Wednesday, March 04, 2015

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

Georgian Court Releases Jailed Warlord

Emzar Kvitsiani in a February 2014 photograph

The Kutaisi Appeals Court has approved the release, on the basis of a plea bargain proposed by the prosecution, of Emzar Kvitsiani, the Svan military leader sentenced two months ago to 16 years' imprisonment for heading a mutiny in summer 2006 in Georgia's Kodori Gorge.

Under that agreement, Kvitsiani's jail term was reduced to 11 months, which is the time he has spent in custody since being arrested on his return to Georgia from Moscow in February 2014. The charges against him have not, however, been dropped.

Georgian human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili expressed approval of the deal that facilitated Kvitsiani's release, noting that there had been unspecified "violations" in the course of the trial. 

(After sentence was pronounced in November, Kvitsiani's lawyer was quoted by Caucasus Knot as saying that the prosecutor had promised Kvitsiani he would be released if he pled guilty, and then pressured the judge to hand down the maximum sentence when Kvitsiani refused to do so. That prosecutor has since been dismissed.) 

Kvitsiani, 53, is a controversial and larger-than-life figure whom then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze named in the late 1990s as his representative in the Kodori Gorge, the lower reaches of which are in Georgia proper and the upper reaches in the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. According to Caucasus Knot, Kvitsiani was involved in the abortive operation in the fall of 2001 in which the Georgian authorities co-opted Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev with the aim of bringing Abkhazia back under Georgian control.

Kvitsiani pledged his support for Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution of November 2003 that precipitated Shevardnadze's ouster. One year later, Shevardnadze's successor as president, Mikheil Saakashvili, dismissed Kvitsiani as Kodori governor. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili ordered the disbanding of Kvitsiani's Monadire armed force in April 2005, but its members refused to surrender their arms.

Things came to a head in July 2006, when Kvitsiani protested the reappointment to the new cabinet of Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, warning that he would "start a civil war" if Merabishvili retained his post.

Saakashvili sent the two ministers to quash the insurrection. But the operation was evaluated by U.S. military advisers to Georgia as less than stellar, and it apparently succeeded primarily because Kvitsiani offered no resistance, and fled, to either Abkhazia or Russia.

Several months later, Abkhaz television broadcast a statement in which Kvitsiani claimed responsibility for the artillery bombardment of Kodori on October 25 while Merabishvili was touring the region. Kvitsiani also sent a missive to the independent Georgian TV station Mze (Sun) branding the Saakashvili leadership "fascist" and vowing "revenge on the authorities for insulting the people of Georgia." But he failed to deliver on that threat.

At his first court appearance, in April 2014, Kvitsiani declared that his objective in returning to Georgia was "to clarify the truth." But following his release on January 28, he told journalists he agreed to the plea bargain "because I would not have proven my truth in today's court." 

Reactions to Kvitsiani's release have been mixed. Parliamentarians from the majority Georgian Dream faction, 35 of whom signed a petition last year calling for Kvitsiani's release on bail, have reportedly expressed approval. Faction leader Davit Saghanelidze was quoted as commenting on January 26, when the news of Kvitsiani's imminent release first became public, that the guilty verdict handed down to him was "biased." "He may have committed some mistakes, excesses, but I have no doubt that he loves his country," Saghanelidze said.

Lawmakers from Saakashvili's former ruling United National Movement (EEM), by contrast, construed Kvitsiani's release as having been condoned by Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili with the explicit objective of "using [Kvitsiani] to pressure [their] political opponents," in the words of faction head Mikheil Machavariani.

Machavariani did not explain why, if the current leadership considered Kvitsiani a useful weapon against the EEM, it should have put him on trial and sentenced him in the first place.

Kvitsiani is reported to have formally requested a pardon from Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. He has also demanded the return of property his lawyer says was "illegally" expropriated in 2006-07.

-- Liz Fuller

Ingush Oppositionist, Family Under Renewed Pressure

Magomed Khazbiyev

The Republic of Ingushetia authorities have launched what appears to be a clumsy attempt to compromise oppositionist Magomed Khazbiyev and members of his family in a bid to curtail his political activities.

Khazbiyev’s father and two of his brothers were taken into custody late on January 25 on suspicion of having stolen a Toyota Land Cruiser in Rostov-na-Donu three days earlier. A search of their family home reportedly yielded a weapon and unspecified “evidence” of the theft of the vehicle, which was “found” at another location.

A separate search of Khazbiyev’s home by “dozens” of police under the supervision of Magomed Bekov, deputy head of the republic of Ingushetia Interior Ministry’s Counter-Extremism Center, yielded a grenade, a pistol and ammunition that Khazbiyev, who was absent at the time, says were planted there.

Khazbiyev’s associates attributed the search of his home to suspicions that he was behind a spontaneous meeting on January 23 at the mosque in Nasyr-Kort to protest caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. But Khazbiyev denies either organizing or participating in that meeting. He says he received orders late on January 22 to report at 0930 local time the following morning to the Counter-Extremism Center, and duly did so; he was held there for several hours before being released.

Khazbiyev, who has been detained for administrative offenses several times over the past six years, denounced the police actions as politically motivated and undertaken on orders from Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. In a January 26 Instagram post, he affirmed his readiness to meet the following day at Magas airport with “the enemies of my people” to answer their questions.

Magas airport is where Magomed Yevloyev, a Moscow-based businessman who owned the opposition website, was apprehended by Interior Ministry personnel on August 31, 2008. He died hours later after being shot in the head at close range. 

Articulate and apparently fearless, Khazbiyev, 35, has played a leading role in politics in Ingushetia since early 2008, when he took over as head of a committee that planned a mass protest (subsequently postponed several times) against then republican President Murat Zyazikov. Later that year, he helped organize a petition, which some 80,000 people of a total population of 480,000 signed, calling for Zyazikov’s replacement by former President Ruslan Aushev. 

That campaign finally yielded results. In late October 2008, just one month after Khazbiyev met with then human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to brief him on the hundreds of abductions and extra-judicial killings carried out with impunity by police and security personnel since Zyazikov’s election in 2002, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed Zyazikov and appointed as his successor former military intelligence officer Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

Yevkurov made a point of meeting with opposition representatives, who initially nursed hopes that he would put an end to the corruption and egregious human rights abuses that characterized Zyazikov’s tenure as president. But Yevkurov proved both incapable of kick-starting the republic’s stagnating economy, and either unwilling or unable to put an end to blatant corruption and embezzlement on the part of his entourage and some members of his immediate family. 

And after the June 2009 assassination attempt in which Yevkurov was seriously injured, the republican authorities closed ranks against Khazbiyev, who sought unsuccessfully to convene a Congress of the Ingush People to alert Moscow to the fact that “Ingushetia is ablaze,” and engulfed in “civil war.”At the same time, Khazbiyev launched a new opposition website, to continue Yevloyev’s work of providing uncensored information about the situation in Ingushetia.

Since then, Khazbiyev and his brothers have repeatedly been the target of official harassment and reprisals. In the spring of 2010, he and his brothers Makhmud, Ali , and Berd were summoned for questioning by the Interior Ministry after Yevkurov’s press secretary Kaloy Akhilgov was attacked on the street and beaten up.

One year later, Khazbiyev was abducted by armed masked men during a spontaneous protest demonstration in Nazran and sentenced to 10 days’ administrative detention. Then in October 2012, Khazbiyev was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest following a standoff with police in the parking lot of a Nazran hospital.

Undeterred by those experiences, Khazbiyev continued his political engagement, although over the past couple of years he has concentrated less on seeking to engineer Yevkurov’s dismissal and more on his role as chairman of the regional chapter of the Republican Party of Russia -- Party of National Freedom (PARNAS).

In December 2013, Khazbiyev travelled to Kyiv to participate in the Maidan protests against then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. When the Republic of Ingushetia Security Council pressured his father to order him to return home, Khazbiyev responded with a post on his Facebook page to the effect that “there is no point in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s slaves hassling my parents, if you want to stop me you have only one possibility, and that is to kill me the way you killed Magomed Yevloyev and Maksharip Aushev,” a respected public figure whose murder in October 2009 has never been solved. He was not related to former President Ruslan Aushev.

What served as the catalyst for the attempt to implicate Khazbiyev and his father and brothers in the theft of a car is not immediately clear. Khazbiyev himself pointed out that it was incongruous that the republic’s Counter-Extremism Center should have been called on to investigate a suspected routine criminal offense. The Russian daily “Kommersant” suggests the alleged car theft may herald an attempt to jail Khazbiyev.

One factor that may have tipped the balance is Khazbiyev’s tactical rapprochement with two figures whom Yevkurov counts among his worst enemies: Khamzat Chumakov, imam of the Nasyr-Kort mosque, and Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.

Khazbiyev and Chumakov  both addressed the mass meeting in Grozny on January 19 organized by the Chechen authorities to protest caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. They also met with Kadyrov

-- Liz Fuller


Shock Waves From Insurgency Commanders' Defection To IS Felt Beyond North Caucasus

Akhmad Umarov speaks in the video.

The decision late last year by several prominent North Caucasus insurgency commanders to retract their oath of allegiance to Caucasus Emirate leader Aliaskhab Kebekov (Sheikh Ali Abu-Mukhammad) and pledge loyalty to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has apparently engendered confusion and discord not only across the North Caucasus but within the Chechen diaspora community.

That at least is the message conveyed by Akhmad Umarov (nom de guerre Abu Khamza), the brother of Caucasus Emirate (IK) founder and leader Doku Umarov and the IK's official representative abroad, in a 15-minute video address posted last week on, the website of the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency.

In that video footage, Umarov requests a statement of moral support from Kebekov and Emir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev), the commander of the Chechen insurgency wing, in response to what he terms the "groundless accusations" dreamed up against him by the pro-IS faction and the latter's "childish" attempts to justify their actions.

He says it is "unacceptable" that those who do not obey Shari'a law "are trying to obstruct us in our work and spread discord," and insists that those persons who do so, whether unwittingly, or at the behest of "enemies of Islam," or in the hope of securing a comfortable post within the IS leadership, should be held responsible under Shari'a law, and will answer for their actions on Judgment Day.

Umarov appeals to Kebekov and Khamzat to explain why Chechen commanders are violating their oath of loyalty to Kebekov and their theological arguments for doing so. He says failure to clarify their arguments will only deepen the split between the two factions.

Umarov then presents his superiors with a choice: either to issue a statement of support for the stance adopted by the IK representation abroad with regard to the defections to IS that would make clear to all fighters from Chechnya and Daghestan that they should "abide by all demands that do not contradict the Koran and Sunna," meaning remain loyal to Kebekov. Or, "if you have doubts about what we are saying and our sincerity, then we ask you to appoint new people to replace us and dismiss us from our posts. If you have faith and confidence in us, then we ask you to grant us additional powers to restore order and establish a strict and functional system in accordance with Shari'a law to address urgent questions which it is imperative to resolve -- questions concerning religion, politics, and social, financial, and informational issues."

Umarov then addresses Chechen fighters both in the Caucasus and beyond "who are trying to help the cause and to defend our religion and honor," urging them to take a clear stance against the renegade faction. He says he can provide an explanation for what that faction "is saying behind our backs," but does not say what those criticisms are.

With regard to Syria (he does not use the toponym "Sham" favored by the Chechens fighting there), Umarov affirms unequivocally that "any fighter who travels to Syria to take part in jihad there should understand that he will have to answer for that on Judgment Day. We appeal to you, especially to the young people of the Vilayat Nokhchiicho [Chechnya], to stay where you are. Your holy duty today is jihad in the defend our land, the territory of the Caucasus Emirate," from the "primary foe" in the person of the Kremlin regime and its apostate collaborators, meaning the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership.

Given that Umarov speaks in very general terms, it is impossible to assess the extent of support among IK fighters for IS and the magnitude of the threat that faction poses to the cohesion of the insurgency ranks. But his request for "additional powers" suggests he faces a serious challenge.

Since the statements of support for Baghdadi by six Chechen and Daghestani commanders last month, several insurgency commanders from Chechnya and Ingushetia who for reasons they do not specify are no longer in the Caucasus have reaffirmed their loyalty to Kebekov. So too has Emir Salim (Zalim Shebzukhov), commander of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai insurgency wing.

-- Liz Fuller

'Integration' With Russia Rives South Ossetia's Political Scene

Parliamentary speaker Anatoly Bibilov's One Ossetia party is advocating a far closer degree of "integration" with Russia than the region's leadership is apparently prepared to condone.

As was the case in Abkhazia three months ago, the process of signing a new strategic treaty on relations with Russia has triggered controversy in Georgia's other breakaway and largely unrecognized republic, South Ossetia. But whereas in Abkhazia, government and opposition alike were concerned that the provisions of the initial draft threatened to nix the republic's hard-won quasi-independent status, in South Ossetia the legislature and executive are at odds.

Specifically, the Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) party, which controls 20 of the 34 seats in the parliament elected in June 2014, is advocating a far closer degree of "integration" with Russia than the region's leadership is apparently prepared to condone. Its chairman, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, had called in January 2014 for the holding of a nationwide referendum on whether South Ossetia should enter the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject.

More recently, Bibilov has argued that "the parameters of cooperation enshrined in the treaty on union relations and strategic partnership between Russia and Abkhazia...are not adequate for South Ossetia and do not meet her long-term interests," and that signing a treaty modeled on the Russian-Abkhaz one would be "a pure formality" that would not lead to "a breakthrough" in bilateral relations.

The initial draft of the Russian-South Ossetian treaty, prepared by Moscow, was published on December 20 for public discussion. It was clearly modeled closely on, and bore the same working title, On Union Relations And Integration, as did the original draft of the Russia-Abkhazia treaty, which was subsequently changed to On Union Relations And Strategic Partnership.

Article 1 of the initial Russia-South Ossetia draft duplicated the provision contained in Article 3 of the first draft of the Abkhaz-Russian treaty (subsequently reworded) committing the two sides to "a foreign policy agreed [between them]."

Article 2 of the initial draft proposed the merger of military, law enforcement, and security agencies, the judiciary, and customs and excise; called for the creation of a "single economic space" and energy and transport system; and defined as the ultimate objective of the planned "maximal integration" legalizing the incorporation of the Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation as a separate subject on the basis of a nationwide referendum.

The 30-person presidential political council tasked with assessing and amending that draft duly watered down those key provisions.

Article 1 of the amended version duplicates almost verbatim the final version of article 1 of the Abkhaz- Russian treaty, which commits the two parties to working to achieve "a qualitatively new level of regional security, strategic partnership, and integration."

Article 2 of the amended version comprises Article 1 of the initial draft (on an agreed foreign policy) plus a formal commitment by Russia identical to that written into the Russia-Abkhazia treaty to promote the cause of South Ossetia's international recognition as an independent state.

The various provisions of Article 2 of the initial draft were formalized as separate articles (5–11) in the amended draft. The proposed military integration was replaced, however, by the compromise formulation reached in the final version of the Russia-Abkhazia treaty providing for the creation within one year of a Joint Group of Forces (to be formed of contingents from the South Ossetian and Russian armed forces).

The revised version was finalized on January 12, and sent to Moscow, but not published in the local media. Three days later, the leaders of six opposition parties, including the three minority parties in parliament, addressed a formal request to the presidential political council to fill the resulting "information vacuum" which, they said was giving rise to "tensions" within society.

Meanwhile, Bibilov issued a statement denying that his party was no longer participating in the discussion of the draft. He stressed that the political council's approval of the amended draft on January 12 does not preclude further changes to incorporate One Ossetia's proposals.

On January 17, the State Committee for Information and the Press convened a roundtable to discuss the draft to which Bibilov and the leaders of other political parties were invited. Andrey Kochiyev, editor of the official newspaper Osetiya, was quoted as telling participants that the revised version is not definitive and work on it is continuing.

De facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev, participating in his capacity as chairman of the New Ossetia party, responded to that assertion by distributing to the other party leaders and journalists present copies of the January 12 version. Sanakoyev explained that he considered it imperative to do in light of materials posted online construing the removal from the original draft of the commitment that South Ossetia would become part of the Russian Federation as reflecting a pro-Georgian bias on the part of the presidential political council.

Two days later, One Ossetia issued a statement denouncing Sanakoyev and warning that the parliament would not ratify the amended "superficial" version of the treaty which, the party claimed, does not conform to the problems of "deep integration" with Russia and which had not been approved by parliament majority faction. Bibilov for his part warned that the parliament reserves the right to impeach Sanakoyev for having made public the amended version.

New Ossetia duly responded with a statement defending Sanakoyev and describing his distribution of the amended draft as "an absolutely correct and honorable step."

One Ossetia has prepared its own alternative draft treaty, which reportedly restored some of the provisions on integration that had been dropped from the original Russian version. But the extraparliamentary opposition party Fidaen, many of whose members took up arms in August 2008 to repel Georgia's bid to bring South Ossetia back under the central government's control, claims that text violates the South Ossetian constitution insofar as it advocates what Fidaen termed "the complete liquidation" of South Ossetia's defense and security bodies.

Meeting on January 21, the presidential political council reaffirmed its approval of the January 12 amended version of the treaty. It also suggested to de facto President Leonid Tibilov that he personally appoint South Ossetia's representatives to a joint South Ossetian-Russian working group that will hammer out the final version of the treaty.

Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Gobozov, chairman of South Ossetia's State Committee for Information and the Press and of the extraparliamentary opposition Socialist party Fydybasta, has sought to downplay the differences between political forces with regard to the treaty, describing them as "normal" and "tactical rather than strategic." Gobozov appealed to all political parties and the media not to "politicize" the treaty, observing that "none of us has a monopoly either on patriotism or on truth in the last instance."

-- Liz Fuller

The Unstoppable Rise Of Ramzan Kadyrov

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a rally in Grozny on January 19 against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who celebrated his 38th birthday on October 5, may not yet be the second-most-powerful political figure in the Russian Federation. But that is not for want of self-promotion. He is already certainly the most colorful/flamboyant, arguably the most quoted (after his surrogate father and political patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin), and probably the most feared, not only across the North Caucasus but by those elsewhere in Russia who are already asking themselves what will happen if Putin leaves office, and who might succeed him.

Kadyrov's current pre-eminence is all the more impressive given that it was only in the early summer of 2004, following the death of his father Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in a terrorist bombing that has never been solved, that he was first appointed to a government position -- as deputy prime minister of the Chechen Republic -- despite having only a rudimentary secondary education. Before that, he had gained notoriety as commander of his father's private security force, many of whose members were former resistance fighters who had availed themselves of successive amnesties. In that respect, Kadyrov's rise to power has been a classic example of Mao Tse-Tung's maxim that "all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Even at that juncture, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur for Chechnya, Andreas Gross, predicted that Ramzan Kadyrov would eventually succeed his father as Chechen president.

So how did he do it? It has become accepted wisdom that after Akhmed-hadji's death, Putin gave Ramzan carte blanche to resort to whatever means he considered expedient to stamp out the Chechen resistance and cow the long-suffering population into submission, in return for which the Russian government made available vast sums of money for postconflict reconstruction and conveniently turned a blind eye when Kadyrov diverted part of that cash for his own personal use. (The basic cost of maintaining his stable of mostly fifth-rate racehorses has been estimated at 24 million rubles [$367,471] per year, not including trainers' fees and the cost of transport to and from European race courses.)

Kadyrov was promoted to first deputy premier in October 2004 following the election of Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov as republican president. (In fact, Alkhanov was purely a figurehead, and Kadyrov's security forces did all they could to undermine him.) In that capacity, Kadyrov coordinated and presided over a mass-scale program to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000, transforming Grozny from the wasteland of half- or totally destroyed buildings that shocked even Putin into a functioning city. That reconstruction effort was funded largely by aid from the federal government, but also by "voluntary" contributions extorted from the small minority of Chechens fortunate enough to have jobs, and from wealthy Chechen businessmen based in Moscow.

Massive Rally In Grozny Hails Islamic Prophet, Assails West


In February 2007, once Kadyrov had reached the minimum age of 30, Putin duly nominated him as Chechen Republic president.

Over the years, Kadyrov has played many roles: elder-brother figure and patron of sports clubs for teenagers; authoritarian micro-manager following up on residents' complaints about water supplies; President Putin's most loyal supporter; defender of "Chechen Islam," blogger, movie star, and playboy of the Russky mir routinely inviting such Western celebrities as violinist Vanessa Mae and movie stars Jean-Claude van Damme and Hilary Swank to Grozny to attend his 35th birthday celebration.

Kadyrov's initial success in rebuilding Grozny and other towns was largely the result of delegating responsibility to a handful of trusted cronies: Kadyrov is not so much Mr. Fix-it as Mr. Make-sure-YOU-fix-it-by-yesterday-or-God-help-you-and-your-wife-and-kids. That said, he is fiercely loyal to those of his subordinates who consistently deliver the goods -- providing they never question his authority.

Anyone who does, or who is perceived as a threat, is either constrained to flee Chechnya or ends up dead, like the brothers Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, the one a Hero of Russia and State Duma deputy, the other commander of the Vostok battalion subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry. Both had been stalwart supporters and close associates of Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov. They were gunned down by hired killers in Moscow and Dubai in September 2008 and March 2009 respectively.

Kadyrov's authoritarian leadership style is reflected in this video clip, in which he contemptuously tells subordinates that it is he who gives orders in Chechnya and that the Kadyrov family alone is in charge. What is more, those orders extend far beyond economic issues to encompass education and, crucially, religion. Kadyrov clearly sees himself both as defender and definer of the faith, in his case a bizarre synthesis of traditional Sunni Islam and selected elements of Chechen Sufism that one insurgent scornfully dismissed as "a hodge-podge of Sufi fairy-tales and local adats [traditional precepts]."

There can be no doubt that Kadyrov has transformed the face of Chechnya, rebuilding infrastructure, mosques, schools, hospitals, and assiduously soliciting foreign investment in economic projects that he claims have reduced unemployment from 76.9 percent in May 2008 to 15.4 percent in December 2014.

He has had less success, however, in breaking the back of the insurgency. True, in 2005-06 there was a lull in military activity due primarily to the vacuum left by the deaths of Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov and renegade field commander and tactical wizard Shamil Basayev. By April 2008, however, the insurgency was again strong enough to mobilize 400-500 fighters to occupy five villages west and southwest of Grozny, taking prisoner up to 15 of Kadyrov's men and killing 18.

Two years later, the insurgents launched two high-profile attacks in as many months, one on Kadyrov's home village of Khosi-Yurt and the second on the Chechen parliament building.

By that time, however, Kadyrov's influence had already spread to encompass most of the North Caucasus. He had launched regional initiatives, such as a North Caucasus Parliamentary Association in which his close associate, Chechen Parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, plays a key role. And it was Kadyrov's police and security guards who were deployed to guard Makhachkala's central square when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Daghestan in April 2010.

More to the point, Kadyrov had established himself as the unofficial political leader of Russia's estimated 20 million Muslims by presiding over the building of mosques (including the largest mosque in Europe, named after his father), five schools for hafizes, and a clinic for the practice of Islamic medicine. (Never mind that he is seemingly unable to quote a single sura from the Koran).

It was thus no surprise to anyone when Medvedev duly nominated Kadyrov in February 2011 to serve a second term as Chechen president.

Since then, federal level politicians who once spoke of him disparagingly have begun to do so with respect. Former Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin, for example, had quipped in May 2009 a propos of Kadyrov's claim in his annual income declaration to have earned just 3.4 million rubles the previous year and to own only a small apartment in Grozny that "the entire republic belongs to Ramzan Kadyrov."

During a subsequent visit to Chechnya in June 2013, however, Stepashin could not praise Kadyrov and his achievements highly enough, referring to Chechnya as a role model for other Russian regions.

All this is not to overlook the fact that observers have periodically predicted that at some point Kadyrov would go too far in terms of his tasteless self-promotion and intemperate pronouncements, and the Kremlin would finally take steps to rein him in. Such speculation surfaced in April 2014, based on the assumption that Kadyrov had enjoyed immunity in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but that once the games ended he was vulnerable.

Whether or not there were solid grounds for such speculation, the fighting that erupted in southeastern Ukraine in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea presented Kadyrov with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty, his usefulness, and his cynicism, by dispatching his security forces to fight on the side of the pro-Russian separatist forces and then disowning them as "volunteers" who had traveled to Ukraine without the knowledge or approval of the Chechen authorities. In late May, the Financial Times quoted a Chechen fighter named Zelimkhan who said he and his comrades in arms had just been sent to Ukraine on Kadyrov's orders. More recently, Pavel Gubarev, former head of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," told a journalist that Kadyrov "provides us with a huge amount of help, both militarily and in other respects."

Kadyrov's clandestine contribution to Putin's strategy of dismembering Ukraine, and his intermediary's role in securing the release last summer of two Russian journalists taken prisoner by the Ukrainian authorities have cemented his standing as a federal politician with no clearly defined position. The same holds true for his status as a military commander (although he holds the rank of an Interior Ministry major general).

Carnegie Moscow Center veteran analyst Dmitry Trenin recently characterized Kadyrov as Putin's "irregular fighter, and his mission is to take on Russia's -- and Putin's -- enemies." Kadyrov himself has confirmed his readiness to act in that capacity, affirming earlier this month that Chechnya has thousands of volunteer fighters who are ready "to fulfill any military command from Russia's commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin" and to defend Russia's interests anywhere on the planet, including in circumstances where the deployment of "the regular army, air force, navy or nuclear forces" is inexpedient.

Trenin went on to suggest that it is because Kadyrov is both able and willing to act in that capacity that he "has a license to say and do things no one else has," "without having to clear them with anyone in advance," such as threatening former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Ekho Moskvy head Aleksei Venediktov in response to their statements in connection with the January 7 terrorist attack in Paris on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Kadyrov may invite ridicule by his blustering and posturing. But in an article published last month in the weekly Versiya, Ruslan Gorevoy quoted analyst Andrei Okara as saying Kadyrov and Putin are "the only two real politicians in Russia today," the remainder being "either bureaucrats, or propagandists, or clowns."

Assuming that Kadyrov really is the second-most-powerful political figure in Russia, any number of questions still remain unanswered. First, what is the precise relationship between him and Putin? Did Putin realize Kadyrov's potential as a national military leader and play Pygmalion, molding him into a figure who would willingly undertake commissions that violate international law? Or did Kadyrov take advantage of the freedom of action and total impunity Putin gave him in order to indulge some psychopathic tendencies and insatiable appetite for power?

More crucially, has Kadyrov indeed become the tail that wags the Kremlin dog? Or does Putin still retain some hold over him? Judging by Putin's warning to Kadyrov last month that he should abide by Russian law rather than engage in extrajudicial reprisals against insurgents' families, that is the impression Putin would like to give.

Finally, will Kadyrov eventually demand some more senior official position in recognition of Putin's dependence on him, and if so, what might it be? Or will he be constrained to content himself with the twin roles of commander of what amounts to Putin's private army and unofficial spokesman for Russia's Muslims?

-- Liz Fuller

Interethnic Tensions On Rise in Daghestan In Run-Up To Jubilee

Ramazan Abdulatipov condemned any attempts at fueling interethnic tensions in Daghestan.

Among the numerous seemingly intractable problems facing the Republic of Daghestan leadership, that of relations between the region’s numerous ethnic groups is frequently eclipsed by the Islamic insurgency, endemic corruption, and the pressing need to attract investment with a view to galvanizing the stagnating economy.

But long-standing tensions between the Lezgin and Azerbaijani communities in the southern town of Derbent have flared up again over the past week, just as Daghestan’s government is stepping up its preparations to celebrate on a grand scale in September the 2000th anniversary of Derbent’s foundation.

The Azerbaijanis and Lezgins each account for some 35-36 percent of Derbent’s population of 120,000. The town mayor, Imam Yaraliyev, is a Lezgin.

Three cases have been reported of damage to or destruction of monuments in Derbent to prominent Azeris.

The first reported case involved the tomb of a venerated Azeri cleric, Seid Mir-Ghafar Aga. Precisely what happened and when is unclear. The website reported on January 7 that the tomb had been destroyed the previous night and that respected members of the Azerbaijani community had only with difficulty persuaded their co-ethnics not to launch a mass protest.

On January 9, Caucasus Knot reported having received an SMS late the previous evening saying the tomb was destroyed during the night of January 7-8.
The republican news agency RIA Daghestan, however, reported later on January 9 that at the end of December, the headstone was found to have toppled over and been partly damaged. The reason was said to be unclear, but vandalism was not suspected. Repair work has reportedly been successfully completed.

That RIA Daghestan report condemned what it termed unreliable claims about multiple “instances of vandalism” in Derbent posted to the Internet with the express intention of “destabilizing the situation” and fomenting interconfessional and interethnic conflict. It failed to mention a second incident in which the monument in Derbent to the 12th-century Azerbaijani poet Nizami of Ganca (who wrote in Persian) was vandalized during the night of January 8-9.

In addition, a monument to Hero of the Soviet Union Shamsula Aliyev, a Red Army officer from Derbent killed in November 1943 during the battle for Kerch, has reportedly been dismantled.

It is not clear whether there is any connection between three incidents. The initial report had suggested that the damage to the Muslim cleric’s grave may have been the work of local Salafis.

There was no immediate response from the government of the Azerbaijan Republic. But former Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov, now head of the Moscow-based Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Azerbaijanis in Russia (AzerRos), apparently lodged a formal complaint on January 9 with Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. Abdulatipov condemned as unacceptable any attempts at fueling interethnic tensions in Daghestan. He assured Abbasov he will personally monitor the investigation into the damage caused, and immediately dispatched to Derbent a commission headed by a first deputy prime minister.

A subsequent statement by the Daghestani leadership on January 10 again condemned what it termed attempts to sow suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of Daghestan and Azerbaijan. That statement blamed those “rumors” on unnamed “persons who, abusing their ethnicity, have become accustomed to engage in dirty deals, extortion, and corruption” and have since been dismissed from their posts.

It is not clear whether that formulation is a particularly clumsy and unconvincing attempt to discredit former Derbent district head Kurban Kurbanov, who was constrained to step down last fall and is currently under arrest on suspicion of abusing his official position. Why, after all, should Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani, have instigated damage to monuments to fellow Azerbaijanis?

Meanwhile, some 200 Derbent residents staged a protest demonstration on January 10 to demand Yaraliyev’s resignation. In an appeal to Abdulatipov, they enumerated their complaints against the municipal authorities, including the exclusion of one district badly hit by flooding in 2012 from the jubilee restoration program. It is not clear to which ethnic group the protesters belonged. 

Ignoring those protests, the municipal council convene on January 13 and reelected Yaraliyev as mayor in accordance with the legislation enacted last fall abolishing direct elections for the post of city mayor.

At least some of the renovation work in Derbent in the run-up to the jubilee celebration is being carried out by construction companies from the Azerbaijan Republic. The private Ata Holding, for example, has undertaken to renovate a street named after deceased President Heidar Aliyev and the park in which the monument to Nizami of Ganca stands. The company will also build an Olympic sports complex in the park. The total cost of the construction and renovation work was estimated at 1 billion rubles ($16.13 million). That apparent altruism has only compounded some Lezgins’ fears of irredentist aspirations in Baku, given that some Azerbaijani scholars openly claim that Derbent was historically an Azerbaijani town.

-- 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.