Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Will Head Of North Ossetian Republic Step Down?

Republic of North Ossetia-Alania head Taimuraz Mamsurov at his inauguration in Vladikavkaz in June 2010.

Republic of North Ossetia-Alania head Taimuraz Mamsurov has rejected as untrue a flurry of media speculation that he is about to quit that post, even though his second term expires only in June. Meanwhile, the Russian State Duma is about to debate draft legislation that would remove the current ban on the heads of federation subjects serving more than two consecutive terms. The independent Daghestani weekly Chernovik has construed that move as necessitated by a lack of consensus within the Kremlin on what post Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov could be transferred to when his second term expires early in 2016.

The speculation about Mamsurov's future was triggered by an April 10 report in the daily Kommersant quoting unspecified sources as saying that Mamsurov will step down of his own volition and not seek a third term as republic head. Izvestia the same day reported that Mamsurov will "probably" not seek reelection.

Those reports echo Mamsurov's own categorical statement two years ago that he has decided "firmly and irrevocably" not to seek a third term. (He turns 61 on April 13.)

TASS, however, quoted Mamsurov on April 10 as denying that he will step down prematurely and adding that "it is not for me to decide who will head North Ossetia in future." Mamsurov referred to an interview he gave to Kommersant in late March in which he similarly stressed that "we live in a state where such decisions are taken by one man." At the same time, he acknowledged that the reason why he failed to deliver his annual address to the republic's parliament was that his future remains unclear.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the rumors of Mamsurov's imminent resignation.

Mamsurov was first named Republic of North Ossetia president in early 2005, just months after the hostage-taking in his native Beslan in which two if his four children were seriously injured. (He rejected an offer by the hostage takers to make an exception and release them.)

The republic's economy (based largely on the distilling of vodka using crystal-pure mountain springwater) registered a modest upswing during his first term that was not sustained after his reelection in 2010, even though the percentage of the annual budget subsidized by the federal government has fallen over the past three years to 53 percent, compared with 82.7 percent in neighboring Ingushetia.

With a population of just 704,000, North Ossetia suffers from high hidden unemployment, and crime and drug-addiction are on the increase.

Analysts have identified at least half a dozen possible successors to Mamsurov, including Federation Council members Oleg Khatsayev and Aleksandr Totoonov, North Ossetian Prime Minister Sergei Takoyev, businessman Taymuraz Bolloyev, Russian Deputy Science and Education Minister Marat Kambolov, and General Taymuraz Kaloyev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB) administration for North Ossetia.

In a direct election, however, the clear favorite would be former Olympic wrestling champion Arsen Fadzayev, a former United Russia State Duma deputy who defected in 2009 to the opposition Patriots of Russia party and currently heads its faction (the second largest with 17 members) in the republican parliament.

Opinions differ as to whether Mamsurov is legally entitled to serve third term. As noted above, federal legislation currently limits to two the number of consecutive terms a federation-subject head may serve. But according to Tamsurov's administration head, Sergei Tabolov, the corresponding republican legislation contains no legal obstacles to a third term. Mamsurov himself, however, said in January 2013 that he believes "not just as a government official, but as a patriot, that no one has the right to make use of legal loopholes" that would permit him to serve a third term.

The Kremlin's disinclination to clarify Mamsurov's prospects suggests that some senior officials may favor the idea of nominating him for a third term in order to set a precedent that can then be adduced to rationalize doing the same for Kadyrov. The key difference between the two is that whereas North Ossetia has abolished direct elections for the post of republic head, Chechnya has not, and Kadyrov himself appears determined to demonstrate his "popularity" by being reelected by a landslide (if rigged) majority.

-- Liz Fuller

Moscow Sends Mixed Signals On Nationality Relations

Igor Barinov has just been appointed as head of Russia's new Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs. (file photo)

Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev named retired Federal Security Service Colonel and State Duma deputy Igor Barinov to head the new Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs. 

The Kommersant daily, which two weeks earlier had quoted a presidential administration official as saying that Deputy Minister of Culture with responsibility for interethnic relations Aleksandr Zhuravsky was in line for that post, construed Barinov's appointment as heralding a tougher line on interethnic relations. So too did several other commentators. 

How successful Barinov will prove to be in monitoring tensions with a view to averting "pogroms" such as that in Moscow's Biryulevo district in October 2013,  is questionable, however, given that the new agency still has no office and no staff. 

Moreover, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov, no additional government funding will be made available for it. In other words, the new agency may turn out to be "underfunded and powerless"  

Over the past two decades, since then Federation Council Deputy Chairman Ramazan Abdulatipov in 1995 published an open letter in Nezavisimaya gazeta to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, arguing the need for a comprehensive nationalities policy geared toward preventing a recurrence of the Chechen War, Moscow's approach to assuring the harmonious coexistence of the country's 180+ ethnic groups has undergone numerous modifications and changes. So, too, has the federal body tasked with implementing that policy, which then Regional Development Minister  Igor Slyunyayev calculated in 2013 had undergone a dozen different incarnations.

But while Yeltsin clearly acknowledged the need for a separate government ministry to oversee interethnic relations, Putin abolished it in 2001. 

The Ministry of Nationality and Regional Policy was created in 1994; its status upgraded from that of a State Committee, and renamed the Ministry for Nationality Affairs and Federal Relations in 1996. Then, in September 1998, the ministry was split into two components, the Ministry for Nationality Policy (headed by Abdulatipov) and the Ministry for Regional Policy (headed by Valery Kirpichnikov, formerly the president of the Union of Russian Cities). 

Less than a year later, in July 1999, the move was reversed and the two ministries were again amalgamated. Vyacheslav Mikhailov, who had served as nationalities minister from 1995 to 1996, was reappointed to that post, but was dismissed in January 2000 and replaced by former Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Aleksandr Blokhin.

In July 2000, the Federal Migration Agency was abolished, and its functions subsumed into a new combined Ministry for Federation Affairs, Nationality, and Migration Policy. 

In October 2001, however, Putin abolished that mega-ministry, but named Vladimir Zorin as minister without portfolio responsible for nationalities affairs. 

From 2004, interethnic relations were the responsibility, first, of a separate department within the Ministry of Regional Development, and then, after that ministry in turn was abolished last fall, the Ministry of Culture.

Following the adoption of a new state strategy on nationality policy in the fall of 2012, the question once again emerged as to which agency would assume responsibility for implementing it: a new ministry, as some State Duma deputies advocated, or a department within the presidential administration. 

Predictably, in light of his apparent inability to comprehend the importance of the issue, Putin opted for an agency, rather than a full-fledged ministry, which will reportedly comprise the existing section within the Ministry of Culture responsible for nationality issues, but will be subordinate not to the federal government, but to the presidential administration, within which first deputy administration head Vyacheslav Volodin and his deputy, former Republic of Daghestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov, are responsible for nationality policy. 

How the new federal agency will interact with the federal ministries for the North Caucasus, the Far East, and Crimea, has not yet been spelled out.

Meanwhile, a group of State Duma deputies plans to propose the abolition of the presidential envoys to the nine federal districts, whose duties include monitoring interethnic tensions and rivalries. (An exception may be made for the North Caucasus and Volga Federal Districts.)   

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has reportedly calculated that scrapping the presidential envoys and their staff would abolish 3,000 government jobs and save some 3 billion rubles ($54 million) per year. 

-- Liz Fuller

Young Ingush Official Dismissed Following Polygraph Test

Ingush leader Yunus-Bek YevkurovYevkurov has proposed that all government officials, himself included, should agree to a 10 percent reduction in salary.

In early March, the Republic of Ingushetia leadership proposed that candidates for government posts should voluntarily undergo a lie-detector test as a means of reducing the official corruption for which the region has become a byword. That initiative has already backfired, however.

A March 24 report that Committee for Youth Affairs Chairman Zurab Malsagov, 33, had been dismissed after undergoing such a test was confirmed only after Malsagov’s friends launched a social-media campaign to defend his reputation. Meanwhile, Malsagov told the website Caucasian Knot on March 27 that he had not been informed of the results of the polygraph test and was still working in his official capacity. He said he plans to take legal action against those who have “defamed” him. Noting that he is the seventh committee chairman in as many years (he was appointed to the post on March 26, 2014), Malsagov commented that colleagues had warned him it was “a ticket to the firing squad.”

Timur Bokov, who heads the presidential administration’s department for relations with the media, likewise said Malsagov had not been dismissed. He added, however, that Malsagov was nonetheless due to lose his job in light of the planned merger of the Committee for Youth Affairs with the Committee for Tourism.

That merger is one of the measures announced last month by Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to reduce budget expenditure. To that end, Yevkurov also proposed that all government officials, himself included, should agree to a 10 percent reduction in salary. Civil servants in Ingushetia are already the lowest-paid in the North Caucasus Federal District.

The day before the news of Malsagov’s purported dismissal surfaced, Yevkurov had publicly criticized him for not pulling his weight, specifically for his purported failure to show an interest in the problems and aspirations of young people. Yevkurov finally responded to the social-media campaign in Malsagov’s support by convening a meeting on March 31 at which he elaborated on his earlier criticisms, telling Malsagov -- who had taken as his professional motto the slogan “It’s fashionable to be honest” -- that “you only work with those people with whom it’s in your personal interest to do so." Yevkurov then proceeded to sign the decree dismissing Malsagov.

Still unclear is what role a detailed expose of alleged misappropriation by Malsagov of budget funds played in the decision to dismiss him and effectively abolish the Committee for Youth Affairs as a separate entity. That expose, which was posted on the website on March 5, provided a detailed breakdown of how the 17 million rubles ($292,963) in budget funds earmarked for a special program last year to create jobs for young people and provide loans for young businessmen was actually spent. Of that total, 3.7 million went on renting premises for various promotions, 1.18 million rubles was spent on “printed materials,” 1.5 million on unspecified “consulting fees,” and a further 610,000 rubles on the production of five 10-minute video clips in which young entrepreneurs described how they started out in business. A company that Malsagov owns allegedly won a 2.5 million ruble tender to organize an international youth forum. Just 1.68 million rubles, barely 10 percent of the total, were actually allocated in subsidies to young business people.

Those figures are peanuts, however, in comparison with the 13.3 billion rubles (of a total of 29.4 billion allocated between 2008-2013 within the framework of three federal programs) which, according to a separate detailed analysis authored by the opposition All-Ingush Civic Council, remain unaccounted for. Those programs entailed the construction of housing and infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and highways, and expanding industrial production to provide jobs for the republic’s 89,300 unemployed (44 percent of the able-bodied population). Just 1,746 jobs have been created over the past six years of the planned 29,000. As a result of the failure to improve medical facilities, mortality rates from cancer, tuberculosis, and heart disease are on the rise, while life expectancy fell from 80.1 years in 2008 to 77.8 years in 2012.

-- Liz Fuller

Two Men Sentenced For 2009 Murder Of Daghestani Journalist

Murdered journalist Abdulmalik Akhmedilov in an undated file photo

No fewer than 15 journalists have been murdered in Daghestan since 2000, 12 of them in the past decade alone. This week, for the first time, a court found two men guilty of one of those killings, that of Abdulmalik Akhmedilov in August 2009.

But Murad Shuaybov and Isa Abdurakhmanov, both of whom pleaded not guilty, plan to appeal those sentences, and the politician widely suspected of having commissioned the killing has never been questioned about his imputed involvement.

Akhmedilov, 32, was editor of the local Avar-language newspaper Sogratl (named for the eponymous village where he was born) and deputy chief editor of the republican Avar-language paper Hakikat (Truth). His boss, Union of Journalists of Daghestan Chairman Ali Kamalov, has described him as “talented, very calm, balanced, kind, a good team-player.” At the time of his death, the Committee to Protect Journalists quoted one of Akhmedilov’s colleagues as saying he had acquired a reputation for critical reporting on how the federal security forces sought to suppress political and religious dissent under the guise of cracking down on “extremism.”

Akhmedilov was shot twice in the stomach from a sawn-off hunting rifle on August 11, 2009, as he emerged from his house on the outskirts of Makhachkala to get into his car. He died almost immediately.

Shuaybov was arrested in late January 2013 and Abdurakhmanov some two months later. Like Akhmedilov, both were born in Sogratl. By December 2013, prosecutors had concluded that Shuaybov fired the murder weapon and Abdurakhmanov drove the getaway car.

The Daghestan Directorate of the Federal Investigative Committee reportedly quoted Shuaybov as having admitted during pretrial questioning to killing Akhmedilov out of personal animosity because the latter had wrongly branded him an adherent of Wahhabism (which is banned in Daghestan under a law passed in 1999).

Even before the arrest of the two suspects, Kamalov had implicated lawmaker Shamil Isayev (also a native of Sogratl). In December 2011, Kamalov told a joint session in December 2011 of the Republic of Daghestan parliament and Public Chamber that Akhmedilov had informed him more than once of his strained relations with Isayev. Kamalov declared that “the investigation [into Akhmedilov’s death] hit a dead end. But everyone knows who killed him, who fired the shots, and why. Shamil Isayev is mixed up in this.”

Isayev responded by bringing a libel suit against Kamalov in a Makhachkala court that ended with a ruling in February 2013 that Kamalov pay 60,000 rubles ($1,031 at today’s exchange rate) in damages to Isayev.

Meanwhile, Moscow-based journalist Orkhan Dzhemal undertook his own investigation of the murders of both Akhmedilov and Khadjimurad Kamalov, founder and chief editor of the independent Daghestani Russian-language weekly Chernovik and the son of Ali Kamalov’s first cousin. In three articles published in April 2013, June 2013, and May 2014, he summarized the circumstantial evidence implicating Isayev in both murders.

Specifically, Dzhemal said Shuaybov told investigators that he and Abdurakhmanov (Isayev’s former driver) killed Akhmedilov on orders from Magomed Abigasanov, the head of Isayev's bodyguards. Dzhemal further explained that there was ill-feeling between the parliamentarian and Akhmedilov, who criticized in print the unseemly and drunken behavior of a group of construction workers engaged in building a house in Sogratl for Isayev’s brother Rizvan.

Dzhemal also reproduced what appears to be a scanned copy of an official document dated October 2010 from a senior Investigative Committee staffer to the unnamed head of the Daghestan administration of the Federal Security Service (FSB) to launch a formal probe of the possible involvement of Isayev and his brother Omargadji in Akhmedilov's murder.

Just as he had done in response to Ali Kamalov’s allegations, Isayev sued Dzhemal for libel. A Moscow court ruled in September 2014 that Dzhemal should pay Isayev 200,000 rubles in damages for the allegation that Isayev was implicated in Kamalov’s killing. At the same time, the judge rejected a formal request by Djemal’s lawyer Biyakay Magomedov to suspend further hearings pending a verdict on Shuaybov and Abdurakhmanov, who went on trial in April 2014 for Akhmedilov’s murder.

That trial dragged on for 11 months, during which time Shuaybov formally complained of procedural irregularities and called without success for the recusal of presiding judge. Shuaybov said he confessed to the murder only under torture and was not in Makhachkala on the day Akhmedilov was killed.

Shuaybov was sentenced to 10 1/2 years in jail and Abdurakhmanov to eight years. Ali Kamalov criticized those sentences as “too lenient” and said those who commissioned the killing should be punished, too.

Whether the verdict will pave the way for arrests in the case of the other 14 Daghestani journalists who met a violent death or remain an aberration is impossible to predict. Russian President Vladimir Putin called on investigators last October to solve those killings. Three months later, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov affirmed during his annual address to parliament that “11 out of the 12 murders have already been solved,” to the mystification of the victims’ colleagues.

-- Liz Fuller

New Abkhaz Prime Minister Faces Uphill Struggle To End Economic Stagnation

Abkhazia new de facto Prime Minister Artur Mikvabia

Raul Khadjimba, the de facto president of Georgia’s breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, has appointed parliament deputy Artur Mikvabia as prime minister in place of Beslan Butba, who resigned that post on March 17 after less than six months in office.

Butba explained that he stepped down because "as prime minister I have recently been cut off from most issues. What is in effect a second cabinet has been created within the presidential apparatus."

Just days earlier, Khadjimba had criticized the cabinet’s performance as ineffective and raised the possibility of merging it with the presidential apparatus.

Journalist Anton Krivenyuk, for his part, pointed out that Butba had minimal room for maneuver in a system where the president, rather than the premier, selects government ministers.

Mikvabia, made clear, however, in an interview with the state news agency shortly after his appointment on March 21 that the planned merger will not entail simply subordinating himself and cabinet members to the president, even though under the Republic of Abkhazia constitution the president is head of the executive branch.

Rather, Mikvabia said, it is intended to avoid duplication by abolishing those structures within the presidential administration, such as the Directorate for Economic Issues, that duplicate the work of specific ministries. He added that while the state will retain responsibility for macroeconomic issues, "in a market economy it should not become directly involved in the activity of business structures."

Mikvabia, 65, is a decade older than his predecessor, but his background is similar to Butba’s and their diagnosis of the problems besetting the region's moribund economy and how to overcome them largely coincide.

Both Butba and Mikvabia left Abkhazia for Moscow in the early 1990s and went into business; neither was an active participant in the 1992-1993 war that culminated in Abkhazia’s de facto independence from Georgia, although Mikvabia provided funding for the war effort, while Butba organized humanitarian relief.

Both subsequently returned to Abkhazia to become the leader of a political party: Mikvabia was the first chairman of the public organization "One Abkhazia" in 2004, while Butba founded the Party of Economic Development of Abkhazia in September 2007.

Both backed Khadjimba’s candidacy in the August 2014 pre-term presidential ballot necessitated by the ouster of Aleksandr Ankvab; Mikvabia, who was elected to parliament in March 2012, served as Khadjimba's campaign manager. Butba and Mikvabia have both criticized Ankvab’s economic policy, rejecting as flawed and counter-productive the priority he attached to developing Abkhazia’s agricultural sector, specifically by encouraging the creation of large agro-industrial holdings.

As economic advisor to then President Sergei Bagapsh, in 2005 Mikvabia drafted a program for socioeconomic development that was loosely based on the experience of those southeast Asian states that had developed an export-oriented industrial sector on the proceeds of exporting raw materials.

In Abkhazia’s case, Mikvabia suggested that the export of timber and construction materials such as marble, granite, limestone, gravel and sand, and of agricultural produce to Russia, could fund industrial development.

That program was not systematically implemented, however, even after the Russian Federation formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008 and began providing large-scale economic aid. (One of the opposition’s criticisms of Ankvab was that Russian aid was channelled into unnecessary infrastructure projects such as the construction of a swimming pool in the former coal-mining town of Tkuarchal, where inhabitants are too poor to pay the admission fee.)

In November 2014, shortly after Khadjimba’s inauguration, Mikvabia, then still a rank-and-file law-maker, unveiled a new socioeconomic development strategy for the next 10-15 years that borrowed from his program of nine years earlier. That strategy envisages transforming Abkhazia into a tourist, cultural and medical center for the entire Black Sea region, with tourism serving as the locomotive for economic development. Mikvabia subsequently argued that just catering to the Russian tourist market “could solve all our problems”  and bemoaned the fact that the tourism sector was neglected under Ankvab.

Moscow may not look favourably, however, on plans to promote Abkhazia as a tourist destination in competition with Crimea and Sochi, where it is hoped to recoup at least a fraction of the billions of rubles invested in infrastructure in the runup to the February 2014 Winter Olympics.

Furthermore, Mikvabia’s skills as a strategic thinker do not necessarily qualify him for the day-to-day compromises that the post of prime minister demands, especially given that the economy is only one of several problems he will be expected to solve. Khadjimba admitted last year that unemployment is close to 70 percent.

-- Liz Fuller

Is The Georgian Government Living On Borrowed Time?

Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili

Two recent developments have highlighted the erosion of popular support in recent months for Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition. But no rival political force currently appears strong enough to capitalize on that popular disillusion.

On March 21, the opposition United National Movement (ENM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili convened a demonstration in Tbilisi to demand that the government resign for its handling of the economy. Attendance was at least 10,000, and possibly as many as 30,000 people from across the country -- far more than the organizers anticipated, according to ENM law-maker Sergo Ratiani. 

Just days later, the findings of an opinion poll conducted in late February commissioned by the International Republican Institute showed support for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition at 36 percent, followed by the ENM with 14 percent and the Free Democrats headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania with 10 percent. In the June 2014 local elections, Georgian Dream garnered 50.8 percent of the vote.

Of the total 1,500 respondents, 55 percent opined that Georgia is “moving in the wrong direction,” up from 33 percent in February 2014. Just 25 percent considered the country is moving in the right direction, compared with 48 percent one year earlier.

Analyst Giorgi Kalatozishvili has attributed the decline in support for Georgian Dream to a combination of two factors.

One is what he terms “the psychology of post-Soviet Georgian society, which is predisposed to demand from the authorities consolidation and a clear and precise program, confidence in their own abilities and the ability to respond appropriately to challenges.”

The second is the decline in value of the Georgian lari over the past four months. That process began in November, when the lari fell by 11-12 percent against the U.S. dollar. National Bank President Giorgi Kadagidze and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili both attributed that development to the strengthening of the U.S. dollar and a fall in external funding, the combined effect of which, they said, had been exacerbated by “panic” and “over-reaction” among the population at large. The currency then stabilized, but the downward trend resumed in January. 

On February 19, the lari fell to 2.1472:US$1, compared with 1.7675:US$1 three months earlier, the lowest rate since January 2004. One week later, on February 26, it was trading at 2.2494:US$1, a decline of 28.2 percent in three months. Over the next 10 days, the lari rose slightly to 2.1:$US1, but by March 19 it had again fallen to 2.23:US$1. 

Meanwhile, exports fell by 26 percent in January-February compared with 2014, and remittances by 22.4 percent. Caucasus Press quoted the World Bank as estimating the dependence of the Georgian economy on remittances at 12 percent. As of March 13, annual inflation was already 23 percent. 

The financial impact of those trends was exacerbated by the spectacular lack of unity within the Georgian leadership. Georgian Dream founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire philanthropist who some observers believe continues to pull strings behind the scenes, laid the blame for the “crisis” squarely on the National Bank.

National Bank Chairman Kadagidze rejected that criticism as “slanderous,” arguing that “attempts to shift the blame” had weakened both the lari and the economy in general. At the same time, he distanced himself from the cabinet and implicitly criticized it, pointing out that the National Bank “cannot answer for the country’s economic policy.”

Kadagidze further expressed surprise at the timing of Ivanishvili’s statement, made public on February 26 when the lari was already stabilizing. Azim Sadykov, who heads International Monetary Fund’s mission in Georgia, was similarly quoted as dismissing Ivanishvili’s criticism of the National Bank.

Prime Minister Gharibashvili acknowledged in late February that the “very difficult situation” could necessitate revising downwards the 5 percent GDP growth target for 2015. At the same time, he said the cabinet was working with the National Bank on “improving the situation very quickly” and attracting investment. Those statements failed, however, to convince the ENM, which together with the extra-parliamentary Labor Party had demanded in early February the resignation of the economy and finance ministers.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is at odds with Gharibashvili, initially rejected a subsequent demand by the ENM to convene a special session of parliament to discuss the economic situation. Meeting on February 25 with the ministers of economy and finance, Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Nodar Khaduri, Margvelashvili said it was reasonable to give the government until March 5 to draft its plans for stabilizing the currency.

When the government failed to meet that deadline, the ENM again called on Margvelashvili to convene an emergency parliament session, which he duly did for March 13. That session failed to take place, however, because only 41 law-makers showed up; a minimum of 76 (of the total 150) is required for a quorum.

Kvirikashvili, Khaduri, and Kadagidze nonetheless outlined at a five-hour session of the parliamentary committees for finance and the economy on March 12 the “revolutionary” (Khaduri’s choice of adjective) measures the government envisages for restoring economic stability. According to Kvirikashvili, they include raising $300 million-$350 million over the next few months by privatizing state-owned enterprises and enacting measures to improve the business climate, including abolishing corporate income tax on reinvested profits.

At the same time, Khaduri stressed that the government will not raise taxes, although it may increase excise duty on alcohol and cigarettes.

Prominent ENM members told participants at the March 21 demonstration that the party plans to stage further protest rallies across the country, expose corrupt regional officials, and seek to initiate a parliament vote of no-confidence in Gharibashvili’s government.

At first glance, the ENM’s chances of forcing such a vote appear minimal. The ENM currently has 50 parliament mandates, the seven factions aligned in Georgian Dream – 87, and the Free Democrats – eight. Four law-makers are not members of any faction. One parliament seat is vacant.

A minimum of 60 votes (two-fifths of the 150 parliamentarians) is required to request a no-confidence vote, and 75 votes for it to pass. In that case, the parliament is required to approve by a minimum of 60 votes a candidate for prime minister, whom the president must endorse within five days. If the president vetoes the proposed candidate, the parliament is empowered to nominate him again, but a minimum of 90 votes are needed to do so, in which case the president must endorse the candidate. If, however, parliament fails to overcome the presidential veto, the president has the right to dissolve parliament and schedule pre-term elections.

Free Democrats leader Alasania, whom Gharibashvili dismissed as defense minister last November following a public row over the arrest of several ministry staffers, has already announced that his faction will not support a no-confidence vote. But even before the March 21 protest, analyst Mamuka Areshidze warned that the ENM was actively seeking to suborn at least 15 Georgian Dream law-makers.

The IRI opinion poll results suggest that in the event of a pre-term election, no party would gain a majority. And just days before the March 21 demonstration, several observers expressed doubts that the ENM would succeed in mobilizing a large number of protesters. The Caucasus Knot quoted NGO head Khatuna Lagazidze as explaining that “popular dissatisfaction is increasing by the day, but there isn’t any opposition force in the country that could mobilize voters, and for that reason the incumbent government feels more than confident."

One participant in the March 21 protest told the same website, however, that “in Kutaisi the number of active supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili has risen from 2,000 to 10,000, people want the country to develop.” Whether the ENM is enjoying a similar upsurge in popularity nation-wide, and whether the unexpectedly high attendance at the Tbilisi protest will serve as a catalyst for the party’s resurgence, is difficult to predict, however.

Assuming that Georgian Dream succeeds in averting a no-confidence vote, the question arises: can the government provide not just economic stability but genuine growth in the 18 months between now and the parliamentary ballot due in the fall of 2016?

Kadagidze told the parliament committee joint session on March 12 he thinks further turbulence on the currency market is unlikely. But Khaduri has confirmed that this year’s target for GDP growth will indeed be revised downwards from 5 percent to 2 percent, as Gharibashvili had hinted it might. From that point of view, the March 21 protest may in hindsight come to be seen as the de facto start of the parliamentary election campaign, with the ENM and Alasania’s Free Democrats in competition to win the favor of an electorate alienated by Georgian Dream’s lack of unity and failure to deliver on its 2012 election promises.

-- Liz Fuller 

New Date Set For Signing Of Russia-South Ossetia Treaty

The de facto president of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov (left), at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside Moscow in October 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to sign the new Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia on March 18 during a visit to Moscow by the region's de facto president, Leonid Tibilov, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced on March 12. The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta had reported that the signing of the treaty had been postponed indefinitely, without citing the rationale for doing so.

On March 13, 19 of the 20 South Ossetian parliamentary deputies from the Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) party headed by parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov passed a vote of no confidence in de facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev. Ten days earlier, Bibilov had criticized Sanakoyev for foreign policy "blunders" and for having made public in January a revised draft of the treaty.

Sanakoyev rejected that criticism as "a campaign launched by the parliament majority against those who disagree with it." He and Bibilov differ over the extent to which South Ossetia's state bodies, and the polity as a whole, should be subsumed into the Russian Federation. Bibilov called in January 2014 for a referendum on South Ossetia's integration into the Russian Federation to be held concurrently with the parliamentary elections in June 2014. Sanakoyev in contrast adduced the referendum held in November 2006, in which 99 percent of the region's voters expressed support for its self-declared independent status and for efforts aimed at securing international recognition of that status. Russia formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in late August 2008.

The parliamentary debate that preceded the March 13 vote of no confidence in Sanakoyev was reportedly stormy, with at least one speaker accusing him of having "betrayed" South Ossetia. Igor Kochiyev, who heads the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, countered that in that case, it is for the prosecutor's office, rather than the parliament, to evaluate Sanakoyev's actions. Kochiyev branded the parliament's approach "unconstructive," protesting that "one man should not be blamed for everything."

Amiran Dyakonov of the former ruling Unity Party argued that at the very least, the legislature should form a commission to evaluate Sanakoyev's imputed errors of judgment prior to a no-confidence vote.

Given that the South Ossetian constitution stipulates that only a simple majority is required for a no-confidence vote, Bibilov's faction succeeded in passing it. Six deputies from the Unity and People's parties voted against, while the four deputies from Nykhas left the chamber before the vote, as did Kochiyev.

De facto President Tibilov, who Sanakoyev admits was annoyed by his leaking the revised text of the treaty, has not yet commented publicly or taken action on the parliament vote. If he declines to dismiss Sanakoyev, the parliament may call a second no-confidence vote within two months. If Bibilov's faction again votes no confidence in Sanakoyev, Tibilov has no choice but to dismiss him.

Meanwhile, a new dispute appears imminent between parliamentary deputy speaker Dmitry Tasoyev and Vyacheslav Gobozov, chairman of the State Committee for Information and the Press and of the extraparliamentary socialist party Fydybasta. Gobozov expressed his "complete amazement" at Tasoyev's insistence during the parliamentary debate that journalists quote all his pronouncements in full and verbatim, "without omitting a single comma." Gobozov said that demand constitutes pressure on the media. At the same time, he stressed that the parliamentary majority "has the right to evaluate the actions of any member of the government, independent of whether the accusations against him refer to his professional duties."

-- 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.