Wednesday, September 03, 2014

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.  


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, 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 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


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

Tbilisi Ex-Mayor's Arrest Compounds Georgia Election Tension

Georgia's former ruling party says the arrest of campaign coordinator Gigi Ugulava, formerly Tblisi mayor, is politically motivated.

Predictably, the Georgian local elections last month have served to exacerbate the antagonism between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the opposition United National Movement (ENM) that it defeated in the parliamentary ballot of October 2012.

The ENM has not only accused the authorities of resorting to deliberate intimidation and fraud, but argues that the July 1 arrest and subsequent detention in custody of former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, the coordinator of the ENM's election campaign, on new charges of misuse of public funds constitutes political persecution.

In addition, the ENM claims that the Central Election Commission violated the law when setting the date for runoff votes for the post of mayor in eight towns and cities and the heads of 13 regional councils (of a total of 59). Electoral amendments enacted in March raised to 50 percent the minimum vote a candidate for the post of mayor or regional council head must garner for an outright win.

The initial voting on June 15 evinced a clear preference for Georgian Dream among the 43.3 percent of the electorate motivated enough to cast ballots. (In the 2010 local elections, turnout was 49 percent). Georgian Dream polled marginally over 50 percent of the vote nationwide, followed by the ENM with 22.41 percent; the United Opposition comprising former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-One Georgia and Jondi Baghaturia's Kartuli Dasi (Georgian Group) (10.23 percent); the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (4.71 percent); the Labor Party (3.45 percent); the Nonparliamentary Opposition bloc (2.25 percent); and Georgia's Way (1.21 percent). None of the remaining 17 parties and blocs received more than 1 percent of the vote.

In Tbilisi, one of the eight towns where the mayoral race went to a second round, Georgian Dream candidate David Narmania polled 46.09 percent of the vote, followed by Nikanor Melia of the ENM with 27.97 percent and Dmitri Lortkipanidze, representing the United Opposition bloc, with 12.81 percent. 

By contrast, in an opinion poll conducted in mid-April on behalf of the U.S. National Democracy Institute, 48 percent of those questioned said they planned to vote for Georgian Dream and just 12 percent for the ENM. By the same token, 39 percent of respondents planned to vote for Narmania, 10 percent for Melia and 9 percent for Lortkipanidze.

Both the election campaign  and the voting were overshadowed by numerous allegations of foul play. The Tbilisi embassies of the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands, which jointly fielded 95 observers who visited 600 polling stations in 23 electoral districts, nonetheless characterized the actual voting as "successful and well-administered," and as demonstrating "the growing pluralism in Georgian democracy." 

The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), however, registered a high number of void ballot papers and irregularities in drawing up final vote-summary protocols in hundreds of precincts, and called on June 23 for a vote recount in hundreds of polling stations.

Having assessed over 80 separate formal complaints lodged either by election watchdogs or the ENM and United Opposition, the Central Election Commission annulled the results at 14 polling stations and scheduled repeat voting on June 29.

Turnout for the repeat voting was even lower than on June 15: 36.63 percent. This time, ISFED registered only what it termed "minor technical flaws" that precinct officials sought to redress as they occurred. The NGO Fair Elections similarly described the voting as proceeding "quietly and in an organized fashion." The Central Election Commission said the following day that it had not received any complaints from organizations that monitored the vote.

The ENM nonetheless continues to accuse the authorities of creating unfair conditions for the runoff vote. On July 1, ENM representatives walked out of a session of the Interagency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections to protest what ENM's Zurab Chiaberashvili termed the body's "practice of justifying illegal actions or the inaction of law enforcement agencies" and its alleged failure to investigate violent clashes in the run-up to the June 15 vote or violations on polling day. One week earlier, Deputy Justice Minister Aleksandre Tabatadze had informed the Interagency Task Force that the commission had investigated all the complaints received and that for the first time ever, a criminal case had been opened in connection with malpractice.

The ENM has also played up the fact that the Central Election Commission, whether deliberately or inadvertently, apparently violated the law when scheduling for July 12 the runoff vote in the eight towns and cities and 13 regions where no candidate for mayor of district council head polled the minimum 50 percent of the vote on June 15. Ugulava had urged Central Election Commission Chairwoman Tamar Zhvania on June 23 to announce the runoff date at the earliest opportunity in order to give candidates the maximum time to prepare. Zhvania responded immediately that setting the date was not within her competence and could not be done until all complaints about the first round of voting had been resolved.

The commission duly endorsed the final results of the June 15 voting on July 3 and immediately scheduled the runoff for July 12. The ENM protested that decision, pointing out in a seeming inconsistency that the runoff date should not have been announced until July 9, and that a ruling adopted by the Central Election Commission on June 19 stipulated that a minimum of 10 days should elapse between the announcement and the vote. The party construed that glitch as further evidence that "the Central Election Commission is not serious about holding the second round."

Burjanadze's Democratic Movement–One Georgia, which qualified for the municipal runoffs in Tianeti, Tkibuli, Akhmeta, and Martvili, claimed the constitution required that runoffs should be announced 14 days in advance.

The Tbilisi Municipal Court has nonetheless upheld the Central Election Commission ruling.

ENM parliament member and former Deputy Justice Minister Giorgi Vashadze posited a direct link between the scheduling of the runoffs and Ugulava's arrest, which, Vashadze said, will put his party at a major disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Melia, the ENM's candidate for Tbilisi mayor, has finally agreed to his rival Narmania's proposal to hold televised debates in the run-up to the July 12 vote.

-- Liz Fuller

Respected Chechen Political Figure Jailed For Four Years

Pictured during his trial in April, Ruslan Kutayev believes he was arrested over his political activity, not for his public criticism of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

A court in the Chechen town of Urus Martan has sentenced Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus head Ruslan Kutayev to four years in prison on a charge of illegal possession of drugs that human rights activists say was blatantly fabricated. He is barred from engaging in public political activity for a further year after his release. The prosecutor had called for a five-year jail term.

Just days prior to his arrest on February 20, Kutayev had convened a conference in Grozny to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation on orders from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Speaking at that conference, Kutayev had incurred Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's wrath by criticizing his edict two years earlier  that henceforth the deportation anniversary should be marked not on the actual date (February 23), but in early May, concurrently with the anniversary of the death in 2004 of Kadyrov's father, Akhmed-hadzhi, in a terrorist bombing.

According to the prosecution, Kutayev, 56, was detained on the street in the town of Gekhi in the Urus Martan district, southwest of Grozny, because he was behaving "oddly." A search of his person reportedly revealed 3 grams of heroin. Kutayev and other witnesses, however, say he was apprehended at the home of friends he was visiting and was not searched before being driven away. And as Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus Vice Chairman Abdulla Khizriyev points out, having just antagonized Kadyrov, Kutayev would hardly have ventured out on the street with a pocket full of drugs inviting arrest.

What is more, the six witnesses for the prosecution who claim to have been present at Kutayev's arrest gave mutually contradictory testimony in court. While all agreed on what the weather was like that day, they were unable to say who authorized Kutayev's arrest or whether they made their way to the spot where he was apprehended on foot or in a police vehicle. They were also unable to describe the packet of heroin purportedly found on Kutayev. 

Committee Against Torture head Igor Kalyapin said Kutayev's lawyer spent 2 1/2 hours in court on July 4 enumerating the various discrepancies in the indictment. The Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial designated Kutayev a political prisoner several weeks ago on the grounds that the criminal case against him was clearly fabricated.

After his arrest, Kutayev was taken not to the local Urus Martan police station, but to Grozny, where he was questioned in the presence of Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov and Magomed Daudov, head of Kadyrov's administration. Daudov had telephoned Kutayev after the deportation anniversary conference and demanded he report to his office for questioning, a demand that Kutayev ignored as he considered it shameful to comply immediately. 

Testifying on May 7, Kutayev said that after his arrest he was "brutally beaten and kicked" by top officials in the presence of their bodyguards. He did not name the officials in question.

While most human rights activists attribute Kutayev's arrest to his public criticism of Kadyrov and/or his refusal to report immediately to Kadyrov's office for questioning when ordered to do so, Kutayev himself sees the reprisals against him as part of a broader trend -- "a clear tendency to discredit political and public figures who criticize the authorities." He explains that his political engagement as a leading member of the Alliance of Greens and Social Democrats headed by former Russian State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov placed him in that category, given that "the course we have launched of developing social and political institutions, and hereby developing civil society is geared toward seeking to come to power within the framework of the laws and Constitution of the Russian Federation."

Gudkov for his part appears to lend credence to the hypothesis that Kutayev was arrested because he had defied Kadyrov. Testifying on Kutayev's behalf, Gudkov said that "as someone who has drafted laws, I find the way in which they are applied very strange. Laws that you would think are written absolutely clearly, concretely, in order that justice and the law should prevail, are used as an instrument of revenge."

The groundswell of support for Kutayev is not confined to the two organizations for which he worked. In Stavropol Krai, the heads of two Russian NGOs collected signatures to an open letter to Kadyrov asking him to ensure Kutayev gets a fair trial. The two dismiss the drug charge against Kutayev as "clearly absurd." Vladimir Nesterov, who heads a Council of Russians and Other Slavic Peoples, characterized Kutayev as "the sole representative of the peoples of the Caucasus who stood up for Russians in the Caucasus and Russia as a whole."

Kutayev accepted the July 7 verdict with equanimity, according to his lawyer Pyotr Zaykin, who called the sentence "unprecedentedly harsh."  

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov

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.