Thursday, September 18, 2014

Daghestan's Supreme Court Overturns Medic's Acquittal

Daghestan anesthesiologist Marat Gunashev (with daughter) in an undated photo obtained in January 2013

Those who greeted the acquittal by a Makhachkala district court in May of respected anesthesiologist Marat Gunashev of membership of the Islamic insurgency as evidence that Russia's judges do occasionally return a fair verdict have been disillusioned.

The case against Gunashev, whom colleagues had described as a peaceful and law-abiding citizen with no interest in religion, was based largely on the testimony of his brother-in-law's jilted paramour. On September 15, Daghestan's Supreme Court nonetheless overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial by the same court.

Gunashev was arrested in November 2012 in the operating theater of the Makhachkala hospital where he worked. His brother-in-law Shamil Gasanov, a surgeon at the same hospital, was shot dead by security forces the same day, allegedly to prevent him opening fire on them. But when his headless body was returned to his family for burial, it bore marks of torture.  

The two men were suspected of having performed surgery at Gasanov's apartment on February 6, 2010, to remove a bullet from the upper arm of Ibragim Gadzhidadayev, leader of the Gimri group of fighters. Gadzhidadayev reportedly received that injury during an attack the previous day in which Makhachkala police chief Akhmed Magomedov, his driver, and two bodyguards were killed, and for which both Gunashev and Gasanov had cast-iron alibis.

Gadzhidadayev -- who had a reputation for ruthlessness, extreme cruelty, and extorting funds from prominent officials and businessmen to fund insurgency activities -- was subsequently reported killed during a special operation in Semender on the outskirts of Makhachkala in March 2013, but his body was never found.

Gunashev was initially charged with concealing a crime, and confessed under psychological pressure within days of his arrest to having done so. But that charge was soon dropped, and replaced by that of membership of the North Caucasus insurgency on the basis of his having allegedly treated the wounded Gadzhidadayev, which Gunashev consistently denied having done. Colleagues of the two men reacted to that charge with consternation and disbelief, characterizing both men as "secular to the marrow of their bones." 

The criminal case against Gunashev was based on the testimony of three witnesses. The first, identified by the prosecution by the pseudonym "Stella," had been Gasanov's paramour for several years. After he left her to marry Gunashev's sister, the spurned mistress bombarded the two men with threats to disclose their purported crime to the police, and admitted in court to having done so.

The second witness, identified as "Zakhar Prilepin," shared a cell with Gunashev while the latter was held in pretrial detention and testified that Gunashev admitted to him that he had abetted the insurgency. The third witness, identified by the alias "Filip Filippov," withdrew his testimony in court.

The presiding judge concluded that the testimony of "Stella" and "Prilepin" was not adequate to substantiate the charge against Gunashev (to which he pleaded not guilty) of belonging to the insurgency. But Daghestan's Supreme Court ruled that the judge had no grounds not to believe Prilepin's testimony, and construed Gunashev's alleged treatment of the wounded Gadzhidadayev as substantiating the charge.

At the time of Gunashev's acquittal, Moscow-based lawyer Zaur Arapiyev explained that under Russian labor law, a physician has an obligation to provide medical help to anyone who needs it, regardless of the circumstances, but he/she is likewise required to inform the police if the injury (such as a gunshot wound) may have been incurred during or as a result of a crime. 

One Year After Leader’s Death, North Caucasus Insurgency Soldiers On

A screen grab of Chechen insurgent Doku Umarov, who died of poisoning in September 2013.

September 7 marks the first anniversary of the death from poisoning of Doku Umarov, the Chechen field commander who abandoned the cause of an independent Chechen Republic Ichkeria in 2007 and instead proclaimed a Caucasus Emirate (IK) encompassing the entire North Caucasus.

While Umarov’s death has had only minimal impact on the military capabilities of the Islamic insurgency, it nonetheless ushered in a new stage in the ongoing evolution of the Chechen-dominated resistance of the late 1990s and early 2000s into a supranational force. Reflecting the shift over the past five to seven years of the center of military activity from Chechnya to Ingushetia (in 2007-09), to Kabardino-Balkaria (2010-11), to Daghestan, the new IK head, Aliaskhab Kebekov (Amir Ali Abu-Mukhammad) is an Avar, not a Chechen. As Kebekov himself acknowledges, is a theologian and ideologue, rather than an experienced general and military strategist.

That does not necessarily mean, however, that there were no other qualified candidates for that post. Veteran Chechen field commander Makhran Saidov affirmed in video footage released last month that “any one of the Vilayet Nokhchiicho [Chechnya] fighters could have become amir in Doku’s place. Don’t think that we chose a brother from Daghestan for lack of a worthy candidate here or because we are weakened.... We wanted to see at the head of the Caucasus Emirate a man who is knowledgeable and God-fearing.... It’s not necessary that he should be a strategist or an experienced warrior.”

Even before Umarov died, the incidence and effectiveness of the insurgents’ military activity was on the decline. The insurgency has not carried out a single major operation anywhere in the North Caucasus since the two audacious attacks perpetrated in August and October 2010 by Chechen fighters on the native village of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen parliament. What is more, it failed to deliver on Umarov’s instructions to take “any measures permitted by God” to prevent the successful staging of the Winter Olympic games in Sochi in February 2014. Suicide bombers perpetrated two attacks in Volgograd in late December, killing a total of 34 people, but the actual Games passed off without the terrorist attack that the Russian security forces (and some Western observers) had feared.

That failure is unlikely to have been the direct consequence of Umarov’s demise, given his total lack of skill and imagination as either a strategist or a tactician. In that respect, the deaths in January 2013 of the brothers Khuseyn and Muslim Gakayev and their elite band of fighters constituted a far more serious loss. As a veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa antiterrorism force observed apropos of the 10th anniversary of the Beslan hostage taking, the limited military capability of the insurgency today is primarily the result of the killing in 2006 of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, the wily strategist behind both the seizure of the Beslan school and the multiple attacks a few months earlier on police and security forces in Ingushetia.

By the same token, the human rights watchdog Memorial attributes the marked decline in casualty figures it registered during the winter of 2013-14 to the exodus of insurgents from the North Caucasus to fight in Syria.

How many fighters remain in the North Caucasus is, as always, virtually impossible to assess with any accuracy. Lieutenant General Andrei Konin, who at that time headed the Daghestan administration of the Federal Security Service (FSB), estimated the number of insurgents in Daghestan last fall at 150, divided into 12 groups.

By contrast, in Chechnya, the population of which is less than half that of Daghestan, the figure may be in excess of 500. Saidov, who played a key role in the August 2010 attack of Kadyrov’s home village of Khosi-Yurt, recently divulged that there are at least 70-80 fighters in the Achkhoi-Martan sector alone, and that some 10 new recruits had joined them over the previous month. (Most Chechen fighters seen in videos recently uploaded to YouTube appear to be in their late teens or 20s.)

Saidov claimed that “if we wanted, we could increase the number of our ranks, but at present there is no need to do so. We are preparing for a specific day, and if Allah wills, that day will come.” He acknowledged nonetheless that the current strength is inadequate to retake Grozny. Whether the “specific day” means the return from Syria of fighters who are currently honing their tactical skills there can only be guessed at.

Kebekov too has said that the insurgency command is “working out a tactic of inflicting crushing blows on the unbelievers.” He did not elaborate. It appears unlikely, however, that such attacks will take the form of suicide-bombings on the lines of those in Volgograd, or at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011 and on the Moscow subway in March 2010: Kebekov made clear his reluctance to condone such attacks, especially on the part of women. What alternative military options he and his fellow commanders are mulling remains a matter for conjecture.

Dispute Over Irrigation Water Compounds Tensions Between Daghestan, Azerbaijan

The dispute over water from the Samur River is just one aspect of the long-standing clash of economic, and possibly also geopolitical, interests between Daghestan and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Daghestan are at loggerheads over the use of water from the Samur River that in its lower reaches marks the border between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation. Daghestan’s Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry alleged earlier this week that Azerbaijan is channeling off far more water than it is entitled to under the terms of the border treaty signed four years ago; the Azerbaijani joint stock company responsible for irrigation and water resources denies this.

Meanwhile, thousands of residents of Daghestan’s Magerramkent border district are concerned that the reduction in the volume of water in the lower reaches of the river is negatively affecting the region’s fragile ecosystem, thereby posing a direct threat to their livelihood, which depends on the sale of agricultural produce. In 2013, Daghestan’s Ministry of Water Resources estimated that some 4,500 hectares of land remain unirrigated most years because of the water shortfall.

The use of the river’s water, and the volume each littoral polity is entitled to divert for its own use, is codified in the interstate treaty of September 3, 2010, on the border between Azerbaijan and Russia. Under the terms of that treaty, 30.5 percent of the total volume is designated the environmental norm; the remainder is to be shared equally by the two sides. The flow is currently 14.5 cubic meters per second, of which Azerbaijan and Daghestan are each entitled to 5 cubic meters. But according to Daghestan’s First Deputy Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Marat Aliomarov, Azerbaijan is taking an additional 3 cubic meters.

An unnamed Azerbaijani expert, however, offered a different explanation. He said the reason why the flow of the river is so low at its lower reaches is that because of this summer’s drought, the initial volume has fallen from the usual 60 cubic meters per second to 14.5 cubic meters.

Local villagers have been complaining for several years that the water table in the region is falling. Last fall, they convened a series of mass protests against plans by the republican government to drill artesian wells to pipe drinking water to the coastal town of Derbent, which has a population of 120,000. Those plans were suspended in the wake of a session of Daghestan’s Public Chamber in February at which Magerramkent residents outlined their concerns, including the threat to the survival of the region’s unique tropical liana forest. Federal agencies and the Union of Hydrologists of Russia were co-opted to assess the likely impact of the project and propose alternative options for supplying Derbent with water.

Last month, the administrative heads of five Magerramkent villages appealed to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who as Russian president signed the 2010 border treaty) and Daghestani Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov to ensure that the river water is shared equally in order to preclude “a conflict situation.”

The dispute over water from the Samur is, furthermore, just one aspect of the long-standing clash of economic, and possibly also geopolitical, interests between Daghestan and Azerbaijan. The two largest ethnic groups in southern Daghestan are the Azerbaijanis and the Lezgins. The latter are a northeastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century. Their historic homeland is split between Russia and Azerbaijan. Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. According to official data, they number only 178,000, while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000 (of a total population of 9.42 million).

They have long been regarded with suspicion in light of demands voiced in the 1990s by some Lezgins in Daghestan for the unification of their ethnic group in a separate republic. Several hundred of them were forced to leave their homes in Azerbaijan and relocate to Daghestan following the signing of the 2010 border treaty.

Today, many of Daghestan’s Lezgins are convinced that Baku has ambitious plans to expand its presence and influence in southern Daghestan, and that the Daghestani leadership either approves of that expansion or is reluctant, or even powerless, to counter it. Azerbaijan’s Ata Holding has put up 1 billion rubles ($27 million) toward the cost of renovating infrastructure and building new sports facilities in Derbent in the run-up to the planned celebrations in 2015 of the 2000th anniversary of its foundation. Some Azerbaijani scholars even claim that Derbent is an Azerbaijani town.

Meanwhile, the administrative head of Derbent Raion, Azerbaijani Kurban Kurbanov, continues to defy pressure from the Daghestani leadership to resign that post.

Abdulatipov's Grapes of Wrath

Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov

After six months of protests and controversy, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov has been constrained to abandon his stated intention of privatizing (reportedly at a knockdown price) one of the region’s flagship enterprises and largest tax-payers, the Kizlyar Brandy Distillery. On August 28, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree transferring the distillery to federal ownership, meaning that Moscow, not Makhachkala, will take the decision on its fate at some point in the next two years.

The planned privatization encountered one obstacle after another. Not only did the distillery’s 300+ work-force take to the streets to protest and formally appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin; they also filed a formal complaint against Abdulatipov with the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office after he asserted in an interview with the internet portal that for the past two decades distillery employees have systematically stolen part of the  output.

Meanwhile, the republican Prosecutor –General’s office challenged the legality of the parliament’s December 2013 decision to privatize the distillery and secured from a Makhachkala district court a ruling that the Agriculture Ministry’s dismissal in April of the distillery’s director since 2008, Yevgeny Druzhinin, was in violation of labor law.  Druzhinin had said late last year that he enjoys Abdulatipov’s “full support.”

And Umakhan Umakhanov, a State Duma deputy from Daghestan whom at least one observer regards as a possible successor to Abdulatipov, asked the federal prosecutor’s office to rule on whether the proposed privatization is legal.

Located in the lowlands of northern Daghestan, the Kizlyar Brandy Distillery was founded in 1885 and until very recently its output was prized as being of the highest quality. Its employees, like the population of the town of Kizlyar, are overwhelmingly Russians or Cossacks. (It was the heads of two local Cossack regiments, Vladimir Starchak and Nikolai Spirin, who solicited Umakhanov’s help in the campaign to thwart the planned privatization.)

Abdulatipov first expounded his vision of the distillery’s future at a press conference in Moscow in early February, several weeks after the National Assembly had approved a list of enterprises up for privatization in the next few years in which it was included. He advocated transforming the distillery into a joint-stock company by September 2014, and then privatizing it, mentioning a minimum price of 4 billion rubles ($112.2 million).

Abdulatipov also said Magomed Sadulayev, whom he described as one of Daghestan’s leading experts on viticulture, had been named to the newly created post of general director of the Kizlyar distillery to oversee the privatization process. Abdulatipov apparently failed to mention on that occasion that Sadulayev is the owner and general director of the Derbent Sparkling Wines Plant, the republic’s second-largest producer of alcoholic beverages. Analysts in Daghestan swiftly inferred that Sadulayev  was the likely purchaser of the Kizlyar distillery which, they say, is worth a minimum of 10 billion rubles, possibly 20 billion.  But in light of the controversy surrounding the planned privatization, Sadulayev declined the post.

Abdulatipov for his part was apparently not prepared for the backlash his announcement triggered.  Having agreed, and then failed, to meet with the workforce to discuss the situation, he then changed tack, offering new and not entirely convincing explanations why the distillery should be privatized. He claimed that the distillery failed in 2013 to pay 1 billion rubles to the local and republican budget; that it had “stopped planting its own vineyards”; and that it had purchased substandard spirits at a cost of 1.5 billion rubles.

In fact, as Daghestan’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Gaydar Shuaybov has pointed out, the distillery’s current legal status as a state-owned unitary enterprise (GUP) precludes applying for government subsidies to plant vineyards to replace those destroyed 25 years ago at the time of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign -- a campaign which, according to Druzhinin,  inflicted “irreparable damage” on Daghestan’s viticulture sector.

Once the distillery is transformed into a joint-stock company, Shuaybov explained, it will be eligible for such subsidies. Meanwhile, it is obliged to purchase either grapes or grape-based alcohol from elsewhere in Daghestan.  Abdulatipov claimed that in 2012 the distillery purchased surrogate alcohol of dubious quality from construction material enterprises in Kabardino-Balkaria that had no access to vineyards.

At the same time, Shuaybov echoed Abdulatipov’s complaints about the distillery’s performance. He said that over the past three years, as a result of what he termed the management’s lack of professionalism, the quality of the product has declined, along with  the profits. One Daghestani expert, however, claims that the distillery posted a profit in 2012 of half a billion rubles ($13.5 million), making it the third most profitable enterprise in the entire North Caucasus.

Abdulatipov finally told the newspaper “Novoye delo” last month that it had been decided to hand over ownership of the distillery to the federal government in order the remove any grounds for speculation about the legality of the planned privatization that could reflect negatively on himself, because “I value the trust of the president and the people.”  Whether that decision was in fact taken because of the republican prosecutor’s intervention or, as seems more probable, under pressure from Moscow to yield to the demands of Kizlyar’s predominantly Russian and Cossack population, is not clear.

Chechens Now Fighting On Both Sides In Ukraine

Isa Munaev (3rd from left) poses for a photo in Ukraine with members of his battalion.

Eighteen years after the signing of the Khasavyurt Accord that ended the 1994-96 Chechen war, a veteran Chechen field commander has issued a timely reminder that there are still three sides to the ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the Chechen people.

In a statement dated August 28, Isa Munayev appeals to the United States and "the countries of the democratic world" to provide "comprehensive military assistance" to the Ukrainian people, whom Munayev describes as victims of Russian imperial aggression, just as the Chechens were 20 years ago.

Munayev identified himself in that statement as commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev international volunteer peacekeeping battalion and a brigadier general of the armed forces of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) of which Dudayev was the first president. He spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Marsho a week ago, shortly before he travelled to Ukraine to show "international support for the Ukrainian people." The strength of his battalion, and who is bankrolling it, is not known.

Now in his late 40s, Munayev played a key role in the defense of Grozny at the start of the 1999-2000 war, and continued fighting after the resistance forces retreated south to the mountains, acquiring a reputation for his courage and tactical skills. In late 2007, however, he distanced himself from ChRI President Doku Umarov following the latter's abandonment of the cause of Chechen independence and proclamation of a Caucasus Emirate. Munayev left Chechnya soon afterward, but continued to serve until December 2008 as ChRI prosecutor-general.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount of the presence on the side of the pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine of hundreds of fighters sent by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. Those fighters are apparently primarily volunteers from among the various police and security forces subordinate to Kadyrov, who has consistently denied that there are any "Chechen battalions" in Ukraine, even after the "Financial Times" quoted a fighter named Zelimkhan who said he and his comrades in arms had been sent to Ukraine in mid-May on Kadyrov's orders.

Kadyrov has admitted, however, that a few dozen Chechen volunteers from among the 2 million (according to his estimate) Chechens living outside Russia have travelled to Ukraine on their own initiative to fight, and that a handful of them have been killed.

Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov similarly said in early June that 25 residents of his republic had travelled to Ukraine to fight, of whom four had been killed. In a subsequent interview, Yevkurov, a former Russian military-intelligence officer, affirmed his readiness to head to Ukraine himself "to defend those who are being humiliated and killed."

In contrast, both the Defense Ministry and the presidential and government press service of the largely unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia in May denied media reports that the breakaway Georgian region had sent volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

How many "kadyrovtsy" either volunteered or were sent to Ukraine is unclear, but separate, unconfirmed casualty reports suggest the figure may have been as high as 1,000. Between 35-45 corpses were reportedly sent back to Chechnya  in late May, and between 120-150 in August. In addition, Ukrainian military sources claimed to have killed some 200 Chechens near Slovyansk in late June.

Other reports, also unconfirmed, suggest that Kadyrov's men did not distinguish themselves in battle. There have been several such reports over the past few weeks that Chechen units fighting under the command of Russian officers in eastern Ukraine have been disbanded and sent home for cowardice and/or desertion, surrendered to Ukrainian government forces, or asked for safe passage to retreat to the Russian border.

Kadyrov immediately rejected as untrue reports that any Chechens had surrendered: he declared that "once a Chechen takes up arms, he doesn't surrender."

Elected By A Hair, New Abkhaz Leader Faces Herculean Tasks

Abkhazia's new president, Raul Khajimba, has a daunting challenge in front of him in reviving the breakaway Georgian region's moribund economy.

Veteran opposition politician Raul Khajimba has been elected de facto president of the largely unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia by the slenderest of margins -- just 559 votes. He received 50.57 percent (50,494 votes) of the total 99, 869 ballots cast, defeating three rival candidates.

Voter turnout in the early election, which was necessitated by the resignation on June 1 of President Aleksandr Ankvab under pressure from an opposition Coordinating Council headed by Khajimba, was around 70 percent of the region's estimated 130,000 registered voters, marginally lower than during the previous presidential election in 2011 (71.92 percent). Some 22,000 Georgians were stripped of the right to vote on the grounds that the process by which they had acquired Abkhaz passports was illegal.

Although Khajimba's campaign staff had alleged "numerous" procedural violations in the course of the voting, one of which had been formally protested to the Central Election Commission, commission Chairman Batal Tabagua said after the polls closed that not a single formal complaint had been received from any of the four candidates.

The outcome of the ballot can hardly be regarded as an overwhelming endorsement of Khajimba, who had run unsuccessfully for the presidency on three previous occasions. Most recently, in 2011, he placed third with 19.83 percent of the vote after Ankvab and former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who has since withdrawn from politics.

Rather, the result reflects the lack of a convincing alternative candidate not hamstrung by his identification with Ankvab and the outgoing leadership. Khajimba's closest challenger, former State Security Service head Aslan Bzhania, whom observers initially predicted would face Khajimba in a second-round runoff, garnered just 35.91 percent of the vote. The public endorsement of Khajimba's candidacy by acting President and parliament speaker Valery Bganba and 19 other parliament deputies may have tipped the balance in Khajimba's favor. To what extent criticism of Bzhania's professional reputation by the other three candidates, especially Khajimba and former Defense Minister Mirab Kishmaria, may also have turned voters against him to preclude a second round is impossible to quantify.

Speaking at a press conference on August 25, Khajimba identified as his most immediate priorities unifying society and changing the political system to transfer some powers from the president to the parliament. In an interview published in "Izvestia" on August 26, he explained that while the president currently appoints the prime minister, no one is currently empowered to hold the latter responsible for the government's shortcomings. Khajimba plans to amend the constitution to empower the parliament to demand the resignation of the prime minister, any minister, the prosecutor-general and the Control Chamber head.

On the eve of the ballot, Khajimba said in an interview with the Russian portal that his first task would be personnel issues.


Just days before the vote, all four candidates had signed a pledge to form a new coalition government comprising "professionals" proposed by political parties and from among the four candidates' supporters. How that pledge can be reconciled with the fact that Khajimba has reportedly already chosen candidates for various key positions (including Party of Economic Development Chairman Beslan Butba as prime minister) is not clear. It does, however, suggest that Kishmaria may retain the post of defense minister that he has held for the past seven years.

Abkhazia's foreign-policy priorities will not change in the wake of the election. Regarded as the most pro-Russian of the four candidates, Khajimba has made clear that he favors negotiating a new treaty with the Russian Federation that would include the possibility of Abkhazia concluding an association agreement with, if not becoming a member of, the Eurasian Economic Union. He told "Izvestia" that treaty will be signed by the end of the year.

Khajimba also takes a tough line on relations with Georgia, affirming that "any attempts to try to persuade Abkhazia to become part of Georgia are senseless." At the same time, he told "Izvestia" Abkhazia would welcome the reopening of the railway running across its territory that links southern Russia with Georgia and Armenia.

Arguably the most daunting problem Khajimba and his team faces is the republic's moribund economy. In the six years since Moscow formally recognized Abkhazia's independence, millions of rubles' worth of subsidies have either been misspent or disappeared: Khajimba told "Izvestia" that the prosecutor's office is investigating how and why.

The task of reviving the economy (largely dependent on seasonal tourism) and reducing unemployment (currently at 70 percent) is all the more problematic insofar as the Russian leadership plans to slash subsidies by 80 percent and instead offer low-interest credits, while insisting that the Abkhaz leadership act independently to attract badly needed investment.

But that too is unlikely to be easy, especially in light of Abkhazia's ambiguous geopolitical status: its independence is formally recognized only by Russia and a handful of other states. The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted expert Sergei Markov as pointing out that at present there are only a handful of Turkish and European businessmen active in Abkhazia. Khajimba's expression of support on August 25 for Ukraine's separatist Donetsk People's Republic is hardly likely to enhance Abkhazia's attractiveness even to the most imaginative and least risk-averse international entrepreneurs. (That expression of support may in fact be linked to hopes that an unnamed Indian investor who has reportedly expressed interest in reviving the coal-mining industry in Khajimba's native Tkuarchal district will succeed in his plans to purchase the necessary equipment in Donetsk.)

Even Russian businessmen may be deterred from investing in Abkhazia, at least in agriculture and tourism, by the current legislation that prohibits them from buying or owning land there. 

-- Liz Fuller


Abkhazia Braces For Tumultuous Presidential Vote

One of the leaders of the Abkhaz opposition, Raul Khajimba (left), looks the most likely victor, especially after receiving the backing of actingPresident Valery Bganba (right).

On August 24, the 132,861 registered voters in Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia will elect a new president to succeed Aleksandr Ankvab, who stepped down in early June, five days after protesters mobilized by the opposition Coordinating Council stormed the presidential administration building

The outcome of the ballot is too close to predict, although the most recent in a series of weekly opinion polls suggests that longtime opposition leader and Coordinating Council head Raul Khajimba, who is running for the fourth time, might just receive the 50 percent-plus-one vote required for a first-round victory.

The election campaign has been tense, turbulent, and controversial, despite what Russian analyst Alla Yazkova termed the widespread perception of Abkhazia as "a fortress under siege." On August 20, Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua escaped injury when someone tossed an explosive device into the courtyard of his home in Sukhumi. It is not clear whether there is any connection between that incident and the systematic official disenfranchisement of some 22,800 Georgian residents of Abkhazia's Gali, Tkuarchal, and Ochamchira districts who are deemed to have been granted Abkhaz citizenship in violation of the law.

A public expression of support for Khajimba's candidacy by the acting president and parliament speaker, Valery Bganba, and 19 other parliament members was denounced by a rival candidate and members of the Public Chamber as a violation of the constitution and/or the election law.

Of the five men who officially sought to register as candidates, four were successful. The fifth, former Deputy Prime Minister Beslan Eshba, failed the mandatory examination to assess his fluency in the Abkhaz language. 

The four registered candidates, all of them with a background in the military, police, or security forces, are

•     Khajimba, 56, is a career KGB officer who despite the Kremlin's overt support lost the first round of the November 2004 presidential ballot to Sergei Bagapsh. Khajimba then ran as vice-presidential candidate with Bagapsh in the repeat vote, but resigned in May 2009 due to unspecified disagreements. He ran unsuccessfully against Bagapsh in the December 2009 ballot in which Bagapsh was reelected for a second term, and placed third with 19.83 percent of the vote in the August 2011 election necessitated by Bagapsh's premature death. His support base is the parties aligned in the Coordinating Council, the intelligentsia, and owners of small and medium businesses. 

•     Mirab Kishmaria, 53, was a career officer in the Soviet Army (he was wounded in Afghanistan) who in 1989 returned to Abkhazia, where he distinguished himself as a commander during the 1992-93 war with Georgia that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto but unrecognized (until 2008, by Russia) independence. In November 1993 he was named Abkhazia's deputy defense minister and in June 2007 defense minister. He enjoys the backing of the military and of the population of his native Ochamchira district.

•     Aslan Bzhania, 51, began his career as a Komsomol activist then entered the KGB. He returned to Abkhazia in 1992 to work in the State Security Service, but left after the end of the 1992-93 war to engage in business in Moscow. He also served from 2009-10 as an adviser at the Abkhaz diplomatic representation in Moscow. In February 2010, Bagapsh appointed him to head the State Security Service. He is supported primarily by the government and bureaucracy appointed by outgoing President Ankvab, Russian businessmen with interests in Abkhazia, and the impoverished rural population desperate for state support.

•     Leonid Dzapshba, 53, is a retired police major general who spent virtually his entire career in the Interior Ministry, serving as Abkhazia's interior minister from September 2010 until October 2011, when he was constrained to resign over the illegal distribution of passports.

The candidates' priorities are strikingly similar in most respects, even though none of them has prepared a detailed election manifesto. Kishmaria and Bzhania both admit that they do not have a detailed presidential program as they were not anticipating an early election and "you can't draft such a program in the space of one month."  Even Khajimba is quoted as saying he would need 100 days to do so. All agree on the need to negotiate a new framework treaty with Russia , on which the region is heavily dependent financially, and for a comprehensive program to galvanize the economy.


The four candidates have nonetheless endorsed a 15-point "Social-Political Agreement" enumerating the "first essential steps" the new president should take, regardless of his political and ideological views, and stipulating the time frame for doing so. They include preserving the region's "sovereign status"; adopting measures to improve the demographic situation; cracking down on corruption; and drafting medium- and long-term social and economic development programs and a military doctrine.

Khajimba, Kishmaria, and Dzapshba signed the agreement on August 11, while Bzhania, who initially proposed unspecified revisions, did so a week later.

In fact, the sole major issue on which the four disagree is the chain of events that led to Ankvab's resignation. Kishmaria argues that while the opposition's frustration and anger with Ankvab's refusal to discuss their demands was entirely justified, "removing the president from power by force cannot be considered a legal basis for the president's resignation."

Bzhania for his part told a congress of the political party Amtsakhara on July 17 that supports his candidacy that "what happened on May 27 is clearly defined in Abkhazia's Criminal Procedural Code." Khajimba's supporters immediately construed that statement as a threat to bring to trial not just those persons who forced their way into the presidential palace on the night of May 27, but the organizers (including Khajimba himself) of the protest meeting that preceded it.

Bzhania subsequently backpedalled, affirming his intention to "turn the page and make a fresh start," and stressing that the most important thing is to ensure that a situation never again arises in which such action is perceived as the sole solution. But his rating has fallen since then, calling into question the conviction, widely held at the start of the campaign, that a runoff will be required between himself and Khajimba.

As in 2011, the candidates signed a formal Agreement of Social Accord pledging to ensure that the ballot is free and fair and not to resort to unethical behavior or to badmouth each other. But that commitment has not been universally honored. On August 17, Khajimba supporters temporarily occupied the state TV and radio building with the stated objective of preventing the broadcast by Bzhania's campaign staff of what Khajimba termed "inflammatory" and derogatory material.


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.