Monday, January 26, 2015

Shock Waves From Insurgency Commanders' Defection To IS Felt Beyond North Caucasus

Akhmad Umarov speaks in the video.

The decision late last year by several prominent North Caucasus insurgency commanders to retract their oath of allegiance to Caucasus Emirate leader Aliaskhab Kebekov (Sheikh Ali Abu-Mukhammad) and pledge loyalty to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has apparently engendered confusion and discord not only across the North Caucasus but within the Chechen diaspora community.

That at least is the message conveyed by Akhmad Umarov (nom de guerre Abu Khamza), the brother of Caucasus Emirate (IK) founder and leader Doku Umarov and the IK's official representative abroad, in a 15-minute video address posted last week on, the website of the Chechen wing of the North Caucasus insurgency.

In that video footage, Umarov requests a statement of moral support from Kebekov and Emir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev), the commander of the Chechen insurgency wing, in response to what he terms the "groundless accusations" dreamed up against him by the pro-IS faction and the latter's "childish" attempts to justify their actions.

He says it is "unacceptable" that those who do not obey Shari'a law "are trying to obstruct us in our work and spread discord," and insists that those persons who do so, whether unwittingly, or at the behest of "enemies of Islam," or in the hope of securing a comfortable post within the IS leadership, should be held responsible under Shari'a law, and will answer for their actions on Judgment Day.

Umarov appeals to Kebekov and Khamzat to explain why Chechen commanders are violating their oath of loyalty to Kebekov and their theological arguments for doing so. He says failure to clarify their arguments will only deepen the split between the two factions.

Umarov then presents his superiors with a choice: either to issue a statement of support for the stance adopted by the IK representation abroad with regard to the defections to IS that would make clear to all fighters from Chechnya and Daghestan that they should "abide by all demands that do not contradict the Koran and Sunna," meaning remain loyal to Kebekov. Or, "if you have doubts about what we are saying and our sincerity, then we ask you to appoint new people to replace us and dismiss us from our posts. If you have faith and confidence in us, then we ask you to grant us additional powers to restore order and establish a strict and functional system in accordance with Shari'a law to address urgent questions which it is imperative to resolve -- questions concerning religion, politics, and social, financial, and informational issues."

Umarov then addresses Chechen fighters both in the Caucasus and beyond "who are trying to help the cause and to defend our religion and honor," urging them to take a clear stance against the renegade faction. He says he can provide an explanation for what that faction "is saying behind our backs," but does not say what those criticisms are.

With regard to Syria (he does not use the toponym "Sham" favored by the Chechens fighting there), Umarov affirms unequivocally that "any fighter who travels to Syria to take part in jihad there should understand that he will have to answer for that on Judgment Day. We appeal to you, especially to the young people of the Vilayat Nokhchiicho [Chechnya], to stay where you are. Your holy duty today is jihad in the defend our land, the territory of the Caucasus Emirate," from the "primary foe" in the person of the Kremlin regime and its apostate collaborators, meaning the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership.

Given that Umarov speaks in very general terms, it is impossible to assess the extent of support among IK fighters for IS and the magnitude of the threat that faction poses to the cohesion of the insurgency ranks. But his request for "additional powers" suggests he faces a serious challenge.

Since the statements of support for Baghdadi by six Chechen and Daghestani commanders last month, several insurgency commanders from Chechnya and Ingushetia who for reasons they do not specify are no longer in the Caucasus have reaffirmed their loyalty to Kebekov. So too has Emir Salim (Zalim Shebzukhov), commander of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai insurgency wing.

-- Liz Fuller

'Integration' With Russia Rives South Ossetia's Political Scene

Parliamentary speaker Anatoly Bibilov's One Ossetia party is advocating a far closer degree of "integration" with Russia than the region's leadership is apparently prepared to condone.

As was the case in Abkhazia three months ago, the process of signing a new strategic treaty on relations with Russia has triggered controversy in Georgia's other breakaway and largely unrecognized republic, South Ossetia. But whereas in Abkhazia, government and opposition alike were concerned that the provisions of the initial draft threatened to nix the republic's hard-won quasi-independent status, in South Ossetia the legislature and executive are at odds.

Specifically, the Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) party, which controls 20 of the 34 seats in the parliament elected in June 2014, is advocating a far closer degree of "integration" with Russia than the region's leadership is apparently prepared to condone. Its chairman, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, had called in January 2014 for the holding of a nationwide referendum on whether South Ossetia should enter the Russian Federation as a separate federation subject.

More recently, Bibilov has argued that "the parameters of cooperation enshrined in the treaty on union relations and strategic partnership between Russia and Abkhazia...are not adequate for South Ossetia and do not meet her long-term interests," and that signing a treaty modeled on the Russian-Abkhaz one would be "a pure formality" that would not lead to "a breakthrough" in bilateral relations.

The initial draft of the Russian-South Ossetian treaty, prepared by Moscow, was published on December 20 for public discussion. It was clearly modeled closely on, and bore the same working title, On Union Relations And Integration, as did the original draft of the Russia-Abkhazia treaty, which was subsequently changed to On Union Relations And Strategic Partnership.

Article 1 of the initial Russia-South Ossetia draft duplicated the provision contained in Article 3 of the first draft of the Abkhaz-Russian treaty (subsequently reworded) committing the two sides to "a foreign policy agreed [between them]."

Article 2 of the initial draft proposed the merger of military, law enforcement, and security agencies, the judiciary, and customs and excise; called for the creation of a "single economic space" and energy and transport system; and defined as the ultimate objective of the planned "maximal integration" legalizing the incorporation of the Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation as a separate subject on the basis of a nationwide referendum.

The 30-person presidential political council tasked with assessing and amending that draft duly watered down those key provisions.

Article 1 of the amended version duplicates almost verbatim the final version of article 1 of the Abkhaz- Russian treaty, which commits the two parties to working to achieve "a qualitatively new level of regional security, strategic partnership, and integration."

Article 2 of the amended version comprises Article 1 of the initial draft (on an agreed foreign policy) plus a formal commitment by Russia identical to that written into the Russia-Abkhazia treaty to promote the cause of South Ossetia's international recognition as an independent state.

The various provisions of Article 2 of the initial draft were formalized as separate articles (5–11) in the amended draft. The proposed military integration was replaced, however, by the compromise formulation reached in the final version of the Russia-Abkhazia treaty providing for the creation within one year of a Joint Group of Forces (to be formed of contingents from the South Ossetian and Russian armed forces).

The revised version was finalized on January 12, and sent to Moscow, but not published in the local media. Three days later, the leaders of six opposition parties, including the three minority parties in parliament, addressed a formal request to the presidential political council to fill the resulting "information vacuum" which, they said was giving rise to "tensions" within society.

Meanwhile, Bibilov issued a statement denying that his party was no longer participating in the discussion of the draft. He stressed that the political council's approval of the amended draft on January 12 does not preclude further changes to incorporate One Ossetia's proposals.

On January 17, the State Committee for Information and the Press convened a roundtable to discuss the draft to which Bibilov and the leaders of other political parties were invited. Andrey Kochiyev, editor of the official newspaper Osetiya, was quoted as telling participants that the revised version is not definitive and work on it is continuing.

De facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev, participating in his capacity as chairman of the New Ossetia party, responded to that assertion by distributing to the other party leaders and journalists present copies of the January 12 version. Sanakoyev explained that he considered it imperative to do in light of materials posted online construing the removal from the original draft of the commitment that South Ossetia would become part of the Russian Federation as reflecting a pro-Georgian bias on the part of the presidential political council.

Two days later, One Ossetia issued a statement denouncing Sanakoyev and warning that the parliament would not ratify the amended "superficial" version of the treaty which, the party claimed, does not conform to the problems of "deep integration" with Russia and which had not been approved by parliament majority faction. Bibilov for his part warned that the parliament reserves the right to impeach Sanakoyev for having made public the amended version.

New Ossetia duly responded with a statement defending Sanakoyev and describing his distribution of the amended draft as "an absolutely correct and honorable step."

One Ossetia has prepared its own alternative draft treaty, which reportedly restored some of the provisions on integration that had been dropped from the original Russian version. But the extraparliamentary opposition party Fidaen, many of whose members took up arms in August 2008 to repel Georgia's bid to bring South Ossetia back under the central government's control, claims that text violates the South Ossetian constitution insofar as it advocates what Fidaen termed "the complete liquidation" of South Ossetia's defense and security bodies.

Meeting on January 21, the presidential political council reaffirmed its approval of the January 12 amended version of the treaty. It also suggested to de facto President Leonid Tibilov that he personally appoint South Ossetia's representatives to a joint South Ossetian-Russian working group that will hammer out the final version of the treaty.

Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Gobozov, chairman of South Ossetia's State Committee for Information and the Press and of the extraparliamentary opposition Socialist party Fydybasta, has sought to downplay the differences between political forces with regard to the treaty, describing them as "normal" and "tactical rather than strategic." Gobozov appealed to all political parties and the media not to "politicize" the treaty, observing that "none of us has a monopoly either on patriotism or on truth in the last instance."

-- Liz Fuller

The Unstoppable Rise Of Ramzan Kadyrov

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a rally in Grozny on January 19 against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who celebrated his 38th birthday on October 5, may not yet be the second-most-powerful political figure in the Russian Federation. But that is not for want of self-promotion. He is already certainly the most colorful/flamboyant, arguably the most quoted (after his surrogate father and political patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin), and probably the most feared, not only across the North Caucasus but by those elsewhere in Russia who are already asking themselves what will happen if Putin leaves office, and who might succeed him.

Kadyrov's current pre-eminence is all the more impressive given that it was only in the early summer of 2004, following the death of his father Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in a terrorist bombing that has never been solved, that he was first appointed to a government position -- as deputy prime minister of the Chechen Republic -- despite having only a rudimentary secondary education. Before that, he had gained notoriety as commander of his father's private security force, many of whose members were former resistance fighters who had availed themselves of successive amnesties. In that respect, Kadyrov's rise to power has been a classic example of Mao Tse-Tung's maxim that "all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Even at that juncture, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur for Chechnya, Andreas Gross, predicted that Ramzan Kadyrov would eventually succeed his father as Chechen president.

So how did he do it? It has become accepted wisdom that after Akhmed-hadji's death, Putin gave Ramzan carte blanche to resort to whatever means he considered expedient to stamp out the Chechen resistance and cow the long-suffering population into submission, in return for which the Russian government made available vast sums of money for postconflict reconstruction and conveniently turned a blind eye when Kadyrov diverted part of that cash for his own personal use. (The basic cost of maintaining his stable of mostly fifth-rate racehorses has been estimated at 24 million rubles [$367,471] per year, not including trainers' fees and the cost of transport to and from European race courses.)

Kadyrov was promoted to first deputy premier in October 2004 following the election of Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov as republican president. (In fact, Alkhanov was purely a figurehead, and Kadyrov's security forces did all they could to undermine him.) In that capacity, Kadyrov coordinated and presided over a mass-scale program to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000, transforming Grozny from the wasteland of half- or totally destroyed buildings that shocked even Putin into a functioning city. That reconstruction effort was funded largely by aid from the federal government, but also by "voluntary" contributions extorted from the small minority of Chechens fortunate enough to have jobs, and from wealthy Chechen businessmen based in Moscow.

Massive Rally In Grozny Hails Islamic Prophet, Assails West


In February 2007, once Kadyrov had reached the minimum age of 30, Putin duly nominated him as Chechen Republic president.

Over the years, Kadyrov has played many roles: elder-brother figure and patron of sports clubs for teenagers; authoritarian micro-manager following up on residents' complaints about water supplies; President Putin's most loyal supporter; defender of "Chechen Islam," blogger, movie star, and playboy of the Russky mir routinely inviting such Western celebrities as violinist Vanessa Mae and movie stars Jean-Claude van Damme and Hilary Swank to Grozny to attend his 35th birthday celebration.

Kadyrov's initial success in rebuilding Grozny and other towns was largely the result of delegating responsibility to a handful of trusted cronies: Kadyrov is not so much Mr. Fix-it as Mr. Make-sure-YOU-fix-it-by-yesterday-or-God-help-you-and-your-wife-and-kids. That said, he is fiercely loyal to those of his subordinates who consistently deliver the goods -- providing they never question his authority.

Anyone who does, or who is perceived as a threat, is either constrained to flee Chechnya or ends up dead, like the brothers Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, the one a Hero of Russia and State Duma deputy, the other commander of the Vostok battalion subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry. Both had been stalwart supporters and close associates of Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov. They were gunned down by hired killers in Moscow and Dubai in September 2008 and March 2009 respectively.

Kadyrov's authoritarian leadership style is reflected in this video clip, in which he contemptuously tells subordinates that it is he who gives orders in Chechnya and that the Kadyrov family alone is in charge. What is more, those orders extend far beyond economic issues to encompass education and, crucially, religion. Kadyrov clearly sees himself both as defender and definer of the faith, in his case a bizarre synthesis of traditional Sunni Islam and selected elements of Chechen Sufism that one insurgent scornfully dismissed as "a hodge-podge of Sufi fairy-tales and local adats [traditional precepts]."

There can be no doubt that Kadyrov has transformed the face of Chechnya, rebuilding infrastructure, mosques, schools, hospitals, and assiduously soliciting foreign investment in economic projects that he claims have reduced unemployment from 76.9 percent in May 2008 to 15.4 percent in December 2014.

He has had less success, however, in breaking the back of the insurgency. True, in 2005-06 there was a lull in military activity due primarily to the vacuum left by the deaths of Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov and renegade field commander and tactical wizard Shamil Basayev. By April 2008, however, the insurgency was again strong enough to mobilize 400-500 fighters to occupy five villages west and southwest of Grozny, taking prisoner up to 15 of Kadyrov's men and killing 18.

Two years later, the insurgents launched two high-profile attacks in as many months, one on Kadyrov's home village of Khosi-Yurt and the second on the Chechen parliament building.

By that time, however, Kadyrov's influence had already spread to encompass most of the North Caucasus. He had launched regional initiatives, such as a North Caucasus Parliamentary Association in which his close associate, Chechen Parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, plays a key role. And it was Kadyrov's police and security guards who were deployed to guard Makhachkala's central square when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Daghestan in April 2010.

More to the point, Kadyrov had established himself as the unofficial political leader of Russia's estimated 20 million Muslims by presiding over the building of mosques (including the largest mosque in Europe, named after his father), five schools for hafizes, and a clinic for the practice of Islamic medicine. (Never mind that he is seemingly unable to quote a single sura from the Koran).

It was thus no surprise to anyone when Medvedev duly nominated Kadyrov in February 2011 to serve a second term as Chechen president.

Since then, federal level politicians who once spoke of him disparagingly have begun to do so with respect. Former Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin, for example, had quipped in May 2009 a propos of Kadyrov's claim in his annual income declaration to have earned just 3.4 million rubles the previous year and to own only a small apartment in Grozny that "the entire republic belongs to Ramzan Kadyrov."

During a subsequent visit to Chechnya in June 2013, however, Stepashin could not praise Kadyrov and his achievements highly enough, referring to Chechnya as a role model for other Russian regions.

All this is not to overlook the fact that observers have periodically predicted that at some point Kadyrov would go too far in terms of his tasteless self-promotion and intemperate pronouncements, and the Kremlin would finally take steps to rein him in. Such speculation surfaced in April 2014, based on the assumption that Kadyrov had enjoyed immunity in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but that once the games ended he was vulnerable.

Whether or not there were solid grounds for such speculation, the fighting that erupted in southeastern Ukraine in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea presented Kadyrov with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty, his usefulness, and his cynicism, by dispatching his security forces to fight on the side of the pro-Russian separatist forces and then disowning them as "volunteers" who had traveled to Ukraine without the knowledge or approval of the Chechen authorities. In late May, the Financial Times quoted a Chechen fighter named Zelimkhan who said he and his comrades in arms had just been sent to Ukraine on Kadyrov's orders. More recently, Pavel Gubarev, former head of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," told a journalist that Kadyrov "provides us with a huge amount of help, both militarily and in other respects."

Kadyrov's clandestine contribution to Putin's strategy of dismembering Ukraine, and his intermediary's role in securing the release last summer of two Russian journalists taken prisoner by the Ukrainian authorities have cemented his standing as a federal politician with no clearly defined position. The same holds true for his status as a military commander (although he holds the rank of an Interior Ministry major general).

Carnegie Moscow Center veteran analyst Dmitry Trenin recently characterized Kadyrov as Putin's "irregular fighter, and his mission is to take on Russia's -- and Putin's -- enemies." Kadyrov himself has confirmed his readiness to act in that capacity, affirming earlier this month that Chechnya has thousands of volunteer fighters who are ready "to fulfill any military command from Russia's commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin" and to defend Russia's interests anywhere on the planet, including in circumstances where the deployment of "the regular army, air force, navy or nuclear forces" is inexpedient.

Trenin went on to suggest that it is because Kadyrov is both able and willing to act in that capacity that he "has a license to say and do things no one else has," "without having to clear them with anyone in advance," such as threatening former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Ekho Moskvy head Aleksei Venediktov in response to their statements in connection with the January 7 terrorist attack in Paris on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Kadyrov may invite ridicule by his blustering and posturing. But in an article published last month in the weekly Versiya, Ruslan Gorevoy quoted analyst Andrei Okara as saying Kadyrov and Putin are "the only two real politicians in Russia today," the remainder being "either bureaucrats, or propagandists, or clowns."

Assuming that Kadyrov really is the second-most-powerful political figure in Russia, any number of questions still remain unanswered. First, what is the precise relationship between him and Putin? Did Putin realize Kadyrov's potential as a national military leader and play Pygmalion, molding him into a figure who would willingly undertake commissions that violate international law? Or did Kadyrov take advantage of the freedom of action and total impunity Putin gave him in order to indulge some psychopathic tendencies and insatiable appetite for power?

More crucially, has Kadyrov indeed become the tail that wags the Kremlin dog? Or does Putin still retain some hold over him? Judging by Putin's warning to Kadyrov last month that he should abide by Russian law rather than engage in extrajudicial reprisals against insurgents' families, that is the impression Putin would like to give.

Finally, will Kadyrov eventually demand some more senior official position in recognition of Putin's dependence on him, and if so, what might it be? Or will he be constrained to content himself with the twin roles of commander of what amounts to Putin's private army and unofficial spokesman for Russia's Muslims?

-- Liz Fuller

Interethnic Tensions On Rise in Daghestan In Run-Up To Jubilee

Ramazan Abdulatipov condemned any attempts at fueling interethnic tensions in Daghestan.

Among the numerous seemingly intractable problems facing the Republic of Daghestan leadership, that of relations between the region’s numerous ethnic groups is frequently eclipsed by the Islamic insurgency, endemic corruption, and the pressing need to attract investment with a view to galvanizing the stagnating economy.

But long-standing tensions between the Lezgin and Azerbaijani communities in the southern town of Derbent have flared up again over the past week, just as Daghestan’s government is stepping up its preparations to celebrate on a grand scale in September the 2000th anniversary of Derbent’s foundation.

The Azerbaijanis and Lezgins each account for some 35-36 percent of Derbent’s population of 120,000. The town mayor, Imam Yaraliyev, is a Lezgin.

Three cases have been reported of damage to or destruction of monuments in Derbent to prominent Azeris.

The first reported case involved the tomb of a venerated Azeri cleric, Seid Mir-Ghafar Aga. Precisely what happened and when is unclear. The website reported on January 7 that the tomb had been destroyed the previous night and that respected members of the Azerbaijani community had only with difficulty persuaded their co-ethnics not to launch a mass protest.

On January 9, Caucasus Knot reported having received an SMS late the previous evening saying the tomb was destroyed during the night of January 7-8.
The republican news agency RIA Daghestan, however, reported later on January 9 that at the end of December, the headstone was found to have toppled over and been partly damaged. The reason was said to be unclear, but vandalism was not suspected. Repair work has reportedly been successfully completed.

That RIA Daghestan report condemned what it termed unreliable claims about multiple “instances of vandalism” in Derbent posted to the Internet with the express intention of “destabilizing the situation” and fomenting interconfessional and interethnic conflict. It failed to mention a second incident in which the monument in Derbent to the 12th-century Azerbaijani poet Nizami of Ganca (who wrote in Persian) was vandalized during the night of January 8-9.

In addition, a monument to Hero of the Soviet Union Shamsula Aliyev, a Red Army officer from Derbent killed in November 1943 during the battle for Kerch, has reportedly been dismantled.

It is not clear whether there is any connection between three incidents. The initial report had suggested that the damage to the Muslim cleric’s grave may have been the work of local Salafis.

There was no immediate response from the government of the Azerbaijan Republic. But former Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov, now head of the Moscow-based Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Azerbaijanis in Russia (AzerRos), apparently lodged a formal complaint on January 9 with Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. Abdulatipov condemned as unacceptable any attempts at fueling interethnic tensions in Daghestan. He assured Abbasov he will personally monitor the investigation into the damage caused, and immediately dispatched to Derbent a commission headed by a first deputy prime minister.

A subsequent statement by the Daghestani leadership on January 10 again condemned what it termed attempts to sow suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of Daghestan and Azerbaijan. That statement blamed those “rumors” on unnamed “persons who, abusing their ethnicity, have become accustomed to engage in dirty deals, extortion, and corruption” and have since been dismissed from their posts.

It is not clear whether that formulation is a particularly clumsy and unconvincing attempt to discredit former Derbent district head Kurban Kurbanov, who was constrained to step down last fall and is currently under arrest on suspicion of abusing his official position. Why, after all, should Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani, have instigated damage to monuments to fellow Azerbaijanis?

Meanwhile, some 200 Derbent residents staged a protest demonstration on January 10 to demand Yaraliyev’s resignation. In an appeal to Abdulatipov, they enumerated their complaints against the municipal authorities, including the exclusion of one district badly hit by flooding in 2012 from the jubilee restoration program. It is not clear to which ethnic group the protesters belonged. 

Ignoring those protests, the municipal council convene on January 13 and reelected Yaraliyev as mayor in accordance with the legislation enacted last fall abolishing direct elections for the post of city mayor.

At least some of the renovation work in Derbent in the run-up to the jubilee celebration is being carried out by construction companies from the Azerbaijan Republic. The private Ata Holding, for example, has undertaken to renovate a street named after deceased President Heidar Aliyev and the park in which the monument to Nizami of Ganca stands. The company will also build an Olympic sports complex in the park. The total cost of the construction and renovation work was estimated at 1 billion rubles ($16.13 million). That apparent altruism has only compounded some Lezgins’ fears of irredentist aspirations in Baku, given that some Azerbaijani scholars openly claim that Derbent was historically an Azerbaijani town.

-- Liz Fuller

New Abkhaz Leader Accused Of Failing To Deliver On Election Promises

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba

January 3 marked 100 days since the inauguration of Raul Khajimba as de facto president of the largely unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia.

Khajimba defeated three rival candidates in a preterm election in August, three months after the opposition Coordinating Council he headed succeeded in forcing the resignation of incumbent Aleksandr Ankvab in a bloodless but unconstitutional coup.

In his inauguration address, Khajimba singled out as his most immediate priorities systemic reform, state-building, and uniting a nation split into “us” and “them.” He also stressed the need to sign, before the end of the year, a new treaty on relations with Russia.

That treaty has indeed been signed and ratified, albeit after heated public debate. But the opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) that had supported Ankvab released a statement two weeks ago dismissing Khajimba’s professed commitment to democracy and openness as purely declaratory. The statement expressed “regret” that the new leadership “has still not set about implementing its pre-election promises and has not begun to implement a policy aimed at overcoming the split in society.” It went on to criticize what it termed the authorities’ disinclination to listen to dissenting voices and recourse to unspecified measures “to settle accounts” with those who did not support them.

Refusal to listen to criticism and the failure to launch desperately needed reforms had figured high on the list of the Coordinating Council’s grievances against Ankvab. A former vice president and Interior Minister, Ankvab had been elected president in August 2011 following the untimely death from lung cancer of Sergei Bagapsh. Khajimba polled third in that ballot with 19.83 percent of the vote. Within 18 months, opposition parties, including Khajimba’s Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia, had thrown down the gauntlet to Ankvab, staging protests in the capital, Sukhum(i), to demand the dismissal of Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya. Ankvab rejected that demand point-blank.

In July-August 2013, 11 political parties and movements, including Khajimba’s Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia, aligned in a Coordinating Council with the stated objective of “jointly drafting a political platform aimed at overcoming the crisis in society and creating conditions for implementing political and economic reforms.”

In late April 2014, the Coordinating Council issued a further statement deploring the authorities’ failure to implement urgently needed political and economic reform. The opposition demanded from Ankvab the dismissal of the cabinet and the prosecutor-general, the formation of a "government of national unity" headed by a candidate of their choice, and sweeping constitutional changes transferring to the prime minister many of the powers currently invested in the president. 

Ankvab again refused.

Four weeks later, on May 27, the Coordinating Council convened a popular assembly that culminated in the storm of the presidential palace, Ankvab’s retreat to the Russian military base in Gudauta, the formation by the Coordinating Council of a 21-person provisional Council of Popular Trust, the designation by law-makers of parliament speaker Valery Bganba as acting president, and finally, on June 1, Ankvab’s resignation. 

Whether, having finally been elected president after three failed attempts over 10 years (in 2004, 2009, and 2011), Khajimba would be willing to deliver on the Coordinating Council’s demand and delegate some presidential powers to the cabinet and parliament was one of the questions analysts began to pose within days of his election victory. Inal Khashig, editor of the newspaper “Chegemskaya pravda,” was confident that “Khajimba understands that if he does not share power with the parliament and political parties, neither he nor the country has a future.”

Moscow scholar Aleksei Malashenko, by contrast, was more sceptical, affirming that “political reforms in a half-traditional multiethnic society dependent on Russia are possible [only] in a pitched battle when you have a free hand. And Khajimba’s hands are tied.”

Speaking in late November on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Republic of Abkhazia constitution, Khajimba recalled that during the presidential election campaign, he had highlighted the need for constitutional amendments redistributing powers between the branches of government and creating a system of checks and balances that would result in a more balanced system of government. He pledged to sign in “the very near future” a decree establishing a commission on constitutional reform, but no official notification that he has done so has been posted on the government website

Just two weeks later, Khajimba outlined a rather more nebulous time frame for overcoming what he termed “the pernicious traditions that have emerged within society of lack of respect for the state.” Khajimba told journalists that “in the course of the year we must draft a packet of legal reforms, including constitutional [reforms]. At the same time, the reforms should not lead to the destabilization of the political situation and the weakening of the levers of power. This question requires detailed analysis.”

One could argue in Khajimba’s defense that he may not have anticipated the negative public reaction to the first draft of the new Abkhaz-Russian treaty and the time and effort needed to negotiate an amended version acceptable to both his domestic critics (in the first instance Amtsakhara) and to Moscow. Equally, the process of drafting constitutional amendments should not be rushed. (Abkhazia’s National Assembly is reportedly assessing the comparative merits of several reform proposals.)

At the same time, there is no excuse for Khadjimba’s failure to deliver on election pledges that require only his signature on a decree. Two weeks prior to the August presidential ballot, all four candidates signed 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.

Among the specific provisions of that agreement for which Khadjimba has apparently failed to meet the deadline, meaning that there has been no report on official websites that they have been implemented, are"

-- Making it a criminal offense to lobby or call for changes to unspecified articles of the Republic of Abkhazia constitution (by January 1, 2015)

-- Making public a list of all state property privatized or leased to private persons between 1993-2014 (by December 1, 2014)

-- Introducing treasury control over budget spending (by January 1, 2015)

-- Imposing a moratorium on the extraction of minerals pending the adoption of an Ecological Doctrine (by January 1, 2015)

-- Liz Fuller

Blogger Arrested in Daghestan

Murad Nurmagomedov

Murad Nurmagomedov, 28, computer programmer, blogger, and author of a popular video clip in which prominent Muslims criticize the practice of celebrating the Julian New Year, was arrested on December 31 in Makhachkala on suspicion of illegal possession of arms.

He is being held in solitary confinement.

The independent weekly Chernovik for which Nurmagomedov used to work quoted his relatives as saying that operatives from the Center to Counter Extremism apprehended Nurmagomedov as he was traveling by minibus taxi to a Makhachkala clinic to arrange for his mother to undergo surgery. A search of his person yielded a hand grenade, which one of his friends told the website Caucasus Knot was clearly planted.

Later the same day, masked police officers conducted a search of the hostel room where Nurmagomedov lived with his wife and two small children. The statutory two witnesses were present during the search, but the police refused to allow Nurmagomedov’s wife, Nailya Dalgatova, to call a lawyer.

They “found” in a cupboard used for storing the children’s toys a parcel that when unwrapped contained a second grenade and ammunition that Dalgatova says were planted there. They also confiscated allegedly “extremist” literature, including a copy of A Muslim’s Fortress, a classic compilation of prayers of supplication and invocation.

Friends characterized Nurmagomedov as “quiet, peaceable, and with no radical ideas” and as an exemplary husband and father.

Nurmagomedov has not yet been formally charged. He is to appear in court on January 5, according to his lawyer, Ziyavudin Uvaysov.

Nurmagomedov’s anti-New Year video clip was uploaded on December 31, 2011, and has since received more than 150,000 views.

The following year, up to a dozen young Muslims in the towns of Khasavyurt and Izberbash were detained while distributing leaflets condemning as a pagan tradition the celebration of the Julian New Year.

Daghestan’s Interior Minister, then major general, now Lieutenant General, Abdurashid Magomedov, publicly defended as “a festival of children’s laughter” the practice of marking New Year with a New Year tree and gifts.​

-- Liz Fuller


Six North Caucasus Insurgency Commanders Transfer Allegiance To Islamic State

Over the past six weeks, at least three Chechen and three Daghestani commanders have pledged loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sixteen months after his death, the continued viability of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) proclaimed by then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov in the fall of 2007 is open to question.

Over the past six weeks, at least three Chechen and three Daghestani commanders have retracted their oath of obedience (bayat) to Umarov’s successor as Caucasus Emirate leader, the Avar theologian Sheikh Ali Abu-Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov), and pledged loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

How many more rank-and-file fighters have done likewise is unclear, but Kebekov’s warning of an imminent split within the insurgency ranks suggests the number is not insignificant.

The renegade commanders in question are:

-- Sultan Zaynalabidov (his surname is frequently misspelled Zaylanabidov), amir of Daghestan’s Aukh sector within the Khasavyurt district that borders on Chechnya. Video footage in which Zaynalabidov pledged loyalty to Baghdadi was reportedly posted on YouTube in late November, some six weeks after Zaynalabidov’s fellow commander Islam Abu-Ibragim denounced him for sowing dissent among the insurgency ranks, but has since been removed.

-- Rustam Aselderov (or Asildarov, nom de guerre Abu-Mukhammad Kadarsky), whom Umarov named commander of the Daghestan insurgency wing in the late summer of 2012. Aselderov was born in Kalmykia and reportedly joined the insurgency in Daghestan after being tried and acquitted in 2007 on a charge of illegal possession of weapons.

-- Abu-Mukhammad Agachaulsky (Arslan-Ali Kambulatov), commander of one of the militant groups operating in and around Makhachkala. In November 2013, he warned the Daghestani authorities that the insurgents would no longer demonstrate restraint but would “kill you together with your relatives, neighbors, and all those loyal to you” in retaliation for the killing of “peaceful Muslim women and children,” presumably meaning insurgents’ family members killed in the course of counterterror operations.

A video clip in which Aselderov and Kambulatov announced the transfer of their allegiance from Kebekov and the IK to Baghdadi and IS was posted on You Tube on December 20, but has since been removed. Aselderov reportedly claimed that most militants in Daghestan supported his decision, but apparently did not explain the reason for it.

-- Makhran Saidov (“Yakup”), veteran Chechen fighter and commander of Chechnya’s eastern front, who with his subordinate Usam, commander of the Vedeno sector, reportedly pledged bayat to Baghdadi in video footage uploaded on December 25. But a three-minute clip posted the following day on, the website of the Chechen insurgency wing, shows Saidov pledging bayat to Baghdadi along with two other Chechen commanders identified as Khamzat and Usman. That “Khamzat” is not, however Aslan Byutukayev, amir of the Chechen insurgency wing, who goes by the same nom de guerre.

The reasons for the commanders’ withdrawal of their pledged loyalty to Kebekov remain unclear. In the case of the three Daghestanis, the motivation may be rejection of Kebekov’s more moderate approach to the military component of jihad.

In September 2012, the Russian daily “Kommersant” cited Daghestani security sources as saying that the insurgency wing operating in that republic had split. One wing comprising several autonomous groups still reportedly abided by the requirements of Shari'a law in targeting clerics for assassination only after obtaining adequate evidence of their “guilt.” The second wing was subordinate to Aselderov, who was described as “exceptionally ruthless and cruel even by insurgency standards” and carried out executions simply on the word of their commander.

Kebekov, by contrast, has placed the primary focus on building up a support network within society. In a video address filmed before he was elect as Umarov’s successor, he outlined a vision of jihad not as the low-level insurgency of the past 15 years but as a clandestine ideological struggle within society as a whole in which “we must juxtapose our system to that of the infidels in all directions: political, economic, informational.”

At the same time, Kebekov has urged fighters to desist from suicide-bombings and to seek to avoid inflicting casualties on the civilian population. 

Russian journalist Orkhan Djemal, one of the most perceptive and informed observers of the North Caucasus insurgency, considers it plausible that the Daghestanis collectively rejected Kebekov’s more nuanced concept of jihad. He also suggests that the split within the insurgency ranks is a generational one. Kebekov turned 43 on January 1; Zaynalabidov is 34; Aselderov is 33; and Kambulatov, 30.

That latter explanation does not hold water, however, in the case of Saidov, who is 39. His defection is all the more puzzling given that he endorsed Kebekov unreservedly in video footage filmed some six months ago. In a second video address last summer, Saidov admitted that the insurgency wing in Chechnya is not yet strong enough to retake Grozny but that “we believe that tomorrow we may be strong enough to do so.” Whether that statement means that Saidov and other fighters plan to leave Chechnya temporarily with the specific objective of honing their military skills fighting alongside IS forces is a matter for conjecture.

There has been no reaction to Saidov’s statement from either Byutukayev or Kebekov. But Kebekov, visibly subdued and speaking less assertively than he generally does, and Abu Usman have commented separately on Aselderov’s announcement. Both brand his oath of loyalty to Baghdadi “a betrayal” which they attribute to “jahiliyyah” -- ignorance of questions of Shari'a law and politics, and both make the point that not all scholars recognize Baghdadi as the caliph he has proclaimed himself to be. They also rebuke Aselderov at length for failing to consult either with Kebekov as IK leader or any religious authority.

Abu Usman further recalls that at their last meeting, Aselderov assured him of the need to support Kebekov.

Kebekov concludes his 16-minute address by announcing the appointment of Said Kharakansky, the former commander of the Temirkhanshura sector whom Aselderov named his first naib (deputy) in March 2014, to succeed Aselderov as amir of the Daghestan insurgency wing.

As noted above, it is not clear whether Aselderov’s claim that most fighters in Daghestan support his decision is true, how many IK fighters in all have already decided to join IS, and how many more may do so. Consequently, it is impossible to estimate whether and to what extent the military capacity of IK may have been weakened. Kebekov’s orders that fighters still loyal to him should not cooperate with the dissenting Aselderov faction will not enhance combat readiness or morale, not to mention the possible impact on support personnel.

In an earlier statement made before Aselderov’s withdrawal of his allegiance to Kebekov became public knowledge, Abu Usman acknowledged that some Daghestani militants had transferred their loyalty to IS, but did not specify how many. He appealed to them to return to the fold, arguing that the only consequence of their pledging loyalty to Baghdadi will be “to split the insurgency in Daghestan,” which suggests that, as Aselderov claimed, more than a handful of fighters are involved. On that occasion, too, Abu Usman resorted to the term “betrayal” to describe withdrawing their support for Kebekov “at a time when the entire Russian Army is amassed against a small number of Daghestani fighters.”

In early December, the Chechen insurgency wing mobilized up to a couple of hundred fighters to attack Grozny, but they have not (yet) made good on a subsequent threat to launch a follow-up attack to mark the New Year.

By contrast, the Daghestani insurgency wing apparently lacks strategists capable of planning large-scale military operations and engages instead in ambushing and gunning down police officers, judges, and clerics loyal to the Moscow-backed Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan. According to police Lieutenant Colonel Magomed Khizriyev, there were 103 attacks on police and security personnel in 2014.

If Aselderov’s boast that most Daghestani fighters identify themselves with IS rather than the Caucasus Emirate proves true, the number of such attacks is likely to decline in 2015. In the longer term, assuming there is no parallel mass exodus of fighters from Chechnya, Chechnya may again become the epicenter of IK military activity, while Kebekov continues his efforts to expand his support base among practicing Muslims in Daghestan.

-- 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.