Saturday, July 30, 2016

Putin Names New Envoy for North Caucasus

Oleg Belaventsev, the newly appointed presidential representative to Russia's North Caucasus district, had previously served as Vladimir Putin's representative in the annexed Crimea Peninsula

Liz Fuller

In a move first rumored in April, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed Sergei Melikov, an Interior Ministry forces lieutenant-general who for the past two years has served as presidential representative to the North Caucasus Federal District, as a first deputy director of the recently-created National Guard. At the same time, Putin named Oleg Belaventsev, a former career naval officer and Hero of Russia, to succeed Melikov as his representative to the North Caucasus. 

For the past two years, Belaventsev, 65, has served as presidential representative to the Crimean Federal District, which Putin has now abolished as a separate entity and subsumed into the Southern Federal District.

Putin established the National Guard only a few months ago, on the basis of the Interior Ministry troops in which Melikov made his career, and appointed to head it First Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Zolotov, one of his former bodyguards. Its personnel number 350,000-450,000.

Although Putin defined the National Guard's primary tasks as combatting terrorism and organized crime, it is clearly intended, as Russia analyst Mark Galeotti points out, to serve as Putin's personal Praetorian Guard, maintaining public security and stamping out disorder and any manifestations of disaffection among either the public at large or within the ruling elite. 

Vladimir Putin's former envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov has been transferred to the newly formed National Guard
Vladimir Putin's former envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov has been transferred to the newly formed National Guard

Melikov's promotion to serve with the National Guard is interesting for three reasons. The first is the North Caucasus connection. Zolotov has been identified as a former patron of acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, whose own private security forces have (at least in theory) been subsumed into the National Guard.

Interior Ministry Troops Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, who was named in April as one of Zolotov's deputies, served since 2010 as commander of the Interior Ministry Troops deployed to the North Caucasus. According to the independent Daghestani weekly Novoye Delo, Chenchik is reportedly one of a very small number of top Interior Ministry personnel whom Kadyrov respects. (Kadyrov himself holds the rank of Interior Ministry major general.)Although Melikov focused far less on Chechnya than on Daghestan, he, too, has cordial relations with Kadyrov.

The second is just how little Melikov achieved during his two years in the North Caucasus. True, as he himself has pointed out, the threat of terrorism posed by the North Caucasus insurgency has diminished over that period. But that is primarily the result of two developments for which Melikov cannot claim credit: the eclipse of the insurgency as a military force following the death by accidental poisoning of its long-time commander Doku Umarov, and the parallel exodus of many fighters to Syria.

Basket Case Economy

The region's economy (admittedly the preserve of the federal Ministry for the North Caucasus) remains a basket case: the seven regions' combined state debt increased by 24 percent last year to reach 67 billion rubles ($1 billion). Corruption, too, is on the rise: 1,873 cases were reported in 2015, an increase of 11.6 percent over the previous year, resulting in financial damage to the state estimated at 4.4 billion rubles. Only 57 people -- 7.6 percent of the defendants in North Caucasus corruption trials in 2015 -- received prison terms. 

Melikov's one undisputed triumph was his contribution to the preparations for the celebration in September 2015 of the 2,000th anniversary of the town of Derbent that, until he set up a working group to coordinate and expedite restoration work, were months behind schedule. Melikov's father was a Lezgin, the majority ethnic group in Derbent, which may partially explain his success in motivating (or intimidating) the local officials directly involved in the jubilee preparations. 

Third, Melikov's new appointment will rekindle speculation about the political future of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. For over a year, pundits have been speculating that Melikov would be named to succeed Abdulatipov, who turns 70 on August 4. 

As for Belaventsev, his lack of first-hand familiarity with the North Caucasus may prove a disadvantage, especially in light of what one commentator termed the propensity of some unnamed local leaders to act without regard for either the law or the financial cost. On the other hand, he is said to be skilled at behind-the-scenes bureaucratic maneuvering. 

Kadyrov, whom some analysts had earlier identified as a possible successor to Melikov as presidential representative to the North Caucasus, noted Belaventsev's "broad theoretical knowledge" and "considerable management experience." How the relationship between the two will develop remains to be seen.

Two Senior Abkhaz Officials Resign

Prime Minister Artur Mikvabia proved unable to deliver the economic upswing that figured among the leadership's preelection promises two years ago.

Liz Fuller

The failure earlier this month of a bid by opposition parties to mobilize the population of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia to participate in a referendum on holding an early presidential election has not defused political tensions.

On the contrary, the Bloc of Opposition Forces (BOS) -- which initially backed the proposed referendum but called a boycott just days before it was due to take place -- has already announced its intention of convening a rally of at least 10,000 people in October in a new attempt to force de facto President Raul Khajimba to resign.

Meanwhile, the standoff between the opposition and Khajimba has shifted to the parliament, which has sought since early February to force a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Artur Mikvabia. Mikvabia finally submitted his resignation on July 26 rather than suffer the indignity of such a vote. Prosecutor-General Aleksandr Lomia stepped down the same day.

Mikvabia, 66, is a professional economist whom Khajimba named to head the cabinet in March 2015 following the resignation of Economic Revival Party Chairman Beslan Butba.

But he has proven unable to deliver the economic upswing that figured among Khajimba's preelection promises two years ago. Abkhazia's economy has stagnated since the end of the 1992-93 war that culminated in the region's de facto independence from Georgia, and much of the economic assistance Russia has provided since formally recognizing Abkhazia as an independent state in 2008 has not been invested in the economy.

Whereas Khajimba's predecessor, Aleksandr Ankvab, gave priority to reviving the agro-industrial sector, with the aim of capitalizing on the region's balmy climate, providing employment for the rural population, and resuming traditional exports of fruit and tea, Khajimba sees no point in reviving agriculture and is betting on tourism, which benefits primarily the population of Black Sea coastal towns. In addition, the region's ambiguous status and the ban on the purchase of real estate by noncitizens have deterred investment.


The rationale adduced by opposition lawmaker Alkhas Japua in early February for a no-confidence vote in Mikvabia focused less on the economy than on his imputed bungling of the program to issue new national passports in exchange for old ones. In June, Japua also criticized the work of the cabinet as a whole, and Mikvabia's alleged failure to undertake any measures to eradicate corruption. Mikvabia rejected that criticism as unfair and slanderous. The Prosecutor-General's Office declared it unfounded.

Announcing his resignation, Mikvabia claimed his cabinet had done what it could in adverse economic conditions, and with a budget of just 13 billion rubles ($196 million) at its disposal, to tackle the most important problems it faced, including raising salaries and pensions. He subsequently complained to the news site Caucasus Knot that all his efforts to increase tax revenues met with furious resistance. The introduction in January 2016 of a value-added tax, for example, immediately triggered outraged protests from the owners of small businesses.

What motivated Prosecutor-General Lomia to resign is less clear. According to parliament speaker Valery Bganba, Lomia did so for a combination of reasons, including that "he felt he couldn't cope." Lomia's office had just completed a detailed assessment of the chain of events in late May–early June 2014 that culminated in Ankvab's ouster and formal resignation under pressure from the then-opposition Coordinating Council spearheaded by Khajimba. That assessment exonerated Khajimba and his supporters of acting illegally in seizing control of the presidential administration building, and ruled that the subsequent nomination of Bganba as acting president and the scheduling of new elections did not violate the Republic of Abkhazia's constitution.

Aslan Bzhania, one of three rival presidential candidates whom Khajimba defeated in August 2014 and a leading member of the BOS, said that assessment itself is unconstitutional.

Khajimba has named First Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Adzinba acting prime minister pending the unveiling of a new cabinet. Journalist Filipp Gromyko opines that Khajimba may take the opportunity to include a handful of opposition politicians in acknowledgment of demands by several opposition forces, including A Just Abkhazia and the People's Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development, to create a government of national unity.

A mini-opinion poll of 1,292 people conducted by those two parties from May 12-15 found that 61.9 percent of respondents assessed the performance of the current government as "bad," 79.7 percent thought its style of work should change, and 66.7 percent advocated the creation of a government of national unity in which all political parties would be represented.

Any such concession to opposition demands would stand Khajimba in good stead if he decides to reappoint as interior minister Leonid Dzapshba, whom he suspended in early July, but who reportedly nonetheless continues to discharge his duties. Opposition supporters had demanded Dzapshba's dismissal after he publicly warned his subordinates that they and their relatives risked losing their jobs in the event that they participated in the planned referendum on an early presidential vote.


Anticorruption Party Withdraws From Daghestani Parliamentary Elections

Ramazan Abdulatipov, the leader of Daghestan (file photo)

Liz Fuller

The Daghestan chapter of the opposition People Against Corruption Party (NPK) announced on July 21 that due to intense official pressure from the republican authorities, its prospective candidates have “regretfully” decided not to participate in the September elections for a new republican parliament. 

NPK had planned to field a total of 144 candidates on that ballot. Some are respected members of the republic’s Muslim clergy, while others are retired members of the security forces.

In a brief statement posted on Facebook, unnamed party representatives explained that candidates have been subjected to pervasive administrative pressure that extended to the use of force. They did not cite specific examples.

They affirmed that the agencies that exerted such pressure could not have acted without the explicit approval of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov.

They said individual candidates were psychologically prepared to withstand that pressure, but then concluded after consultations with the party’s leadership that it would be wrong to use the huge public support they claim to enjoy as a means of counterpressure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

They further note that Abdulatipov was appointed to his current post by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose “wise will” they undertake to abide by in the interest of avoiding conflict. 

Speaking at a press conference later on July 21, NPK press secretary Robert Kurbanov quoted statements by individual parliamentary candidates who said they or their relatives had been threatened with dismissal from their jobs or even with physical violence. One implicated republican Natural Resources and Ecology Minister Nabiyulla Karachayev, another police in the northwestern Khasavyurt district.

At the same time, Kurbanov clarified that the party will still field candidates from each of Daghestan’s three electoral districts in the September 18 Russian State Duma elections. 

Magomedhabib Tazhudinov, who heads NPK’s Daghestan branch, was not present at that press conference; Kurbanov was reportedly unable or unwilling to explain his absence. 

The following day, the opposition party Rodina (Fatherland) similarly alleged pressure on its candidates to withdraw from the republican parliamentary ballot.

Daghestan’s Central Election Commission immediately denied that such pressure has been exerted on NPK, Rodina, or any other party. It further said it has not yet received from NPK formal written notification of its candidates’ decision not to participate in the vote.

The withdrawal of NPK is a victory for Abdulatipov, who had criticized the party’s Daghestan chapter ever since its leaders announced in April their intention to participate in the elections. Abdulatipov’s objections were twofold.

First, he categorically rejected the need for a political party that focused primarily on corruption, given that he personally had launched a campaign against it immediately after his appointment in early 2013.

“No one has a greater interest in fighting corruption than the republic head,” he declared publicly. 

Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev (left), chairman of Daghestan's Spiritual Board of Muslims (file photo)Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev (left), chairman of Daghestan's Spiritual Board of Muslims (file photo)
Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev (left), chairman of Daghestan's Spiritual Board of Muslims (file photo)
Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev (left), chairman of Daghestan's Spiritual Board of Muslims (file photo)

Second, Abdulatipov argued vehemently that the clergy should not engage in politics. Daghestan’s mufti, Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev, was more equivocal, telling a journalist that clerics enjoy the same right as any other citizen of the Russian Federation to run for election. He added, however, that in the event they are elected, they must quit their clerical post in accordance with Russian law. 

Abdulatipov was particularly put out by the stated intention of Abdulayev’s first deputy, Magomedrasul Saaduyev, to run for election, and publicly warned him in mid-April against doing so. 

Saaduyev initially ignored that warning.

But in early July, Daghestan’s Muslim Spiritual Board formally announced Saaduyev’s withdrawal from the NPK list of candidates. Several days later, Saaduyev confirmed that report, explaining that Abdulayev (who observers say is anxious to maintain good working relations with Abdulatipov) disapproved of his intention to run for parliament. He quoted Abdulayev as having told him clearly that he could campaign more effectively against corruption and other negative phenomenon as a religious figure.

Saaduyev further claimed that although NPK had announced that he would head the party’s list of candidates, he had not definitively committed himself to doing so. One month earlier, however, NPK had posted on its Facebook page notification that Saaduyev had collected all the requisite documents to register as a candidate and was “upbeat and confident of victory.” 

The news of NPK’s withdrawal from the ballot was met with consternation and dismay among the party’s supporters, one of whom branded it “a shameful retreat from the field of battle. I did not expect that a force that has inspired and given hope to the whole of Daghestan to turn out to be so weak.”

Commentators anticipate that some of the “protest” electorate who would have cast their ballots for NPK to register their dissatisfaction with the republic’s leadership will now vote for Rodina, the Communist Party, or the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, while others will not vote at all. 

Azerbaijani President Unveils Proposed Constitutional Amendments

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has unveiled proposed amendments to the country's constitution that opposition politicians claim are intended to enhance and prolong his and his family's dominance of supreme power. 

Azerbaijan's Constitutional Court is to rule on those amendments within days, after which they will be put to a nationwide referendum (whether individually or as a package is not yet clear).

Specifically, the amendments prolong the presidential term from five to seven years and introduce the posts of first vice president and vice president. In the event that the president becomes incapable of discharging his duties, they devolve to the first vice president (not to the prime minister as at present). Only if the first vice president is similarly incapacitated does supreme power devolve to the prime minister. It is unclear whether those changes were deemed expedient in light of the fact that incumbent Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, who has occupied the post since 1998, is now 81.

The president is also empowered to schedule early presidential elections and to dissolve parliament if within one year it twice votes no confidence in the government or rejects his proposed nominees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, or the board of the Central Bank.

The minimum age for presidential candidates (currently 35) would be abolished and the age for election to parliament lowered from 25 to 18.

Other proposed changes preclude the "abuse" of certain rights, including: the right to free assembly, which would be contingent on "public order and morality" not being violated; and the right to ownership of land, which could be restricted in the interests of "social justice and effective land use." In addition, Azerbaijani citizenship could be withdrawn "in accordance with the law."

Opposition Concerns

Two senior veteran opposition politicians have already voiced their concerns about the impact of the planned changes. 

Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli described them as "an attempt to provide a constitutional foundation for the existing de facto unlimited family power [and] strengthen authoritarianism" with the aim of keeping the Aliyev clan in power for all eternity. He did not speculate whether the post of first deputy president may have been created specifically for Aliyev's wife, Mehriban, who is a deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). 

Musavat Party Chairman Arif Gacili similarly construed the proposed changes as intended to "broaden the extent of presidential power while simultaneously reducing the influence of the parliament and cabinet of ministers."

By contrast, Siyavush Novruzov, who is deputy executive secretary of YAP, was quoted as saying that the proposed amendments are justified. 

In particular, he made the point that extending the presidential term from five to seven years makes sense, as otherwise the country would face elections in three consecutive years (presidential in 2018, municipal in 2019, and parliamentary in 2020).

Economic Or Geopolitical?

Gudrat Gasanquliyev, one of a very few parliamentarians representing a party other than YAP, praised the planned changes as justified given the current geopolitical situation. He reasoned that, if talks with Armenia on a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh "are not successful," meaning if Armenia refuses unconditionally to relinquish control of seven districts of Azerbaijan that Armenian forces currently control, then "a bloody war awaits Azerbaijan." 

Referring to last week's abortive attempt to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gasanquliyev suggested augmenting the proposed amendments with a provision empowering the president in the event of a military coup to deploy the armed forces without first securing parliament's consent.

This is not the first time President Aliyev has initiated a referendum on constitutional amendments that benefited himself personally. In March 2009, the electorate was called upon to vote separately on 29 proposed changes, of which the most controversial abolished the restriction barring one person from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms.

Aliyev was first elected president following the death of his father in late 2003 and reelected for a second term in 2008. The 2009 referendum, in which 71 percent of the electorate participated, made possible his election for a third term in 2013, even though the Council of Europe's Venice Commission commented that "as a rule, it can be said that the abolition of existing limits preventing the unlimited reelection of a President is a step back, in terms of democratic achievements."

It is not clear whether or to what extent Aliyev's concern to tighten his hold on power is prompted by economic rather than geopolitical considerations. The Azerbaijani manat was devalued against the U.S. dollar in February 2015, and lost around one-third of its value against the dollar in December. Last week, President Aliyev established a special Council for Financial Stability headed by Rasizade whose composition largely duplicates that of cabinet members with responsibility for the economy. Analysts quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot were skeptical whether it will succeed in its task.

Two Human Rights Campaigners Seek State Duma Seat From North Caucasus

Human rights campaigners Svetlana Gannushkina (left) and journalist Maksim Shevchenko have announced that they will be seeking to represent the North Caucasus region in Russia's parliament.

Liz Fuller

Over the past week, two Russians who have long focused on political developments and human rights violations in the North Caucasus have announced their intentions of running in the September 18 elections to the Russian State Duma from that region.

The two are Svetlana Gannushkina, 74, who was reported to have been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and was a co-founder in 1990 of the NGO Civic Assistance, which she now heads; and journalist Maksim Shevchenko, 50, editor in chief of the website and a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights.

Both say they were motivated by profound concern at the deteriorating domestic political situation, which Gannushkina characterized as "not [merely] a crisis, but a collapse."

Although she admits that she has found her niche in human rights and is not cut out to be a politician, Gannushkina agreed to head the party list for Chechnya of the opposition Yabloko party. 

The activist told journalists on July 13 that, even though she is not afraid to travel to Chechnya (where human rights campaigners are routinely harassed by the local authorities and several, including Memorial staffer Natalya Estemirova, have been murdered), she will not engage in electioneering on Chechen territory so as not to expose to pressure or reprisals anyone who turns out to show support for Yabloko.

Moral Support

To judge by the officially promulgated results of the December 2011 State Duma election, Yabloko's chances of success in Chechnya are virtually nonexistent. On that occasion the ruling United Russia party garnered over 99 percent of the vote. 

This time around, very few Chechens are likely to have the courage to vote for any party other than United Russia, given that acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov tops the party's list of candidates. Gannushkina described her participation as more a gesture of moral support to the Chechen population than a serious bid for election.

Shevchenko, for his part, has availed himself of changes in Russia's election legislation to seek registration as an independent candidate in Daghestan's southern electoral district. Half the Duma's 450 members are elected on the basis of party lists and the other half in single-mandate constituencies.

Shevchenko is closely acquainted with, and has written extensively about, the situation in the North Caucasus in general and Daghestan in particular. In the fall of 2015, he appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to set up a special group, under the aegis of the Federal Security Service, to investigate the murders of several Daghestani journalists that Putin had tasked investigators with solving one year earlier.

Gimri 'Ghetto'

Shevchenko's stated rationale for seeking election is similar to Gannushkina's: He argued that social degradation in the North Caucasus and particularly in Daghestan has reached rock bottom and "things can't go on like this"; the only way to restore violated civic rights is through political engagement. At the same time, he described Daghestan as "potentially one of the most democratic regions of Russia" by virtue of its free press.

He said what finally persuaded him to advance his candidacy was his recent trip as a member of the presidential Council on Human Rights to Daghestan, where he found that "nothing had changed."

In the course of that visit, Shevchenko went to the mountain village of Gimri, formerly a stronghold of the now depleted North Caucasus insurgency.

Counterterrorism restrictions have repeatedly been imposed in Gimri, and the majority of the population, even children, has been entered on the notorious "prophylactic register" compiled by Daghestan's Interior Ministry of persons suspected of adhering to, or sympathizing with, the Salafi strain of Islam professed by the insurgency. (The legality of that register, which according to Daghestan Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov contains 20,000 names, is hotly disputed; anyone listed in it is subject to surveillance and arbitrary detention.)

Shevchenko described Gimri as "a ghetto," with homes subjected to artillery fire during earlier counterterror operations still in ruins and highways in a permanent state of disrepair. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, by contrast, implied in a recent interview that the residents have only themselves to blame for the chronic lack of public amenities, and that he repeatedly warned them that highway repairs and the construction of a kindergarten were contingent on ending insurgency attacks on law enforcement personnel. 

In February 2014, local elders duly signed a formal agreement with the republic's government pledging to form a volunteer militia to assist local police in locating and apprehending militants, and to seek to persuade young men from Gimri who are fighting among the insurgency ranks to return home and surrender. Abdulatipov implied, however, that Gimri's residents have not kept their side of the bargain.

Untsukul district, in which Gimri is located, falls within Daghestan's southern electoral district. United Russia's candidate in that constituency is businessman Abdulmadjid Magaramov. Disgraced former Deputy Premier Abusupyan Kharkharov, who is reportedly close to Daghestan's mufti Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev, has announced his intention of registering as an independent candidate from one of the republic's three electoral districts, but has not yet specified which one.

Abkhaz Referendum Fails, But Political Standoff Continues

A man votes at a polling station in Sukhumi during a referendum on a snap presidential election in Abkhazia on July 10.

Liz Fuller

Hopes for an end to the protracted standoff between pro-government and opposition forces in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia have proven premature.

The July 10 referendum in which voters were called upon to approve or reject the holding of an early election for the post of de facto president was declared invalid just hours after polling stations closed. According to the Central Election Commission (TsIK), just 1.23 percent of the region's 132,885 registered voters cast ballots. The minimum required turnout for the vote to be valid was 50 percent.

The catalyst for the referendum was the opposition's anger and frustration with de facto President Raul Khajimba, a former career KGB officer and leader of the Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia and of a loose alignment of then-opposition parties that succeeded two years ago in forcing the resignation of then-President Aleksandr Ankvab.

Khajimba was elected president in August 2014. The pro-Ankvab political forces now in opposition, in the first instance the Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto independence from Georgia and the broader Bloc of Opposition Forces of which Amtsakhara is a member, have repeatedly criticized Khajimba's failure to deliver on his campaign promises to form a coalition government, embark on dialogue with other political forces, launch sweeping systemic reform, and kick-start the stagnating economy.

Khajimba sought late last year to counter that criticism by establishing a so-called Coordinating Council that he said would promote dialogue and seek to overcome the polarization of society. He also, belatedly, launched judicial reform and the creation of a constitutional court. But the Bloc of Opposition Forces dismissed the Coordinating Council as a charade and continues to demand decisive action on revamping the economy, reducing unemployment, and cracking down on crime.


In March-April, an initiative group succeeded in amassing over 19,000 signatures in support of a referendum on holding an early presidential vote. (Khajimba's term in office is not due to end until 2019.) And on June 1, Khajimba, who had initially declared that "no referendums or other steps will change anything" he does, duly scheduled the referendum for July 10, and said he would indeed step down if a majority of voters called for an early election.

But according to his critics, he and other senior officials immediately set about what Leonid Lakerbaya, who had served as prime minister under Ankvab, termed "the dangerous game" of sabotaging the referendum preparations, touring the region to warn the population not to take part.

Writing in the Russian daily Izvestia on July 10, Russian commentator Vladimir Zharikhin suggested that the opposition never anticipated that Khajimba would agree to the referendum, and that he called their bluff by scheduling it as soon as possible, at the height of the tourist season, giving them scant time to prepare and campaign.

Whether or not the opposition miscalculated, Amtsakhara scheduled an emergency congress on July 5 at which participants adopted a resolution demanding that Khajimba postpone the referendum until the fall and dismiss Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba, who had threatened to fire any members of the police who cast ballots in the referendum or whose family members did so.

Khajimba suspended Dzapshba from office, but only after angry opposition supporters tried unsuccessfully to storm the Interior Ministry building in Sukhumi, the capital. But he refused point-blank to postpone the referendum, arguing that it would be illegal to do so. 

Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua announced on July 11 that the opposition now had the choice between reformulating the wording of the question and applying for permission to stage a new referendum, or waiting two years to pose the same question on the need for an early presidential election.
Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua announced on July 11 that the opposition now had the choice between reformulating the wording of the question and applying for permission to stage a new referendum, or waiting two years to pose the same question on the need for an early presidential election.

Amtsakhara responded by calling for a boycott of the vote. But it is by no means clear that that appeal was the sole, or even the primary reason for the low turnout. The news site Caucasus Knot quoted residents of small towns or villages who, in contrast to residents of the capital, were mostly either unaware the referendum was to take place, or had little or no understanding of what was to be decided, or had not been informed of where they should go to vote.

The failure of local authorities and the state broadcaster -- which was supposed to allocate two hours' coverage per week of the referendum -- to provide such basic information tends to corroborate the opposition's accusations of deliberate obfuscation by the authorities.

Neither Amtsakhara nor the Bloc of Opposition Forces has yet announced its plans for further action. TsIK Chairman Batal Tabagua announced on July 11 that the opposition now had the choice between reformulating the wording of the question and applying for permission to stage a new referendum, or waiting two years to pose the same question on the need for an early presidential election. (By that time Khajimba will have only one more year to serve.) Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia hinted to Caucasus Knot that the Bloc of Opposition Forces favors the first option.

Amtsakhara member Said Tarkil, Abkhazia's first de facto foreign minister (in 1992-93), noted that the traditional forum for reaching decisions is a public gathering ("skhod") of all adult Abkhaz citizens. He said that the opposition reserved the right to convene such a gathering if the authorities "continue their policy of confrontation." Doing so would, however, lay the opposition open to the charge that it was acting unconstitutionally, given that the breakaway republic's constitution does not define the skhod as a legitimate organ of state power or specify in what circumstances it may be convened.

A further imponderable is Khajimba's July 11 warning that those persons who organized the abortive assault on the Interior Ministry building will be arrested and brought to trial. Given that the assault followed the Amtsakhara congress and some at least of the perpetrators were Amtsakhara members or sympathizers, Khajimba could seek to neutralize the party by bringing its leaders to trial -- even though, according to Bloc of Opposition Forces co-Chairwoman Irina Agrba, Amtsakhara Chairman Kvitsinia did all he could to prevent the successive attacks on the ministry building.

The arrest of senior opposition figures could trigger violent protests of the sort that Khajimba has vowed to prevent -- which raises the question whether he might take that risk simply to discredit his opponents. If he does not, the current tensions, with each side accusing the other of "rejecting constructive dialogue," will only intensify in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in the spring of 2017.


Is Chechnya Facing Demographic Decline?

After years of having one of the highest birth rates in Russia, there has been a decline in the number of children being born in Chechnya in recent years. (file photo)

Liz Fuller

For the past 10-15 years, Chechnya has boasted one of the highest birth rates in Russia, and one of the lowest mortality rates, resulting in steady population growth (1.8 percent in 2015) considerably higher than that of the country as a whole. 

Consequently, according to official statistics, Chechnya’s population has grown from 1.205 million on January 1, 2008 (a figure some analysts consider implausible) to 1.269 million at the time of the October 2010 Russia-wide census and 1.391 million in November 2015. 

At least half that population is under 30 years of age.

At the same time, the number of children born in Chechnya rose from 25,800 in 2004 to a record 36,532 in 2009. Since then, however, the number of births has declined, to 34,770 in 2012 and 29,498 in 2015. And, during the first six months of 2016, the birth rate fell by a further 6.9 percent, the steepest decline of any region in Russia.

True, the infant mortality rate too has reportedly fallen, from 24.9 per 1,000 live births in 2012 to 15.4 in 2014 and 11.8 in 2015, but that decline does not balance out the decrease in the number of births. 

A number of factors may have contributed, separately or in combination, to the falling birth rate. 

Couples who started a family in the 2000s and thus contributed to the rising birth rate between 2004 and 2009 may by now have three or more children and have decided not to have any more -- whether for financial reasons or because they do not consider the current atmosphere in Chechnya, which critics of regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov say is permeated by fear and repression, conducive to bringing up a family. 

It may or may not be a coincidence that the birth rate peaked in 2009, two years after Kadyrov was first appointed president and granted carte blanche to remold Chechen society by imposing a blend of quasi-Islamic ideology and brute force. 

In addition, antipathy towards Kadyrov and his henchmen has impelled tens of thousands of Chechens to leave Russia in recent years. Human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina described in 2013 how entire streets would decide collectively to sell their homes, rent a bus, and head for the West. Only a very few formally notify the authorities of their intention to leave the country, hence a growing discrepancy between the officially registered number of inhabitants and the number of people who actually live in Chechnya. 

In 2013, the Chechen government formally denied German media reports that up to 10,000 Chechens had submitted asylum requests. 

Between January and mid-May 2016, coinciding with the recent steep fall in the birth rate, some 2,244 Chechens applied for political asylum in Germany alone, according to the German Interior Ministry.

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.