Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Ramzan Kadyrov's Trojan Horse

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and former wrestler Buivaisar Saitiyev watch a boxing match in Grozny in March.

Liz Fuller

It is no secret that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has long considered Daghestan's Khasavyurt district that borders on Chechnya part of his bailiwick. Two recent interlinked moves are clearly intended to strengthen his influence not only in Khasavyurt, but elsewhere in Daghestan.

Both involve Buvaisar Saitiyev, 41, a Khasavyurt-born Chechen and three-time Olympic freestyle-wrestling champion who for many years was regarded as a possible candidate for the post of mayor of the town of Khasavyurt. Khasavyurt is the second-largest town in Daghestan, with a population of 140,000, of whom some 40,000 are Chechens. Chechens are the ninth-largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups; at the time of the 2010 federal census they numbered 93,658.

Saitiyev is already an adviser to Kadyrov, whom he described in an extensive interview four years ago as "a genuine Muslim" and "one of the few regional leaders who sincerely loves his people and does all he can to promote their well-being." Kadyrov has been equally unstinting in his praise of Saitiyev, whom he characterized as "an exceptionally devout and decent person with a pure soul and intentions."

Saitiyev has now also been named an adviser to Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov -- even though it is not clear, as one blogger has pointed out, whether Russian law permits one person to serve simultaneously as adviser to two federation-subject heads.

In addition, Saitiyev is seventh on the list of candidates from the ruling United Russia party seeking to represent Daghestan in the Russian State Duma elections in September.

Saitiyev retired from wrestling in 2009, and subsequently served from 2010-11 as an adviser on sport and youth affairs to Aleksandr Khloponin, whom then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had named in January 2010 as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. The two men were already acquainted: Khloponin had previously served for eight years as governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, where Saitiyev had lived since 1992.

Saitiyev has hinted that he found his role on Khloponin's staff frustrating, given that its duties were primarily to monitor and make recommendations; it had no executive power. He admitted that "I realized clearly that I'm not cut out to be a state functionary," and that he did not enjoy having to spend nine hours a day sitting at a desk.

It is thus unclear what kind of leverage or incentives underpin Kadyrov's installation of Saitiyev as what amounts to his personal lobbyist within the Republic of Daghestan leadership.

Unlucky Laks

Saitiyev's initial tasks in that capacity will center on defending the interests of Daghestan's Chechen community.

The first is expediting the resettlement from the Novolak district in the extreme northwest of Daghestan of the Laks who were forcibly relocated there following the deportation to Central Asia in 1944 of the district's Chechen population. In 1991, following the adoption by the Russian parliament of legislation on the rehabilitation of those ethnic groups deported or otherwise repressed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the Daghestani leadership launched plans to move the unfortunate Laks once again, this time to swampy coastal lowlands north of Makhachkala.

That program is way behind schedule, for a combination of reasons, including lack of funding, the abysmal quality of the new housing, and the lack of infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities, and the reluctance of many Laks to abandon a region where they have put down roots and currently derive a decent livelihood from agriculture. The tract of land earmarked for building new homes for the Laks is unsuitable for agriculture and there is no alternative employment. What is more, the Kumyks, Daghestan's third-most-numerous ethnic group, have staked a rival claim to that territory.

Rayudin Yusufov, a Daghestani deputy prime minister and himself a Lak, has said the resettlement of the Laks must be completed by 2018. But the 3,341 Chechen families impatient to move into the Laks' vacated homes are increasingly unwilling to wait any longer. In recent years, they have staged repeated mass demonstrations to demand the swifter and more effective implementation by the Daghestani government of the proposed measures to enable them to return to Novolak, which will ultimately revert to its former Chechen name of Aukhovsky district.

The Chechens have also successfully demanded the creation of a special working group to investigate their complaints that land plots in four formerly Chechen-populated villages are being sold off illegally.

The second priority is to engineer the election as Khasavyurt town mayor of a candidate acceptable to Kadyrov. Longtime Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov, whom Kadyrov in 2014 publicly branded "a bandit" and accused of colluding with the North Caucasus insurgency, was forced to step down in August but managed to install Zaynudin Okmazov, one of his loyal supporters, as his successor. Initially Saitiyev was identified as Kadyrov's preferred candidate, but his election as mayor was technically impossible given that he was not a member of the municipal council.

Kadyrov's agenda in Daghestan may in addition include a more far-reaching and controversial issue, to which Saitiyev alluded in his interview four years ago. He claimed that in 1991, Avar, Chechen, and Lak clerics had reached agreement that the border between Chechnya and Daghestan's Novolak/Aukhovsky district should be moved to where it ran in the 19th century under Imam Shamil, who spearheaded the Caucasians' resistance to the Tsarist Russian conquest. That would entail handing over a tract of what is currently Daghestani territory to Chechnya.

Tags:Daghestan, Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov

Georgian Defense Minister Under Fire Over Conscription Decree

Georgian President Georgi Margvelashvili (right), Prime Minister Georgi Kvirikashvili (center), and Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli examine military gear during the opening of the U.S.-led joint military exercise Noble Partner 2016 in Vaziani, Georgia, in May.

Liz Fuller

Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli has incurred criticism from representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition for announcing without prior warning at a press conference on June 27 that conscription of young men to serve in the armed forces has been suspended as of 2017.

While the process of phasing out conscription in favor of a professional volunteer army has been under way for several years, both Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili responded with statements deploring the fact that Khidasheli jumped the gun in announcing a measure that, according to Kvirikashvili, should have been discussed beforehand by both the cabinet and the National Security Council.

The suspension of conscription will only apply, Khidasheli explained, to the induction of young men into the armed forces, but not to those who serve their 15 months' compulsory service in the State Protection Service, the State Security Service, the penitentiary system, or other agencies. Draftees currently account for just 10 percent of the total 37,000 manpower of the armed forces. They perform only logistical and support functions; they are not trained in, and do not engage in, combat.

The aim of switching to a wholly professional army by 2017 was announced in August 2014 by then-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who said that the 2014 fall draft would be reduced accordingly by 2,000 men.

Khidasheli likewise served warning in April that conscription into the army would cease as of 2017. Her stated rationale for ending conscription was twofold: first, that the armed forces do not need personnel who serve solely because they are obliged to do so, given that service is regarded as "prestigious" and there is no shortage of men who wish to serve on a contract basis; and second, that the abolition of conscription would serve the overall objective of bringing the Georgian Army closer to NATO standards.

The Jamestown Foundation quoted Irakli Aludashvili, editor of the military-analytical journal Arsenali, as warning that the transition to all-volunteer forces would necessitate additional expenditure.

But Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze says that in the long term, maintaining a professional army is less costly than the conscription model. Kapanadze positively assessed the end of conscription into the armed forces, stressing that the decision was discussed over a period of time and not "plucked out of thin air."

On signing the decree, Khidasheli did not rule out the possibility that a future defense minister could rescind it, while Irakli Sesiashvili (Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia), who heads the parliament's Committee on Defense and Security, said Prime Minister Kvirikashvili is empowered to do so. On June 28, however, Khidasheli claimed it was impossible to annul the ruling, given that it was discussed by parliament and endorsed by the president.

Sesiashvili further attributed Khidasheli's announcement to "narrow party interests," meaning a bid in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 8 to boost the rating of the Republican Party of which she is a member. That party announced in late March that it will participate in the ballot independently, rather than as part of a broader Georgian Dream election bloc. A recent opinion poll showed popular support for the Republicans at under 1 percent.

Members Of Daghestan's Muslim Clergy Plan To Run For Parliament

Daghestan leader Ramazan Abdulatipov has reportedly construed the NPK's announcement plans as directed against him personally.

Liz Fuller

The antipathy of many Daghestani voters to a regional leadership they appear to perceive as corrupt, venal, and totally indifferent to their problems was reflected in the crushing defeat of the ruling United Russia party in a local election in the remote mountain town of Buynaksk last year by the small Patriots of Russia party and its mayoral candidate, Osman Osmanov.

Now a group with ties to the Muslim Spiritual Board of Daghestan (DUMD) has set up a chapter of the all-Russia extraparliamentary party The People Against Corruption (NPK) in the hope of tapping into that same vein of discontent and winning representation in both the Russian State Duma and the new Republic of Daghestan parliament to be elected on September 18.

NPK was established in 2013 by Russian politician Grigory Anisimov, one of its slogans being "The country should know what its corrupt officials look like." ("Страна должна знать своих коррупционеров в лицо!") Its Daghestan chapter was set up the same year but hit the headlines for the first time in April 2016 when its leader, Magomedkhabib Tazhudinov, a qualified lawyer and deputy rector of the Daghestan Humanitarian Institute, announced that Daghestan's first deputy mufti, Magomedrasul Saaduyev, will be one of NPK's candidates in the September ballot. Tazhudinov stressed the need to ensure the election to parliament of "honest" candidates who have not misappropriated "a single ruble."

Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov reportedly construed that announcement of NPK's plans as directed against him personally. As the independent weekly Chernovik has pointed out, Abdulatipov likes to claim personal credit for the crackdown on corruption since his appointment in January 2013 as acting republic head. Yet despite that crackdown, of which the mayor of Makhachkala and numerous district heads have been the most prominent victims, residents of Daghestan are still required to pay out hefty bribes to secure the most basic public services.

Furthermore, given that Moscow tends to conflate the reliability of federation subject heads with the percentage of the vote the United Russia party receives in both local and national elections, a decline in popular support for United Russia would negatively affect Abdulatipov's standing at a time when his political future is already unclear. He turns 70 in early August, and Ilyas Umakhanov, who represents Daghestan in the Federation Council, is reportedly positioning himself as a potential successor.


There is an unwritten rule that representatives of Daghestan's two largest ethnic groups, the Avars and Dargins, should alternately hold the post of republic head. Abdulatipov is an Avar, Umakhanov a Dargin.

Abdulatipov's publicly stated reservations to NPK's parliamentary ambitions center on the argument that the clergy should not engage in politics. In addition to Saaduyev, its members also include Abdula Atsayev, rector of the Daghestan Theological University and the son of Said-Afandi Chirkeisky, a venerated Sufi sheikh killed by a female suicide bomber in August 2012; and theologian Khasmukhammad Abubakarov, the father of former Daghestani mufti Saidmukhammad Abubakarov, who was blown up in 1998.

'Islamic' Party?

In light of the Daghestan NPK's close links to the DUMD, Russian journalists tend to refer to it as an "Islamic party"; but that is arguably both an exaggeration and an oversimplification. According to Chernovik, just 21 percent of NPK's prospective parliament candidates are from the DUMD and a further 30 percent are affiliated with it. Current and former members of the law enforcement agencies, including former republican Security Council Secretary Akhmednabi Magdigadzhayev, account for 11 percent, and persons close to those agencies for a further 15 percent; the remaining 25 percent of candidates have no ties to either group.

Moreover, Daghestan's current mufti, Akhmad-hadzhi Abdulayev, has distanced himself and the DUMD from NPK while stressing that senior members of the clergy enjoy the same right as other Russian citizens to seek election. Abdulayev added, however, that in accordance with Russian law, if they are elected, they must quit their clerical post.

In an implicit challenge to Abdulatipov, Abdulayev also said it was incumbent on the republic's leadership either to arrest those clerics if they have broken the law, or to resolve the problems they seek to focus attention on.

NPK spokesman Robert Kurbanov for his part has categorically denied that NPK is an "Islamic" party. He stressed that NPK's membership comprises peoples of various religious beliefs and from different ethnic groups. (One of its recent recruits is Buybika Shalumova, deputy chair of Daghestan's Jewish community.)

Earlier this month, Chernovik commentator Mairbek Agayev attributed growing popular sympathy toward NPK not so much to unquestioning support of its program and platform as to the bitter disillusion many Daghestanis now feel with a leadership in which they had pinned their hopes for positive change.

Whether and to what extent that sympathy will translate into votes for NPK is difficult to predict. In an analysis for the website, Konstantin Kazyonin says that by virtue of its association with the DUMB, NPK can count on the support of voters in those rural mountain districts where respect for the official clergy is strongest.

Other analysts predict that NPK could win a minimum of five-to-15, and possibly as many as half, the 72 parliament mandates.

The extent of the support the DUMD is capable of mobilizing can be gauged by the results of the annual unofficial poll conducted by Chernovik to determine which political figure its readers would like to see as republic head. For the past two years, Mufti Abdulayev has been the clear winner.

It is worth noting that there has been no negative comment to date from the federal leadership on the emergence of NPK as a political player in Daghestan. That suggests that the tactic of augmenting the party's list of candidates with respected former law enforcement personnel has served to convince Moscow that NPK's Islamic affiliation has been overstated. And/or Mufti Abdulayev may have succeeded in reassuring and securing the backing of Igor Barinov, head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Relations, during their meeting in early May.


Chechnya Schedules Preterm Parliamentary Elections

Parliament speaker Magomed Daudov (right) with Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov.

Liz Fuller

At the proposal of parliamentary speaker Magomed Daudov, Chechnya’s 41 lawmakers voted unanimously on June 16 to dissolve the legislature and schedule preterm parliamentary elections for September 18, concurrently with elections for the new Russian State Duma and for the post of Chechen Republic head.

Both Daudov and acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov adduced as the rationale for that decision the need to avoid the additional expenditure a separate parliamentary ballot would entail. The money saved could, Daudov suggested, be invested in economic development or resolving social problems.

Russian commentators have cast doubt on that argument, however. Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies pointed out that since the outgoing parliament was elected in September 2013 for a five-year term, it would have been equally feasible to save money by scheduling a parliamentary ballot concurrently with the Russian presidential election due no later than March 2018, i.e. just six months early.

Political scientist Rostislav Turovsky said the amount saved by holding a preterm parliamentary ballot in September 2016 would not be large. Turovsky opined that Kadyrov’s real motive was to inject “new blood” into the parliament by weeding out lawmakers who have already served three terms and replacing them with younger people who, while lacking in administrative experience, are 100 percent loyal to Kadyrov personally.

Kheda Saratova, who heads Chechnya’s presidential human rights commission, similarly suggested that Kadyrov was not satisfied with the work of the current parliament. She observed that “there are people who just sit there and do nothing, which is a reason for renewing them with younger and more energetic [people] who will prove more useful.”

Addressing parliament deputies in July, on the occasion of Daudov’s election as speaker, Kadyrov had stressed the need for them “to know your voters’ problems, to be frank with them, and to enjoy authority [among them]. You will bring even greater benefit to your people if you make an effort to discharge your duties efficiently.”

Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, indirectly confirmed that the object of the exercise is to renew the composition of the parliament, given that some lawmakers have already served three consecutive terms.

Kadyrov crony Ziyad Sabsabi, who represents Chechnya in the Federation Council, linked the decision to hold a preterm election with the desire to bring in new, younger people once Kadyrov is reelected for a third term as republic head.

State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov for his part posited a more sinister rationale, namely to set a precedent for a procedure that could subsequently be applied elsewhere in the Russian Federation in situations where the legislature defies the governor or federation-subject head.

The Chechen parliament is elected exclusively under the proportional system, the threshold for winning representation being 5 percent. The pro-Kremlin United Russia party has a huge majority (36) in the outgoing parliament; A Just Russia has four deputies and Patriots of Russia one. 

Moscow Amends North Caucasus Development Program Yet Again

Russia's Minister for North Caucasus Affairs Lev Kuznetzov (right), seen here meeting with President Vladimir Putin, has said that the region's development plan will shift from alleviating social problems to focusing on attracting investment.

Liz Fuller

Moscow's policy toward imposing some semblance of order on the unruly North Caucasus has long been blighted by a major misconception: that the perceived threat posed to the region by Islamic fundamentalism can be effectively countered by a broad program of socioeconomic development while turning a blind eye to the corruption, cronyism, arbitrary police violence, and widespread human rights abuses that have alienated a large proportion of the region's estimated 10 million population, most of whom are Muslims.

That misconception gave rise to the grandiose Federal Program for the Socioeconomic Development of the North Caucasus Federal District 2013-25. Since that program was first mooted in 2011, however, the realization has dawned that simply throwing money at the region is not a panacea. 

Over the past year, the Russian leadership has increasingly sought new approaches both to selecting economic priorities and trying to ensure that the funds provided are used for the purpose intended, rather than embezzled or diverted for other uses.

The Russian government finally endorsed the initial version of the North Caucasus program in February 2013, after two years of arguments between the finance and regional development ministries over the optimum overall cost and how it should be divided between the federal budget, the budgets of the federation subjects in question, and outside investors.

Substantive Revisions

Since then, the program has undergone several substantive revisions. Not only has the share of funding from the federal budget been revised first downward (in April 2014) and then upward (in March 2016). The structure of the program has been altered to encompass sub-programs for each of the North Caucasus Federal District's seven constituent subjects.

And the focus of the program has been shifted away from improving infrastructure and socioeconomic conditions to attracting investment, especially in the agro-industrial sector, and reducing unemployment (currently officially estimated at 10 percent, but in all probability far higher) and the percentage of each republic's budget that comprises subsidies from Moscow. That percentage currently ranges from 46.7 percent in Kabardino-Balkaria to 82 percent in Ingushetia.

In mid-2012, then-Regional Development Minister Oleg Govorun said total funding for the program would amount to just 1.7 trillion rubles (equivalent to $52.2 billion then, and $25.8 billion today). That sum was less than half the 3.89 trillion rubles envisaged when the first draft of the program was unveiled a year earlier. 

In September 2011, Govorun's predecessor, Sergei Vereshchagin, had said the overall cost had been upped to 5.5 trillion rubles thanks to pledges of additional extrabudgetary funding from various large Russian monopolies, including Gazprom and Rosgidro. 

What was touted as the final version of the program, approved in December 2012 and formally adopted by the federal government in February 2013, envisaged total spending of 2.5 trillion rubles, of which approximately 90 percent was to come from nonbudget sources. At that juncture, the share of funding to be extended from the federal budget for the period 2013-20 was estimated at some 235 billion rubles. 

Crimea Fallout

In April 2014, however, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that figure had been cut by 13 percent to 204.6 billion rubles, taking into account the parameters of the federal budget for 2014-16, which had presumably been revised to take into account the financial impact of the international sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its annexation of Crimea, and the cost of subsidizing that new federation subject.

Further cuts, together with fundamental changes in the structure and focus of the program that appear to have originated with the Ministry for the North Caucasus established in May 2014, were announced in July 2015. 

Medvedev said funding for the program for the period 2016-20 was to be cut by 10 percent, from 164 billion rubles to 150 billion. At the same time, Minister for North Caucasus Affairs Lev Kuznetzov explained that the focus of the program would shift from alleviating social problems, in the first instance education and medical care, to attracting investment with the aim of expanding the republics' tax base.

In addition, according to Kuznetzov, and despite resistance from the federal Economy Ministry, a separate sub-program would be drafted for each of the federal district's seven regions.

Fears Of Jihad?

The first such program, for Daghestan, was unveiled in early September 2015; it encompassed 70.9 billion rubles for the period 2016-25. According to Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya (with a population less than half that of Daghestan) stands to receive 29.8 billion rubles over the same time frame.

Finally, in yet another reversal, federal funding for program for the period 2016-25 was increased in March by 120 billion rubles to a total of 320 billion. That was to be augmented by 1.4 trillion rubles in private investment.

The precise reason for that increase in funding was not spelled out, but it is conceivable that the Kremlin is genuinely concerned at the prospect of those Islamic militants from the North Caucasus who are currently fighting in Syria returning home to continue their jihad on Russian soil.

It is likewise by no means clear which private investors could be induced to invest in the region. A further potential deterrent is Russian President Vladimir Putin's June 9 directive ordering the government not to create any new special economic zones, and to abolish 10 such zones that have proven "ineffective."

Acting Republic of North Ossetia head Vyacheslav Bitarov recently proposed creating a special industrial zone as one way of galvanizing the region's moribund economy. (North Ossetia's state debt currently exceeds its combined revenues, as do those of Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria.)

At same time, Moscow clearly intends to monitor more closely the use by individual republics of the subsidies provided annually by the federal center. 

Addressing a meeting of regional leaders in Yesentuki in early June, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Khloponin, a former presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, warned that funds allocated from the federal budget but not used by the end of the calendar year will be confiscated. 

Is Ingushetia Heading Into New Cycle Of Violence?

Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

Liz Fuller

In the mid-2000s, the Republic of Ingushetia experienced an unprecedented upsurge in fighting between the security forces and the North Caucasus insurgency that cost the lives of hundreds of law enforcement personnel, on the one hand, and both militants and seemingly law-abiding young Muslim men on the other.

Then in October 2008, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed republican President Murat Zyazikov, on whom many observers blamed the indiscriminate crackdown on young believers, and named Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a career military intelligence officer, to succeed him.

The violence peaked in the summer of 2009 with bomb attacks on Yevkurov personally and on police headquarters in Nazran, but it has since subsided. Sixteen people died in fighting between security personnel and insurgents in 2015, compared with 94 five years previously. Yevkurov declared in May 2015 that the insurgency had been "defeated" and numbered not much more than a dozen fighters.

That comparative lull may be coming to an end, however.

In late May, the National Antiterrorism Committee reported the killing in two "special operations" in the towns of Nazran and Malgobek of five men, all of whom were officially identified as either members of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) or support personnel. Up to 17 people suspected of links with IS have been apprehended over the past three weeks by the Federal Security Service (FSB), and arms reportedly found at their homes. One of them was a police officer, a search of whose home in Ekazhevo, southeast of Nazran, likewise reportedly yielded a cache of weapons.

In addition, in a tactic widely used in 2007, a man was killed on May 31 in Ekazhevo when unidentified perpetrators opened fire on his car.

And a federal Interior Ministry Internal Troops base in Sunzha district that borders on Chechnya was subjected to mortar fire on June 5.

Meanwhile, bloggers and human rights activists have openly questioned the official version of the two special operations. While official media reported that the five alleged militants were killed in shoot-outs, and Yevkurov claimed they were planning acts of terrorism on republic Day (June 4), eyewitnesses say none of the men -- two of whom were siblings -- was armed or offered any resistance. According to Magomed Mutsolgov, whose NGO Mashr provides free legal advice to victims of police violence or miscarriages of justice, the purpose of the operations was to detain suspects, and "in the Caucasus for some reason [security forces] can't apprehend anyone without shooting a couple of other people."

Similarly open to question is whether, as Yevkurov claimed, the men killed and taken into custody did indeed have links with IS. It was reported a year ago that the head of the North Caucasus insurgency's Ingushetia wing had sworn allegiance to IS, but that has never been confirmed.

While the overall pattern of violence is at first glance similar to the bloodshed of 2007-09, the circumstances today are very different. First, as noted above, the Islamic insurgency poses no major threat to order or security. And second, relations between Ingushetia and neighboring Chechnya, uneasy at the best of times, have deteriorated since the start of 2016 seemingly as a result of Yevkurov's support of a Muslim community that is at odds with Ingushetia's official clergy.

Even though the acknowledged leader of that community, Sheikh Khamzat Chumakov, has repeatedly publicly eschewed violence and enjoined his supporters not to take up arms, acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and other senior Chechen clerics have branded its members "terrorists" and extremists, apparently based on their faith in a moderate variant of the Salafi strain of Islam that imbues the ideology of IS.

The suspicion thus arises: Has Yevkurov staged an apparent crackdown on "suspected Salafi militants" to counter the Chechen allegations that he is too soft on Islamic extremism?

Meeting on June 3 with visiting members of the presidential Commission for Human Rights and Civil Society, Yevkurov was clearly on the defensive, defending the killings of the five alleged IS militants.

He also rejected as an attempt to drive a wedge between himself and Kadyrov a request by Committee Against Torture head Igor Kalyapin to speed up the investigation into an attack in March on the Chechen-Ingush border on a group of human rights activists and foreign journalists, several of whom were seriously injured. The perpetrators of that attack were tentatively identified as Chechens.

Abkhaz Leader Agrees To Opposition's Demand For Referendum

Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba (left) meets with Russia's Vladimir Putin in February, (Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008; only a handful of other countries have followed suit.)

Liz Fuller

Under pressure from opposition forces that have branded his accession to power two years ago illegal and unconstitutional, Raul Khajimba, the de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, has scheduled for July 10 a referendum on whether or not to hold an early presidential election. Addressing an invited audience on June 1, Khajimba said that although he considered "harmful" the use of a referendum as "an instrument of political struggle," he had agreed to the opposition's demand in the interest of "consolidating society and preserving stability."

Khajimba was elected de facto president in August 2014 in an early vote precipitated by the forced resignation three months earlier of incumbent Aleksandr Ankvab. Abkhazia's opposition parties, in the first instance the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in the region's de facto independence from Georgia, have steadily intensified their criticism of Khajimba since early last year. They accuse him of failing to deliver on his preelection pledges to unify a polarized society, form a government of national unity, launch constitutional and judicial reform, and use the substantial subsidies Abkhazia receives from Russia (7.7 billion rubles, or $113.94 million in 2016) to kick-start economic growth and thereby reduce unemployment, which is estimated at 70 percent. (Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008; only a handful of other countries have followed suit.)

That litany of complaints largely duplicates the rationale adduced in May 2014 by a loose coalition of opposition parties spearheaded by Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia for ousting Ankvab.

Criticisms of Khajimba's perceived failings, together with allegations of official corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement, figured prominently in resolutions adopted at two successive Amtsakhara congresses in May and October 2015. Delegates at the latter congress unequivocally demanded that Khajimba resign.

Khajimba responded to that criticism by establishing a Political Consultative Council in which all political parties were invited to participate. Amtsakhara declined to do so, however, on the grounds that the council was powerless to influence policy. So, too, did its partners in the so-called Bloc of Opposition Forces formed in July 2015, including the APRA Fund for Socioeconomic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, who finished second to Khajimba in the August 2014 presidential race.


But it was a separate 46-person initiative group that in early March 2016 set about collecting signatures in support of its demand for an early presidential election as the only legitimate and constitutional way of replacing Khajimba.

Initially, Khajimba was dismissive of the referendum initiative, declaring that "no referendums or other steps will change anything" he does. But two months later, after the initiative group amassed almost twice the required minimum number of signatures in support of its demand, he backtracked, saying that although he considered the holding of a referendum "inexpedient" and unlikely to contribute to the positive development of the country, he would abide by its results.

Defending His Record

In his June 1 address, Khajimba categorically rejected the opposition's criticisms. As in his annual address to parliament in January he enumerated at length what had been achieved since he was sworn in as national leader. Foremost among those successes he named an 18.8 percent increase in budget revenues in 2015 despite a cutback in Russian economic aid, and the 7.8 percent economic growth registered the same year. He noted the launch or ongoing implementation of reforms in the spheres of the budget, banking, the judiciary, and local government, and stressed that the state media freely reflected various points of view.

He dismissed as unrealistic the opposition's arguments that he could and should have achieved far more, accusing his detractors of "demanding miracles from us in conditions where we are using significant means to correct the mistakes made by the previous leadership."

Khajimba claimed to have promoted consensus and reconciliation from the first day of his tenure, and stressed the importance of the Political Consultative Council. He said that the current political situation was reasonably stable and endangered solely by the opposition's aggressive and single-minded campaign "to remove the current authorities at any price."

At the same time, Khajimba continued, the opposition had not cited any valid and cogent reasons why a new presidential election is essential, except that "the situation has become critical" and "Khajimba and his entourage are incapable of governing the country." Nor, he said, had they explained what they would do if they came to power.

He went on to accuse the opposition of seeking to manipulate public opinion and to use the referendum to sabotage the "positive processes" currently under way and thus discredit the present leadership.

Khajimba further claimed that the referendum demand is at odds with the Abkhaz Constitution, and echoed earlier allegations of pressure and violations during the collection of signatures in support of a referendum that cast doubts on its validity. He nonetheless concluded, somewhat inconsistently, by affirming that even though he believes the referendum "poses a danger to our statehood," he will schedule it in order to preserve stability, given that the opposition would have seized on, and may indeed have been counting on, a refusal to do so as a pretext to destabilize the country.

Khajimba again affirmed that he "does not fear the people's choice," and expressed confidence that voters will opt for the path of continued socioeconomic upswing and strengthening statehood which by implication only he and his team can guarantee.

Why Khajimba should have given the green light to a referendum that could ultimately lead to his removal from power, and the legitimacy of which he has openly questioned, is unclear. It is conceivable that he is confident that the Central Election Commission can be persuaded to ensure the outcome is in his favor.

Alternatively, he may be genuinely confident that popular sentiment is on his side, and the opposition speaks only for a disgruntled minority. It is worth noting that in March, Khajimba went out of his way to curry the favor of Abkhazia's small Muslim minority, for which he promised to allocate a plot of land to build a mosque, and of Abkhazia's 30,000-strong Armenian community.

A third possibility is that the current leadership considers the planned referendum a lesser threat to its survival than the demand launched last month by the political parties A Just Abkhazia and People's Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development for creating a government of national unity. A mini-opinion poll of 1,292 people conducted by those two parties from May 12-15 found that 61.9 percent of respondents assessed the performance of the current government as "bad," 79.7 percent thought its style of work should change, and 66.7 percent advocated the creation of a government of national unity in which all political parties would be represented.

Creating such a government was one of the pledges enshrined in a declaration that Khajimba and his three rival candidates signed on the eve of the August 2014 presidential ballot. On June 1, Khajimba adduced the presence in the current government of two of those candidates (Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba and Defense Minister Mirab Kishmaria) as proof he had delivered on that pledge.


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.