Monday, March 30, 2015

Armenian Opposition In Disarray After Prominent Leader Sidelined

Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukian (file photo)

The political standoff between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his most serious political rival, the leader of the opposition party Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BHK) Gagik Tsarukian, has ended with the latter backing away from his calls early this month to mobilize the population in a push for pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections if the authorities insist on proceeding with controversial proposals to transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic.

In a statement on February 18, one day after a clandestine meeting with the president, Tsarukian affirmed the need to resolve political problems "through peaceful, lawful and political means." But Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) nonetheless reportedly still intends to strip Tsarukian, one of Armenia's wealthiest entrepreneurs, of his parliamentary mandate on the grounds of absenteeism and to have his numerous businesses audited in light of suspicions of tax evasion.

What is more, Tsarukian's volte-face appears to have dealt the coup de grace to the tenuous tactical alignment between the BHK and its opposition partners, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party. On February 20, at a small public rally of his supporters, Zharangutiun chairman Raffi Hovannisian declared that, in light of the "truce" concluded between Tsarukian and Sarkisian, the alignment no longer exists. Hovannisian added, however, that he is "open to cooperation" with any political party or groups seeking regime change and reiterated his demand that Sarkisian resign.

Officially, the BHK claims that the catalyst for the standoff was the government's planned constitutional reform that the BHK, the HAK, and Zharangutiun are convinced is geared toward enabling Sarkisian, 60, to remain in power as either prime minister or parliament speaker after his second presidential term ends in the spring of 2018.

The constitutional reform "concept," calling for a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister and largely ceremonial head of state, was unveiled for public discussion in October 2014. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission gave a generally positive assessment, saying the proposed changes would "strengthen democratic principles and establish the necessary conditions for ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights." At the same time, the commission noted that the transition to a parliamentary republic requires "broad consensus within society." 

Sarkisian's press secretary Arman Saghatelian said on October 17 that the decision on whether to proceed with the reform would not be taken before February-March 2015. "Given that some issues discussed in the concept have a pronounced political component, additional political discussions and a greater political consolidation are expected in connection with them," Saghatelian told

No Common Agenda

The BHK, the HAK, and Zharangutiun responded jointly by announcing the creation across the country of organizing bodies to mobilize the population to demand regime change. But the BHK was consistently more hesitant than its partners in explicitly demanding President Sarkisian's resignation and pre-term presidential elections, leading Zharangutiun chairman and former Foreign Minister Hovannisian to comment that the three parties still lacked a common agenda.

In late December, Tsarukian spokeswoman Iveta Tonoyan said the BHK planned to convene "a political conference," to which nonparliamentary parties too would be invited, to discuss what further steps to take. Addressing that gathering on February 5, Tsarukian painted a bleak picture of the socioeconomic situation in Armenia, and warned that the BHK and its opposition allies would launch a campaign for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections unless Sarkisian drops his plans to amend the constitution.

Just two days after that conference, BHK activist Artak Khachatrian was attacked and beaten on the street in Yerevan. The BHK publicly accused the HHK of orchestrating that attack and threatened a boycott of parliamentary proceedings by its 37-member faction (the second largest after the HHK). 

Then on February 12, Sarkisian launched an ad hominem attack on Tsarukian that was broadcast live on national television, branding him "evil," "a scourge," and "illiterate]." He said Tsarukian lacked the intelligence to govern Armenia, and that his continued membership of the political elite of a country at war is a liability. 

However, perhaps the real reason for the president's attack on Tsarukian could lie in the timing -- just days after Tsarurkian flew to Moscow to meet with legislators from Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. That visit was seen by many close to Sarkisian as an open attempt to secure Russian support for a bid to undermine him.

Some even worried that, in the aftermath of the killing of an Armenian family in Gyumri in January -- allegedly by a rogue Russian deserter, Tsarukian, and perhaps former President Robert Kocharian, who is regarded as the "godfather" of the BHK, would seek to convince the Putin camp in Moscow that the Armenian leadership is no longer reliable, and to pledge their own loyalty to Putin in exchange for a Russian-backed coup.

Sarkisian's possible anger and outrage at that presumed scenario would explain the vehement and vindictive tone of his diatribe against Tsarukian. He demanded that Tsarukian be stripped of his parliamentary mandate, given that he attended only four of the 145 parliament sessions in 2013-2014, and instructed Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian (whose son is married to one of Tsarukian's daughters) to set in motion an audit of Tsarukian's businesses in light of long-standing rumors that Tsarukian was withholding "billions" in taxes under the guise of donations to charity. 

Armenian President Serzh SarkisiaArmenian President Serzh Sarkisia
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisia
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisia

Sarkisian reaffirmed his commitment to the constitutional reform, but did not give any indication when preparations for the required nationwide referendum on it would start. For good measure, Sarkisian then signed a decree removing Tsarukian from the National Security Council.

Tsarukian initially showed himself defiant, saying on February 13 that he was more concerned about "forfeiting the people's trust" than being stripped of his parliamentary mandate. "I am taking up the gauntlet and am going to fight until victory," he told an emergency meeting with senior BHK figures. He went on to call for "nationwide mobilization with a single goal: to achieve Serzh Sarkisian's resignation and get rid of this government of evil through all legal political methods such as nonstop rallies, marches, demonstrations, and civil disobedience."

Tsarukian also claimed that Sarkisian had sought to persuade him to endorse the proposed constitutional reforms in return for a promise that he would become Armenia's next, largely ceremonial president. 

Following separate consultations between Tsarukian and the leaders of the HAK and Zharangutiun, the three parties announced on February 15 that they would stage a mass rally in Yerevan on February 20 to demand Sarkisian's resignation. The Yerevan city council, however, refused to give permission for that gathering. 

The tensions were finally defused by a personal meeting between Sarkisian and Tsarukian on February 17 mediated by the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), which was briefly part of the coalition government formed after Sarkisian was first elected president in 2008. The HHD supports Sarkisian's proposed constitutional reform, and has urged other opposition forces to do likewise.

No details have been divulged of the February 17 tete-a-tete, but it appears that Tsarukian was either pressured or persuaded to back down. The BHK called off the rally planned for February 20, and 19 BHK members and activists whom police had rounded up in the wake of Tsarukian's call for nonstop protests were released.

Whether or not Tsarukian has forfeited all political credibility, the HHK nonetheless appears determined to proceed with the disciplinary measures against him and the audit of his business empire.

Tenuous Alliance Shattered

Meanwhile, the future of the BHK remains unclear. Two BHK parliament faction members quit the party on February 16, and two more the following day, reducing the grouping to 33 members. Political analyst Sergei Minasian has predicted that the BHK will no longer remain Armenia's second most powerful political force.

It is conceivable that the BHK may split, with Kocharian assuming leadership of the breakaway wing. That is unlikely, however: even though many mid-level and rank and file BHK members are clearly frustrated by Tsarukian's sudden decision to back down, the party is simply too dependent on top-down leadership, and despite Kocharian's looming presence and patronage, left with little real alternative.

As noted above, the events of the past week have effectively demolished the tenuous alliance between the BHK, the HAK, and Zharangutiun. Zharangutiun chairman Hovannisian has announced that he will hold a press conference on Yerevan's Freedom Square on February 27. The HAK, for its part, is planning a rally on March 1 to "analyse the situation that has arisen and unveil future plans.". 

It is more than questionable, however, whether HAK leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, now marginalized and desperate, could again emerge as an acknowledged opposition leader as he did in 2011. On February 19, Ter-Petrossian appealed for "popular assistance and support" for Tsarukian and attributed his "political mistakes" to Tsarukian's lack of experience and to the activities of "a bunch of troublemakers inside the BHK" who , he claimed, are pursuing a separate agenda. 

Armenian oppositionist Levon Ter-PetrossianArmenian oppositionist Levon Ter-Petrossian
Armenian oppositionist Levon Ter-Petrossian
Armenian oppositionist Levon Ter-Petrossian

Yet the events of the past two weeks also reveal a deeper deficiency in Armenian democracy. The underlying problem is not just that crises and confrontations in Armenian politics remain driven and dominated by personalities rather than policies. Rather the inherent problem stems from the closed political system in general, and the lack of real political parties, more specifically.

Central to this problem is the nature and privileged role in Armenian politics of the "ruling party." That status bestows not only political power, but also economic privilege, a patronage network, the opportunity to impose restrictions on political discourse and debate, and the so-called "administrative resources" crucial to retaining power in subsequent elections. 

Consequently, the political strategy of both the HAK and the BHK is largely driven by the pursuit of power, with the objective of replacing the present government to become the new ruling party. 

In other words, the struggle for power eclipses ideology and political programs: opposition parties rarely propose any meaningful or practical policy alternatives. The loser in this struggle is, of course, the Armenian electorate, which is left with few opportunities to express its views and even less choice between political options.

-- Liz Fuller & Richard Giragosian

Opposition Politician Assaulted, Beaten In Daghestan

Gadjimurad Omarov accused Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov (pictured) of instigating the attack.

Unidentified men in civilian clothes disrupted a conference of the opposition A Just Russia party in Makhachkala on February 21 and assaulted and beat up the head of the party organization in Daghestan, Gadjimurad Omarov. In a video clip posted on YouTube, Omarov, his face visibly badly bruised, accused his “former friend and comrade-in-arms,” Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, of instigating the assault. Omarov has since returned via Chechnya to Moscow, where he said he is being treated for his injuries.

Meanwhile, Daghestan’s Interior Ministry has released a statement saying its officers went to the hotel where the conference was taking place because they had received a tip-off that there was a bomb in the building, which they evacuated and then searched with sniffer dogs, but failed to locate any explosive device. The statement noted media reports that Omarov had been hospitalized after being beaten and said it would “take measures in accordance with Russian law” on receipt of a complaint from the victim or formal notification from a hospital.

Omarov, who turns 53 on February 23, is a controversial figure who has reportedly switched his political allegiance more than once. He is an Avar, as is Abdulatipov. A trained lawyer, Omarov was a professional Komsomol activist prior to the collapse of the U.S.S.R., then worked for a time for the oil company Dagneft, which was headed until his untimely death in a Moscow automobile crash in December 2013 by another Avar, Gadji Makhachev. Both Omarov and Makhachev were elected to the Russian State Duma in 1999. 

In June 2012, Omarov was named by A Just Russia’s leadership to head the party’s Daghestan organization, having reportedly previously been affiliated first with Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and then with the ruling Unified Russia party. (Commenting on Omarov’s appointment, one Daghestani blogger described him as “a top-quality opportunist.”)

Omarov attributed his appointment to the party leadership’s displeasure that its Daghestan chapter had covertly backed candidates from United Russia in the elections to Daghestan’s National Assembly one year earlier. 

A Just Russia is the second-largest faction in the republican parliament, with 13 of the 90 mandates. Omarov said in an interview two months ago, however, that those law-makers owe their mandates to Abdulatipov’s predecessor as republic head, Magomedsalam Magomedov, who “made them into an offshoot of the party of power.”

Omarov acknowledged nonetheless that he has reasonable working relations with all members of the faction except for one of its leaders, whom he declined to name. (He may have meant Kamil Davdiyev, whose positive assessments of the republic’s leadership are quoted regularly by Daghestan’s state-controlled media. When Omarov was appointed to head A Just Russia’s Daghestan branch in June 2012, Davdiyev threatened to quit the party in protest.) 

In that same interview, Omarov divulged that his party is trying to collect 50,000 signatures to a petition demanding Abdulatipov’s resignation. He said he cannot see anything good in what Abdulatipov has done since being named republic head in January 2013: On the contrary, the republic is virtually bankrupt and corruption has increased. He further pointed out that since Abdulatipov does not control the “power” ministries, he cannot take any credit for the decline in the activity of the North Caucasus insurgency’s Daghestan wing.

At the same time, Omarov voiced clear regret that a man who had been his close friend, and whom he had personally assured the Russian presidential administration was the most suitable candidate for the post of republic head, had changed so much. “For 20 years I knew him as one person, and now he is a completely different person,” Omarov said. 

Omarov returned to that theme in the video clip filmed after he was beaten up. Addressing Abdulatipov, Omarov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had sent him to Daghestan to lift the region out of crisis and to give the population a respite from corruption, jobs, and a decent life, but Abdulatipov has failed to meet those expectations.

-- Liz Fuller

Daghestan's Derbent Debacle

The city of Derbent has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and may be 5,000 years old.

The ongoing preparations to celebrate in September 2015 the 2,000th anniversary of the Caspian town of Derbent constitute a classic example of the late Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's aphorism: "We wanted the best possible, but it turned out the way it always does."

Not only is the work of restoring and renovating the oldest parts of the town, which UNESCO has designated a World Heritage Site, and upgrading infrastructure so far behind schedule that the Russian government has decided to stagger the celebrations over a period of three years;  the Republic of Daghestan leadership is on collision course with Derbent's Council of Elders over its efforts to oust Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliyev.

Caucasus Knot quoted unnamed analysts as suspecting the efforts to discredit and replace Yaraliyev, a trained lawyer who served as Daghestan's prosecutor-general from 1995-2006, are part of a struggle, presumably between rival groups within the government, to wrest control of the funds allocated by Moscow for the jubilee celebration.

The planned jubilee has proven controversial from the outset. According to UNESCO, the site of the present-day town (population 120,000) has been inhabited for 5,000 years, and in 2010, Yaraliyev first proposed celebrating Derbent's 5,000th anniversary. But local scholars who adduced archaeological evidence substantiating that proposal were sidelined by a rival clique who persuaded the Russian Academy of Sciences that the figure of 2,000 years was more accurate.

On the basis of what one of the scholars involved called that "political decision," dictated in all likelihood by the fact that Derbent -- the oldest town in the Russian Federation -- was not founded by proto-Slavs, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree in November 2012 scheduling the 2,000th-anniversary celebration.

Who Will Pay?

Very little appears to have been done in the way of preparations for the jubilee prior to early 2014, possibly because it was only in September 2013 that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree allocating 1.7 billion rubles ($25.59 million) in funding to finance the jubilee celebrations. Of that total, 1.2 billion rubles was to come from the federal budget, with the Republic of Daghestan providing the balance. In addition, several major Daghestani or Daghestani-owned companies undertook to finance improvements to infrastructure, as did one company from neighboring Azerbaijan.

The lion's share of the funding, 616 million rubles, was earmarked for the restoration of historic buildings, including the Naryn-Kala fortress and citadel and the parallel defense walls enclosing the old town that are believed to date from the fifth-sixth century A.D. 

Little has been done to repair the walls of the Naryn-Kala citadel.
Little has been done to repair the walls of the Naryn-Kala citadel.

During the first seven months of 2014, Daghestan's Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov travelled six times to Derbent to review the preparations. He acknowledged in January 2014 that none of the federal funds allocated for funding the jubilee had yet been received in Makhachkala, but urged local officials to start work using money from the republican budget. But during Gamidov's next visit in March, Mayor Yaraliyev warned him that the situation was "critical," as "numerous pressing issues have not been addressed."

In mid-April, Daghestan's young and energetic economy and regional development minister, Rayuddin Yusufov, admitted the federal funding had still not been disbursed. Yusufov nonetheless expressed confidence that the work would be completed on time.

But independent journalist Magomed Khanmagomedov warned in July 2014 that so little had been done that it might prove necessary to postpone the jubilee celebrations.

And What Will It Be Spent On?

It was only after visits to Derbent by federal Minister for the North Caucasus Lev Kuznetsov in mid-August and presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Sergei Melikov in late September, however, that work really began in earnest. A working group including members of Melikov's staff was established to monitor progress, and identified the most problematic sticking points at its first session, in September. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree allocating 600 million rubles to be spent by the end of the year. Deciding how those funds were to be spent was the exclusive preserve of the republican government; the municipal authorities simply complied with orders from Makhachkala.

But as before, work was apparently hampered by a lack of consensus over which should take priority: renovating the historic citadel and defense walls, on the one hand, or urgently needed infrastructure projects. The latter include construction of an additional school building, given that some of Derbent's schools still function in three shifts, and providing the population with round-the-clock water supplies.

At some point in late fall, the Daghestani leadership proposed to Moscow extending the jubilee celebration, and the planned construction projects, by a period of over two years, until the end of 2017. Addressing a meeting of federal and Daghestani officials in Moscow on February 3, Melikov cited as the rationale for that decision the fact that the funds made available so far were not adequate, and the Daghestani leadership "is not ready to spend those funds rationally." Kuznetsov announced at that meeting that his ministry and Melikov's staff had assumed responsibility for coordinating the jubilee preparations.

Baku Butts In

Other factors too, however, may have been in play. The first concerns the contribution by neighboring Azerbaijan, which according to Khanmagomedov offered to invest up to 20 billion rubles in Derbent (i.e. more than 10 times the amount originally allocated by Moscow for financing the jubilee celebrations). Specifically, Azerbaijan's Ata Holding Group undertook to finance reconstruction of a street in Derbent controversially renamed in 2013 after Azerbaijan's late president, Heidar Aliyev, and the building of an Olympic sports complex, a shopping center, and a museum.

Milrad Fatullayev, editor of the weekly "Nastoyashchee vremya," told the news agency Caucasus Knot the Daghestani leadership wanted the sports facilities built in Makhachkala and Izberbash, rather than Derbent. Both the Azerbaijani side and the Derbent authorities protested, however, and work was suspended.

A second account claims that the site selected for the sports complex was the Nizami park in the old town, which is subject to a conservation order that precludes any such redevelopment. After a bulldozer brought in to clear the site damaged an ancient burial place, Ata Holding Group demanded from the Daghestani leadership written permission to continue construction that the latter was reluctant to supply. As a result, work was suspended, and the offer of funding was withdrawn.

Derbent Mayor Imam YaralievDerbent Mayor Imam Yaraliev
Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliev
Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliev

Work on restoring the historic fortress and walls has proven similarly problematic. The fortifications have reportedly been damaged over the years by the systematic theft of the original stonework for construction purposes.

Visiting Derbent in August, Minister for the North Caucasus Kuznetsov stressed the need to "preserve the architectural style of the town." For that reason, Kuznetsov continued, "all new construction should be carried out strictly within the framework of the law and in accordance with the existing unique architecture."

Khanmagomedov nonetheless claims that rather than use local sand and other construction materials, the Daghestani authorities are purchasing them at inflated prices from firms owned by their cronies and splitting the profit. That the republic's leadership is indeed using substandard and inappropriate materials for reconstruction work is implied by Melikov's comment late last month about "numerous complaints that the work being carried out with the materials at hand could seriously damage historic monuments."

Yaraliyev Under Fire

Over the past month, the tensions generated by the need to complete at least the most important building work by mid-September have been compounded by a standoff between Yaraliyev and the republic's leadership. Availing himself of legislation passed by Daghestan's National Assembly in September 2014 abolishing direct elections for the heads of municipalities, Yaraliyev resigned as mayor in mid-January and immediately contrived his reelection by the municipal council for a further five-year term. Visiting Derbent with fellow North Caucasus republic heads the following day, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov reportedly made clear his displeasure at Yaraliyev's reelection.

Officials from the Interior Ministry's Economic Security Division and the Federal Security Service (FSB) responded by conducting a search of the town hall and confiscating papers. Two weeks later, the republican prosecutor's office announced that the municipal authorities had violated legislation on the sale of state-owned land, inflicting 36 million rubles' worth of damage to the republic's budget. A criminal case has since been opened against Yaraliyev on suspicion of exceeding his authority, but he has not yet been formally charged.

A second senior municipal official, municipal council Chairman Mavsum Ragimov, an Azerbaijani who supports Yaraliyev, was summoned to Makhachkala last week and pressured to resign. Former Justice Minister Azadi Ragimov (no relation), also an Azerbaijani, has been named acting chairman in his place. Abdulatipov tried unsuccessfully last year to engineer Azadi Ragimov's appointment as head of Derbent Raion in place of incumbent Kurban Kurbanov.

Meanwhile, meeting on February 11, some 200 members of the Councils of Elders of Derbent's three largest ethnic groups (Lezgins, Azerbaijanis and Tabasarans) decided to address a formal request to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, and North Caucasus Federal District head Melikov to rule on the legality of the criminal case opened against Yaraliyev.

Melikov, like Yaraliyev, is a Lezgin. Whether he would stand up for his co-ethnic against unwarranted persecution by the Daghestani authorities is questionable, however. Although some analysts say relations between Melikov and Abdulatipov are strained, Melikov has dismissed as risible and without foundation persistent rumors that Moscow views him as a possible replacement for Abdulatipov.

-- Liz Fuller

Islamic State Banner 'Raised' In Kadyrov's Hometown

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Meeting with senior federal Interior Ministry officials, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has indirectly confirmed a report posted on the insurgency website KavkazCenter that unknown perpetrators painted a black jihadi banner on a wall in his home village of Tsentoroi (Khosi-Yurt) during the night of February 8-9. He said local police apprehended those responsible within 24 hours.

According to Kavkazcenter, the entire village was cordoned off on February 9  after a black jihadi banner was painted on a wall, together with the words, in English, "Khosi-Yurt is support ISIS." (ISIS is one of the acronyms used for the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.)

Kavkazcenter quotes unnamed village residents as saying that Kadyrov, outraged by the incident, immediately fired all his closest advisors on security issues, together with his chief of staff Magomed Daudov. There has been no official confirmation of any such dismissals, however. He reportedly also fired all police personnel who live in Tsentoroi.

Kadyrov's version of what happened is slightly different. He said that on discovery of the "artwork," police living in Tsentoroi immediately suspended themselves from duty pending dismissal and set about tracking down the perpetrators, who were apprehended within 24 hours.

Kadyrov did not identify the culprits or say how many there were. According to the Chechen leader, the entire village then gathered at the local sports stadium to express their support and approval of the police, whose letters of resignation Kadyrov said he has asked Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov to disregard. 

It remains impossible to gauge with any degree of accuracy the extent of support within Chechnya for Islamic State, and whether that support derives from wholehearted acceptance and approval of IS ideology, tactics, and strategy, or primarily from the perception that it is the sole force capable of putting an end to Kadyrov's strong-armed rule.

-- Liz Fuller


Why Is The Death Toll Tumbling In The North Caucasus?

People use their mobile phones to take photos of the scene of a gunfight between Russian security forces and militants in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in April 2011.

In 2014, the total number of people killed and wounded in the North Caucasus in clashes between the Islamic insurgency and police and security forces declined for the fourth consecutive year. According to data compiled by the website Caucasus Knot, which does not vouch for the data's 100-percent accuracy, the death and casualty toll fell last year by 46.9 percent, to 525, down from 986 in 2013. Expert opinions differ, however, on the reasons for that decline and whether it is likely to be sustained in 2015.

Since 2010, the overall death toll has fallen by more than half, from 754 to 341 in 2014. Those figures are misleading, however, given diverging trends in the number of fatalities among insurgents, on the one hand, and police and security personnel, on the other. The number of insurgents killed in 2014 (249) was just one fewer than in 2010; the figures for 2011 and 2012 were 384 and 404 respectively.

By contrast, despite a slight increase in 2011-12, the number of police and security personnel killed has fallen dramatically, from 225 in 2010 to 55 in 2014. Thus the ratio of militants to siloviki killed has changed from close to 1:1 in 2010 (250 and 225 respectively) to approximately 2:1 in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and almost 5:1 in 2014.

The overall downward trend was observed in every republic bar one. The exception was Chechnya, where according to official statistics 14 police and a dozen insurgents were killed in large-scale attacks on Grozny on December 4. As a result, the overall death and casualty toll rose by 15 percent compared with 2013, from 101 to 117. 

Several factors, singly or in combination, are likely to have contributed to the overall decline in casualties and the variations between individual republics.

First is the death of individual insurgency commanders. The insurgents' most prominent losses in recent years were the Chechen brothers Khusayn and Muslim Gakayev, both skilled veteran fighters, who were killed in January 2013. But the deaths of Tengiz Guketlov in Kabardino-Balkaria in March 2014 and of Artur Gatagazhev in Ingushetia in late May were also followed by a lull in insurgent activity. In Ingushetia, overall casualties were down 60.6 percent in 2014 compared with 2013, and the number of fighters killed fell from 24 (in 2013) to 15. 

Second, and possibly related to the first, is what Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, head of the Interior Ministry Main Directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District, termed a steady decline in the number of times insurgents have opened fire or planted bombs (down 50 percent during the first 10 months of 2014).

Third is an increase over the past year, particularly in Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, in the number of "counterterror operations" in which premises where one or more fighters have taken temporary refuge are surrounded and, if the fighters refuse to surrender, destroyed by artillery fire.

Fourth is the systematic targeting by federal forces of the support personnel on whom the insurgents rely heavily for supplies of food and medications. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Ivan Sydoruk told the daily Kommersant two years ago that the siloviki in other North Caucasus republics had begun following Chechnya's example and systematically rounding up support personnel. Sydoruk said the number of support personnel apprehended in the North Caucasus had increased from "just a handful" a few years previously to over 300 in 2012.

That targeted erosion of the insurgency's support base could prove damaging in the medium term. U.S. counterinsurgency expert Robert Schaefer made the point in his recent book on the North Caucasus insurgency that the optimum ratio of support personnel to fighters in rural areas is 4:1.

Some Russian analysts have attributed the decline in violence in 2014 to the ongoing exodus of fighters from the North Caucasus to swell the ranks of the militant group Islamic State (IS) in Syria. That assumption may hold true for Daghestan but not necessarily for other republics. Daghestan registered the steepest decline (54.3 percent) in the overall number of casualties, even though the number of fighters killed fell by just 4.7 percent. In that context, it is worth noting that of the total 208 killed and 85 wounded in Daghestan in the course of the year, only 40 and four respectively died during the last quarter, which is when Daghestan insurgent Amir Abu-Muhammad (Rustam Aselderov) announced that he and a large number of his fighters had sworn allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

If the exodus of fighters to swell the ranks of IS and thus hone their combat skills continues, then the level of fighting in the North Caucasus is likely to fall even further. And as Russian journalist Orkhan Djemal has pointed out, it is likely to be several years before the bulk of those who are currently fighting in Syria return.

Whether or the legislative amendments submitted by the Chechen parliament to the Russian State Duma that would reinstate the death penalty for insurgents' relatives will impel more fighters to leave the North Caucasus remains to be seen.

-- Liz Fuller

Suspect Arrested in High-Profile Georgian Murder

Yuri Vazagashvili in a 2012 photo

Gia Sosanashvili, a Georgian police officer, was arrested on February 7 and charged with the murder last month of Yury Vazagashvili.

Vazagashvili was killed on January 20 by an explosive device placed on the grave of his son Zurab, one of two men shot dead in May 2006 by police who subsequently said they acted on the assumption the two were about to commit an armed robbery.

Shortly before he was killed, Yury Vazagashvili gave an interview in which he named several Interior Ministry and Prosecutor’s Office staffers who he claimed were responsible either for his son’s death or for covering up for the perpetrators.

Five former and six current members of the Interior Ministry’s Special Purpose Unit, including former Deputy Minister Irakli Pirtskhalava, were arrested on February 2 in connection with the deaths of the two men.

Pirtskhalava has dismissed the charge against him as “a fairy tale.” 

Georgian Deputy Prosecutor General Irakli Shotadze told journalists in Tbilisi on February 8 that Sosanashvili, from the Tsalka municipality in the south of the country, was identified on the basis of traces of DNA on a fragment of the grenade that killed Yuri Vazagashvili.

Shotadze said the evidence against Sosanashvili is “incontrovertible.” Sosanashvili has denied the murder charge.

Shotadze declined to comment on either Sosanashvili’s possible motive for killing Vazagashvili, or on who might have commissioned the murder. He did say, however, that investigators are currently considering several possibilities. 

Speaking in Munich, where he is attending the 51st annual Security Conference, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said that Yury Vazagashvili’s murder was “a serious challenge” to his government and he takes pride in the fact that it has been solved so quickly. 

Human rights defender Lia Mukhashavria, however, told GHN that Yuri Vazagashvili’s murder cannot be considered solved until the identity of the person who commissioned it has been determined and “all questions have been answered.”

She expressed doubt that the Prosecutor’s Office will be able to identify the mastermind behind Vazagashvili’s death.

-- Liz Fuller

New Georgian Interior Minister Faces Multiple Challenges

New Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri in Tbilisi on January 26

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has promoted First Deputy Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri to succeed his former boss, Aleksandr Chikaidze, as minister. Chikaidze had submitted his resignation on January 23, citing as his reason for doing so allegations that he had protected from prosecution police special-purpose-unit officers who were involved in the shooting in Tbilisi in May 2006 of two young men whom they suspected (wrongly, as it turned out) of planning an armed robbery. Chikaidze rejected those allegations as untrue, adding, however, that he felt he had "a moral obligation" to step down.

Three former Interior Ministry officials, including former Deputy Minister Irakli Pirtskhalava, were arrested on February 2 in connection with the deaths of the two men. Pirtskhalava has dismissed the charge against him as "a fairy tale."

Yury Vazagashvili, the father of one of the two victims, who had campaigned for years to bring the police officers responsible to justice, was killed on January 20 by an explosion at his son's grave in Georgia's Kaspi district. 
Chikaidze had served as interior minister for a little over one year, having succeeded Gharibashvili in that post in November 2013 at the age of 28. Regarded as ineffective and a figurehead, he had raised eyebrows by making a series of inappropriate statements: Garibashvili publicly distanced himself in April from Chikaidze's comment to a Georgian newspaper that the former ruling United National Movement could seek to "destabilize the country" with the aim of overthrowing the regime.

Garibashvili nevertheless praised Chikaidze's decision to resign as that of "a dignified person" for whom serving his country was more important than holding a specific office. So, too, did two lawmakers from the majority Georgian Dream parliament faction.

At 39, Gomelauri is a decade older than his predecessor. He joined the Interior Ministry in 2002, and he stressed in his acceptance speech that he has spent over half his career there. Analyst Ghia Nodia noted that while Chikaidze was Garibashvili's man, Gomelauri is a protégé of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire businessman who established Georgian Dream in 2011 and led it to victory in the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Gomelauri served for a while as the head of Ivanishvili's personal bodyguard; he was named first deputy interior minister in December 2014. GD members have described him as "decent," "principled," and "competent." 

Gomelauri's first order of business, and the one on which his competence in his new job will be judged, will be to investigate the killing of Yury Vazagashvili, whose funeral on January 25 Garibashvili attended along with several other cabinet ministers. The day before he was killed, Vazagashvili gave an interview in which he reportedly named several Interior Ministry and Prosecutor's Office staffers who he claimed were responsible either for his son's death or for covering up for the perpetrators. He identified as one of the police who opened fire on Zurab Vazagashvili's car city-police-department head Giorgi Dalakishvili, who has since been dismissed; he also named Criminal Department deputy head Otar Mirzoyev, who has reportedly resigned, and senior officials Tsaadze and Samarghanishvili.

Valery Khaburzania, who served as Georgia's national security minister under then-President Eduard Shevardnadze from 2001-03, told the website Kavpolit that he does not discount Vazagashvili's allegations. He identified as the organizer of Zurab Vazagashvili's death former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Khaburzania added that some of the men behind Zurab Vazagashvili's death were members of the special purpose security unit, and thus his former subordinates; in that context he cited Pirtskhalava's name. Khaburzania said Gomelauri must conduct a purge of the Interior Ministry to weed out the old guard who served under Merabishvili. According to Deputy Interior Minister Archil Talakvadze, an investigation has already been launched to determine whether any ministry personnel are under suspicion.

It is not yet clear how Gomelauri's appointment will affect long-standing plans to reform the Interior Ministry, which figured among Georgian Dream's pledges in the run-up to the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Those plans included separating from the Interior Ministry the security and intelligence bodies that had been subsumed into it in 2004 to create a mega-ministry that former human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari claimed in 2008 was above and beyond the law.

On his appointment as interior minister in the new Georgian Dream government, Garibashvili said that a Bureau for Reforms and Development would be established within the ministry that would draft a "long-term development strategy." As a first step, according to Garibashvili, two departments created within the ministry in 2005 would be abolished and their functions transferred to other bodies. They were the Special Operative Department, whose duties encompassing crimes related to weapons and cargo smuggling; organized crime; drug and human trafficking; money laundering; and extortion were to be given to the Criminal Police; and the Constitutional Protection Department. The latter's duties with regard to dealing with official corruption were to be transferred to "a new powerful anticorruption agency," while its focus on terrorism and threats to the constitutional order would devolve onto the counterintelligence agency.

Judging from the structure of the ministry as outlined on its website, these changes, including the creation of the Reform and Development Agency and Anticorruption Agency, have indeed been made. The State Security Agency, however, is still part of the Interior Ministry.

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, whose Republican Party is part of the Georgian Dream coalition but does not always see eye to eye with its other members, raised the need for further reforms of the ministry in late November during a parliamentary debate on draft legal amendments that preserve the Interior Ministry's unrestricted direct access to so-called black boxes within telecom operators' networks server infrastructure that enable the simultaneous monitoring of up to 20,000 mobile phones. Garibashvili had argued several weeks earlier that the ministry should retain that capacity; he subsequently accused those who opposed the amendments of seeking to "weaken" the country. 

Usupashvili for his part had favored an alternative bill drafted by Republican legislator Vakhtang Khmaladze, which would have stripped the Interior Ministry of its access to telecom servers. That bill was voted down on November 27, one day before the original package of amendments was passed in the second and third readings. The parliament then overruled Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's veto of the new law. 

If Nodia and other analysts were correct in identifying Gomelauri as "Ivanishvili's man," and for that reason construing his appointment as weakening Garibashvili's position, it is conceivable that Garibashvili may drop the argument he made in November that a stronger Interior Ministry is a prerequisite for a strong and successful state and give Gomelauri the green light to proceed with the formal separation from the Interior Ministry of the departments responsible for intelligence and national security. 

By the same token, it is possible that Usupashvili, who publicly questioned Garibashvili's insistence on the need for a strong Interior Ministry, may seek to take advantage of the changed political landscape to push for what he termed "the kind of reforms that will, on the one hand, provide for continuation of the European path and logical steps on the road of European association, and on the other hand, will reduce level of [public] distrust [in the Interior Ministry]."

-- 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.