Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Fighting In Nagorno-Karabakh: War Or War Dance?

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (center) visits a military unit in Agdam, on the front line of the battle over Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, on August 6.

On August 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet separately in Sochi with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the recent upsurge in hostilities in the vicinity of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that has reportedly left at least 20 dead.

That fighting, according to Armenian military spokesmen, has taken the form of repeated small-scale Azerbaijani attacks interspersed with occasional retaliatory operations by the Armenians. Baku for its part says the Armenian side has consistently been the aggressor, which seems implausible insofar as Armenia, in contrast to Azerbaijan, has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from unleashing, or even taking steps that could trigger, a new full-scale war.

Even though the recent clashes are the most serious since the signing of a cease-fire 20 years ago, however, most Armenian observers doubt that they presage all-out war.

The May 1994 cease-fire agreement left the Defense Army of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in control of seven neighboring districts of Azerbaijan it had wrested control of from a shambolic and poorly-trained Azerbaijani Army over the previous two years. All efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, created in 1992 to mediate a peaceful diplomatic solution to the conflict, have foundered over the time frame for and logistics of the return of those districts to the control of the Azerbaijani government, and what the government and people of Nagorno-Karabakh would receive in return for relinquishing its only bargaining chip.

The most recent blueprint for conflict resolution, the so-called Basic or Madrid Principles, envisages the return of six occupied districts plus special modalities for the seventh, the so-called Lachin Corridor that serves as the sole overland link between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia. In return, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government would be decided in a "manifestation of popular will" (the original formulation specified a referendum) at some unspecified future date.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has used the proceeds from the exploitation of its Caspian oil and natural-gas reserves to build up and reequip its armed forces with the aim of launching a new war to win back control over Nagorno-Karabakh if/when negotiations are deemed to have failed absolutely. That said, Azerbaijani officials' frequently vaunted boast that the country's $3 billion defense budget exceeds the entire budget of the Republic of Armenia is misleading in that much of the weaponry it has acquired is intended for the defense of its offshore oil and gas installations.

Over the past three years, however, the military, diplomatic and geopolitical situation has changed, partly on Baku's initiative, and seemingly to its advantage. As of the summer of 2011, the Azerbaijani Army has launched ever more frequent raids and attempts to penetrate the Line of Contact east of the de facto border between Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of Azerbaijan and that separates the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces. The objective of those probes is presumably to test the enemy's combat readiness and identify weak points in the Armenian defenses.

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At the same time, Azerbaijan has stepped up its deployment of snipers along the Line of Contact, and consistently rejected successive appeals by Minsk Group co-chairmen to withdraw them, in contrast to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which have publicly expressed willingness to do so provided Azerbaijan reciprocates.

On the diplomatic front, following the failure of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to reach a widely anticipated interim peace agreement during talks in Kazan in June 2011, Baku has upped the ante by implicitly pegging a resumption of the process of hammering out differences over the Basic/Madrid Principles to Armenia's implementation of one of those principles, namely the immediate return of the seven occupied districts to Azerbaijani control. 

That gambit has effectively deadlocked the peace process, even though it has not put an end to the tireless efforts of the Minsk Group to induce the conflict sides to reach a compromise.

The chances of doing so are minimal, however, in light of the difference of opinion between the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh leaderships over what constitutes an acceptable solution to the conflict. Writing on Facebook in late July, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto prime minister, Ara Harutiunian, reportedly rejected as "unacceptable to us" the requirement that the seven occupied districts contiguous to the disputed region be returned to Azerbaijani control. Harutiunian said those districts were vital to the republic's continued economic development.

That intransigence places Armenia in a difficult position insofar as President Sarkisian (who himself was born and brought up in Nagorno-Karabakh) has said repeatedly that Armenia will never sign a peace agreement that is unacceptable to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku Seeing Its Chance?

Three factors may have contributed, singly or in combination, to the recent escalation of fighting.

The first, as U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman James Warlick has pointed out, is that the international community is already facing two major crises, in Ukraine and the Middle East, that require its undivided attention. This may have emboldened Azerbaijan.

The second is that in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the threat it is perceived to pose to Ukraine and the Baltics, the search for alternative supplies of natural gas to Western Europe has become more urgent. Azerbaijan, by virtue of the agreement it signed in June 2012 with Turkey on construction of the TANAP pipeline to export gas from its offshore Shah Deniz field, could at least partially fulfil that need, albeit not until 2018-19.

It is therefore not inconceivable that the Azerbaijani leadership has advanced, or is preparing to advance, the argument that in light of its increasing strategic importance as a source of energy, its international partners should either (figuratively) bludgeon Yerevan into agreeing to a Karabakh peace deal on Baku's terms, or turn a blind eye should it launch a new war with the aim of restoring its control over the break-away region.

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The third is the appointment in October 2013 of former interior-troops commander Zakir Hasanov to succeed veteran Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev. Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army commander Lieutenant General Movses Hakobian opined earlier this week  that Hasanov may have initiated the recent offensive with the twin aims of putting his stamp on military tactics and pressuring Armenia to make concessions in the peace process.

At the same time, Hakobian said that despite its acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry, the Azerbaijani armed forces are no match for their Armenian counterparts. Armenian Defense Minister Seiran Ohanian (who lost a leg in the fighting of the early 1990s) similarly told journalists this week that "we need to bear in mind that any weapon requires a person qualified enough to use it.... The acquisition of large quantities of weapons requires their personnel to learn how to use them effectively."

Even some Azerbaijani experts have cast doubts on official Azerbaijani accounts of the nature of the fighting and the Armenian death toll. Military analyst Uzeir Jafarov was quoted by ANS Press as questioning how the Armenians as the attacking side incurred fewer casualties, given that "under the laws of war, the attacking side usually sustains more casualties." He said the Azerbaijani military command was guilty of "a serious tactical error."

Assuming that Azerbaijan has indeed merely been engaging in muscle-flexing intended to intimidate, rather than preparing for a major offensive, it may have played into Moscow's hands if, as many Armenians suspect, Putin intends to take advantage of the upsurge in tensions to "offer" to deploy peacekeeping force in the conflict zone. (Ohanian has affirmed unequivocally that third-party peacekeepers are not necessary.)  The deployment of Russian peacekeepers would not only preserve indefinitely the current situation of "not peace but not war," it would also preclude the use of much of the battlefield weaponry Azerbaijan has purchased from Russia in recent years at considerable expense.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Nagorno-Karabakh


OSCE Calls For 'Thorough Investigation' Of Kabardian Journalist's Death

Journalist and human rights activist Timur Kuashev was found dead on August 1.

The Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dunja Mijatovic, issued a statement on August 4 calling for a thorough investigation into the death of Kabardian journalist and human rights activist Timur Kuashev. 

Kuashev was found dead near his home in Khasanya, south-west of Nalchik, on August 1, having disappeared after leaving home the previous evening. His body showed no signs of violence, but his friends and colleagues dispute the findings of an autopsy that concluded he died of heart failure. They are convinced he was killed, possibly by an injection of poison. 

Whatever the circumstances, Kuashev's death is an embarrassment for acting Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) head Yury Kokov, who has still to be confirmed in that post by the new parliament to be elected on September 14. Kuashev had intended to run in that ballot as a candidate for the opposition party Yabloko. 

Two Yabloko members staged a picket outside the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic representation in Moscow on August 4 to demand clarification of the circumstances of Kuashev's death, and Yabloko head Sergei Mitrokhin has appealed to Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin to open a criminal investigation.

Kuashev, 26, graduated from a Moscow law school in 2010 with a degree in criminal law. He then returned to Nalchik, where he sought to promote interconfessional dialogue and defend the rights of practicing Muslims. He also wrote for the independent monthly journal "Dosh," focusing primarily on human rights violations and, in particular, the ongoing trial of 58 men charged in connection with multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005, according to "Dosh" chief editor Abdulla Duduyev. 

Those activities earned Kuashev respect across the North Caucasus: Just days before his death he was invited to participate in a seminar in Makhachala on the situation in Gaza.  Among the 200-plus mourners at his funeral was a delegation of five people from Daghestan. 

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At the same time, Kuashev's engagement on behalf of fellow believers inevitably attracted the suspicion of the police and security organs, as did his adherence to Salafism. In December 2012, together with other Muslim lawyers from South Russia, he prepared an appeal to Russia's Constitutional Court questioning the constitutionality of the Stavropol Krai government's ruling that effectively prohibited school girls wearing the hijab.

In May 2014, Kuashev was detained by police for participating in a ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Tsarist war of conquest in which tens of thousands of Circassians were slaughtered or driven into exile. 

Just days later, he addressed a formal appeal to the KBR Prosecutor General and Interior Minister, to the head of the KBR subsidiary of the Investigative Committee, and to Amnesty International, demanding an investigation into death threats he had received, but the Interior Ministry declined to open a formal investigation. 

Circumstantial Evidence

Last month, Kuashev posted a diatribe on Live Journal addressed to Kokov and Nalchik Mayor Mukhamed Kodzokov detailing shortcomings in Nalchik's public transport and markets, and demanding the construction of small local mosques.

Kuashev's friends and associates are convinced he was killed because of his professional engagement. They cite the marks left by a hypodermic needle in his armpit and the fact that his fingers were turning black as evidence of "a planned professional killing." 

That circumstantial evidence points to the possible involvement of the security forces, and raises the question whether the perpetrators were acting at Kokov's behest or without his knowledge. 

Human rights activist Valery Khatazhukov points out that since, his appointment in December 2013 to replace Arsen Kanokov, Kokov  (who is a former head of the federal Interior Ministry's Main Administration for Countering Extremism, and thus should have a clearer idea than most of what tactics are most effective in containing it) has taken a moderate approach to combating the Islamic insurgency. 

Kokov advocates dialogue with the Salafi community and allowing the bodies of slain militants to be returned to their families for burial despite federal legislation to the contrary. 

That rejection of "force" methods may have antagonized the siloviki, in which case Kuashev's murder may have appeared a convenient way of killing two birds with one stone: getting rid of a journalist who had fearlessly criticized abuses by the power agencies, and embarrassing Kokov.

A second commentator, "Strategiya" Institute head Aslan Beshto, likewise spoke with approval of Kokov's first efforts to restore order in the health, education and construction sectors. In early April, Beshto opined that, so far, Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic. 

That view of Kokov's track record is apparently not shared in Moscow. In the most recent ranking by effectiveness of 83 federation subject heads, Kokov occupied 64th-65th place with a score of 61 out of 100. Of his fellow North Caucasus leaders, only North Ossetia's Taymuraz Mamsurov ranked lower, in 80th place.

-- Liz Fuller


Russia Hits Back At Georgia Over Trade Agreement With European Union

Former Georgian ambassador to Moscow Zurab Abashidze (right) and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin have held a series of meetings on relations between the two countries. (file photo)

Just three weeks after down-playing the anticipated impact on bilateral relations of Georgia's Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union, Russia is moving to suspend the Free Trade Agreement it signed with Georgia two decades ago. Senior Georgian officials in turn are now seeking to assure the population that the Russian move does not constitute "a tragedy."

Georgia signed the DCFTA on June 27 as part of its Association Agreement with the EU, which Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili described as "a big step towards free Europe."  

The Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the Agreement on July 18. The DCFTA takes effect on September 1. An EU study estimated that it will increase Georgian exports to the European Union by 12 percent.

Meanwhile, Russian and Georgian experts met in Prague on July 7 to discuss the anticipated impact of the DCFTA on bilateral trade, which had grown by 35 percent during the first five months of this year.  

Two days later, on July 9, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Georgia's special representative for talks with Moscow, former Ambassador Zurab Abashidze, met, also in Prague on July 9 for the seventh time since relaunching an "informal dialogue" in late 2012 in the wake of the parliamentary election in which then President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement was defeated by the more pragmatic and less overtly anti-Russian Georgian Dream coalition headed by philanthropist and businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Both sides described the two separate meetings as "productive" and "useful." Karasin was quoted as stressing that "concrete and open dialogue is needed about how [the DCFTA] will impact our bilateral trade."

At the same time, he affirmed that "I think that there is no need to threaten neither ourselves nor partners in advance with measures and sanctions; what is needed is to sit down calmly in mutual respect and thoroughly calculate in which areas and to what extent changes may occur in trade and economic ties between our countries following the recent signature by Georgia of the Association Agreement with the EU."

Notwithstanding Karasin's assurances, Russia's Ministry for Economic Development has drafted, without any prior consultations with Tbilisi, a decree on suspending the Russian-Georgian Free-Trade Agreement signed in February 1994. 

Abashidze reportedly told Georgia's Maestro TV that there is "a political element" in the Russian move. "Our take has always been that free trade with the EU does not in any way hinder our free trade with Russia, but they [the Russian authorities] as it seems think otherwise," he said. 

Abashidze explained that the suspension of the free-trade agreement with Russia will probably make Georgian exports to the Russian Federation more expensive and thus less competitive on the Russian market. In addition, he said, some tariffs will increase and others will be revised. 

Georgian Deputy Economy Minister Mikhail Djanelidze said Georgian imports to Russia would be subject to customs tariffs, but at a rate not exceeding 20 percent. 

Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri, however, told journalists on August 1 that he does not anticipate either a rise in the price of Georgian products on the Russian market or a fall in exports. 

On the contrary, Khaduri said, suspension of the free-trade agreement with Russia means that Russian imports will henceforth be subject to customs duty, which will bring in some 15-20 million laris ($8.6 -- $11.5 million) annually to the state budget. 

Like Abashidze, Georgian Prime Minister Gharibashvili said the suspension of the free-trade agreement with Russia "is not a tragedy." He said Abashidze will hold further talks with the Russian side, "and I think we shall reach an agreement." 

Whatever the impact on Georgia's economy, the planned suspension of the 1994 free-trade agreement raises the question whether individual Russian agencies or interest groups are again pursuing separate, even diverging policies with regard to Georgia, as this writer posited in 1994 (see "Russian Strategy in the Transcaucasus since the Demise of the U.S.S.R.,"  Bundesinstitut fuer ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, Cologne, ISIN 0435-7183)

-- Liz Fuller


Local Azerbaijanis Rally in Support of Embattled Daghestani Official

A Daghestani man pickets against the renaming of a street in Derbent after former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev in 2013.

A new standoff is underway between the Azerbaijanis, one of the largest ethnic groups in south-eastern Daghestan, and the republican leadership.

As part of an ongoing systematic purge of local administrators regarded as inefficient and/or corrupt, Republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov announced last week the imminent dismissal as head of Derbent Raion of Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani who had held that post since 1998. 

On July 30, however, supporters of Kurbanov (their numbers were variously estimated at 300 and 1,000 people), congregated outside the district administration building to protest that decision.

One participant argued that Abdulatipov had no right to sack Kurbanov, who was elected by a popular ballot and whose term does not expire until next year. 

A second, smaller protest against Kurbanov's planned dismissal took place on August 1 in the village of Mamedkala.

Kurbanov, who is 58, told his supporters on July 30 that he will not step down voluntarily. He was hospitalized later that day after a meeting with unidentified government officials who pressured him without success to sign a letter of resignation. 

According to unconfirmed reports, Abdulatipov intends to appoint as Kurbanov's successor Azadi Ragimov, also an Azerbaijani, who was dismissed last week after serving for 12 years as minister of justice.
 
Azerbaijanis are the sixth largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups, accounting for 4.5 percent of the total population, but the largest in Derbent Raion, where -- according to the 2010 All-Russian census -- they make up 58 percent of the total population of 99,500. The second largest group (18 percent) are the Lezgins. In the city of Derbent, which is celebrating its 2000th anniversary next year, Azerbaijanis and Lezgins each account for 35-36 percent of the total population of 120,000.

The Kurbanov family has long played a prominent role in local politics. Kurbanov's father, Said, served as first secretary of the Derbent Raion committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1962 to 1991, and then until 2006 as the Azerbaijani representative on the 14-person collective republican presidency. His brother Magomed was Daghestan's representative in the Azerbaijan Republic until last year, when Abdulatipov dismissed him. 

Even though Derbent Raion is not contiguous with Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has long played a prominent role in the region and seeks to expand it.  

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In 2010, two Russian analysts went so far as to argue that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is one of the most influential political figures in southern Daghestan.  In the run-up to the October 2013 Azerbaijani presidential ballot in which Aliyev ran for a third term, Abdulatipov officially appealed to Azerbaijani voters who belong to one of Daghestan's ethnic groups (primarily Avars, Tsakhurs and Lezgins) to cast their ballots for Aliyev. 

Some Daghestani observers cite Azerbaijani claims that Derbent is historically an Azerbaijani town as evidence that Baku harbors irredentist aspirations. 

In particular, the Lezgin population of the town of Derbent appears to resent what it perceives as unwarranted and inappropriate concessions by the municipal council to the leadership of the Azerbaijan Republic, as epitomized by the decision in the spring of 2013 to rename one of the town's streets in honor of Ilham Aliyev's late father, Heydar Aliyev. Many Lezgins similarly regard Kurbanov as too eager to please Baku.

Azerbaijan's expanding economic presence in the region may indeed be intended as a vehicle for political influence.  

In the run-up to the Derbent-2000 celebrations, Azerbaijan plans to build in Derbent Raion an Olympic sports complex comprising a soccer stadium, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and hotels. 

In addition, Kurbanov informed Republic of Daghestan Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov in March that Azerbaijani investors plan to build a canning factory, a factory to manufacture ceramic tiles, a cement plant, and a logistical center. Abdulatipov had criticized Kurbanov in July 2013 for his failure to attract investment in a predominantly agricultural district. 

-- Liz Fuller


Prosecutor Brings Criminal Charges Against Former Georgian President

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office announced on July 28 that criminal charges (of exceeding his authority on multiple occasions with recourse to violence) have been filed against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and four other former senior officials.   

Those charges relate to the use of excessive force, apparently on Saakashvili's orders, to break up antigovernment demonstrations in Tbilisi in November 2007 and the subsequent trashing of the premises of the independent TV station Imedi that had criticized the government's actions.

Rumors of Saakashvili's impending indictment had been circulating since the visit to Tbilisi last week of three prominent international experts on criminal law. According to the website civil.ge, they were British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice, who led The Hague tribunal prosecution of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic; former Israeli state prosecutor Moshe Lador, who indicted former Israeli President Moshe Katzav and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; and Paul Coffey, the former head of the UN Mission in Kosovo.

The three were asked, and agreed, to assist and advise on unspecified "high-profile, politically sensitive cases involving high-ranking public officials, in order to meet the highest possible standards of impartiality, fairness, due process, consistency, and transparency." The subsequent bringing of formal charges against Saakashvili suggests that they evaluated the body of evidence against him and concluded that it is adequate to deflect any argument that the charges are unsubstantiated and/or politically motivated.

On July 26, just days after those consultations, the Prosecutor-General's Office formally summoned Saakashvili for the second time in four months for questioning as a witness in connection with several ongoing investigations. Saakashvili failed to appear as requested on July 28. Instead, he responded with a statement on Facebook dismissing the summons as "a farce" and accusing the current Georgian leadership of seeking to destroy the "reformist legacy" it inherited from his United National Movement (ENM) and himself personally. He further accused the ruling Georgian Dream (KO) coalition that won the October 2012 parliamentary elections of focusing its entire energy on persecuting its ENM "opponents," rather than strengthening and developing the country.

As in late March, when he similarly refused to comply with a summons to the Prosecutor-General's Office, Saakashvili further claimed to be the victim of a clandestine agreement between the present Georgian government, which he perceives as acting on orders from Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Saakashvili believes is out to punish him for his unequivocal support for Ukraine.

The bringing of formal charges against Saakashvili constitutes a point of no return in the increasingly acrimonious standoff between the current and former leaderships. Ever since the ENM's election defeat, members of that party have consistently rejected as political persecution each successive arrest of a Saakashvili-era official on criminal charges.

That criticism initially led several prominent members of the international community to issue warnings to then-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to avoid even creating the impression of a witch-hunt against former ministers and officials.

For example, visiting Tbilisi in November 2012, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton told Ivanishvili that "investigations into past wrongdoings must be -- and must be seen to be -- impartial, transparent, and in compliance with due process." 

Since then, several prominent former officials, including former Interior Minister and Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili and former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, have been brought to trial. Merabishvili was sentenced in February to 4 1/2 years in prison on a charge of exceeding his authority by condoning unnecessary violence during the dispersal by force of opposition demonstrators in Tbilisi in May 2011. He faces further charges in connection with the murder in 2006 by Interior Ministry personnel of banker Sandro Girgvliani.

Akhalaia was acquitted last fall of subjecting special-forces personnel to torture or inhumane treatment, but still faces charges of beating six prisoners in 2006 while in charge of the penitentiary system and of instigating the torture of detainees in 2011.

Merabishvili is one of the four persons charged jointly with Saakashvili in connection with the November 2007 crackdown on the opposition. The other three are former Defense Minister David Kezerashvili, former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, and former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava.

International arrest warrants were issued in November 2013 for Adeishvili, whose whereabouts is not known, and Kezerashvili, whom a Tbilisi court recently acquitted of charges of bribe-taking. Ugulava was arrested and remanded in custody in early July on suspicion of money-laundering and using budget funds to finance the ENM parliamentary election campaign in 2012.

A second perennial accusation levelled by the ENM against Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream is similarly dubious. The claim that Ivanishvili, who stepped down in November 2013, is Putin's "puppet," and that the new leadership is so desperate to avoid antagonizing Moscow that it has abandoned the pro-Western geopolitical orientation it agreed last year to write into the country's constitution is difficult to reconcile with their commitment to continue the negotiations that culminated in the signing in late June of an Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union. If Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Giorgi Margvelashvili, Saakashvili's successor as president, had wanted the cozy client relationship with Russia that the ENM imputes to them, they would hardly have pushed ahead with the signing of that agreement, especially in light of Moscow's reprisals against Ukraine for its EU aspirations.

The ENM's overt hostility toward KO has given rise to speculation in both Georgian and Russian media that the party might seek to destabilize the domestic political situation this fall. In April, Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze alluded in a newspaper interview to that possibility, which Garibashvili promptly dismissed.

The results of the recent local elections, in which the ENM failed to win a single post of mayor or district-council head, cast serious doubts on the degree of popular support the ENM could rely on in the event that it launched a bid to topple the current authorities. A poll conducted in April on behalf of the National Democratic Institute estimated support for the ENM at just 15 percent nationwide.

Following the runoff vote in early July, the joint monitoring team fielded by the U.S., U.K., and Dutch embassies in Tbilisi released a statement giving a generally positive assessment of the conduct of the second round and encouraging "all parties to work together to promote economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and advance Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations."

That exhortation cut little ice with the ENM, judging by the vitriolic criticism of KO its parliamentary faction gave vent to during the debate last week on the new ministerial nominees proposed by Garibashvili, who retaliated at the end of the two-hour debate by criticizing the ENM as an "unconstructive and unhealthy force." (Garibashvili's stated rationale for axing five ministers and moving two more to other posts had been that the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU requires that ministers be "bolder and more efficient" and more prepared to take risks in order to deliver fully on KO's election promises.) 

In his opening remarks prior to the vote the following day on the composition of the reshuffled cabinet, Garibashvili nonetheless argued that "we should start trying to heal the wounds from the difficult years." At the same time, he reaffirmed that doing so "does not mean that anyone intends to turn a blind eye to crimes and reject an investigation of those crimes that caused damage to our people and our country."

The ENM legislators walked out prior to the vote on the new cabinet, which was endorsed unanimously by the 89 KO parliament members.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Mikheil Saakashvili


Insurgency Commanders Divulge Details Of Umarov’s Death

Doku Umarov

An 11-minute video clip was posted on YouTube last week showing the burial of self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov. Two senior Chechen insurgency commanders, Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev) and  Makhran (Saidov), describe (in Chechen) how Umarov was poisoned in early August 2013 when sharing food with younger fighters, and died one month later. A Russian translation of their statements was posted 24 hours later on the insurgency website Kavkazcenter.com. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov promptly posted a screen grab from the footage on his Instagram account as definitive proof that Umarov is dead.

Byutukayev explained that Umarov consumed a small amount of food that younger fighters had obtained from an Ingush on the highway leading to Djeyrakh (in southern Ingushetia, bordering on the south-westernmost part of Chechnya. Four other fighters died of poisoning; Umarov survived for a month before succumbing, at dawn on September 7.

Makhran dismissed the possibility that the poisoning was the result of a deliberate attempt by either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov to kill Umarov. He said that, on the contrary, Umarov’s death was purely fortuitous. Makhran disclosed that Umarov had summoned his senior commanders, and Makhran himself had arrived the evening before Umarov’s death.

The video clip shows six fighters helping to place Umarov’s body in the grave prepared for him and cover it over. The two other most senior commanders, Aslambek Vadalov and Tarkhan Gaziyev, are apparently not present. It was in the summer of 2013 that Gaziyev appealed to the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Shari'a Court in exile to rule on whether Umarov's proclamation in late 2007 of the Caucasus Emirate was justified under Shari'a law.

The first, unsubstantiated reports of Umarov’s death had surfaced  in January when an audio tape was posted on YouTube in which a speaker tentatively identified as Caucasus Emirate qadi (supreme religious authority) Abu Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) related how he had learned of Umarov’s death and that he had been proposed as his successor. The audio tape did not give any details of when or how Umarov died.

Kebekov formally confirmed in mid-March that Umarov was dead and he had been chosen to succeed him. But he did not divulge the date or circumstances of Umarov’s death.

The revelation that Umarov died in early September means that his last video address, which was superscribed Autumn 2013, must have been filmed in August or the first few days of September. In that clip, Umarov, apparently in good health, pays homage to the Gakayev brothers, who were killed in January 2013, and to Jamaleyl Mutaliyev (aka Amir Adam), a commander of the Ingushetia insurgency wing who was killed in May 2013.  The clip was uploaded to the web on December 19, just hours after Kadyrov announced (not for the first time) that Umarov had been killed in a counter-terror operation, but his body had not been recovered.

The reason for the delay between Kebekov’s confirmation in mid-March that Umarov was indeed dead and the posting of the video clip showing his burial can only be guessed at. 

-- Liz Fuller


Lawyers For Former Makhachkala Mayor Appeal Prison Term

Makhachkala ex-mayor Said Amirov at a court hearing in Rostov-na-Donu in April 24.

The team of lawyers representing former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, once one of the most powerful men in Daghestan, and his nephew, Yusup Dzhaparov, has appealed the prison terms handed down to the two men on July 9. 

The North Caucasus District Military Court in Rostov-na-Donu found them guilty of plotting a terrorist act and sentenced them to 10 and 8 1/2 years in jail respectively. It took the three presiding judges 2 1/2 hours to pronounce the verdict which they took turns to read. 

Amirov and Dzhaparov had both pleaded not guilty to the charge that they acquired a surface-to-air missile with a view to shooting down an aircraft in which Sagid Murtazaliyev, head of the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Pension Fund, would be travelling. 

In his final address, Amirov dismissed the charge against him as utter rubbish, based on rumor, wholly unsubstantiated, and politically motivated. He stressed that he had no motive for wanting to kill Murtazaliyev.

Dzhaparov, for his part, claims he was beaten on the back of the head during the pre-trial investigation and subjected to electric shocks. He said he was warned that he would receive a life sentence if he refused to incriminate his uncle. 

Procedural Violations

The half dozen defense lawyers pinpointed 108 separate procedural violations in the course of the pre-trial investigation and the two-month trial that began on April 24. They also highlighted contradictions in the indictment and in the testimony of witnesses for the prosecution. The judge dismissed those violations and discrepancies as insignificant.

The prosecution's case was based primarily on the testimony of one man, Magomed  Abdulgalimov, a former assistant to the Khasavyurt city prosecutor. Abdulgalimov (aka Kolkhoznik) is also the key witness in a second case in which Amirov and Dzhaparov are suspected of commissioning the murder in December 2011 in Kaspiisk of investigator Arsen Gadzhibekov. It was in connection with that murder that the two were first arrested in June 2013.

Abdulgalimov was arrested in October 2012 on a charge of embezzlement. According to his lawyer, Sergei Kvasov, investigators only began questioning Abdulgalimov about his links with Amirov in late January-early February 2013. It was at that time that Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Ramazan Abdulatipov as Republic of Daghestan acting President in place of Magomedsalam Magomedov.
 
Abdulgalimov said in court in late April that he had been tortured during the pre-trial investigation.

Abdulgalimov testified that Dzhaparov, with whom he was on friendly terms, introduced him to 'Amirov, who asked him to procure a portable antiaircraft missile launcher, which Abdulgalimov says he eventually purchased for $150,000 from a Chechen acquaintance.  Abdulgalimov says that in return for his help, Amirov promised him the post of Kaspiisk mayor. But instead of handing the weapon over to the two accused, Abdulgalimov said he buried it in Karabudakhkent Raion, just south of Makhachkala. Video footage of the missile being dug up is part of the prosecution's case.

The prosecution further claims that --  that at a second meeting, which took place at the mayor's office in Makhachkala -- Amirov asked Abdulgalimov to find someone trained to fire the missile, and disclosed that it was to be used to kill Murtazaliyev. At that juncture, according to the prosecution, Abdulgalimov got cold feet and warned Murtazaliyev of the preparations to kill him.

Amirov's lawyers, however, produced records in court of the mobile phone calls made by Dzhaparov, Amirov and Abdulgalimov on April 26, 2012, the day Abdulgalimov claims the second meeting took place. Those records show the three men could not have met as neither Abdulgalimov nor Dzhaparov was in Makhachkala that day. (Dzhaparov was in Kaspiisk.) Those two had, however, exchanged phone calls

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The defense lawyers also summoned as witnesses Tamara Kanayeva, who was in charge of Amirov's appointment calendar, and several persons who did meet with Amirov at his office on April 26. Kanayeva said Abdulgalimov did not have an appointment with Amirov on that day and could not have seen him without one.

Other visitors denied having seen him in the municipal offices that day. One of Amirov's close aides similarly denied ever having seen Abdulgalimov in the mayor's office. 

Amirov pointed out that Abdulgalimov's description of the interior of the city hall was incorrect. He said his bodyguards were permanently stationed on the fifth floor of the building, not the fourth floor as Abdulgalimov had claimed.

As for the surface-to-air Strela-2 missile that Abdulgalimov says he transported in his armored Land Cruiser to the hiding place in Karabudakhkent, Amirov's lawyers say that two separate protocols describe the weapon as having a different size and shape. They claimed the weapon dug up was in fact an Igla missile measuring  164 x 10 cm, whereas the missile produced in court, which a Federal Security Service (FSB) specialist testified was in working order, was a Strela -2. They produced wooden mock-ups of both missiles in court, but the judge refused to allow an experiment to determine whether either would have fit into the trunk of the vehicle in question.

Equally problematic were the prosecution's efforts to demonstrate why Amirov should have wanted to kill Murtazaliyev.  Murtazaliyev testified in court that Amirov had asked him to write off billions of rubles in unpaid contributions to the Pension Fund owed by companies Amirov controlled, but witnesses for the defense said no such debts to the Pension Fund existed.

Other witnesses for the prosecution suggested that Amirov regarded Murtazaliyev as a possible rival in the event of a direct election for the post of president of the republic. Amirov, who was first elected mayor in 1999, is a Dargin, the second largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups. Murtazaliyev is an Avar (the largest ethnic group.  Avars account for 29.4 percent of the total population of 2.9 million while Dargins account for 17 percent.). In the early 2000s, Murtazaliyev was a prominent member of the so-called Northern Alliance, a group of Avar politicians who sought to oust then President Magomedali Magomedov (a Dargin). 

Half a dozen parliamentarians had appealed unsuccessfully in late 2009 to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to include Amirov's name in a shortlist of candidates to succeed then Republic of Daghestan President Mukhu Aliyev. An opinion poll conducted in the spring of 2013 suggested that Amirov would have defeated acting President Abdulatipov in an open presidential ballot.

Amirov, however, explicitly denied in court that he had ever considered Murtazaliyev (a former Olympic wrestling champion) as a political rival. 

Polarized Public Opinion

The gaping holes in the prosecution's case against Amirov, and the fact that he was stripped on the day the verdict was announced of the various state honors he had been awarded in the course of his political career, lend credence to suspicions of a deliberate attempt to compromise and sideline him as a political figure, and possibly even bring about his untimely death in jail.

Amirov, 60, is wheelchair-bound as a result of injuries sustained in 1993 during one of a dozen attempts on his life; he also suffers from diabetes and hepatitis. One Daghestani commentator opined that, given the combined expertise of Amirov's defense lawyers, "the devil himself would have had no trouble getting off scot-free."

What is more, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin announced on July 9 that the investigation into the involvement of Amirov and Dzhaparov in Gadzhibekov's murder is almost complete. Markin pinpointed as the imputed motive for that murder that Gadzhibekov was investigating crimes committed by Amirov's subordinates. The possibility remains, too, that on the basis of Murtzaliyev's testimony, a third criminal case may be brought against Amirov for withholding mandatory contributions to the Pension Fund. 

Public opinion in Daghestan is polarized. Amirov's numerous supporters, not all of them his co-ethnics, remain convinced that he is the innocent victim of a show trial. Others, pointing to the numerous bids over the years to kill him and his nickname "Bloody Roosevelt," are inclined to believe that even if the charge of plotting to kill Murtazaliyev was indeed fabricated, Amirov nonetheless deserves to serve time for other crimes that have not come to light. Or, as blogger gumbetowsxy put it: "There is not enough water in the Caspian to wash clean his sins, and we know it."

-- 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.