped down was his disapproval of unspecified developments in Chechnya and inability to influence the situation there. It is not clear whether he was alluding to the appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as deputy prime minister one year earlier.

Mirzayev studied theology in Daghestan prior to the demise of the Soviet Union. Following the 1994-1996 war, he served under Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov as imam of the Ichkeria National Guard and chairman of the republic’s Sharia court.

When Russia again sent troops into Chechnya in the fall of 1999, Mirzayev switched sides and aligned himself with Moscow, as did Kadyrov’s father Akhmad-hadji, who had been mufti under Maskhadov. In 2000, Mirzayev was named an advisor to Akhmad-hadji, and two years later – first deputy mufti.

For years, Mirzayev has unquestioningly supported and promoted Ramzan Kadyrov’s obsessive inculcation of a bizarre syncretic amalgam of Chechen Sufism and popular Islam; canonical Sunni Islam, as represented by the Shafii legal school; and, more recently, Christian practice. 

He has never publicly challenged Kadyrov’s outrageous and at times heretical statements, such as that Islam was brought to Chechnya from Turkey, or  his characterization of Sufi saints as “companions of God.”  Neither did he raise any objection to Kadyrov naming new mosques after himself or members of his family. Some theologians consider that practice heretical.

In 2011, Mirzayev ordained that Ramadan should begin in Chechnya one day later than in the rest of the Muslim world. He has also issued a formal ban on the burial of slain insurgents in Muslim ceremonies with the appropriate religious rites. 

Assuming that Mirzayev’s health is not the primary reason why he has been replaced, it is not easy to guess what he may have said or done (or not done) to incur Kadyrov’s displeasure. Over the past six months, Kadyrov has identified as a new threat to the “purity” of the bastardized Islam he espouses, and called for a resolute campaign to eradicate, the Habashi ideology formulated by  Ethiopia-born Islamic scholar Sheikh Abdullah Al- Harari, of which Ukrainian mufti Sheikh Akhmed Tamim (who is originally from Lebanon) is reportedly an adherent. That ideology is described as “combining Sunni and Shi’i belief systems under the umbrella of Pan-Sufism, specifically of the Rifa’iyya, Qadiriyya, and Naqshabandi religious orders (tariqa).” 

Why Kadyrov should nonetheless consider Habashism (which is not banned in the Russian Federation) so pernicious is not clear – unless a comparison highlights the extent to which he has bastardized Chechen Sufism. (Could the Ukrainian Habashi connection have been a contributing factor to Kadyrov’s repeated expressions of support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine?)

At the same time, since the start of 2014, the Chechen authorities have launched a wave of reprisals against young believers suspected of preferring Salafism to Kadyrov’s reinvention of Chechen Sufism. The targets are those young men whose beards are considered “too long” (meaning longer than Kadyrov’s) and women who wear a black hijab.  Young men who were found to have downloaded sermons by Salafi preachers to their mobile phones were detained for questioning; some were reportedly beatn or tortured. Between January 1 and March 7, the insurgency website Kavkazcenter reported 13 such incidents at mosques in Argun, Avtury, Gudermes, Alkhan-Yurt, Urus-Martan,  and various districts of Grozny.

If Kadyrov’s primary concern is to wean the younger generation away from beliefs he considers anathema, the question arises: why did he then promote as Mirzayev’s successor Mezhiyev, rather than Khiytanayev? A graduate of the Al-Fatih Islamic Institute in Damascus,  Khiytanayev served for the past two years, until January 2014, as chief qadi in Grozny. During that time, he met more than once with university students and reportedly succeeded by virtue of his “charisma and refined sense of humor” in establishing a rapport with his listeners and convincing them of the perils of heeding “dubious persons who seek to lure you from the one true path.”

On the other hand, Khiytanayev may have forfeited all credibility with those young believers who reject Kadyrov’s version of Islam.

Mezhiyev for his part is widely respected as a learned scholar and a decent human being, according to RFE/RL’s Radio Marsho. Kadyrov characterized him as a very moral person with a secular education in addition to his profound knowledge of theology, “who for long years has worked to spread genuine Islamic values,” meaning the values tolerated by Moscow and considered by the Chechen strongman himself as correct and unquestionable. That seems to be the most important reason why he was picked as a successor to the inarticulate, inefficient, and unpopular Mirzayev. Besides, Mezhiyev as a fluent speaker of Arabic and respected theologian is likely to find favor with visiting Muslim clerics who may look askance on some of Kadyrov’s more egregious pronouncements.

-- Liz Fuller, Aslan Doukaev

Clashes, Alleged Pressure Cast Shadow Over Georgian Local Election Campaign

Comments made by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili have caused controversy in the run-up to local elections. (file photo)

Georgia holds its third national election in less than three years on June 15. Following the parliamentary ballot of October 2012 in which then-President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) was defeated after 10 years in power by the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the election one year later as Saakashvili's successor of Georgian Dream candidate and former Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili, on this occasion voters are called on to elect new municipal councils and the mayors of the country's 12 largest cities and towns.
The two previous ballots were characterized by what commentator Gela Vasadze describes as "Shakespearean passions," but were nonetheless unequivocally rated by the international community as free, fair, and democratic.
This time, however, the campaign has been marred by allegations of government pressure on opposition candidates in some districts to withdraw, and clashes between rival political forces. Those alleged violations resulted in expressions of concern from human rights watchdogs, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Central Election Commission chair Tamara Zhvania.
What is more, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has incurred harsh criticism from opposition politicians who construed a statement he made at a campaign rally in western Georgia as a call for rigging the outcome of the ballot in favour of Georgian Dream.
According to the NDI's interim report on the election campaign, some 400 candidates (of the 15,900+ who registered) have since withdrawn, more than 30 of them because of pressure from local police and other officials. Most of those instances of alleged pressure took place in areas of southern Georgia where the population is predominantly Armenian or Azerbaijani.
The Georgian Interior Ministry has denied any such pressure was exerted. The Prosecutor General's office investigated 80 such complaints, and stated that, in 76 of them, the candidates denied they were subjected to pressure. Criminal cases have been opened in the remaining four.
Violent Incidents
There have also been repeated violent incidents involving rival supporters of GD and the ENM, again mostly in the south (in Rustavi on May 24 and Gardabani on May 26).  On some occasions, eggs were thrown, a practice that Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who chairs an interagency body tasked with ensuring the fairness of the ballot, condemned as "not characteristic of a civilized society."
Injudicious statements by Prime Minister Gharibashvili have reinforced the perception among opposition parties that Georgian Dream is now resorting, or will resort, to the kind of election malpractice that the ENM had engaged in during its decade in power. Speaking in western Georgia in late May, Gharibashvili declared that "in the local elections as in the parliamentary and presidential elections, Georgian Dream will win worthily and convincingly and will not permit the victory of any other political force in a single region or town." Gharibashvili subsequently sought to justify and rationalize that statement, explaining that he was speaking not in his capacity as premier but as a leading member of Georgian Dream.
The NDI report nonetheless commented that such statements by the prime minister "could have the effect of challenging the impartiality that election and other government authorities have worked hard to establish. They also present the risk of being misconstrued by electoral authorities as a directive to ensure the victory of the ruling party."
This week, former Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti governor Tenigiz Gunava, who is  the ENM's candidate for the post of Zugdidi mayor, brought a libel suit against Gharibashvili for allegedly implicating him in the murder five years ago of Defense Ministry official Paata Kurdava.
On the plus side, the NDI report gives a positive assessment of recent amendments made to Georgia's election legislation. Among other things, they increase the number of seats on local councils allocated under the party list system and lower the threshold for representation from 5 to 4 percent, a move that will help small, nonparliamentary parties secure a voice at the local level. A related provision allows parties or blocs that receive at least 3 percent of the vote to claim reimbursement of up to 500,000 laris ($282,752) spent on campaign expenses.
In addition, the changes raise to 50 percent the minimum vote a mayoral candidate needs for a first round victory.   The then ruling ENM lowered that threshold to 30 percent in run-up to the previous local elections in 2010 to facilitate the victory of its candidate for the mayor of Tbilisi.
Out of a total of 34 parties and blocs that applied to participate in the ballot, 20 parties and four blocs (including the ENM, Georgian Dream, and the Nonparliamentary Opposition comprising the New Rightists and Free Georgia) were formally registered. Two parties, former parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze's Democractic Movement-- One Georgia and Jondi Baghaturia's Kartuli Dasi (Georgian Group) subsequently withdrew their lists of candidates for local councils, but Burdjanadze's party is still fielding mayoral candidates in 10 cities jointly with the Christian Democratic Movement.
Possible EU Setback
Local elections almost invariably attract a lower voter turnout than do parliamentary or presidential ballots, and several Georgian commentators believe that these elections will not prove an exception. Whether they will corroborate Gharibashvili's assertion that the ENM is "disappearing off the radar screen" remains to be seen. A poll conducted on behalf of the NDI in mid-April found support for Georgian Dream at 48 percent, with the ENM a distant second at 15 percent; Burdjanadze's bloc and the Labor Party both rated 4 percent.
In Tbilisi, Georgian Dream's candidate David Narmania enjoyed 39 percent support followed by Nika Melia (ENM, 10 percent) and Dmitry Lortkipanidze (Burdjanadze's bloc, 9 percent), suggesting that contest may go to a second round runoff.
While the conduct of the vote is unlikely to derail the signing, scheduled for June 27, of Georgia's Association Agreement with the European Union, blatant recourse to administrative leverage to secure the landslide win that Gharibashvili predicted for Georgian Dream or violence on polling day could demolish Georgia's already dwindling hopes of being offered a MAP (Membership Action Plan) at the NATO summit in Wales in September.

-- Liz Fuller

Five Sentenced For Politkovskaya’s Murder On Seemingly Inconclusive Evidence

Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, who was given a life sentence for having masterminded the killing, speaks from behind glass in the dock in Moscow on June 9.

The Moscow City Court has sentenced to jail terms ranging from 12 years to life five Chechen men whom a jury found guilty last month of the murder in October 2006 of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. All five pleaded not guilty.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Politkovskaya won widespread respect and renown for her coverage of the fighting in Chechnya, the misery and human rights violations that ensued, and corruption and brutality among the pro-Moscow leadership Russian President Vladimir Putin installed to succeed democratically elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Politkovskaya’s colleague Dmitry Muratov estimates that she wrote more than 500 such articles for the independent newspaper "Novaya gazeta" of which he is editor.

The five men sentenced for killing her are: Lom-Ali Gaytukayev, a crime boss currently serving a prison term for another contract killing, who is accused of masterminding the murder at the behest of unnamed individuals angered by Politkovskaya’s revelations of corruption and human rights violations; his nephews Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, accused of driving the getaway car; their elder brother Rustam Makhmudov, identified as the killer who shot Politkovskaya five times in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow; and former Moscow policeman Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, who is said to have organized surveillance of Politkovskaya’s movements prior to her death.

Rustam Makhmudov and Gaytukayev were jailed for life; Khadzhikurbanov for 20 years; and Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov for 14 and 12 years respectively.

The judge overruled the argument by their defense lawyers that the guilty verdict was illegal because just 30 minutes before the jury withdrew, he had replaced one of its members who had urged her fellow jurors to step down.

The court likewise rejected the defense’s objections that the prosecution failed to provide any evidence of the men’s guilt or determine what motive they had for the murder.

In the wake of the murder, numerous hypotheses were expounded about why and by whom Politkovskaya had been killed. The eight most plausible, as enumerated by the website Caucasus Knot, are as follows:
  • The Chechen Republic leadership, including then-Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, commissioned and organized the murder. Interviewed by Politkovskaya in June 2004, Kadyrov branded her "an enemy" and "a liar." Her description of his general demeanour and how he treated subordinates is less than flattering. When Politkovskaya asked Kadyrov what branch of law he was writing his dissertation on, he replied: "I've forgotten. But I’ve got it written down somewhere."
  • The Russian authorities were behind the murder. 
  • Politkovskaya was killed to discredit Putin and Kadyrov. Putin’s birthday is October 6, the day of the murder, Kadyrov’s is one day earlier. 
  • Politkovskaya’s death was advantageous to the West (why is not clear, unless because it reflected badly on Putin). 
  • The murder was commissioned by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky denied any connection, but the Russian authorities have apparently not totally ruled out that possibility. According to Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin, Russia is still waiting for responses from the United Kingdom and Turkey to requests for legal assistance in connection with Politkovskaya’s death. Berezovsky lived in Britain from 2000 until his death in March 2013. 
  • Politkovskaya was killed by former Interior Ministry officers from the Khanty-Mansy Autonomous Okrug in revenge for articles that led to the conviction of one of their colleagues for murder. 
  • The murder was undertaken by a person or people devoted to someone whose misdeeds Politkovskaya chronicled.
  • Politkovskaya was killed by extreme nationalists who considered her “an enemy of the Russian people.” 

In the summer of 2007, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chayka announced that the murder had been solved and that it had been committed by members of a prominent criminal grouping. Eleven suspects were arrested, including former Chechen local official Shamil Burayev, but he and seven others were subsequently released.

The remaining three -- Khadzhikurbanov and Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov -- went on trial in October  2008, but in February 2009 a jury found them not guilty.

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office appealed the acquittal, however, and a new investigation was launched, which led to the arrest two years later, in March 2011, of the Makhmudovs’ elder brother Rustam.

The turning point came in August 2011 with the arrest of a second former police officer, retired Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, who had been a witness for the prosecution during the first trial. Pavlyuchenkov admitted to his role in the murder, for which he was tried in a separate case and jailed for 11 years.

According to the defense lawyers, the prosecution’s case in the second trial was based largely on Pavlyuchenkov’s testimony.

Specifically, Pavlyuchenkov said that he organized surveillance by former colleagues under Khadzhikurbanov’s guidance of Politkovskaya’s movements and passed the details to Gaytukayev, who had paid him $150,000 for his services. Khadzhikurbanov denies this, claiming Pavlyuchenkov incriminated him out of personal spite.
Pavlyuchenkov also said he provided Rustam Makhmudov with the murder weapon.

The defense has consistently highlighted the absence of material evidence to support the prosecution’s case. They argued that the man seen on video surveillance footage entering Politkovskaya’s apartment building before the murder and the man who left afterwards, whom Pavlyuchenkov identified with 80 percent certainty as Rustam Makhmudov even though the defense insists he bore no resemblance to Makhmudov, are two different people (one was wearing a black jacket and the other a white jacket). They further pointed out that given the time lag between when Politkovskaya entered the building loaded down with grocery shopping and the man identified as the killer emerged, the latter would have had just 24 seconds in which to run down half a flight of stairs, fire five shots through the slowly closing elevator door, change his jacket, and exit the building.

What is more, the defense stressed the failure of the prosecution to account for the absence  of Rustam Makhmudov's fingerprints either in the vehicle identified as the getaway car or on the murder weapon, and the presence on that gun and elsewhere at the scene of the crime of an unidentified woman’s DNA.

In March, presiding judge Pavel Melekhin refused to allow the use of a lie-detector while the accused were being questioned.

Rustam Makhmudov denies he or his brothers had anything to do with killing, and says he met Khadzhikurbanov, to whom his uncle had introduced him, twice at most. Defense lawyer Murad Musayev has said he was convinced that it was Pavlyuchenkov who masterminded the murder.

In a press release after the jury found the five accused guilty, Amnesty International said that verdict “marks only a small step towards justice. The process has left too many questions unanswered and full justice will not be served until those who ordered the crime are identified and face the courts.”

-- Liz Fuller

Will 'Decent Guys' Again Outnumber Competent Lawmakers in New South Ossetian Parliament?

Following an election campaign that seems to have been conducted fairly and openly, South Ossetians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament on June 8. (file photo)

The estimated 42,000 voters in Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia will go to the polls on June 8 to elect a new parliament.

The ballot, in which some 200 candidates from nine political parties will compete for 34 mandates allocated according to the proportional (party list) system, represents a further step in repudiating and dismantling the corrupt and authoritarian system that flourished under the region's former de facto president, Eduard Kokoity.
At the same time, it is difficult to predict with any certainty which and how many parties will garner the minimum 7 percent of the vote required to qualify for parliamentary representation.
Several observers have predicted, as have Fydybasta party chairman Vyacheslav Gobozov and People's Party head Aleksandr Pliyev, that disenchantment with and distrust of the current leadership headed by de facto President Leonid Tibilov will be reflected in low voter participation. In 2009, turnout was 81.93 percent.
Tibilov, elected in the second round of a repeat ballot in April 2012, is struggling to deliver on promises to complete the reconstruction of homes and infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the August 2008 Georgia-Russia war and kick start the region's stagnating economy. But as the newspaper "Respublika" noted in an editorial pegged to the second anniversary of Tibilov's inauguration, his achievements to date include promoting political liberalization and media freedom and supporting a burgeoning civil society.
Tibilov's election as de facto president served as the catalyst for the creation of a plethora of new political parties and groups, three of them headed by former presidential candidates to whom Tibilov had offered posts in the new government of national unity. Yedinaya Osetiya is headed by Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov and New Ossetia by de facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev, whom Tibilov defeated in the second round runoff. The third, Freedom Square, did not apply to participate after a bid to field a joint list of candidates with Vladimir Kelekhsayev's Unity of the People party failed. Freedom Square's future appears in doubt following the resignation in April due to ill health of its founder and chairwoman, Alla Djioyeva.
The parties Alans and A Just Ossetia both decided against participating in the election due to their leaders' shared conviction that the results would be rigged. Fidan was denied registration because its formal application was submitted three minutes after the legal deadline.
A Unique Contest

Observers agree that the upcoming election is unique, for several reasons.
The first is the unprecedentedly high number of parties participating. Of the 14 parties that applied, nine succeeded in registering: Unity; Yedinaya Osetiya; New Ossetia; Fydybasta; the Communist Party; the People's Party; Unity of the People;  Nykhas; and Rodina. By contrast, in 2009, only four parties were registered: the pro-Kokoity Unity; the People's Party wing headed by Kazimir Pliyev, the Communist Party; and Fydybasta.  Only the first three succeeded in surmounting the minimum 7 percent hurdle.
Second is the fact that Tibilov is not backing any party.
And third, the fairness and openness of the election campaign, which began on May 21, and the absence of major violations of the electoral law.
True, individual candidates including Gobozov were initially denied registration due to their apparent failure to comply with the minimum five-year residency requirement, but most were reinstated after appealing to the Supreme Court.
But there were no major scandals comparable with the hijack of the opposition People's Party in April 2009 by Kokoity's close cronies, after which a group of pro-Kokoity candidates was registered for the ballot while the core party headed by Roland Kelekhsayev was barred.
There are broad similarities between the parties' electoral programs, due to the need to address the formidable political, economic and geopolitical problems the region faces.

With minor differences in focus, almost all advocate constitutional amendments in order to bring about a redistribution of powers between the president, the government and the parliament; a system of checks and balances to make ministers more accountable; and encouraging investment and providing support for small and medium-sized businesses, especially those engaged in agriculture and food processing.
The one key issue on which views diverge is that of relations with the Russian Federation, which formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in the wake of the August 2008 war and on which it is largely dependent for financial aid. While Fydybasta and Rodina place the emphasis on working to secure broader recognition by the international community of South Ossetia's independence, Bibilov's Unity made headlines earlier this year by calling on Tibilov to schedule a referendum on the unification of South and North Ossetia within the Russian Federation.
No 'Big Idea'

Several local analysts have expressed concern that the election programs of the nine parties are either too broadly similar, or lack any explanation of how the various reforms they advocate should be implemented.
Russian analyst Yevgeny Krutikov has suggested that due to this lack of a new, inspirational "big idea," voters will instead be guided primarily by the personal qualities of individual candidates and cast their vote for party that fields the largest number of persons they consider  to be "decent guys."
Tibilov sees the same danger: as he observed in a recent interview, "being a decent guy isn't a profession."  He added that as a result of "incompetence, overdue haste and disregard for the scientific norms of law-making," a majority of the laws passed have proven mutually contradictory.
Gobozov, for his part, described the performance of the parliaments elected in 2004 and 2009 as "an example of how a parliament should not function."
According to Central Election Commission chairwoman Bella Pliyeva, more than 50 international observers will monitor the vote, including some from France, Greece, Israel, and the United States. None of those countries recognize South Ossetia as independent.
-- Liz Fuller

Abkhazia Heads Into A Turbulent Summer

Demonstrators on May 27 storm the building where the de facto president of Abkhazia, Georgia's breakaway republic, is office is located in Sukhumi.

The June 1 resignation of Aleksandr Ankvab as de facto president of Georgia’s breakaway Republic of Abkhazia has resolved one major domestic political standoff. But there is little likelihood that the run-up to the preterm presidential ballot scheduled for August 24 will be smooth, and its outcome is currently impossible to predict.
One of the demands put to Ankvab in late April by the Coordinating Council of 11 opposition parties established last year was the passage of constitutional amendments that would transfer to the parliament and prime minister some of the powers currently invested in the president. This is now impossible, however, because the acting president is not empowered by the Abkhaz Constitution to initiate such amendments.  It will therefore be up to whoever wins the August ballot to initiate those amendments, after which he risks playing second fiddle to whichever of his supporters he has appointed as prime minister.
That constitutional conundrum may partly explain why none of Abkhazia’s most influential political figures has yet expressed the intention of putting forward his presidential candidacy. Ankvab’s longtime rival, Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia Chairman Raul Khajimba, who played a leading role in the events of the past week that culminated in Ankvab’s resignation, has said that at present he has no intention of running. Khajimba placed second to incumbent Sergei Bagapsh in the December 2009 presidential ballot and third in the August 2011 election necessitated by Bagapsh’s untimely death in May 2011. On the first occasion, he garnered 15.4 percent of the vote; on the second, 19.83 percent.
Valery Bganba, the agronomist and former parliament speaker whom lawmakers chose on May 31 as acting president, has similarly made clear he will not run. Bganba placed last of five candidates in the December 2009 presidential ballot with just 1.5 percent of the vote.
Other possible candidates are former longtime Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who served during Bagapsh’s second term as premier and who placed a distant second to Ankvab in the August 2011 ballot; wealthy businessman Beslan Butba, who heads the Party of Economic Development of Abkhazia; and Vitaly Gabnia, chairman of the organization Aruaa representing veterans of the 1992-93 war that ended in Georgia's loss of control over Abkhazia.
The second potentially destabilizing factor is tactical disagreements within the opposition as a whole, which brings together "young idealists and bureaucrats from the previous government," and specifically the 21-member Provisional Council of Popular Trust set up last week and headed by Khajimba. Writing for the website, Anton Krivenyuk does not rule out the emergence within the Coordinating Council of new rival power groupings.

-- 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.