Sunday, May 01, 2016

Largest Factions In Georgia's Ruling Coalition Will Participate Independently In Upcoming Parliamentary Ballot

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has announced that his party will be participating independently of its coalition partners in upcoming elections. (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Georgian Dream -- Democratic Georgia (GD-DG), the senior member of the country's five-party ruling coalition, will participate separately in the parliamentary ballot due in October, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili announced on March 31 following talks with the unequivocally pro-Western Republican Party. 

Just hours earlier, Republican Party chairwoman Khatuna Samnidze had similarly announced that her party had decided four days previously to contest the ballot independently, but had delayed going public with that decision at Kvirikashvili's request.

At the same time, Kvirikashvili told journalists that the Republicans' decision does not necessarily imply either that the party's immediate withdrawal from the parliament's majority faction, in which the Republicans hold 10 mandates and chair two parliamentary committees (on legal affairs and European integration), or the resignation from his cabinet of the three Republican ministers. He stressed the importance of "the stability of the government, regardless of party affiliations."

Addressing journalists jointly with Kvirikashvili, Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili (Republican) said that henceforth the two parties will be both partners and competitors. He explained that the reason the Republican Party will not move immediately into opposition is in order not to "damage stability" and call into question the prospects for the country's development.

In a written statement, however, the Republican Party clarified that while its three ministers (of defense, environmental protection, and reconciliation and civic equality) will continue "to implement the government's program endorsed by the parliament," its 10 lawmakers will not necessarily always vote in tandem with the other coalition members. 

The statement did not specify potential divisive issues, but the Republicans are reported to have reservations about supporting Kvirikashvili's proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as "the union of a man and a woman," even though the party does not support the legalization of same-sex marriages.

The Republicans' decision to participate independently in the October parliamentary ballot came as little surprise in the light of a recent public disagreement between Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli (Usupashvili's wife) and the brewery magnate Gogi Topadze, head of the Industrialists faction, one of the smaller coalition members, that impelled Kvirikashvili to reprimand both of them.

Following a subsequent meeting with Kvirikashvili, Usupashvili told journalists that the two parties would finalize "very soon" an agreement on continuing "strategic, not just short-term" cooperation in the run-up to the October parliamentary election and beyond.

'Beginning Of The End' 

As for GD-DG's decision to cut free from its other coalition partners and run independently in the October ballot, Kvirikashvili explained that "the situation was different" in the run-up to the previous parliamentary election in 2012. On that occasion, several disparate political forces aligned with GD-DG, the creation of billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, with the express intention of defeating then-President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM).Today, by contrast, Kvirikashvili continued, "the electoral process is much more democratic and transparent." 

At the same time, he noted that it is still premature to speak about possible forms of post-election cooperation, but said "it is normal" to form a coalition government -- thus leaving the door open for renewed cooperation with the Republican Party in the event of a GD-DG victory.

Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, who is general secretary of GD-DG, was quoted several days ago as saying that "it would not be a bad thing" if the various parties aligned in the current coalition participated individually in the October ballot and then formed a new coalition. Other coalition members, including Topadze, reportedly concurred. 

Republican parliamentarian Vakhtang Khmaladze said that one of the factors behind his party's decision was GD-DG's clear desire to participate independently in the upcoming election, a desire he attributed to that party's "discomfort" with other coalition partners. (He did not elaborate, or name them.) 

Referring to recent opinion polls, GD-DG executive secretary Irakli Kobakhidze expressed confidence on March 31 that the party has the necessary resources to run independently and win. 

Some political analysts, however, see the other coalition members' willingness to contest the ballot individually as fraught with risk. Zurab Abashidze, a leading member of the Free Democrats who quit the GD coalition in late 2014, opined in early March that any of the smaller coalition parties that chose to run separately would find it difficult to garner the minimum 5 percent of the vote required to win representation under the proportional system. 

ENM parliamentarian Davit Bakradze, for his part, described the twin statements by Kvirikashvili and the Republican Party with barely disguised schadenfreude as "the beginning of the end" of GD as a political force. 

Official Lezgin Body Eclipses Glasnost-Era Public Organization

Nazim Gadzhiyev, a leader of the ethnic Lezgin community in Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan, was found dead with numerous stab wounds in his apartment this week in the regional capital, Makhachkala. (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Nazim Gadzhiyev, 72, who since 2012 has headed the Lezgin public organization Sadval (Unity), was found stabbed to death on March 21 at his apartment in Makhachkala, almost exactly one year to the day since the still-unsolved death of Sadval activist Ruslan Magomedragimov.

Bloggers such as Ruslan Gereyev who commented on Gadzhiyev's demise lauded his commitment over five decades to the concept of Lezgin autonomy, but at the same time opined that Sadval and the older generation of activists cannot achieve the desired results in today's evolving political landscape.

The Lezgins are a north-eastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century A.D. Their historic homeland was divided in 1860 between two gubernias of Tsarist Russia -- Daghestan, which in 1918 remained part of Russia, and Shemakha, which formed part of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that was subsumed into Soviet Russia in 1920. 

At the time of the 2010 Russian Federation census, there were 385,240 Lezgins living in Daghestan, primarily in the south of the republic. They were the fourth largest ethnic group (13.3 percent of the total population.) 

Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. In 2014, they were officially estimated to account for 2 percent of the total population of 9,686,210 (193,724), while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000. 

The first demands by Lezgins in the U.S.S.R., including Gadzhiyev, for a separate Lezgin territorial-administrative unit date back to the 1960s, and were swiftly suppressed. 

In July 1990, inspired by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, Lezgins in Daghestan established the informal organization Sadval to campaign for the "unification" of Lezgin-populated territories, a demand that resonated with at least some of their co-ethnics in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. 

Spearheading Public Protests

From the mid-1990s through the first decade of this century, however, Sadval's primary objective has switched several times, depending on whether its moderate or radical wing was formulating policy, from an independent state, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Daghestan that would subsume part of northern Azerbaijan, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Azerbaijan, which would have necessitated ceding Russian territory. 

Over the past few years, Sadval's focus has narrowed. Its activists spearheaded public protests in 2013 against the perceived threat posed to the ecosystem of Daghestan's Magerramkent district by Azerbaijan's alleged use of more water from the Samur River than it is entitled to under the September 2010 interstate border treaty. They also opposed what were seen as efforts by Azerbaijan to expand its presence and influence in southern Daghestan, especially the town of Derbent. 

Meanwhile, the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of the Lezgins (FLNKA), an official body with close ties to the Russian State Duma and the Russian Foreign Ministry, apparently took upon itself those aspects of Sadval's agenda that derive from the division of the ethnic group between two states. 

North Caucasus Federal District head Sergei Melikov, who is of Lezgin extraction, has been tipped to succeed Ramazan Abdulatipov as head of the Republic of Daghestan. (file photo)
North Caucasus Federal District head Sergei Melikov, who is of Lezgin extraction, has been tipped to succeed Ramazan Abdulatipov as head of the Republic of Daghestan. (file photo)

In 2008, FLNKA together with the State Duma's Committee for Nationality Affairs compiled and circulated a brochure calling for official condemnation of the division and "ethnocide" of the Lezgin people in the 1920s, and demanding that the border between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan be redrawn to incorporate the northern districts of Azerbaijan into Daghestan. (That demand was not met by the terms of the 2010 treaty.) In other words, FLNKA allowed itself on that occasion to be used as a policy instrument for exerting Russian pressure on Azerbaijan. 

FLNKA has recently formally applied for consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

At the same time, on the local as opposed to the federal level, successive Republic of Daghestan leaders have energetically sought to establish cordial and mutually beneficial ties with Azerbaijan, in the name of which the interests of the Lezgins have been quietly shelved.

That situation may change, however, if, as some analysts speculate, North Caucasus Federal District head Sergei Melikov, who is of Lezgin extraction, is chosen to succeed incumbent Ramazan Abdulatipov as Republic of Daghestan head when Abdulatipov turns 70 later this year. 

Putin Cautions Kadyrov, But Gives Green Light For His Reelection

When the two men met at the Kremlin this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) announced that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) would continue as acting head of the Caucasus republic once his current term of office expires in April.

Liz Fuller

Meeting on March 25 in the Kremlin with Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had signed a decree appointing the current Chechen leader as acting republic head when his second term expires on April 5.

Kadyrov will hold this temporary position until a vote is held across Chechnya to elect a republic head in September. 

At the same time, in a clear allusion to highly publicized incidents over the past year involving Chechen security personnel and attacks on Russian human rights activists, Putin unambiguously warned Kadyrov of the need for "closer coordination" with the federal authorities, especially with regard to security. 

That is in all likelihood an allusion to an episode in April 2015, when Kadyrov issued orders to the security forces loyal to him to "shoot to kill" in the event that Interior Ministry units from elsewhere in the Russian Federation seek to apprehend suspected criminals on Chechen territory without having obtained permission from the authorities in Grozny to do so. 

Putin also told Kadyrov that "as the future leader of the republic, you should do everything to ensure full compliance with Russian laws in all spheres of life -- I want to stress this, in all spheres of life." 

It is tempting to construe that injunction as an expression of Putin's displeasure at a vicious attack earlier this month on Russian human rights activists and two foreign journalists on the Chechen-Ingush border. The perpetrators drove cars with Chechen license plates. 

In December 2014, Putin had issued a comparable, if less strongly-worded warning to Kadyrov not to violate the law in connection with republic head's orders to expel from Chechnya the families of insurgents responsible for attacks on Grozny earlier that month and for the destruction of their homes. 

Economic Upswing

At the March 25 meeting, Putin also enumerated the positive aspects of Kadyrov's track record as Chechen leader: the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed during the wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000; drastically reducing unemployment (on paper, if not in actual fact); and restoring stability and security (although this is widely believed to have been done by intimidating or killing anyone rash enough to criticize Kadyrov or question the legality of his methods). 

In the context of the rebuilding of Chechnya's war-shattered economy, Putin quipped that "I didn't expect someone of your background to develop suddenly into a competent economic manager." Strictly speaking, however, the economic upswing since Putin first named Kadyrov Chechen president in March 2007 was primarily the work of trusted subordinates -- in the first instance Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev, who pulled out all the stops to ensure Kadyrov's orders were carried out within the designated timeframe, mainly because the futures of the Chechen leader's underlings and of their families depended on it.

Putin's appointment of Kadyrov as acting republic head lays to rest widespread speculation in recent months that the Russian leadership, or more precisely a specific interest group within it, had become so alarmed at the exponential increase in Kadyrov's power and influence that they were considering naming him to another position. The independent Daghestan-based daily "Chernovik" mentioned the posts of federal envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District (currently held by Sergei Melikov,who would then succeed Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatiov) or that of deputy Russian presidential administration head with responsibility for nationality relations. The latter position is currently occupied by Abdulatipov's predecessor as Republic of Daghestan head, Magomedsalam Magomedov. 

That speculation about Kadyrov's political future has been fueled, on the one hand, by Kremlin officials' disinclination to clarify his future role,  even though it is normal practice for a republic head to be appointed "acting" only very shortly before his term is due to expire, as was the case recently with Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head Rashid Temrezov. 

On the other hand, Kadyrov himself contributed to the uncertainty by declaring in late February that he did not wish to serve a third term. In response to that statement, Kadyrov's closest aides orchestrated a large-scale PR campaign under the hashtag #РамзанНеУходи (Ramzan, Don't Leave!).

A mass demonstration of popular support for Kadyrov scheduled for March 6, which budget sector workers had been ordered to attend, was called off, however, and Chechen government officials denied that it had ever been planned. 

But a rally by up to 1 million people in Grozny on March 23, purportedly to mark the 13th anniversary of the adoption in a referendum of a new Chechen Republic constitution, was in effect organized in such a way as to give the impression that the republic's entire population sees Kadyrov as the sole guarantor of its security and well-being. 

Private Army 

Putin expressed confidence that the Chechen people will "demonstrate their appreciation" of what Kadyrov has accomplished, presumably by reelecting him.But Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Fund, has suggested that Kadyrov's reelection is still not necessarily a foregone conclusion, and that, in the five months before the September 18 ballot, the Kremlin may continue looking for an alternative candidate. 

Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who heads the International Crisis Group's North Caucasus project, believes that the Russian leadership has concluded that the potential risks of trying to replace Kadyrov as republic head are greater than that of permitting the continuation of his brutal, corrupt , and authoritarian regime. She further makes the point that, not only does the Kremlin lack complete control over Kadyrov -- which has been the consensus among Caucasus watchers for some time -- it is not even seeking to impose such control, even though it is capable of doing so. 

At the same time, Sokiryanskaya observes that power in Chechnya rests with the Russian forces deployed there, not with Kadyrov's own private army, the strength of which Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin recently estimated at approximately 12,000 men. Sokiryanskaya predicts that, "if [the federal troops] were withdrawn from Chechnya now, the Kadyrov regime would not survive a week," given that "a significant number" of Kadyrov's security forces would withdraw their support for him. Whether and in response to what possible blatant disregard by Kadyrov of Putin's warnings the Russian leadership might resort to that worst-case scenario can only be guessed at.

Georgia's Political Elite Targeted in Sex Videos Blackmail

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has described the sex tape videos as "vile" and pledged to use the full force of the law to apprehend and punish those who published them.

Liz Fuller

The Georgian Prosecutor's office announced on March 15 that charges have been brought against five people in connection with illegal video footage featuring prominent political figures engaging in sexual intercourse.

The investigation that led to those arrests was launched before the release over the past five days of two such video clips, which Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told the British daily The Guardian were made during the period when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) was in power.

Prosecutor Koka Katsitadze has declined to confirm or deny a direct connection between the recent leaks and the charges brought against the five. 

The first clip, uploaded on March 11, reportedly featured a leading member of the opposition Free Democrats party.The second, uploaded on March 14, featured people who have not been identified and contained a warning voiced by a speaker off-screen to three politicians, one from the opposition and two from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, plus one journalist, that comparable footage of them in intimate situations would be made public unless they withdrew from political activity by March 31 and left the country.

Most Georgian media outlets have declined to identify the politicians involved. But journalist Inga Grigolia, one of those threatened, responded by publicly reaffirming her right "as a woman, a mother, a daughter and a girlfriend" to continue enjoying sex with her lover.

'Dark Forces'

The clips, both of which were removed within hours of being posted, elicited widespread public condemnation. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili responded to the first case with a statement in which he denounced the posting as "vile" and warned that whoever filmed and circulated the clip will be made to answer before the law. He pledged to "do everything to ensure that such horrible recordings disappear from our lives once and for all." 

President Giorgi Margvelashvili responded only after the second clip surfaced on March 14. He assured those targeted of the authorities' full support and, echoing Kvirikashvili, warned that the "dark forces" that seek to "terrorize" and "blackmail" will be identified and apprehended. 

This is by no means the first instance in recent Georgian history in which a video leak has made waves. A clip of a prisoner being sodomized by wardens with a broom handle, made public just weeks before the October 2012 parliamentary ballot, may well have contributed to the defeat of Saakashvili's ENM by the Georgian Dream coalition.

After the March 11 footage surfaced, Free Democrats' chairman Irakli Alasania construed it as an attack on his party in the run-up to parliamentary elections due in October. The posting of a second clip threatening the ruling coalition casts doubt on that argument, however. 

According to Tsulukiani, the Georgian authorities have already formally requested help from the U.S. FBI and from a second country she declined to name in determining where the videos had been uploaded from. Georgian Dream, which came to power in 2012, pledged to destroy incriminating video footage and telephone conversations of political figures accumulated by the Interior Ministry under the ENM, but this has clearly not been done systematically. 

On March 15, the prosecutor's office released a detailed account of how clandestinely filmed video footage of a politician from Georgian Dream was offered in mid-December to Eliso Kaladze, an editor for the Tbilisi-based newspaper Khronika+. That footage reportedly originated with Zurab Jamalashvili, a former employee of the Department for Constitutional Security who was arrested on March 15 together with his lawyer Irakli Pkhaladze. Both men deny owning or circulating any incriminating video footage.

Was Ramzan Kadyrov Behind Attempt To Kill Ingush Cleric?

Khamzat Chumakov was regarded for years with profound suspicion by the Republic of Ingushetia authorities.

Liz Fuller

Popular Ingush preacher Sheikh Khamzat Chumakov, who lost a leg as a result of a still-unsolved car-bomb attack five years ago, escaped with cuts and bruises when a second car bomb exploded on March 11 as he was driving away from the mosque in Nasyr-Kort, of which he is imam. Four other people were injured by the blast, one of them seriously.

One of Chumakov’s close associates told the Russian daily Kommersant that in the light of threats Chumakov had received, for the past two months he has used an armored Mercedes provided by an unnamed wealthy Ingush businessman. It is not clear whether that vehicle was acquired before or after Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov declared at a conference in early February that Chumakov should be banned from preaching in Ingushetia, and warned that if he attempted to do so in Chechnya, “heads will roll.”

Chumakov professes Salafi Islam, rather than the Sufism traditionally espoused by both Chechens and Ingush, but has always rejected as artificial any differentiation between the two strains. He preaches to Ingush communities both in Russia and abroad, consistently criticizing official corruption and arbitrary reprisals by security personnel against young men suspected of links to the North Caucasus insurgency, but advising listeners at the same time not to take up arms against the government.

As a result, he has acquired an extensive following, especially among younger believers. In a blog post pegged to the March 11 car bomb explosion, Magomed Mutsolgov, who heads the human rights organization Mashr, noted that during the nine years that Chumakov has been preaching at Nasyr-Kort, attendance at his sermons had increased from a few hundred to several thousand.

Chumakov was nonetheless regarded for years with profound suspicion by the Republic of Ingushetia authorities, who pressured him on more than one occasion to desist from criticizing them.

Relations between Chumakov and Ingushetia’s official clergy were similarly strained. The republic’s Spiritual Center of Muslims (DTsM) is headed by mufti Issa-hadji Khamkhoyev, who like Kadyrov is a member of the Qadiriyya Sufi order. In June, Khamkhoyev mobilized his supporters who converged en masse on the Nasyr-Kort mosque on the outskirts of Nazran (the republic’s formal capital) during Friday Prayers. A violent confrontation between Chumakov’s followers and Khamkhoyev supporters ready to use force to remove Chumakov from his post was only narrowly averted.

In the wake of that incident, Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has twice called on Khamkhoyev to step down as mufti, on the grounds that he can no longer cope with his official duties, and that the standoff with Chumakov last June “undermined the authority” of the official clergy. In contrast to Khamkhoyev, Yevkurov is actively promoting rapprochement between the republic’s Sufi and Salafi communities. He recently convened a meeting of senior clerics and scheduled for March 29 a vote of no confidence in Khamkhoyev.

Khamkhoyev categorically refused to resign and turned for backing to Kadyrov, who in early February convened a conference in Achkhoi-Martan west of Grozny reportedly attended by “many thousands” of representatives of the Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhoods in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan, including Khamkhoyev.

Addressing that conference, Kadyrov equated Salafism with terrorism and branded its representatives “shaytans,” or devils. Kadyrov further conflated the peaceful and nonviolent preachings of Chumakov with the militant and puritanical Salafism professed by the North Caucasus insurgency and the militant group Islamic State (IS). It was in that context that Kadyrov warned that “heads will roll” if Chumakov tries to preach on Chechen territory.

Police investigating the March 11 car bombing have reportedly established that the vehicle in which the 20-kilogram explosive device was concealed was registered in the name of someone from Daghestan currently resident in Stavropol Krai who had placed it at the disposal of a resident of Chechnya.

One of Chumakov’s supporters who witnessed the explosion told the news portal Caucasian Knot he thinks that one of Ingushetia’s Sufi brotherhoods may have been behind it. He noted that the son of the leader of that brotherhood was present at the February conference at which Kadyrov threatened Chumakov.

Assuming that either Khamkhoyev or one of Ingushetia’s Sufi brotherhoods seriously wanted to kill Chumakov, neither is likely to have done so without Kadyrov’s prior approval, given the extent of his influence.

In addition to his categorical rejection of Salafism, there is a second reason why Kadyrov might consider it advantageous to have Chumakov killed. For years, Kadyrov has been at odds with Yevkurov, initially over the undemarcated border between the two republics, and more recently because of the Ingushetian authorities’ mediocre track record with regard to stamping out the North Caucasus insurgency. Chumakov’s death, if it could be attributed to the insurgency, would reinforce Kadyrov’s criticisms of Yevkurov’s “soft” approach, and also the argument that only his own brutal methods can impose and preserve peace in the region.

Yevkurov was quick to condemn the attack on Chumakov as “a provocation” and an attempt to destabilize the situation in Ingushetia carried out by unspecified individuals who “decided to capitalize on the problems that have accumulated in the sphere of religion.”

Ismail Berdiyev, who heads the Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus (KTsMSK), suggested the bombing may have been the result of Chumakov’s “disagreements with parishioners,” while Mufti Shafig Pshikhachev, the KTsMSK’s representative in Moscow, opined that it may have been the work of the same people who attacked a group of foreign journalists and Russian human rights activists on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia two days earlier. Chumakov condemned that attack in his Friday sermon shortly before the car bomb explosion.

Georgian Prime Minister Cautions Feuding Coalition Allies

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has consistently reached out to opponents with the aim of achieving "the maximum depolarization and unification of society [and] consolidation around our common political objectives."

Liz Fuller

For several weeks, representatives of two of the five parties in Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition have engaged in an acrimonious public dispute, fueling speculation that the coalition could collapse ahead of the parliamentary elections due in October 2016.

That scenario now appears somewhat less likely following the intervention of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who since his appointment in late December has consistently reached out to opponents with the aim of achieving "the maximum depolarization and unification of society [and] consolidation around our common political objectives."

The current dispute is between the Republican Party, arguably the most unequivocally pro-Western coalition member, and the Union of Industrialists, whose leader, brewery magnate Gogi Topadze, is notorious for his anti-Western public statements tinged with nostalgia for the Soviet era and what the Republicans consider unacceptable veneration of Josef Stalin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In early February, Topadze accused Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, a leading Republican Party member, of manipulating the outcome of a recent by-election to secure a win for GD. He also accused two lawmakers from the 10-member Republican Party faction (the second-largest within GD) who spoke out in Khidasheli's support of having collaborated with the KGB in the Soviet era.

The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched an investigation to determine whether voting by servicemen at a local military base could have changed the outcome of the Sagarejo by-election in October 2015.

Khidasheli in turn construed Topadze's statements as part of a broader campaign by pro-Russian forces out to derail Georgia's pro-Western foreign policy. She further claimed that GD's founder, the reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, told her he regarded the Republican Party as the foremost member of the coalition.

Kvirikashvili first cautioned Topadze on February 19, condemning his criticism of Khidasheli as "totally unacceptable" and "casting a shadow not only on the party but on the government as a whole."

Then on March 3, Kvirikashvili issued a sternly worded statement saying the standoff had taken on "a completely unacceptable form" and that "it is irrelevant who started it and why." He said Khidasheli should bear in mind that she is first and foremost a government minister, and only second a member of a political party, and that it was of paramount importance that the army should not be drawn into politics.

Apropos of Topadze, Kvirikashvili said without naming him that radicalism, pseudo-traditions, and "Stalinist sentiments emanating from the bowels of the Soviet Union" are alien and unacceptable to the state Georgia aspires to become. He reiterated the coalition's commitment to Eurointegration and affirmed GD's readiness to cooperate with all political forces that are prepared to set aside narrow party considerations and work together to make that shared vision a reality.

He went on to warn "our political partners" that unless they desist from public feuding, he will implement whatever changes may be necessary to ensure the stable functioning of the government.

Kvirikashvili met later the same day at their request with leading members of the Republican Party, including Khidasheli and her husband, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, to "discuss the situation." Usupashvili told journalists after that 90-minute meeting, which he described as "businesslike and amicable," that the two parties will "very soon" finalize an agreement on continuing "strategic, not just short-term" cooperation in the run-up to the October parliamentary elections and beyond.

Asked about the implications of that planned agreement for the coalition as a whole, Usupashvili responded that "there was no talk of dissolving the coalition," but also that "everything needs renewal, including the coalition."

At a cabinet session the following day (March 4), Kvirikashvili similarly said "certain agreements will have to be reached" in the run-up to the elections, and that if GD remains a multiparty coalition, any bilateral agreement reached between the Republicans and the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party -- the senior coalition member -- should also be confirmed in a multilateral format by the other three parties.

He went on to stress, first, that GDDG will itself undergo a "significant renewal," and second, that "if we participate in the elections in a coalition format, the team will unite over very clear goals, which are based on our best values and traditions and of course on consensus over Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic future."

That latter condition raises the question of whether Topadze's Industrialists will be invited, or would agree, to become part of the GD electoral bloc. Some analysts have already suggested that the Industrialists might quit GD and contest the election jointly with the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, whose candidate lost to GD's candidate in the Sagarejo by-election.

On the other hand, as commentator Korneli Kakachia was quoted as pointing out, it would reflect badly on GD's image if one of its members were to pull out of the coalition at this juncture -- and for that reason, it is probable that Kvirikashvili, who is expected to be elected GDDG chairman at a party congress in the next couple of months, will do all in his power to keep the coalition intact. That may prove difficult if, as commentator Zaal Anjaparidze suggests, there are other conflicts within the coalition that have not yet become public knowledge.

Kvirikashvili has not yet met with Topadze, who characterized the prime minister's March 3 statement as "very good...he knows very well who is right and who's wrong."

A second leading Industrialist, Zurab Tqemaladze, similarly expressed approval of every word Kvirikashvili said.

South Ossetia’s Leaders At Odds Over Military Accord With Russia

South Ossetia's parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov

Liz Fuller

For the past two months, the de facto president, defense minister, and parliament speaker of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia (RYuO) have been engaged in an acrimonious dispute over a proposed ancillary agreement to the framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and the RYuO signed a year ago.

Russia is one of only a handful of countries that recognized South Ossetia as an independent sovereign state in the wake of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Most members of the international community still consider it a part of Georgia occupied by Russia.

The Treaty on Union Relations and Integration made provision for “individual units” of the South Ossetian army to be subsumed into the Russian armed forces within the framework of a “common defense space.” The two successive versions of the draft ancillary agreement sent by the Russian Defense Ministry to its South Ossetian counterpart in late November and mid-December have not been made public, but they may require a larger-scale subordination of RYuO army personnel to Russian command than de facto President Leonid Tibilov and Defense Minister Ibragim Gasseyev are prepared to condone.

Parliament speaker and One Ossetia party chairman Anatoly Bibilov, however, who has consistently lobbied for subsuming South Ossetia into the Russian Federation at the earliest opportunity, has raised no objections to the wording of the agreement. That failure has given rise to speculation, which he rejects as misplaced, that he advocates abolishing the region’s army.

Bibilov is, moreover, clearly seeking to extract political dividends from the executive branch’s reluctance to sign the agreement, probably with an eye to the presidential election due in April 2017 in which he and Tibilov are likely to be the main candidates -- unless, as has recently been suggested, Tibilov’s predecessor Eduard Kokoity attempts a political comeback.

Tibilov’s position, as formulated in his February 19 annual address to parliament, is that “in order to preclude a repeat of the August 2008 [deployment into South Ossetia of the Georgian Army], South Ossetia needs its own national military formation, not necessarily a large one, but disciplined, mobile, well-armed, and professionally trained to conduct military operations effectively in mountainous and forested terrain and within populated areas.” He recalled that in 2012, he succeeded in persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to annul an agreement Kokoity had concluded with Moscow on downsizing South Ossetia’s military, and thus “we managed to preserve our army.”

De facto Defense Minister Gasseyev likewise argues that “the republic should have an army that is capable of resisting aggression in the event of an attack on our country,” and for that reason, “the Defense Ministry is not prepared for a significant downsizing of the RYuO armed forces.”

The ancillary agreement envisages the downsizing of all combat-ready units of the RYuO army, Gasseyev explained in a subsequent interview. Some units will be transferred to serve under Russian command at Russia’s 4th Military Base in South Ossetia. The RYuO defense-ministry command will not be subsumed into the Russian armed forces and its status will not change. The agreement does not, however, Gasseyev continued, guarantee that those servicemen who are demobilized will be accepted into the ranks of the Russian armed forces, which he considers “unacceptable,” given that “we could end up with no army, and people will be left unemployed.”

The question of possible redundancies is all the more sensitive given that the total manpower was cut by almost 50 percent, to 1,250 men, in the spring of 2010.

Ekho Kavkaza quotes an unnamed RYuO defense ministry official as explaining that while the ancillary agreement entails the subsuming of “some” units of the RYuO army into the Russian armed forces, there is “no question” of abolishing the republic’s army, and the agreement does not mention possible dismissals. It was the RYuO Defense Ministry, that source said, which calculated that only 200 of its 800 servicemen meet the more stringent requirements of the Russian Army.

Ossetia’s criticisms of the executive branch’s stance ignore the wording of the ancillary agreement and focus primarily on the imputed failure of the Defense Ministry either to keep the parliament majority informed of the ongoing negotiations or to solicit its input.

Both those criticisms are unfounded, according to Gasseyev. He said the RYuO Defense Ministry received the initial draft of the ancillary agreement from Moscow on November 23, and within days communicated proposed changes. The Russian Defense Ministry sent a revised draft in mid-December that the South Ossetian Defense Ministry forwarded to Bibilov, followed by its proposals for fine-tuning the draft. Those proposals were also sent to Moscow.

Then in mid-January, before any response had been received from the Russian Defense Ministry, RYuO deputy parliament speaker Dmitry Tasoyev, in his capacity as the legislature’s representative on the working group tasked with fine-tuning the text of the draft agreement, posted on the parliament website a statement affirming that the signing of the ancillary agreement was being delayed by the “unconstructive and stubborn position” adopted by the republic’s Defense Ministry.

Tibilov responded on January 19 with an official proposal to Bibilov to convene an emergency parliament session in order to reach agreement on a mutually acceptable formulation. So, too, did the three minority parties represented in parliament.

Bibilov, however, ignored Tibilov’s proposal because, as he told RFE/RL’s Echo of the Caucasus, an emergency parliament session is not the appropriate constitutional format in which to discuss an interstate treaty. Bibilov suggested holding parliament hearings instead.

He went on to accuse the presidential administration of seeking a pretext to delay the signing of the ancillary agreement while offloading the blame for the delay onto the legislature.

Bibilov’s refusal to convene a parliament session was construed by some media outlets as reflecting tacit support for the abolition of the RYuO army. His fellow parliamentarian Pyotr Gassiyev categorically rejected those “dirty rumors” as untrue, and as intended to discredit Bibilov in the run-up to the 2017 presidential ballot.

Moscow, meanwhile, appears unfazed by the failure to finalize the draft ancillary agreement by the January 31 deadline. Ivan Boltenkov, who heads the Russian presidential administration’s section for relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia was quoted on February 10 as saying that “work on any treaty is a two-way street,” and that it is not surprising that the two sides have adopted such a scrupulous approach to discussing the small-print. At the same time, Boltenkov expressed confidence that all remaining issues will be resolved in the immediate future.

There is, nonetheless, still a possible legal hurdle to be overcome. Alan Djussoyev of the social movement Your Choice, Ossetia points out that there is no such legal concept as the subsuming of military units of one national army into another, and no precedent for doing so.

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.