Saturday, July 02, 2016


Consensus Reached Over Georgian Constitutional Court Changes

(Left to right:) Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, President Giorgi Margvelashvili, and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili appear to have thrashed out a compromise on proposed changes to the Constitutional Court.

Liz Fuller

Addressing the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London last month, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili defined as one of his primary objectives lowering the temperature of political debate and promoting dialogue among all political stakeholders. That approach has characterized Kvirikashvili's interaction with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.

Following a contretemps in April over the date for the start of campaigning for the parliamentary elections due in October, Kvirikashvili has now negotiated a compromise between the president and the parliamentary-majority Georgian Dream faction over controversial amendments to the Law on the Constitutional Court passed with great speed by the parliament in mid-May, and which Margvelashvili vetoed on May 31. The Georgian Dream faction initially voiced its intention of overriding that veto.

Margvelashvili had made clear his negative opinion of the bill shortly after it was passed in the second and third readings on May 13-14 by a narrow majority of 83 and 81 votes respectively (out of a total of 150 lawmakers). While admitting he had not seen the text, he expressed concern that it could undermine the functioning of the Constitutional Court, which he termed a pillar of Georgian statehood. He then sent the bill to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission of legal experts for review.

Deputy speaker of parliament Eka Beselia, one of the co-sponsors of the amendments, had assured rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in early May that the proposed amendments would be submitted for assessment to the Venice Commission before the bill was debated in the second and third readings; it remains unclear why this was not done.

'Excessive' Quorums

Following a two-hour meeting at which Margvelashvili's aide Kakha Kozhoridze and Georgian Security Council Deputy Secretary Levan Bodzashvili were present, the Venice Commission made public on May 27 its preliminary assessment of the bill, which focuses primarily on four specific proposed changes. 

The first increases the quorum required for the court to pass a ruling from six to seven of the nine members. Decisions must be approved by at least six judges, regardless of whether seven, eight, or all nine are present. (Under the current legislation, decisions are adopted by a simple majority, meaning four if six or seven judges are present or five if eight or nine are present.)

The Venice Commission criticized those proposed higher quorums as "excessive" and as creating the risk that a minority of judges could "easily" block decisions.

The second was a proposed restriction under which a judge would be barred during the final three months of his or her 10-year term from participation in adjudicating any new cases, with the exception of those relating to electoral disputes and the impeachment of senior officials. The commission opined that "from a European perspective," the restriction on judges participating in new cases during the final three months of their tenure appears "arbitrary" and may even be unconstitutional.

'Not Logical'

Similarly, the commission described as "not logical" a proposal that urgent decisions on suspending a disputed legislative clause as an interim measure pending a final verdict should be taken by the full bench, rather than by just four judges, as at present. And it termed "incoherent" a provision that would empower a single member of a panel of four judges to request referring a case to a full plenary session.

The commission recommended dropping those proposed changes. But it praised other aspects of the bill, including the new procedure for electing the Constitutional Court chairperson and the introduction of an automatic case-distribution system.

On the basis of those recommendations, Margvelashvili vetoed the bill. At the same time, he proposed to parliament amending it to take into account two of the Venice Commission's four points: the inadvisability of raising quorums, and the ban on judges taking on new cases during the last three months of their tenure.

According to Margvelashvili, his objections to the proposed changes were formulated during "constructive" consultations with Kvirikashvili, who was recently elected head of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party that is the largest member of the Georgian Dream parliamentary faction, and parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili of the Republican Party, one of the four smaller groups within it. Usupashvili had earlier expressed reservations about the bill.

Kvirikashvili had argued immediately after the bill was passed in the final reading that it would facilitate the smooth functioning of the court. He said that increasing the quorum for passing judgment would serve to strengthen the court insofar as it precludes the possibility of an important decision being influenced by "political pressure" exerted by opposition parties on one or two judges. 

Pragmatic Compromise?

All but one of the court's current members were appointed prior to October 2012 when then-President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) was still in power.

Despite his initial approval of the proposed amendments, Kvirikashvili nonetheless pledged on May 31 to do everything in his power to persuade the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority to accept Margvelashvili's proposed changes rather than proceed with the threatened veto. But the final version of the law unanimously approved on June 3 by all 84 lawmakers present stops short of completely endorsing them or taking into account the Venice Commission's other recommendations. 

True, the restriction on judges taking on new cases during the final three months of their tenure has been dropped. And the requirement that decisions on suspending a disputed legislative clause be taken by the whole bench, rather than a panel of four judges, to which the Venice Commission objected, has been amended to require only a simple majority. But the ruling raising the quorum for handing down court rulings remains in force with regard to cases involving organic laws, disputes related to elections or referendums or the impeachment of senior officials, and revoking the immunity of a Constitutional Court judge.

The NGOs aligned in the grouping For An Independent And Transparent Judiciary, which had opposed the proposed amendments from the outset, are not satisfied with the compromise version and plan to appeal the raised quorums to the Constitutional Court.

It is conceivable that the compromise reached between Margvelashvili, Kvirikashvili, Usupashvili and senior Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia lawmakers on the final wording of the draft amendments was dictated at least in part by pragmatism, insofar as it is by no means certain that the Georgian Dream faction could have secured the minimum 76 votes required to override the presidential veto. The Georgian Dream parliamentary faction currently numbers 82 deputies, but the Republican Party warned on May 22 that its 10 parliamentarians would not participate in a vote on overriding the veto. 

The Republicans have endorsed the compromise version as an improvement on the original amendments, while expressing reservations about keeping the high quorum for rulings on organic laws.
 


One Whistle-Blower Seemingly Coerced Into Apologizing To Kadyrov; A Second Remains Defiant

Ramazan Dzhalaldinov

Liz Fuller

Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, who fled his native village of Kenkhi in southeastern Chechnya after harassment that followed his video appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-April to take action against corrupt local officials, has finally been constrained to retract that criticism as “lies” and offer apologies to acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.

On May 30, Kadyrov posted on Instagram video footage of Dzhalaldinov admitting that he had made “a very big mistake.”

Dzhalaldinov, who like most residents of Kenkhi is a member of Chechnya’s tiny Avar minority, reportedly plans to return to Kenkhi with his wife and daughters, who joined him in Daghestan after the family home in the village was torched during the night of May 12-13. Dzhalaldinov was quoted on May 21 by the independent Daghestani newspaper Novoe Delo as saying he “does not regret” having gone public with his criticisms of local officials and will “continue to fight for our rights.”

The previous day, a public meeting was convened in Kenkhi at which residents publicly condemned Dzhalaldinov and denounced his criticisms as lies. In what appeared to be a campaign carefully choreographed by authorities, the residents further accused Dzhalaldinov of trying at the behest of “Russia’s enemies” to sow discord between local Avars and Chechens.

It is not clear what induced Dzhalaldinov to capitulate.

Meanwhile, family members of a second man who dared publicly criticize the Chechen authorities were released last week after being detained and threatened with reprisals. On May 23, Rustam Dzhabrailov, police chief in the district of Urus-Martan southwest of the Chechen capital, Grozny, detained the elderly parents and the brother and sister of Mikail Malitsayev, who had publicly denounced the lack of elementary human rights in Chechnya.

Dzhalaldinov's family home was torched during the night of May 12-13.
Dzhalaldinov's family home was torched during the night of May 12-13.

Malitsayev, who is in his mid-30s, left Russia in 2009 and successfully applied for political asylum in Germany. He is now a German citizen. He had reportedly been denounced under torture by someone who falsely accused him of links with the North Caucasus insurgency, and was himself said to have been detained and brutally tortured by security personnel subordinate to then-acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, whose identity he subsequently revealed to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service.

Mikail MalitsayevMikail Malitsayev
x
Mikail Malitsayev
Mikail Malitsayev

Some two weeks ago, Malitsayev posted video footage on his Facebook page accusing Kadyrov of conducting a policy of state terror against the Chechen people. According to the insurgency website kavkazcenter.com, Kadyrov’s henchmen demanded that Malitsayev apologize personally to Kadyrov. When Malitsayev refused to do so, Dzhabrailov took his family into police custody and had them telephone Malitsayev and tell him they would be made to suffer unless he complied, which he again refused to do. Instead, he posted a further address to Kadyrov saying that the harassment meted out to his relatives only served to substantiate his initial criticisms of the total lack of respect for human rights in Chechnya.

After RFE/RL, and then the North Caucasus insurgency website Kavkazcenter, publicized Malitsayev’s case, Malitsayev’s parents were released on May 24, and his brother and sister late on May 25, but only after they publicly disowned him.


Two Sentenced For Second Time For Daghestani Journalist's Murder

At the time of his death, the Committee to Protect Journalists quoted one of Abdulmalik 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."

Liz Fuller

A Makhachkala district court has sentenced two men for the killing in August 2009 of Avar journalist Abdulmalik Akhmedilov. The two accused, Murad Shuaibov and Isa Abdurakhmanov, were jailed for 10 1/2 and eight years respectively.

They had been found guilty and sentenced to those same terms in late March 2015. Four months later, however, Daghestan's Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict, citing procedural violations, and ordered a retrial, which began in early September.

Akhmedilov, who was 32 when he died, 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). 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 from a sawed-off hunting rifle on August 11, 2009, as he was driving away from his house on the outskirts of Makhachkala. He died almost immediately.

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

During the pretrial investigation, Shuaibov was said to have admitted to having killed Akhmedilov out of personal animosity after being informed by Magomed Abigasanov, a distant cousin of then-Republic of Daghestan parliament deputy Shamil Isayev, that Akhmedilov had circulated leaflets falsely branding him an adherent of Salafi Islam. But once the investigation was completed, Shuaibov formally requested that the charge against him be changed to manslaughter. And during the first trial, which lasted 11 months, Shuaibov said he confessed to the murder only under torture, and was not in Makhachkala on the day Akhmedilov was killed. Both Shuaibov and Abdurakhmanov pleaded not guilty.

When sentence on the two men was pronounced in March 2015, Ali Kamalov, chairman of the Union of Journalists of Daghestan, complained that they were simply the perpetrators of the murder, while the person or people who had commissioned it remained at large. In that context, Kamalov recalled that Isayev had demanded on more than one occasion that Kamalov have Akhmedilov fired for publishing an article critical of him.

After the repeat verdict was handed down on May 30, Kamalov again declared that Shuaibov and Abdurakhmanov were merely the hired perpetrators of the killing. He alleged that investigators know the identity of those who commissioned Akhmedilov’s murder but "don't have the courage to take them into custody."

Moscow-based journalist Orkhan Dzhemal had previously undertaken his own investigation of the slayings of both Akhmedilov and Khadzhimurad 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, Dzhemal summarized the circumstantial evidence implicating Isayev, who has since been appointed a deputy prime minister, in both murders.

Specifically, Dzhemal said Shuaibov told investigators that he and Abdurakhmanov (Isayev's former driver) killed Akhmedilov on orders from Abigasanov, the head of Isayev's bodyguards. Dzhemal further explained that there was ill will between the parliament deputy 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.

The repeat trial of Shuaibov and Abdurakhmanov got under way in early September. Unlike the first, it was open to the media. Lawyer Biyakai Magomedov, representing Akhmedilov's family, was quoted as saying the prosecution's case against the accused left no possible doubt of their guilt.

But Abdurakhmanov in his final statement last week again pleaded not guilty and declared that there is no concrete proof of his involvement in the murder, only circumstantial evidence. Shuaibov for his part stressed that his rights had been violated during the pretrial investigation. Lawyers for the two men nonetheless again applied unsuccessfully last month for the charge against them to be changed from murder to manslaughter, on the grounds that the accused had sought only to intimidate their victim, not to kill him. They plan to appeal the new verdict.

Tags:Daghestan


South Ossetia Postpones Referendum On Accession To Russian Federation

The postponement of the referendum, and the continued lack of clarity over the wording of the question it will pose, constitute a setback for South Ossetia's de facto president, Leonid Tibilov, insofar as a referendum on whether and on what terms South Ossetia should become part of the Russian Federation will now inevitably be the central issue in the election campaign.

Liz Fuller

Leonid Tibilov, de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, has been forced to abandon his plans to hold a referendum in August on amending the region's constitution to empower its leader to request South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation. On May 26, Tibilov and South Ossetia parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov issued a joint statement announcing that the referendum will take place only after the presidential election due in early 2017.

The two men, who are widely regarded as the only candidates with any chance of winning that ballot, have long held diverging views on the optimum relationship between Russia and South Ossetia, and the time frame for achieving it. Moscow formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent sovereign state in August 2008, shortly after Russia and Georgia's five-day war over it and another breakaway Georgian republic, Abkhazia.

In January 2014, Bibilov publicly advocated holding concurrently with the parliamentary elections due in June of that year a referendum on the unification within the Russian Federation of South Ossetia and Russia's Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. And in early 2015, he criticized the planned bilateral Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia as falling far short of the desired level of integration. That treaty obliged Moscow, among other things, to work for broader international recognition of South Ossetia, which only a handful of countries besides Russia have recognized as an independent state.

Both before and after his election as de facto president in April 2012, Tibilov stressed the need to preserve South Ossetia's nominally independent status. At the same time, he described South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject (rather than merged with North Ossetia) as the long-term dream of the region's population, although he never suggested a time frame for it.

In October, however, just months after the ratification of the bilateral Treaty on Union Relations and Integration, Tibilov announced plans for a referendum on the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. Moscow pointedly declined to endorse that initiative. Then in April, he floated the concept of forming a "union state" with Russia and simultaneously called for the holding of a referendum by August on amending South Ossetia's constitution to empower its leader to formally request its incorporation into the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject.

x

Bibilov immediately objected to that proposal, arguing that if a referendum took place, the sole question put to voters should be whether or not South Ossetia should become part of Russia.

Tibilov and Bibilov met on May 19 to discuss the planned referendum, after which Tibilov announced they would issue a joint proposal "within days." Then on May 23, Tibilov scheduled a meeting on May 26 of the presidential Political Council, which comprises representatives of both the executive and legislative branches.

That session lasted over four hours and at one point degenerated into a shouting match between Tibilov and Bibilov, who demanded permission to walk out on the grounds that "there have been too many insults directed at lawmakers." Tibilov refused to allow him to leave. Council members finally voted overwhelmingly (with just three votes against and one abstention) to "recommend" postponing the referendum until after next year's presidential ballot, and Tibilov acceded to that proposal. It is not clear whether the council discussed the wording of the referendum question as well.

The rationale for the postponement cited in the joint statement released later by Tibilov and Bibilov was "the need to preserve political stability" in the run-up to the 2017 presidential vote. But Bibilov himself told the Russian daily Kommersant that the current political situation could in no way be described as tense.

It is not known what other arguments Tibilov's opponents adduced, although Bibilov was quoted as protesting that there was not enough time to organize a referendum by August. Bibilov also predicted that if the referendum were held now, the vote in favor of joining Russia would be lower than the 99 percent registered in 1992. RFE/RL's Echo Of The Caucasus quoted the chair of breakaway South Ossetia's election commission, Bella Pliyeva, as raising the possibility that the vote in favor could be as low as 51 percent, or even that a majority might prefer independence. That would constitute a slap in the face for Russia, which subsidizes South Ossetia's budget to the tune of 90 percent.

The postponement of the referendum, and the continued lack of clarity over the wording of the question it will pose, constitute a setback for Tibilov insofar as a referendum on whether and on what terms South Ossetia should become part of the Russian Federation will now inevitably be the central issue in the election campaign. Bibilov's aggressive campaign for such a referendum certainly contributed to the victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections of his One Ossetia party, which controls 20 of the 34 parliament mandates.

A large question mark remains over Moscow's agenda. Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted in April, just after Tibilov floated the idea of holding a referendum by August, as noting, first, that the precise formulation of the referendum question was still unclear, and second, that the Russian leadership would be guided by the will of the people of South Ossetia.

That latter remark implies that Putin anticipates that the referendum question will be the "Bibilov variant," meaning that voters will be asked whether or not they want South Ossetia to become part of Russia, rather than whether or not the de facto South Ossetian president should be empowered to petition Moscow for the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. From Putin's point of view, a nationwide vote in favor of accession to the Russian Federation would give a marginally more substantial veneer of legitimacy to that annexation than a request by one man whose election the international community regards as devoid of legitimacy.

On the other hand, as Aleksei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, pointed out to the news portal Caucasian Knot, Tibilov's strategy of empowering the South Ossetian president to raise the question of accession to Russia at his discretion has the advantage for Moscow that it does not require an immediate response, and therefore would not necessarily precipitate a further deterioration in relations with the West. Tibilov himself told the Political Council that Russia was not currently even considering the possibility of incorporating South Ossetia precisely because it would create new problems in international relations.

Tags:South Ossetia


Ingushetia Head Yevkurov Rejects Chechen Religious Official’s Criticism

Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov says Russian citizens are free to profess whatever faith they please, provided they do not seek to impose their views on others or propagate “extremism or other radical measures.”

Liz Fuller

The dispute between Chechnya’s religious leaders and Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov over two prominent Ingush clerics flared up again last week after a lull lasting several months. Meeting with senior officials on May 19, Yevkurov categorically rejected criticism of the two men voiced in a long interview given to the news site lenta.ru two days earlier by Adam Shakhidov, who is acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s adviser on religious affairs and imam of a mosque in the town of Argun named after Kadyrov’s mother. 

The disagreement between Yevkurov and Shakhidov centers on the suspicion and antagonism with which the Sufi-dominated official clergy in Chechnya and Daghestan regards the moderate Salafism professed by popular Ingush preachers Khamzat Chumakov and Isa Tsechoyev and by many Daghestanis.

In his interview with lenta.ru, Shakhidov engages in a muddled and poorly argued denunciation of that moderate Salafism. Citing an obscure Islamic scholar as an authority on the subject, Shakhidov explains that the strain of Sunni Islam currently known as Salafism arose some 250 years ago and was initially known as Wahhabism after its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who sought to strip worship of later accretions such as the cult of saints and their tombs and revert to a purer monotheism. That identification is spurious, however, Shakhidov says, because the term Salafi refers “only to those who lived during the first three centuries of the Muslim era.” (Strictly speaking, it refers only to the first three generations of Muslims.) 

In the post-Soviet context, the espousal of monotheism by Islamic militants in Central Asia and the North Caucasus has given rise to a conflation of Wahhabism with terrorism that has come to imbue official Russian attitudes to the Salafi minority, even though the vast majority of Russia’s Salafis/Wahhabis are peaceful law-abiding citizens who reject violence. Echoing Kadyrov, who has elevated the demonization of Wahhabism to one of the cornerstones of his political ideology, Shakhidov accuses those whom he brands “pseudo-Salafis” of hijacking the term to bestow a veneer of acceptability on their beliefs. He describes those “pseudo-Salafis” as “push[ing] young people into extremism, and whose teachings lead to terrorism and murder, wars, and Muslims being accused of unbelief.”

That categorical rejection of and antagonism towards Salafis was the leitmotif of a resolution adopted by a congress of Muslim scholars in Grozny in early February that called for the expulsion of any member of a Sufi brotherhood who engages in dialogue with Salafis. Speaking at that congress, Kadyrov went so far as to warn that if Chumakov and Tsechoyev ever try to preach in Chechnya, “heads will roll.”

Shakhidov, who according to the head of Yevkurov’s Directorate for Religious Affairs, Yakhya Khadziyev, once demonstratively described Chumakov as his “brother,” now says Chumakov and Tsechoyev “propagate religious teaching that is anathema to us,” and have fallen victim to erroneous teachings that they now try to impose on others. 

Yevkurov, Khadziyev, and Chumakov himself have all responded to Shakhidov’s allegations. Yevkurov admitted that “there are problems in all federation subjects” but said it is not up to the leaders of neighboring regions to try to resolve them.

He went on to point out that Russian citizens are free to profess whatever faith they please, provided they do not seek to impose their views on others or propagate “extremism or other radical measures.” “If someone thinks he knows more and better, then let him try to prove it convincingly, rather than push people to confrontation. We should be trying to unite people rather than to divide them,” especially where religion is concerned, Yevkurov continued. He stressed that it is incumbent on the republic’s leadership “to try to unite people, not divide them.” 

Khadziyev for his part similarly affirmed in an interview with Interfax that “there are other strains of Islam in Ingushetia besides Sufism, but there are no religious figures who call for radicalism and extremism.”

Asked his opinion on the February resolution adopted by Chechen theologians categorically prohibiting dialogue with those who allegedly seek to impel young people toward radicalism, Khadziyev said, “We shall engage in dialogue with all religious currents, calling them to unity and to work together in the name of the entire Muslim community of the region.” 

In his Friday sermon on May 20, Chumakov accused Shakhidov of seeking to sow enmity between the Ingush and the Chechens and called on him to desist. He further challenged Shakhidov to specify what precisely he has said in earlier sermons that constitutes a call to radical or violent action.

Shakhidov has neither responded to that challenge nor commented on subsequent developments that call into question Yevkurov’s denial that his republic remains a hotbed of fundamentalist Islam. On May 21, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee announced the apprehension of four residents of Ingushetia identified as members of the extremist organization Islamic State who were preparing terrorist attacks against the republic’s leadership, police, and clergy. And five days later, it was reported that five IS militants were killed and three more apprehended in two separate counterterror operations in Nazran and Malgobek.


Fledgling Party Could Shake Up Georgia With Vote Looming

In a recent opinion poll, Paata Burchuladze scored the highest favorability rating (75 percent) of any Georgian political figure.

Liz Fuller

Within days of the announcement last week that campaigning for the October 8 parliamentary elections will begin next month, Georgian opera singer Paata Burchuladze announced the launch of his new political party, The State for the People, which he predicted will win "strong representation" in the new parliament, given that "the whole of Georgia stands beside us."

That latter statement may be an exaggeration, but several political commentators agree that Burchuladze, whose age is variously given as either 61 or 65, is well positioned to profit from widespread public disillusion with both the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, which has failed to make good on many of its preelection promises, and with former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM), which Georgian Dream defeated in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot.

An opinion poll conducted in March by the International Republican Institute ranked Burchuladze's Georgian Development Foundation third in popularity. Asked which party they would vote for if elections were to take place the following Sunday, 12 percent of the 1,500 respondents named the Georgian Development Foundation, compared to 19 percent support for Georgian Dream and 18 percent for the ENM. Burchuladze himself scored the highest favorability rating (75 percent) of any Georgian political figure.

That popularity is due in part to Georgians' collective pride in any of their compatriots who succeeds in acquiring an international reputation, and in part to his charitable engagement. In 2004, he set up the charitable foundation Iavnana to help vulnerable families, especially deprived children.

The founding of Burchuladze's new party was not unexpected. In late November, he had canceled all his future operatic engagements and set up the Georgian Development Foundation civic movement. Its primary objective was defined as promoting dialogue within society with the aim of "putting an end to an era of nepotism, irresponsibility, fear of what tomorrow might bring, and to the division of society into 'us' and 'them.'"

Burchuladze stressed in late December that the Georgian Development Foundation, of which he took over as head two months later, "is a public initiative and not a political organization." At the same time, he criticized Georgian Dream's track record, in particular the slowdown in 2015 in economic growth. At that rate, he argued, "we shall never catch up even with Europe's poorest states."

Burchuladze outlined his rationale for entering Georgian politics in a rambling and populist statement on May 12. Declaring that "it has finally become clear that we can no longer watch what is happening from outside," he argued that Georgia needed to break free of the alternation between hope that a new leadership will improve the situation and disillusion when it proves unable to do so.

He criticized Georgian Dream for failing to formulate, let alone implement, a precise vision for the country, and in a clear allusion to Georgian Dream founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who many Georgians believe continues to dictate policy, he affirmed, "We don't want this country to have an informal master...and we don't want to live in a universe formed according to his tastes," given that "we have the right to be a happy nation."

Burchuladze went on to argue that "new people" with "clean hands" should come to power, people "who are capable of getting things done but have not been involved in politics previously because they didn't want to work side by side with today's politicians." He did not explain how such a team with little or no experience would make a better job of governing the country and creating "a strong independent state," let alone reversing economic decline and tackling unemployment, which respondents in the above-mentioned opinion poll consistently singled out as Georgia's most serious problem.

Burchuladze's pronouncements on foreign policy were similarly vague: He said Georgia should take its place as an equal member of the European family, but did not mention relations with Russia and how to counter the possible threat that Moscow poses.

Speaking at a press conference later on May 12, Burchuladze declared with bathos that "I had to abandon my career and the good life because the country is in such a state." He went on to divulge that he had begun creating a network of local party organizations and that he had the backing of unnamed members of the Georgian diaspora.

It is logical to assume that Burchuladze hopes to emulate Ivanishvili, who succeeded in parlaying his reputation as a philanthropist into Georgian Dream's landslide victory over the ENM in 2012. In many ways, however, the situation today differs from that in 2012. First, there are fewer than five months to go before the elections; Ivanishvili launched Georgian Dream a year in advance.

Second, Georgian Dream swiftly came to be perceived as the sole political force capable of unseating the ENM, and consequently numerous political parties with diverging ideologies aligned under its banner for that specific purpose. Today, by contrast, most of those parties plan to run independently in the October ballot.

And third, Ivanishvili's financial resources (he made a fortune in business in Russia in the 1990s) almost certainly far exceed Burchuladze's, although it remains unclear who funds the Georgian Development Foundation. State Audit Service head Lasha Tordia has warned that there can be no overlap whatsoever between the Georgian Development Foundation and The State for the People party.


Chechen Leader Denies Whistle-Blower’s Home Intentionally Destroyed

The home of Ramadan Dzhalaldinov, destroyed in a fire on the night of May 12-13.

Liz Fuller

The home in the Avar-populated village of Kenkhi in southeastern Chechnya of Ramadan Dzhalaldinov, who sought last month to alert Russian President Vladimir Putin to blatant corruption among local officials, was burned to the ground during the night of May 12-13. 

The home, on the outskirts of Grozny, of Shamil Dzhanaraliyev, one of two men killed when they attacked a police post early on May 9, has reportedly also been destroyed. 

In video footage uploaded to YouTube by the independent Daghestani weekly Chernovik, one of Dzhalaldinov’s three daughters said it was law enforcement personnel who torched their home. She said the men also used force on herself and her mother and threatened to kill them.

Kadyrov, however, immediately denied that anyone had set fire to the Dzhalaldinov family home and suggested in an Instagram post that Dzhalaldinov himself orchestrated its destruction. Kadyrov did not explain how Dzhalaldinov could have done so from neighboring Daghestan, where he is currently in hiding. Dzhalaldinov’s wife and children reportedly left Chechnya on May 13 to join him there. 

Dzhalaldinov incurred the wrath of the Chechen leadership by addressing a video appeal to Putin a month ago urging him to take action to curtail embezzlement by local officials of funds allocated for the reconstruction of homes in Kenkhi destroyed during the fighting of 1994-96 and 1999-2000, and also of local teachers’ salaries. Village residents were constrained to denounce Dzhalaldinov and to affirm publicly that his complaints were unfounded. But Moscow-based journalist Valery Polonsky succeeded in traveling to Kenkhi, where he met with villagers who readily confirmed that Dzhalaldinov was telling the truth.

Asked to comment on the destruction of Dzhalaldinov’s home, Russian presidential press spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted on May 13 as saying that if the report proves true, the law enforcement agencies should take immediate action. The Daghestan chapter of the opposition Yabloko party has called on Putin to launch an investigation into the reported incident and to take steps to end the pressure on Dzhalaldinov’s fellow villagers. 

Republic of Daghestan head Ramadan Abdulatipov, for his part, reportedly reached agreement during a telephone conversation with Kadyrov on May 13 on sending a joint governmental/parliamentary delegation to evaluate the situation in Kenkhi. But the four men from Daghestan who traveled to Kenkhi the following day told local residents they had been sent by Sagid Murtazaliyev, the former head of the Daghestan branch of the federal Pension Fund. 

A close associate of Kadyrov, Murtazaliyev currently faces criminal charges of commissioning political killings and abetting the North Caucasus insurgency. His whereabouts are unknown. According to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, his henchmen have already tried to pressure Dzhalaldinov to stop publicly bad-mouthing the Chechen authorities. 

Yet despite their proclaimed affiliation with a prominent Kadyrov ally, the four men were prevented from either meeting with villagers or inspecting the site of Dzhahaldinov’s home. Instead, they spent over an hour closeted with local officials and budget sector employees whose livelihood is contingent on their endorsement of the official version of what happened.

Despite the Chechen authorities’ blanket rejection of Dzhalaldinov’s complaints, Kadyrov traveled to Kenkhi on May 6 to talk to local officials and assess the situation at first hand. He assured the villagers that damaged buildings will be renovated and that local officials will be held to account for the missing budget funds.

Kadyrov also pledged that within three months, gas supplies would be extended to the village and local highways repaired. For good measure, he designated 2016 the Year of Sharoy District (where Kenkhi is located), and replaced the Sharoy district head and police chief. 

At the same time, at least three Kenkhi residents -- Khizbula Akhmedov, Seidmagomed Nasibov, and Magomedrasul Gitinov, director of one of the village schools -- who told Kadyrov to his face that Dzhalaldinov was telling the truth were subsequently taken into police detention. Nasibov has been charged with illegal possession of drugs.

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.