Friday, November 27, 2015

Azerbaijani Theologian Said To Have Been Plotting Coup

Azerbaijani authorities say Taleh Bagirzade and his Movement for Muslim Unity intended to overthrow the constitutional order and establish "a religious state under Shari'a law."

Liz Fuller

At least four local Shi'ite Muslims and two police officers died on November 26 in violent clashes in the settlement of Nardaran, 25 kilometers northeast of Baku. 

Fourteen people, including the charismatic young theologian Taleh Bagirzade and three other members of the Movement for Muslim Unity he founded in January, were taken into custody.

In a subsequent joint statement, Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office said Bagirzade, together with Elmar Agayev, Zulfuqar Mikayilov, and Abulfaz Bunyatov, created the Movement for Muslim Unity with the aim of overthrowing the constitutional order and establishing "a religious state under Shari'a law." 

They are said to have recruited supporters in Baku and other parts of the country and provided them with various types of weaponry, and to have conducted "illegal meetings" in Nardaran to discuss mobilizing the population in a violent uprising against the authorities.

According to the statement, the detentions were undertaken to neutralize "an armed criminal group that acted under the cover of religion and was seeking to destabilize the social-political situation and organize mass unrest and acts of terrorism."

Those allegations should be treated with caution. Granted, Nardaran has been a hotbed of Shi'ite Islam since at least the early 2000s, and its 8,000 residents have clashed with police on numerous previous occasions. In 2007, an RFE/RL correspondent noted militant pro-Islamic graffiti there, including quotations from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and such slogans as "Muslims must become the soldiers of Islam and they should defend Islam," "The world is waiting for justice. Justice is waiting for the Mehdi;" and "Red death is better than black life. Allahu Akbar!"

The local population might therefore have been receptive to proposals to overthrow a regime they, and many other impoverished secular Azerbaijanis, consider corrupt and indifferent to the needs of the population at large. But Gaci-Aga Nuriyev, one of the village elders, said categorically on November 27 that "the residents of Nardaran have never risen against the state and never will." 

There is, moreover, little hard evidence, that Bagirzade's Movement for Muslim Unity, which was not registered as a religious organization with the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Azerbaijan, had any such subversive intent. At the time of its founding, its deputy chairman, theologian Elcin Qasymov, said its motto was "Islam and the unity of the Umma in national ideology." Bunyatov for his part said it would engage in unspecified "political and social projects."

But Seyavush Geydarov, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, nonetheless claimed that the movement "acts according to orders from specific forces," which he declined to identify, and seeks to "exploit" people's religious feelings for political ends.

Geydarov characterized Bagirzade, who studied theology abroad, as "seeking to import into Azerbaijan the national and spiritual values" of a foreign state, presumably meaning Iran.

Certainly Bagirzade's reputation as a preacher is based at least in part on his criticisms of the ruling regime: he has gone so far as to denounce President Ilham Aliyev as a despot. But he has not advocated the introduction in Azerbaijan of Shari'a law.

Bagirzade was arrested in May 2011 for participating in a protest against the government ban on high-school students wearing the hijab, and subsequently sentenced to 18 months in jail for "hooliganism" and "resisting the police." Azerbaijani human rights activists promptly designated him a prisoner of conscience.

In March 2013, he was again arrested just days after declaring in a sermon that "a believer should not be afraid to raise his voice in protest against oppressors." He was sentenced in November of that year to two years in prison for alleged possession of drugs. 

Echoing Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once characterized the U.S.S.R. as "one big prison," Bagirzade told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on his release in July 2015 that he had merely exchanged a small prison for a large one. Affirming that "our struggle continues," he expressed the hope that jailed human rights activists, including Leyla Yunus, would be released, together with activists imprisoned for protesting the hijab ban. 

He also said his time in prison had only served to strengthen his beliefs

Bagirzade was summoned by police for questioning in late September, and detained and beaten several weeks later.

Whether Bagirzade's release from jail in July will come to be seen as a turning point in Azerbaijan's history, as Eldar Mamedov, an adviser to the Social Democratic faction of the European Parliament, has suggested, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, details of the standoff in Nardaran on November 26 remain unclear. The news portal Caucasus Knot quoted an unnamed Nardaran resident as saying the police opened fire against villagers seeking to prevent Bagirzade's arrest. Bunyatov's wife similarly said police broke down the door of their home, where Bagirzade was a guest, and opened fire.

By contrast, the Interior Ministry/Prosecutor's statement claims residents opened fire on police and hurled Molotov cocktails.

As of late morning on November 27, the situation was said to be stabilizing, although the settlement of Nardaran was still surrounded by police, and residents had not yet started dismantling the barricades they had erected the night before. 

Who Is Rocking The Boat In Karachayevo-Cherkessia And Why?

Rashid Temrezov, head of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, faces a campaign led by his predecessor to undermine him.

Liz Fuller

This blog has noted before that, in some respects, the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) can claim to be the poster child for the North Caucasus republics.

But the stability it has enjoyed for the past few years is currently endangered by a campaign to undermine republic head Rashid Temrezov, 39, whose term in office expires in early 2016. Temrezov was appointed to that post in March 2011 after incumbent Boris Ebzeyev resigned prematurely after just 2 1/2 years in office, complaining that his initiatives were consistently blocked by powerful unnamed rivals.

The division of top political posts among the KChR leadership is regulated by an unwritten rule based on the size of the republic's various ethnic groups, of which the Karachais are the largest, accounting for approximately 41 percent of the total 460,000 population, followed by Russians and Circassians. Accordingly, the republic head (formerly the president) is a Karachai, while the Circassians -- as the second titular nationality -- supply the prime minister, and the post of parliament speaker is reserved for a Russian.

The current campaign to undermine Temrezov is believed to have been launched by Ebzeyev's predecessor, Mustafa Batdyyev, who served as republican president from 1999-2009, and Batdyyev's son-in-law Aliy Kaitov, an influential and wealthy businessman who was released from jail a year ago after serving eight years for the murder in 2004 of seven business rivals.

Although Batdyyev had helped and encouraged Temrezov during the early stages of his career, and Temrezov had been a close friend of Kaitov, Temrezov has since moved to sideline relatives of both men. Batdyyev himself was constrained to step down early this year from the post of head of the KChR branch of the federal Pension Fund. 

Mustafa BatdyyevMustafa Batdyyev
Mustafa Batdyyev
Mustafa Batdyyev

Batdyyev is similarly perceived as having been behind public criticism of Temrezov expressed earlier this year by representatives of the Circassian minority. At a congress in June, prominent Circassians accused the republic's leadership of ignoring the needs of the Circassian community, unwillingness to embark on a dialogue with its representatives, and harassing Circassian businessmen. Several prominent Circassian entrepreneurs had aligned in April in a new organization, Delovaya Cherkessia, with the aim of extending mutual help and support and creating new jobs.

Among those attending the June congress were two of the region's most prominent Circassian politicians/business figures, Stanislav Derev and Rauf Arashukov. In April, the two had publicly announced their reconciliation following a feud that lasted several years

It may have been to counter the combined influence within the Circassian community of Derev and Arashukov that, in early September, Temrezov named as prime minister Ruslan Kazanokov, whom Azamat Tlisov of the federal Public Chamber characterizes as both influential and a capable economic manager. 

The anti-Temrezov faction is believed to be responsible for a slew of recent publications criticizing Temrezov's track record and highlighting dubious episodes from his past. Rosbalt, for example, recently quoted unnamed "experts" as claiming no fewer than six criminal cases have been brought against him, all of which were subsequently shelved, and that he has managed to alienate most of the republic's most influential political figures, including his erstwhile patron, Batdyyev. 

On November 13, several Karachai public organizations, including the Union of Karachai Youth, convened a so-called Congress of the Karachai People at which speakers criticized high-level corruption and the domination of local politics by politicians related to or closely aligned with Temrezov. 


They further complained about the lack of investment in agriculture in a predominantly rural region, the resulting high unemployment, and the lack of basic amenities in many Karachai-populated villages, failings they say contribute to the emigration of some 500 Karachais from their home republic every year.

Attendance at the congress was just 200 people, although its organizer, Union of Karachai Youth Chairman Vladimir Bidzhiyev, said he had invited all towns and villages to send five or six delegates and hoped that 300 would show up. 

Bidzhiyev also sent invitations to several senior officials, including the republic's prime minister (a Circassian) and Interior Minister Kazimir Botashev (a Karachai), but none of them deigned to attend.

In fact, the authorities did everything they could to prevent the congress from taking place, denying access at the last minute to the original venue, and organizing a countermeasure the same day, attended by some 700 people, at which representatives of two "official" Karachai organizations lauded Temrezov and denounced Bidzhiyev's "congress" as lacking legitimacy and not empowered to speak on behalf of the Karachai people.

Speakers at the "public assembly" to demonstrate support for Temrezov admitted that the grievances enumerated by his critics were not unfounded. At the same time, they denounced the "congress" as orchestrated by "a group of people who seek to disorient the younger generation" in order to further their own personal goals.

Interestingly, coverage of the contretemps in the KChR state media did not mention one of the key demands that the organizers of the "Congress of the Karachai People" planned to raise, namely reverting to direct elections for the post of republic head. Granted, the possibility of that happening is so low as to be virtually nonexistent. But in the unlikely event of a direct ballot, it is not clear whom the anti-Temrezov faction would field as its candidate: in all the media discussion of the bid to prevent Temrezov serving a second term, no rival Karachai politician has been clearly identified as a possible alternative.

Until two years ago, popular former Karachayevsk Mayor Soltan Semyonov was regarded as heading the domestic opposition to Temrezov, but he was forced to step down and eventually made his peace with Temrezov. A second possible candidate is Semyonov's former deputy, Eduard Marshankulov, but his political affiliation with the Communists of Russia Party could deter Batdyyev from openly backing him.

Some observers have even suggested that Arashukov, although a Circassian, might harbor ambitions to head the republic, especially in light of his close ties with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, but Arashukov himself has repeatedly denied this

Arashukov may, however, be well-placed to succeed Kazanokov as prime minister should Moscow ultimately decide against allowing Temrezov to serve a second term.

Suspects In Arson Attack On Chechen Sufi Mausoleum Publicly Vilified

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Liz Fuller

Four young men from the Chechen village of Kurchaloi suspected of an arson attack on the mausoleum of a Sufi saint are being subjected to organized vilification by local residents at the behest of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov -- and with his active encouragement. 

The men are said to have confessed to pouring gasoline over the tomb in Kurchaloi of Sheikh Yangulby, a disciple of the venerated 19th-century Sufi saint Kunta-hadji, from whom Kadyrov claims to be descended, and setting it alight. The blaze was swiftly extinguished. Kadyrov quoted the perpetrators as having said they were motivated by listening to “sermons of extremist content” on the Internet. 

Speaking on Chechen state television on November 17, the day after the incident, Kadyrov accused the young men of having links to fighters in Syria and declared that they and their families “should be cursed.”

It was the second arson attack on a Sufi shrine in Chechnya in less than two months. The first took place during the night of October 9-10, when the mausoleum of Sheikh Durdi, also a disciple of Kunta-hadji, was set alight in a cemetery in Shali.

No one was apprehended in connection with that incident, and Kadyrov did not comment on it publicly, even though, as unnamed representatives of Chechnya’s Muslim Spiritual Board pointed out, it was the first such act of vandalism since the Bolsheviks set about suppressing religious belief in the 1920s.

It is conceivable that the October attack, which reportedly gave rise to widespread rumors and speculation, may have been perpetrated in order to create a pretext for harsher reprisals against young men suspected of preferring the more orthodox Salafi Islam espoused by the North Caucasus insurgency to Kadyrov’s own idiosyncratic take on Chechen Sufism, which one young militant characterized disparagingly as “a hodgepodge of Sufi fairy tales and local adats (traditional precepts).” 

Kadyrov’s understanding of “traditional Chechen Islam” -- as distinct from the canonical Sunni Islam represented by the Shafii legal school that co-exists with it in Chechnya -- encompasses and encourages the veneration of Sufi saints and pilgrimages to their shrines, of which there are said to be some 130 in Chechnya.

Since the October incident in Shali, there have been numerous reports of the mass detention of young men who aroused the suspicion of security personnel by wearing beards but shaving their upper lip, Salafi-style. 

There is no way of knowing whether the Kurchaloi episode was a copycat attack inspired by the earlier act of arson in Shali, or whether both were the work of young Salafi sympathizers.

The four young suspects were forced to appear at three separate public meetings on November 18, in Kurchaloi and the nearby villages of Geldagan and Mayrtup, and further such public meetings are planned, according to a member of Chechnya’s Muslim Spiritual Board.

It is not clear whether the young men have been formally charged under the Russian Criminal Code (Article 214) with group vandalism, which carries a possible sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment. It further remains to be seen whether, after submitting them to repeated ritual humiliation, Kadyrov will see fit to demonstrate magnanimity by pardoning them, as he recently did a group of young men publicly accused of plotting his assassination. 

Has Chechen Republic Head Laid Himself Open To Criminal Charge?

Some human rights activists, Caucasus experts, and Grozny residents doubt whether any plot to kill Ramzan Kadyrov ever existed.

Liz Fuller

Chechen State TV reported on November 2 the thwarting of a plot to kill republic head Ramzan Kadyrov by a group of some 20 young men from the town of Argun. 

Kadyrov for his part announced in an Instagram post the same day that the young men had been led astray and indoctrinated into Wahhabism by an incompetent self-taught imam. That cleric has not been identified, and his current whereabouts are not known.

Kadyrov added that following a five-hour meeting with the young men in question and their parents, he resolved to show clemency because they had acknowledged the error of their ways. The detainees have since been released, and their parents have undertaken to ensure they do not violate the law in the future. Some human rights activists, Caucasus experts, and Grozny residents doubt, however, whether any plot to kill Kadyrov existed. The news portal Caucasus Knot quoted one Grozny resident as saying he believes the detention of the young men and their release was just a PR exercise. The man, who gave his name as Musa, quoted residents of Argun as saying the young men -- who reportedly included the brother of a police officer killed by the North Caucasus insurgency -- simply gathered periodically in the boiler room of the local mosque to discuss the situation in Syria. 

Oleg Orlov of the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial argued that the very fact the young men were released suggests that they had done nothing illegal. He characterized the episode as a PR exercise intended to portray Kadyrov as "a humane leader." 

It may also have been intened -- although Orlov did not say so -- to counter reports that dozens of young men with beards, but with their upper lips clean-shaven, Salafi-style, have been detained in various towns in Chechnya in recent weeks on suspicion of adhering to Salafi Islam, and had their beards forcibly shaved.

Likewise of note is the fact that the young men detained were not, according to the uncle of one of them, beaten to extract a confession of guilt. He said that during the three days the young men were held in custody, they were given meals and allowed to pray. He also said that the young men simply met to vent to what he termed their “understandable” anger over the cronyism, corruption, and systematic suppression of dissent that characterize the Kadyrov regime. 

Kadyrov himself hinted at such motives in an interview he gave to NTV on November 6. He said the young men regarded him as a heretic who had sold out to the Russians, which is what Said Buryatsky, the Caucasus Emirate ideologist who was killed five years ago, had designated him. Buryatsky's homilies are reportedly still popular among disaffected young North Caucasians, which may be one reason why police routinely check what video clips young men whose behavior is considered suspect have viewed on their mobile phones.
Kadyrov has still not said what evidence, if any, has come to light to substantiate his claim that the young men were planning his death. But if solid evidence does, indeed, exist, and Kadyrov chose to ignore it, then he theoretically risks being charged under the Russian Criminal Code with willfully concealing the intent to commit an act of terrorism.
If no such charge is forthcoming, it is logical to assume that either the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office doubts Kadyrov's claim of a plot to kill him, or that its staff has been warned that no matter what Kadyrov says or does, he stands beyond the law and is thus untouchable. Kadyrov concluded his NTV interview with the words: "I am asking that all those who break the law should be punished according to the laws of the Russian Federation."

Why Armenia’s Military Alliance With Russia Is Not At Risk

Special forces from Russia, Armenia, and other CIS countries take part in joint military exercises at the Marshal Baghramian training center near Yerevan. (file photo)

Emil Danielyan

For many decades, the dominant discourse of Armenian political and intellectual leaders was summed up by an emblematic quote from Khachatur Abovian, a 19th-century Armenian writer. "Blessed be the hour when the blessed Russian foot stepped upon our holy Armenian land," Abovian wrote in his most famous novel, set during the Russian-Persian war in the South Caucasus.

For the Christian Armenians remaining in what at that time was just the central and eastern parts of an ancient Armenian kingdom, the Russian victory in the 1826-1828 war ended centuries of oppressive Muslim rule and their status as second-class subjects of the Persian Empire. It also laid the groundwork for the eventual establishment of the modern-day Republic of Armenia, a successor to one of the 15 Soviet republics.

The Armenian nationalist groups which emerged in tsarist Russia in the late 19th century generally professed loyalty to the Russian state. The 1915 mass killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, which many historians and about two dozen countries have recognized as genocide, only reinforced this geopolitical orientation. Both the communist rulers of Soviet Armenia and anti-Soviet nationalist leaders in the worldwide Armenian diaspora portrayed Russia as the sole guarantor of Armenia's survival in a hostile Muslim neighborhood.

Things started changing with the onset in 1988 of a popular movement for Armenia's unification with Nagorno-Karabakh. The anticommunist leaders of that movement, who eventually formed independent Armenia's first government, took a more critical view of the Russian-Armenian relationship, saying that it also had negative consequences for the Armenian people.

Yet even they chose to keep Armenia anchored to Russia politically and military after the breakup of the Soviet Union. This strategic choice facilitated the result of the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan, which left Armenians in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas. It was rarely questioned by major Armenian opposition groups, pundits and independent media until the early 2000s.

Pro-Western Sentiment

The past decade has seen a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society members, and youth activists who rely heavily on social media. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian unexpectedly decided in 2013 to forego a far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union and make Armenia part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) instead.

For this expanding circle of politically active people, Russia is a threat to Armenia's sovereignty, security, and democratization which must be neutralized by a reorientation of Armenian foreign policy towards the West. Some of them demand not only Armenia's exit from the EEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country.

Although Russian policies are indeed a cause for legitimate concerns, such rhetoric glosses over the grave security challenges facing Armenia. Like virtually all other Armenians, the vocal pro-Western elements want Nagorno-Karabakh to remain under Armenian control -- something which hinges, in large measure, on the military alliance with Russia. But they do not present the country's political elite with alternatives security options, resorting instead to emotional oversimplifications of foreign policy issues.

The 'Electric Yerevan" protests were sparked by a hike in electricity prices engineered by a Russian-owned power distribution network
The 'Electric Yerevan" protests were sparked by a hike in electricity prices engineered by a Russian-owned power distribution network

Even so, these changing attitudes have fueled suggestions by some Armenia watchers in the West that Russia may be on the brink of losing one of its staunchest ex-Soviet allies. Such speculation was stoked by last February's furious street protests outside the Russian consulate in Armenia's second largest city of Gyumri over the gruesome killing of a local family, which a Russian soldier is accused of having carried out. It intensified further during this summer's demonstrations in Yerevan against an electricity price hike engineered by the country's Russian-owned power distribution network. The so-called "Electric Yerevan" campaign was so dramatic that it raised Russian fears of another "color revolution" against a Moscow-friendly government in the ex-USSR, leading the Kremlin to hastily make a number of major concessions to the Armenian government.

All the same, a closer look at Russian-Armenian ties should be enough to demonstrate why Armenia will continue to heavily rely on Russia for defense and security in the foreseeable future. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is the most important driving force of that alliance, and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Military Aid

Thanks to its massive oil revenues, Azerbaijan has increased its annual military spending by almost 30 times during President Ilham Aliyev's more than decade-long rule. It is projected to total $3.6 billion this year, more than Armenia's entire state budget.

Consequently, the Azerbaijani army has been beefed up with large quantities of offensive weapons, including $4 billion worth of tanks, combat helicopters, air-defense systems, and other military hardware purchased from Russia since 2010. This military buildup has emboldened Aliyev to repeatedly pledge not only to win back Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-controlled territories, but to take what he has called "historical Azerbaijani lands" in Armenia itself, including Yerevan.  

By comparison, Armenia's 2015 defense budget is equivalent to only about $500 million. Despite this huge spending disparity, the country has so far been able to largely maintain the military balance with its oil-rich foe. Through bilateral defense agreements with Russia and membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), it has long been receiving Russia weapons at knock-down prices or free of charge. This mostly unpublicized military aid appears to have intensified in recent years.

In particular, Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian-backed army is known to have formed a new tank brigade (which typically consists of around 100 tanks) and received more heavy artillery in 2012. In late 2013, it announced the provision of another 33 Russian-made tanks to its forces. Russia also reportedly delivered 110 armored vehicles and 50 rocket systems to the Armenian military during that period.

Armenia will soon buy more advanced weaponry at domestic Russian prices with a $200 million low-interest loan that was disbursed by Moscow during the "Electric Yerevan" protests. Around the same time, the Russian government revealed that it is negotiating with the Armenian side on supplying the latter with state-of-the-art Iskander-M missiles that would significantly boost Armenia's ability to strike Azerbaijan's vital oil and gas installations.

The Armenian missile arsenal currently includes Soviet-era Scud-B and Tochka-U systems with firing ranges of 300 and 120 kilometers respectively. The Azerbaijani military has implied that it can neutralize them with S-300 surface-to-air missiles supplied by Russia in 2009-2010 as well as other missile-defense systems reportedly purchased from Israel in 2012. But these systems would most probably be unable to intercept Iskander-M missiles, one of the most potent weapons of their kind in the world.

Iskander-Ms would thus give Armenia an additional major deterrent against possible Azerbaijani attempts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force. Armenian leaders have repeatedly hinted at their impending acquisition in recent years.

Russia has also been a key provider of free education and training for Armenian military personnel. As of last year, as many as 250 Armenians reportedly studied full-time or took shorter courses at Russian military academies. This figure is comparable to the total number of cadets graduating from Armenia's two military academies annually.

The Russian military base in Armenia's second largest city of Gyumri is another essential component of close military cooperation between the two states. Debate in Armenia on the wisdom of hosting it usually focuses on the question of whether or not the Russian troops would openly fight on the Armenian side should Azerbaijan act on its threats of military action. That misses the point.

The Turkey Factor

What Yerevan needs first and foremost is not Russian ground forces in Nagorno-Karabakh but a safeguard against Turkey's direct military intervention in the conflict, in light of its close ties with, and treaty obligations to, Azerbaijan. (Under the 2011 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support, the two sides undertake to support each other using "all possible means" in the event of an attack or aggression against one of them.)

Bombing raids by Turkey's sizable Air Force alone could seriously affect the outcome of another Nagorno-Karabakh war by overwhelming Armenia's air defenses and destroying other Armenian military targets. The Russian base precludes such intervention, enabling the Armenians to concentrate the bulk of their military might on Azerbaijan.

For all its efforts to woo Baku, including with arms deals, Moscow is simply not interested in Armenia's defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute because that would eliminate the key rationale for the Armenian reliance on Russia. A military withdrawal from Armenia would in turn minimize Russian presence in a region which Moscow continues to regard as its backyard.

Pro-Western circles in Armenia rarely discuss these specific security issues in their critique of Russian-Armenian dealings. Nor do they question the underlying motive behind successive Armenian governments' pursuit of close ties with Moscow: continued Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh. So far the pro-Western camp has been unable or unwilling to disprove the notion that, as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, Armenia's ability to resist Russian pressure and seek deep integration with the West will be seriously limited.

As much as Sarkisian's dramatic 2013 volte-face was a manifestation of poor foreign policy making, it reflected this reality. A more legitimate, democratic and, therefore, pro-Western regime in Yerevan might have succeeded in wriggling out of the EEU. But even such a government could have hardly afforded a far-reaching accord with the EU in the existing geopolitical environment aggravated by Russia and the West's standoff over Ukraine.

Little wonder, then, that only one of the six parties represented in the Armenian parliament has openly opposed membership in the EEU. Most ordinary Armenians, too, continue to support the alliance with Russia, even if their pro-Russian sentiment is now far less intense than in the past. With a Nagorno-Karabakh peace remaining elusive, they are still more likely to agree with Khachatur Abovian than with the cohort of pro-Western pundits and activists increasingly setting the tone of political debate in their country.

Guest blogger Emil Danileyan is a veteran member of RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau

Georgia’s Ruling Coalition Increasingly At Odds

United National Movement supporters call for the resignation of the government in Tbilisi in March.

Liz Fuller

Ever since it lost power in the October 2012 parliamentary election, Georgia’s United National Movement (ENM) has consistently and systematically sought to portray the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition that defeated it as having abandoned the ENM’s pro-Western and pro-democracy orientation and as pursuing a witch hunt against blameless former government officials from the ENM with the aim of discrediting that party irrevocably, and thus facilitating a repeat victory for GD in the parliamentary ballot due in October 2016.

That imputed objective appears increasingly tenuous, however, given that popular support for both political forces is currently at around 13-15 percent. The ENM nonetheless launched a new campaign earlier this month with the stated aim of forcing the resignation of the government and the holding of pre-term parliamentary elections.

Three recent developments have furnished the ENM with new ammunition in its ongoing efforts to undermine its rival, even though its interpretation of the events in question is not always either logical or convincing. At the same time, the diverging assessments of those developments by senior GD officials have served to reinforce the perception of deepening rifts between them, especially between Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili.

The first is the lawsuit brought in early August by Kibar Khalvashi, a former co-owner of the TV station Rustavi-2, against its current owners. Khalvashi claims he was pressured in late 2006 by then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili into selling his stake in the business, and is demanding it back. Rustavi-2’s coverage has always been favourable to the ENM. The station has changed ownership several times since 2006; Levan and Giorgi Karamanishvili, who are believed to be close to Saakashvili, currently own a 91 percent stake.

Acting on Khalvashi’s request, a Tbilisi court froze Rustavi-2’s assets,  a move that its general director Nika Gvaramia branded illegal. Gvaramia argued that insofar as the freeze would affect $6 million in new investment needed to ensure the broadcaster’s continued functioning, the court ruling must have been politically motivated and dictated by GD’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, with the aim of forcing the broadcaster to cease operations prior to the October 2016 parliamentary election.

Gvaramia said last week he will not accept as legal and valid a court ruling in Khalvashi’s favour. He further claimed that the government threatened to compromise him by making public incriminating video footage if he refuses to comply with the upcoming verdict. The Georgian prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into that allegation. 

On October 16, GD parliamentarians voted down a ENM-drafted statement expressing concern over alleged government pressure on Rustavi-2. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all issued statements repeatedly stressing the importance of upholding media freedom in Georgia. Senior ENM members, including parliamentarian Nika Chitadze continue to argue that the authorities are intent on closing down an influential opposition mouthpiece in the run-up to the 2016 ballot. That argument is less than convincing, given the timeframe involved. If that were indeed the government’s intention, it would make sense to wait until next year, rather than allow ample time for a new TV station to establish itself as Rustavi-2’s ideological successor. Prime Minister Gharibashvili said on October 28 that if Rustavi-2 ceased to exist tomorrow, its owners could simply open a new broadcaster with a similar name, such as “Rustavi-5.”

Repeating assurances he gave several days earlier, Gharibashvili said “I want to state firmly on behalf of our government that we will do everything in order not to ever restrict functioning of media outlets...regardless of whether we agree or not, whether or not we like biased coverage by the television stations. ...We will help them, because it is in our interests to have as many television stations as possible.” 

The second development was the posting on a Ukrainian website on October 17 of video footage showing Georgian Interior Ministry personnel torturing a man detained on suspicion of involvement in a series of terrorist bombings in 2010. The video was found in a cache of weapons discovered in June 2013. It is not clear how the Ukrainian website acquired it.

As in the Rustavi-2 case, senior ENM politicians blamed the current Georgian government for leaking the footage with the aim of undermining the ENM’s chances in the October 2016 elections. But again, if that had been the rationale, it would have made more sense to wait until next summer – especially given that the leaking in late summer of 2012 of similar video footage of a prisoner being sexually abused was a factor in the ENM’s election defeat in October of that year.

Soso Tsiskarishvili of the Independent Experts’ Club made the point that a number of forces in both Georgia and Ukraine could have had a vested interest in circulating the video, including the Georgian Interior Ministry and lawyers representing the torture victims. So too, he added, could opponents in Ukraine of former Georgian President and ENM head Mikheil Saakashvili, who was named governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region in late May.

Tsiskarishvili did not say so, but there is also a faction in Russia that loathes Saakashvili and would be happy to see him utterly discredited. The third development -- the posting on a Russian-hosted website named Ukrainian WikiLeaks on October 23 of what is billed as a transcript of a conversation the previous day at Istanbul airport between Saakashvili and leading ENM member Giga Bokeria -- could conceivably be the work of that faction. The two men reportedly discuss staging an attack on Rustavi-2’s Tbilisi headquarters with the aim of provoking mass anti-government protests. 

The incriminating material has not been authenticated. ENM law-maker Giorgi Gabashvili has confirmed that Saakashvili and Bokeria did meet in Istanbul on October 23.  

Bokeria, who was summoned by Georgia’s State Security Service on October 24 for questioning about “a plot to seize power,” dismissed the purported transcript as “ravings.” 

Among senior GD politicians, the most outspoken in his comments on those developments, and specifically on the role of the ENM, was Prime Minister Gharibashvili. Gharibashvili’s unguarded statements have raised eyebrows on at least one previous occasion. Campaigning for GD in the municipal elections held in May 2014, he declared that “in the local elections as in the parliamentary and presidential elections, Georgian Dream will win worthily and convincingly and will not permit the victory of any other political force in a single region or town.” The ENM publicly construed that exhortation as a call to rig the outcome of the vote in GD’s favor. 

Twice in the past week, on October 22 and 24, Gharibashvili has adduced the torture video to excoriate the ENM, arguing that “there is no place for these people in [Georgian] politics,” and that a subsequent spate of attacks by outraged citizens on ENM offices were a natural and justifiable reaction to such abuses. He warned that the party has “one last chance” to apologize to voters for the abuses it condoned. 

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili responded to that outburst with a written statement saying that all politicians, whether in government or opposition, should unconditionally eschew “any statement justifying and making direct or indirect calls for any kind of violence and physical confrontation.” He said this is a precondition for him to continue “cooperation or dialogue” with any politician.

Usupashvili delivered the same message at a meeting on October 26 with lawmakers from the opposition Free Democrats party, telling them that “politicians should unequivocally and unconditionally denounce all forms of violence and contribute to civil accord.”

Usupashvili was more circumspect when asked on October 26 by ENM parliamentarians to comment on the investigation into the purported coup plot. Explaining that he is not empowered to intervene in that investigation, Usupashvili opined that it could prove extremely damaging to the State Security Service if it was found to been launched solely on the basis of unverified information. 

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, whose relations with the prime minister are strained, deplored Gharibashvili’s denunciation of the ENM as compounding tensions and “creating the preconditions for civil confrontation.” Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, who is married to Usupashvili, promptly rejected that statement as irresponsible.

Finally, Ivanishvili, who is Gharibashvili’s political patron and predecessor as prime minister, was quoted as telling Imedi TV on October 24 that Gharibashvili’s comments on the ENM were “over-emotional,” and that he should have demonstrated greater self-restraint.

In the same interview, Ivanishvili also criticized as “totally irresponsible” Margvelashvili’s prediction of imminent civil unrest. He added that Margvelashvili had no right to appeal publicly to the judge in the Rustavi-2 case “not to hand down a hasty ruling.” 

On October 28, Gharibashvili belatedly sought to distance himself from his earlier comments, calling at a government session for the population to maintain “maximum calm” in the interests of “preserving stability.” 

That appeal suggests that whether or not GD is as divided and dysfunctional as it sometimes appears, some at least of its senior members realize it is not in the coalition’s long-term interests to risk alienating the electorate and the international community by engaging in retaliation against the ENM.

There is, moreover, little need to do so, given that the ENM’s current approval rating is just 13 percent, according to the most recent poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute. Admittedly, approval for GD itself is only 1 percent higher.

The same survey found that if elections were held tomorrow, 35 percent of voters do not know which party they would vote for, and a further 14 percent would not vote for any existing party. That tallies with the observation by Gia Khukhashvili of the Institute for the Study of Georgia’s Development that voters are waiting for the emergence of a new, third force, and as yet it remains unclear who will manage to capitalize on those expectations. 

In his interview with Imedi TV, Ivanishvili said that up to half the current 87 GD parliamentarians may not be included among the coalition’s list of candidates for the October 2016 ballot. That pronouncement raises the possibility that the coalition, which currently comprises seven factions, may split, possibly with Usupashvili’s Republican Party contesting the ballot independently or in tandem with the Free Democrats. The latter party was originally a member of GD, but pulled out a year ago after Gharibashvili dismissed its chairman, then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.  

Abkhaz Leader Rejects Calls To Resign

Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba is accused of failing to deliver on his pledges to kick-start the region's stagnating economy, raise living standards, renovate public buildings and highways, crack down on crime, reduce unemployment, and create a government of national unity

Liz Fuller

Less than 18 months after the forced ouster of Aleksandr Ankvab, de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, a new confrontation is brewing between his successor, longtime opposition leader Raul Khajimba, and the opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) that supported him.

At an extraordinary congress in Sukhumi on October 21, some 3,000 Amtsakhara members and supporters voted no confidence in Khajimba and demanded his immediate resignation in light of what speakers said was his failure to deliver on any of his campaign promises. They pledged to convene a mass gathering to determine what to do if Khajimba failed to step down within a few days. 

Just hours later, however, Khajimba gathered several thousand backers and assured them he will remain in his post until his presidential term ends in 2019.

Khajimba has been in office just over a year. He narrowly won an early presidential ballot in August 2014, 2 1/2 months after spearheading what Amtsakhara describes as the coup d'etat that removed Ankvab from power. 

Amtsakhara's criticisms of Khajimba focus partly on his perceived failure to deliver on his preelection promises of a swift improvement in living conditions; partly on his unwillingness to embark on dialogue with his political opponents with the aim of trying to bridge the gulf between rival political camps; and partly on his prevarication over whether or not to give the green light for the exploitation of offshore oil reserves by the Russian oil company Rosneft.

A further bone of contention is the draft law under discussion on the status of "foreign nationals," a category that the current leadership extends to those members of the region's Georgian population who fled during the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto independence and have since returned to their homes. In a statement in late December, and again at a congress in May, Amtsakhara accused Khajimba of failing to deliver on his pledges to kick-start the region's stagnating economy, raise living standards, renovate public buildings and highways, crack down on crime, reduce unemployment, and create a government of national unity that would include representatives of opposition parties. They also accused him of unwillingness to embark on dialogue with his political opponents.

In mid-July, Amtsakhara aligned with three other political forces, including the APRA Fund for Socioeconomic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, who finished second to Khajimba in the August 2014 presidential ballot, and the public organization Abzankhara headed by former parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba, in the Bloc of Opposition Forces of Abkhazia. By late August, rumors were already circulating that the opposition was planning to topple Khajimba and seize power. 

Addressing members of his Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia on August 27, Khajimba acknowledged that "the republic is in a very difficult situation, characterized by new challenges and threats," partly as a result of global political upheavals affecting Russia. Russia is one of just a handful of countries to have formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent state, and since 2008 has provided huge amounts of financial aid. This year, however, according to Khajimba, the volume of aid has been drastically reduced, and it is proving difficult to attract foreign investment.

Khajimba went on to argue that in a time of crisis, political unity is imperative and "political radicalism" and infighting inadmissible. "We are all in the same boat and must steer it into calmer waters," he said. 

More recently, in a televised address to the nation, Khajimba again sought to defend himself from criticism, attributing the stagnating economy and ramshackle infrastructure he inherited from Ankvab to the systematic embezzlement or misspending of Russian financial aid by previous leaders. He admitted that "not much has been accomplished yet. More needs to be done." 

Khajimba's argument that he has performed as well as could have been expected in the current adverse situation failed, however, to cut any ice with Amtsakhara. On the contrary, speakers at last week's congress stepped up their criticism, arguing that Khajimba's ineffective and short-sighted policies have created a real threat to Abkhazia's continued survival as a quasi-independent state.

Bzhania argued that given the authorities' lack of a clear program to overcome the difficulties the region faces, Khajimba's resignation and new elections are the only wise and expedient course of action. 

Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia for his part was even more negative. He characterized Khajimba as incapable of any constructive action and said his policies "are dragging him and the country over a precipice." For that reason, Kvitsinia continued, "for the first time, we are ready not just to criticize the authorities, but to fight legally to replace them." 

At the same time, both Kvitsinia and other leading members of Amtsakhara stressed that they will act strictly within the framework of the law, rather than resort to "the May scenario," meaning the use of mass meetings and pressure on the legislature that eventually culminated in Ankvab's forced resignation.

Despite those assurances, Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba appealed in a televised address on October 22 to both supporters and critics of the present leadership "to remain calm and proceed within the framework of the law." 

The political party Apsadgyl, founded in mid-August, appealed to Amtsakhara and the republic's leadership to try to resolve their differences at the negotiating table. In a possible indication of dissent within the leadership, Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua likewise called for dialogue, warning of the dangers of "playing with fire." 

Khajimba, however, while continuing to stress the need for "unity," still rejects the opposition's criticisms as misplaced, and has shown no sign of willingness to meet with any of its representatives. That may be because he is waiting to see whether the Bloc of Opposition Force decides to go ahead with its stated intention of convening a pan-national assembly, and how to respond if it does.

In a televised address to the nation on October 19, on the eve of the Amtsakhara congress Vice President Vitaly Gabnia reportedly warned that "any attempt to oust the current leadership" would lead to bloodshed.


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.