Friday, October 31, 2014

Azerbaijan Moderates Stance At Paris Karabakh Talks

French President Francois Hollande (center) stands with his counterparts, Azerbaijan's İlham Aliyev (left) and Armenia's Serzh Sarkisian before their talks in Paris on October 27.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, met in Paris on October 27 for a further round of talks under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group tasked with mediating a peaceful solution to the deadlocked conflict over the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Few observers seriously believed that the Paris talks would yield significant progress, let alone a breakthrough, in resolving the conflict. But by the same token, neither was it widely expected that Azerbaijan would soften its negotiating position, as it did with regard to confidence-building measures.

That shift in the Azerbaijani rhetoric was, moreover, just one of several reasons why the meeting between the two presidents -- their third within the past three months -- may herald a new phase in the ongoing international effort to mediate a political solution that would at least partially satisfy all three parties to the conflict.

The Paris talks took place at the initiative of French President Francois Hollande, and represented a further attempt by France and the United States, in response to the summit convened in Sochi in August by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to reassert the importance of the Minsk Group (which is jointly co-chaired by France, the United States, and Russia) as the sole diplomatic mechanism for mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Sochi meeting was the first between Aliyev and Sarkisian since November 2013, when the Minsk Group mediated talks in Vienna. Although no formal protocol was signed, the Sochi summit did result in the cessation of exchanges of fire along the Line of Contact separating the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces that had claimed at least 20 lives in the preceding weeks.

At the same time, President Putin as host took the opportunity to stress the "special and particularly close" rapport between himself and his interlocutors. All three were born and came to maturity in the final decades of the Soviet Union. Russian commentator Sergei Markedonov has made the point that Putin enjoys good personal relations with both Aliyev and Sarkisian.

Back To 'Basics'

In response to Putin's exercise in unilateral diplomacy outside the framework of the Minsk Group, a meeting was hurriedly organized on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales between Aliyev and Sarkisian, neither of whom had originally planned to attend. (Unlike neighboring Georgia, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan aspires to NATO membership.)

The Newport meeting between the two presidents was mediated personally by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a break with the traditional U.S. practice of not engaging senior officials at such a high level with no likelihood of tangible results.

In light of the failure of the conflict sides to iron out their differences with regard to the Madrid Principles for resolving the conflict that have been under discussion since 2007, the Paris talks reportedly focused instead on "basics." That concept comprises keeping the faltering peace process alive, and continuing efforts, including confidence-building measures, intended to prevent a new flare-up of fighting along the Line of Contact.

That latter objective is all the more pressing given that over the past three years, frustrated by international mediators' perceived unwillingness to strong-arm Yerevan into unconditionally withdrawing from seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces seized control of in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan has launched more frequent and more audacious efforts to infiltrate territory currently controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh's forces. That more assertive stance has fuelled apprehension among the international community that threat misperception and tactical miscalculation could result in a small local exchange of fire spiraling out of control and triggering a full-scale "war by accident."

The Minsk Group co-chairmen have repeatedly appealed to the conflict sides to reduce the risk of such a conflagration by withdrawing snipers from the front line, which Baku has consistently refused to do. In Paris, however, President Aliyev did agree as a confidence-building measure to "proceed with the exchange of data on missing persons in the conflict under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross."

Granted, such an exchange of data is unlikely to have a major impact on the ground. But it still represents a softening of the Azerbaijani position: speaking in Baku five months ago, Aliyev commented that  "we keep hearing from the mediating countries about confidence-building measures.... The best confidence-building measure is the withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from Azerbaijani lands. There can be no other confidence-building measure."

In contrast to the co-chairs' focus on confidence-building measures, Hollande told Aliyev and Sarkisian that the status quo was unacceptable, and appealed to them to demonstrate the political will necessary to prepare their respective populations for the signing of a peace agreement. In that context, Hollande suggested beginning work on drafting a framework treaty, even though points of difference reportedly remain with regard to the Basic, or Madrid Principles, the broad guidelines that have been under discussion since 2006.

That proposal is likely to find favor with Azerbaijan, whose Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov affirmed in March that Baku is ready to sign such a framework document. But drafting it would create problems for Armenia insofar as there is an unwritten understanding among Minsk Group members that representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh (who do not at present participate directly in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations) should be involved in that process. James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair, repeated in May that the unrecognized republic should be involved in the ongoing peace talks.

The Karabakh Armenians, however, take a far tougher stance than their counterparts in Yerevan with regard to some of the Madrid Principles, especially the proposed withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven occupied districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh. De facto Prime Minister Ara Harutiunian went so far as to dismiss the Madrid Principles as "unacceptable to us." He argued that "the liberated territories" that used to be populated by Azerbaijanis are vital for the region's security and economic development.

What Does Russia Want?

The primary and most immediate threat to either finalizing the Madrid Principles or drafting a full-fledged agreement is, however, uncertainty and suspicion over Russia's intentions in the South Caucasus in the wake of its annexation of Crimea. Not only does Moscow have little real incentive to push for a breakthrough in the peace process; its interests may be better served by either maintaining the current status quo or by exploiting an expansion of tension.

Furthermore, the current pressure Moscow is exerting on the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia to sign a new Treaty on Union Relations and Integration may herald a more assertive Russian policy toward its southern neighbors.

Granted, Russia currently has no leverage over Nagorno-Karabakh comparable to that it can bring to bear on Abkhazia or South Ossetia. But deliberately provoking a resumption of full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could provide such leverage, albeit at horrendous cost to the entire region.

Alternatively, Russia may either downgrade its participation in the Minsk Group mediation process to the level of collusion, rather than cooperation, or even, as veteran U.S. analyst Paul Goble has suggested, make a concerted effort to exclude France and the United States from that process in order to become the chief intermediary between Yerevan and Baku. That, Goble writes, would give Moscow the whip hand in determining outcomes, and simultaneously reinforce Putin's vision that Russia can and must be the dominant power in the post-Soviet space, and that other countries must not interfere there.

-- Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian


Former Georgian President Launches New Diatribe Against Current Leadership

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is not happy with the state of Georgia. (file photo)

Two years after the parliamentary election defeat of his United National Movement (ENM) by the Georgian Dream coalition headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has accused Ivanishvili, who stepped down as prime minister a year ago, of "abolishing the election system" in Georgia and seeking to "establish a provincial dictatorship."

Meanwhile, the ENM has scheduled a mass meeting on Tbilisi's main boulevard on November 15 to denounce the Georgian government's imputed failure to take any measures to prevent the annexation by Russia of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia that the ENM fears the draft Treaty on Union Relations and Integration currently under discussion presages. (One could argue in this context that, in the post-Soviet space, the semantic connotations of the term "integration" differ widely according to which side of the geopolitical barricades the speaker is on.)

Saakashvili's criticisms were expressed in a 50-minute interview he gave to the independent TV station Rustavi-2 on October 25. He further argued that the present leadership has made it impossible for any other political force to come to power by means of elections. For that reason, he continued, the ENM will seek to unite all Georgian patriots, and especially the younger generation, in the face of what he termed the "existential threat" facing the country.  Saakashvili predicted that such a show of unanimity would force the government to hold free and democratic elections which, he claimed, are needed now as "the house is already on fire." The next parliamentary elections are not due until 2016.

At the same time, Saakashvili stressed that any mass manifestation of dissatisfaction with the present leadership should be peaceful, implying that Russia might adduce the use of force as a pretext to intervene. That line of reasoning is apparently predicated on Saakashvili's obsessive conviction that Ivanishvili, who at one time had considerable business interests in Russia, is still the valued cat's paw of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Saakashvili's criticisms of the Georgian leadership were, as on previous occasions, couched in very general terms. In particular his sweeping assertion that Georgian Dream has destroyed the electoral system is open to question. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights assessed the October 2013 presidential election as "efficiently administered and transparent," taking place "in an amicable and constructive environment," with the campaign atmosphere "notably less polarized" than during the parliamentary ballot one year earlier.

It did not question the outcome of that ballot, in which Georgian Dream's candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili garnered 62 percent of the vote, defeating 22 rival candidates. The ENM's David Bakradze placed second with 22 percent.

The European Union similarly characterized the June 2014 municipal elections as "marked by improvements in electoral processes" and "a further step in the continued democratic development of Georgia," while at the same time registering concern about instances of "campaign-related intimidation and violence."

The ENM's argument that the government has done nothing to protect Georgia's (hypothetical) territorial integrity in the face of the perceived new Russian threat to incorporate Abkhazia is likewise less than convincing. On October 17, the Georgian parliament adopted a statement condemning the draft Russian-Abkhaz treaty as an "attempt to annex occupied Abkhazia." That statement, which ENM parliament deputies declined to endorse, predicted that, if signed, the treaty "will give rise to a new wave of violation of international legal norms, create an additional threat to regional stability, [and] significantly damage the process of normalization of Russian-Georgian relations."

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania told journalists after a meeting of the State Security and Crisis Management Council on October 25 that Georgian will take "very aggressive – meaning active" foreign policy measures in response. He did not elaborate.

Cautious Reaction

The leading ENM members who first announced the planned November 15 protest, executive secretary Zurab Djaparidze and ENM parliament faction leader Bakradze, did not specify what additional measures they think the present leadership could and should have taken in response. It also seems unlikely that prominent ENM politicians would emulate former State Council officials Tengiz Kitovani and Tengiz Sigua, who in January 1995 recruited a force of 700 men and set out from Tbilisi to win back Abkhazia by force of arms.

Taken as a whole, Saakashvili's interview and the ENM's stated plans to convene a mass protest only serve to reinforce the impression that, two years after ceding power, they not only refuse steadfastly to give any credit to the new leadership for its achievements, but continue to seize at the flimsiest pretext for vilifying its officials and policies.

Reactions to the ENM's planned protest demonstration have been cautious, suggesting that some representatives of other political parties share that negative perception. The leaders of two extra-parliamentary opposition parties, Bachuki Kardava (National Democratic Party) and Mamuka Katsitadze (New Leftists) both told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that they believe the protest should reflect mass popular opinion rather than serve, as Katsitadze put it, as a means to try and improve the rating of one party.

A poll conducted in late July-early August on behalf of the National Democratic Institute found that just 11 percent of respondents viewed the ENM as the party closest to them.

The big unanswered question is whether Saakashvili plans to return to Georgia to participate in the November 15 demonstration. (He has left the United States where he lived for much of this year; he was in Brussels when he gave the interview to Rustavi-2 on October 25.) If he does return, he risks arrest on any one of three sets of criminal charges, but he might conceivably decide to run that risk on the assumption that the international community would unequivocally condemn his detention as politically motivated, which in turn would embarrass and reflect badly on Georgian Dream.

Alternatively, given that his arrival would create an unwanted complication for the Georgian authorities at a point where they desperately need international support against Moscow's most recent gambit in Abkhazia, Saakashvili may have calculated that he can return unimpeded in triumph, and the authorities will not lift a finger against him. Whether he could then mobilize popular support to force concessions from the present leadership, or even stage a repeat of the Rose Revolution of November 2003, is an entirely different question.

-- Liz Fuller



De Facto Abkhaz Leader Risks Being Hoist With His Own Petard

Raul Khajimba is in an unenviable situation, constrained to walk a fine line between delivering on whatever deal he may have cut with Moscow and not alienating his supporters at home.

Just one month after his inauguration as de facto president of the breakaway Georgia region of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba is facing a storm of protest against the new draft treaty on union relations and integration that Moscow submitted two weeks ago for discussion to the Abkhaz parliament. 

The Coordinating Council of opposition parties that Khajimba headed had called for the signing of such a treaty in late May, at a point when the outcome of its efforts to oust then-President Aleksandr Ankvab was still unclear.

The draft treaty could also jeopardize the efforts of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition that came to power two years ago to build more cordial and cooperative relations with the Russian Federation. On October 17, the Georgian parliament denounced the draft as a blatant attempt by Russia to annex Abkhazia, which effectively won its de facto independence from Georgia in a war in 1992-93. The Russian Foreign Ministry in turn rejected the Georgian parliament statement as "unfounded and dangerous speculation."

For the past six years, since the Russian Federation formally recognized Abkhazia (and the Republic of South Ossetia) as independent states in the wake of the August 2008 Georgian-Russian War, relations between Russia and Abkhazia have been based on a framework treaty on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance, augmented by dozens of more specific interagency agreements. Many Abkhaz question the need to adopt a further treaty on closer integration that they fear would undermine their hard-won (if widely unrecognized) independent status and curtail the powers of the army, which many Abkhaz regard as one of the pillars of national identity.

The Abkhaz objections focus primarily on those articles of the new draft treaty that propose the creation of a joint group of forces, to be headed in the event of war by a Russian, and of a center that would coordinate the work of the two polities' interior ministries to counter crime and terrorism on Abkhaz territory; closer cooperation between their border-protection agencies, which has been widely construed as effectively abolishing border controls between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation and thus making the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia Abkhazia's sole external border; and bringing Abkhaz customs regulations into line with those of the Eurasian Economic Union that currently comprises Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia (presumably as a first step toward accepting Abkhazia as a member of that union).


Abkhaz commentator Aslan Basaria argued that those provisions directly contradict the preamble of the draft treaty, which affirms the need "to preserve the state sovereignty of the Republic of Abkhazia." Basaria predicted that if the draft is signed in its current form, "all that will remain of our country's independence will be the name 'Republic of Abkhazia.'"

Most of the Abkhaz parliament's 35 deputies similarly believe that many articles of the draft treaty could lead to "the loss of sovereignty," Abkhaz parliament speaker Valery Bganba told RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza on October 14. Bganba characterized the general perception among lawmakers as "close to negative, to be honest."

The political party Amtsakhara that supports former President Ankvab adopted a progressively more categorical stance. In an initial statement on October 14, its leaders noted their disagreement with many (unspecified) articles of the draft and advocated a broad public discussion, questioning at the same time the viability of the October 27 deadline for presenting objections and alternative formulations.

The party then quoted speakers at a general discussion on October 16 at which representatives of other political parties were also present as saying that "the new draft treaty cannot be regarded as a basis that can be changed and amended," but should be rejected out of hand. Instead, the party's governing council advocated that the September 2008 treaty should serve as the basis for a new treaty.

Four days later, on October 20, Amtsakhara addressed a more detailed refutation of the treaty to Khajimba personally. It dismissed outright his stated rationale that the new geopolitical situation, in particular Georgia's closer cooperation with NATO and the Association Agreement it signed in June with the European Union, necessitates the immediate conclusion of a new treaty with Russia, pointing out that the various provisions of new draft treaty will take effect only one year after it is signed, and in some cases only after three years.

Apparently in response to that pressure, Khajimba made a televised address to the nation on October 22 admitting that he too disagrees with some articles of the draft treaty and denying that Russia has presented Abkhazia with "an ultimatum." At the same time, he argued that "creating a common outline of defense, strengthening the border with Georgia, creating conditions for the free movement of people and goods across the Russian-Abkhaz border, facilitating customs procedures -- all this is in our interests."

Khajimba further stressed that Russia is the only strategic ally Abkhazia has, and that no one has the right to make "groundless accusations" or "try to discredit the idea of intensifying bilateral cooperation."

Amtsakhara responded the following day to that implicit criticism with a statement reaffirming its commitment to "eternal friendship" with Russia.

As noted above, it is conceivable that the signing of a new treaty redefining Abkhazia's relations with Russia was a key component of an agreement concluded in late May between the Coordinating Council headed by Khajimba, and senior Russian politicians Vladislav Surkov and Rashid Nurgaliyev, who had been sent to the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, to resolve the crisis triggered by the Coordinating Council's concerted efforts to force Ankvab's resignation. 

The Coordinating Council had pressured Ankvab for months to accede to a list of key demands that included the dismissal of then-Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya and several other senior officials and the creation of a new government of national unity. A revision or renewal of the September 2008 framework treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance did not figure among those demands, however.

On May 29, two days after Ankvab had fled the presidential palace and reportedly taken refuge at the Russian military base at Gudauta, and hours after talks between the Coordinating Council and Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's point-man for Abkhazia, the Coordinating Council released a statement arguing that the only way for Abkhazia to preserve its independence and be able to defend itself was by acceding to the Russian-led process of integration of the former Soviet republics. Specifically, the statement advocated concluding a new treaty on closer integration and the creation of a common defense and security space, and affirmed an "interest" in joining the Moscow-led customs union, the predecessor of the Eurasian Economic Union.

In the event, the two emissaries from Moscow did nothing to help Ankvab retain power. At least one Abkhaz commentator has construed the new draft treaty as "Moscow calling in its debts."

It is not clear whether the original October 27 deadline for fine-tuning the text of the draft treaty has been quietly ditched in order to give Khajimba more time for maneuver. Even if it has, he is in an unenviable situation, constrained to walk a fine line between delivering on whatever deal he may have cut with Moscow in May and not alienating his supporters at home. It should be remembered that Khajimba defeated his closest challenger in the early presidential ballot necessitated by Ankvab's forced resignation by a margin of just 559 votes.

-- Liz Fuller


Is The Clock Ticking For Azerbaijan's Leadership?

Police officers detain a man at a protest in Baku in January 2013.

One year after the presidential ballot in which incumbent Ilham Aliyev was reelected for a third term, Azerbaijan's opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NSDS) convened a mass meeting in Baku on October 12 to protest the unprecedentedly harsh crackdown launched by the authorities in the wake of that vote.

Human Rights Watch calculates that since Azerbaijan assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe on May 1, the government has "dramatically escalated its attack on activists, with [the] authorities arresting at least 11 people"  and jailing at least nine others on politically motivated charges following "flawed trials."

That wave of arrests has elicited criticism not just from human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch, but also from the European parliament and U.S. President Barack Obama. Former U.S. Ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich called earlier this month for the U.S. to impose sanctions in the form of a law modelled on the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act.

Attendance at the October 12 protest, which was held at a stadium on the outskirts of Baku, was 2,500 – 3,000, according to the independent website Caucasus Knot. Baku police gave a far lower estimate of 900.  The number would doubtless have been higher if the rally had taken place closer to the city center, but legislation on freedom of assembly adopted in 2008 empowered the municipal authorities to allow such rallies only in a very few selected venues.

The demographic was varied: Pictures posted on the website show not only men in their 20s-40s, but a group of elderly men and a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman with a black head-covering, all holding pictures of political detainees/prisoners.

Addressing the gathered crowd, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli construed the ongoing wave of arrests as evidence of the leadership's inability to engage in honest political competition. He argued that the authorities' efforts to isolate Azerbaijan from the outside world in response to increasing international criticism of human rights violations is fraught with risk. Kerimli further predicted that "the Azerbaijani people are changing, they will no longer put up with repression but will say 'no' to arbitrary [reprisals], injustice and despotism."

Kerimli is now the de facto leader of the opposition following the resignation of Isa Gambar last month after 22 years as Musavat Party chairman. Gambar nonetheless plans to participate in the presidential ballot due in 2018.

Referring to the recent arrests, Camil Hasanli, the defeated NSDS candidate in last year's presidential ballot, characterized the victims as "Azerbaijan's most worthy sons and daughters," who have been  thrown into prison and subjected to "medieval tortures" for their political convictions, their civic position, or their religious beliefs."

The meeting, for which the municipal authorities had granted permission, ended with the adoption of a resolution enumerating the opposition's primary demands: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners; a guarantee of fundamental freedoms; reform of the electoral system, including a return to the mixed majoritarian-proportional system and changes to the composition of electoral commissions at all levels to ensure adequate opposition representation; and a firm commitment by the authorities that they indeed plan to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.

Some individual participants called for President Aliyev to resign.

It is impossible to say with any certainty whether the authorities' decision to grant permission for the demonstration was taken in response to international criticism, or whether it reflects a firmly held assumption that after years of harassment, the opposition is now a spent force -- or both. Several days afterwards, President Aliyev signed an amnesty for 84 prisoners, including four persons considered political prisoners. The same day, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted amendments to the law on NGOs tightening the conditions under which they may receive foreign grants.

That pattern of reprisals alternating with occasional tactical concessions dates back to the era of President Aliyev's father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan faces a more tangible and immediate threat in the form of falling oil prices. The price of Brent crude, the global benchmark, has fallen by 16 percent since June. The reason, according to Stratfor, is a combination of over-production by Libya, the U.S., and Iraq, and sluggish demand.  Last week the price dipped below $83 for the first time in four years, before stabilizing.  As of October 22, it was $86.58. 

In 2013, crude oil accounted for 84.44 percent of Azerbaijan's total exports. But addressing the cabinet on October 8, when the oil price was still above $90, President Aliyev downplayed the significance of the decline. 

The online-daily quoted Center for Economic and Social Development Chairman Vugar Bayramov as explaining that the Azerbaijani government is currently considering three possible scenarios. The first, optimistic one is that the oil price remains above $80 per barrel, in which case the country's economy will continue to grow at the current rate. GDP grew by 5.8 percent in 2013, and projected growth for 2014 is 5.0 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

The second is based on a price between $60 and $80 per barrel, in which case the economy will stabilize, while the third, under which the oil price falls below $60 per barrel, would necessitate cutbacks in budget spending given that 75 percent of budget revenues are generated by the oil and gas sector.  

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is having to pay more to service its external debt, which grew by almost 50 percent in 2011-2012, and as of May 2014 amounted to $12 billion. 

If the price of oil falls below $80 per barrel, the ensuing decline in budget revenues could constrain the Azerbaijani authorities to cut social spending. (It is unlikely that the military budget will be affected: defense spending was predicted at over $3.7 billion in 2014 and is to grow by 3.1 percent in 2015, when it will account for 17.9 percent of all budget expenditure.)  Implementing drastic cuts in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2015 could, however, spark spontaneous popular unrest on the lines of the violent protests in Quba in March 2012 and Ismailly in January 2013.

On the other hand, even in the event of a protracted period of low oil prices, the period of comparative financial vulnerability will last only until natural gas from the second phase of development of the Shah Deniz deposit begins to flow to Turkey in late 2018, and to Europe via the TANAP pipeline one year later.

-- Liz Fuller

Reported Killing Of Organizer Of Grozny Suicide Bombing Lacks Credibility

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov addresses the audience at a concert marking the Day of Grozny, following a suicide bombing on October 5. Kadyrov has since yet to comment on the case.

The Chechen Interior Ministry announced on October 18 the killing in Grozny of Aslan Aliskhanov, 33, who was identified as the "organizer" of a suicide bombing perpetrated 13 days earlier by a young Chechen man identified as Apti Mudarov. But the details divulged, first by the Chechen police and the following day by representatives of the federal Investigative Committee, of how he was killed are not entirely convincing.

According to the Chechen Interior Ministry, Aliskhanov was shot while resisting arrest. He was armed with a gun and was wearing a suicide belt packed with explosives. Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin for his part said that joint measures by the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service had established that Aliskhanov had planned to perpetrate on October 4 a suicide bombing similar to that carried out by Mudarov.

Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin explained that Aliskhanov had asked friends in Grozny at whose home he was staying to summon the police, with the intention of blowing up himself together with the police when they arrived. Aliskhanov's friends refused, however, whereupon, according to Bastrykin, Aliskhanov detonated an explosive device that damaged their home.

Bastrykin did not divulge any details of the relationship or cooperation between Aliskhanov and Mudarov. Neither have Chechen police explained why they are convinced beyond all shadow of doubt that it was Aliskhanov who induced Mudarov to undertake the suicide bombing.

Bastrykin's account is questionable for at least two reasons. First, if Aliskhanov had in his possession a suicide belt stuffed with explosives, the weapon of choice of insurgency suicide bombers, why did Mudarov use a homemade bomb based on a mortar shell?

And second, why did Aliskhanov remain in Grozny after the October 5 suicide bombing and thereby risk discovery and arrest, especially given that Chechen law enforcement officers had announced on October 16 that they had identified him as Mudarov's accomplice and launched a large-scale search for him, posting photographs of him publicly in the district of Grozny where he was subsequently spotted and killed?

Two other aspects of the search for, and killing of, Aliskhanov are puzzling. First, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who routinely seizes on the killing of any young man implicated in contacts with the Islamic insurgency in order to play up his and his minions' zeal in countering it, has failed to comment on it.

And second, neither the Chechen authorities nor the federal Investigative Committee have made any mention of the putative connection between the October 5 bombing and the Syria-based Islamist group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Jamwa), many of whose members are reportedly from Chechnya or elsewhere in the North Caucasus. "The Moscow Times" reportedly claimed, in an article that is no longer accessible, that a comment on the bombing was posted on an account on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte.

The website Caucasus Knot in turn reported that Jamwa had actually taken responsibility for the Grozny bombing in a post to a VKontakte account. At the same time, it quoted two Russian experts, Aleksei Malashenko and Akhmet Yarlykapov, as casting doubts on the authenticity of that claim, while blogger Joanna Paraszczuk affirmed categorically that Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar did not claim responsibility on Vkontakte for the Grozny bombing. (Again, the question arises: If Jamwa was responsible, why was Mudarov not provided with a more sophisticated bomb?)

Meanwhile, the Chechen police are hunting for a third man, named as Magomed Zaurbekov, who reportedly had ties to Aliskhanov. There has been no further word on the fate of Mudarov's mother, uncle, and sister, who have been taken into custody.

-- Liz Fuller

New Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Head Extends Olive Branch To Balkar Minority

One analyst said Yury Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic head.

As widely anticipated, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) parliament elected last month has unanimously elected as republic head Yury Kokov, 59, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named acting republic head in December 2013 after Arsen Kanokov stepped down halfway through his second term.

Kokov's initial moves as acting republic head earned him widespread respect. In early April, Strategia Institute head Aslan Beshto opined that so far, Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic head. But the parliament amended the KBR Constitution to abolish such direct elections.

As required by the constitution, the government resigned immediately after Kokov's election on October 9, whereupon he signaled his desire for improved relations with the republic's largely embittered and alienated Balkar community by proposing one of their number to head the new republican government. The parliament duly approved as prime minister Aly Musukov, 45, who has served since 2004 as economic development minister.

Until now, it has been accepted practice that the post of republican leader is reserved for a Kabardian, with a Russian serving as prime minister and a Balkar as parliament speaker. Those three nationalities account for 57.2 percent, 22.5 percent, and 12.7 percent, respectively, of the republic's total population of 859,000.

That unwritten law exemplified what the Balkars, who on paper enjoy equal rights with the Kabardians as one of the republics two titular nationalities, consider a long-standing policy of deliberate discrimination against them. The Balkars and their ethnic cousins the Karachais, but not the Kabardians, were deported en masse by Soviet leader Josef Stalin to Central Asia in March 1944 and November 1943, respectively, on suspicion of collaboration with the advancing Nazi German forces. They were exonerated and permitted to return to the Caucasus only in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1956 denouncing Stalin's crimes. They received only minimal, if any, compensation for the destruction of their homes and the suffering they underwent in exile.

Successive campaigns by the Balkars in the 1990s for the creation of a separate Balkar republic within the Russian Federation were ruthlessly suppressed. More recently, legislation on land ownership paved the way for the acquisition by Kabardian businessmen of thousands of hectares of grazing land traditionally used by rural Balkar communities to pasture the sheep on which many Balkars depend for a livelihood.

In recent years, a disproportionately large number of the members of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing of the North Caucasus insurgency have been Balkars, as have at least two of its commanders (Asker Dzhappuyev and Alim Zankishiyev). 

For years after his appointment in 2005, Kanokov ignored the Balkars' grievances. When he finally met with a group of them in late 2008, he was anything but sympathetic: a Balkar present at that meeting subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service "he didn't understand us, and he doesn't want to understand." 

Immediately after the September election, Kokov proposed as parliament speaker, and deputies duly elected to that post, a Russian woman, Tatyana Yegorova. Yegorova, 58, a former teacher of Russian, is married to Aleksandr Khashkhozhev, a Kabardian who has for years headed the republican presidential administration.

The choice of a Russian as parliament speaker led some observers to predict that the previous speaker, Anuar Chechenov (a Balkar), was in line for the post of prime minister. Along with Kokov and KBR Deputy Prime Minister Irina Maryash, Chechenov was one of the three candidates for the post of KBR head whom the Kremlin-backed United Russia party proposed to President Putin in August. But when Putin submitted his shortlist of three candidates to the KBR parliament, he substituted Musukov, a qualified bookkeeper with degrees in law and mathematics, for Chechenov. The Russian daily "Kommersant" quoted unidentified experts as characterizing Musukov as a consummate professional.

Chechenov, who was reelected to parliament, surrendered his mandate after Mukusov was named prime minister. He has since been elected a member of the KBR Public Chamber, which is headed by another Balkar, Zhamal Attayev, the former editor of the Balkar newspaper "Zaman."

Whether the appointment of a Balkar prime minister is simply a courtesy gesture, or indeed heralds a more sympathetic approach to their grievances on the part of the republic's leadership, is difficult to predict. Balkar activist Munir Malkonduyev commented in April that "not a single Balkar parliament deputy has ever stood up to defend the rights of his people, has not said that we have problems with land, which is the reason why people are leaving [rural mountain areas.]"

Kokov has also sought to appease militant Circassian nationalists (who protested the celebration in 2007 of the 450th anniversary of Circassia's "voluntary incorporation" into the Russian Empire and have since called for redrawing the map of the North Caucasus to create a pan-Circassian republic) by instituting an annual Days of the Adygs (Circassians) holiday on September 20. Kokov stressed, however, that "this is a day of unity not just of the Circassian people, but of all the peoples of the [Kabardino-Balkaria] republic."

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Kabardino-Balkaria, balkars

Russian Defense Ministry Plans Network Of Reservist Armies

Russian Army conscripts put on their uniform at the military registration and enlistment office in St. Petersburg in April.

Russia's Defense Ministry is currently drafting amendments to the federal Law On Defense that would allow for the creation of several reservist armies, according to Frants Klintsevich, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma's Defense Committee.

Klintsevich explained that those forces would consist of men who have performed their compulsory military service or enlisted as contract servicemen. They would report for training on a monthly basis while continuing to work at their civilian jobs. He did not cite any figure either for the number of such armies or of their optimum strength.

Retired Colonel Viktor Litovkin predicted that this innovation would enhance the combat readiness of the Russian armed forces as a whole and ensure that in the event of unanticipated hostilities, conscripts would not be used as "cannon fodder" (as was the case during the initial advance on Grozny during the 1994-96 Chechen war).

But a second military observer, Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies Director Roman Pukhov, warned that in the long term, the creation of a network of regional armies not directly subordinate to the federal Defense Ministry could create more problems than it solved. He recalled that the Bolshevik victory in 1917 was largely thanks to the extensive network of such reservist battalions.

It is not clear whether the new proposal is in any way linked to the recent fighting in eastern Ukraine, in which Russian officials deny any military participation, or whether the planned new forces are being created in anticipation of an attack on Russian territory from beyond its borders, or to suppress large-scale domestic unrest. (The latter was the most plausible explanation for the decision in the fall of 2011 to train thousands more snipers). 

Nor is it yet clear in which Russian regions these planned new forces would be based. The one regional leader who is most likely to embrace this idea wholeheartedly is Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. But the stipulation that only men who have performed their military service will be eligible to serve in the reservist armies automatically disqualifies most Chechen men in their 20s and 30s, given that since the early 2000s no young men from Chechnya, and only a few from other North Caucasus republics, have been drafted.

That ban has now been lifted: as of this year's fall draft, 500 Chechens will be inducted, with priority going to university graduates. The figure will rise to 1,000 in 2015. The planned total number of draftees from the North Caucasus Federal District this fall is 4,100, of whom 2,000 will come from Daghestan, 600 from Kabardino-Balkaria, and 500 from Ingushetia.

-- Liz Fuller

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.