Friday, August 28, 2015

Jury Convicts One Man, Acquits Two In Killing Of Karachayevo-Cherkessia Deputy Prime Minister

Former Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic Deputy Prime Minister Ansar Tebuyev

Liz Fuller

The jury trial of three men charged with the 2004 murder of Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic Deputy Prime Minister Ansar Tebuyev has ended with the acquittal of two of the defendants and the conviction of the third, on whose reportedly inconsistent and contradictory testimony the case was largely based.

The allegations that all three of the accused were subjected by investigators to beatings, psychological pressure, and electric-shock treatments to compel them to incriminate themselves and others are depressingly reminiscent of a second high-profile case currently being heard by the same court: that of former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov.

Tebuyev, a childhood friend of then-Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyyev, was killed on October 18, 2004, in a drive-by shooting on his way to work. 

On August 19, the North Caucasus Military District Court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced an ethnic Karachai former police officer, Artur Tambiyev, to 17 years in a prison camp for his role in the killing. 

Tambiyev claimed to have an alibi for the shooting, as did his two co-defendants, Atam Achmiz, 40, an ethnic Circassian from the Republic of Adygheya, and Oleg Vanchenko, an ethnic Ukrainian from the neighboring Krasnodar Krai.

The court failed to establish the identity of the shooter, having rejected as evidence video footage in which the putative killer was named. The prosecution had identified Achmiz, who was jailed for 4 1/2 years in 2009 on a charge of providing a firearm to a member of the North Caucasus insurgency, as having fired the shots that killed Tebuyev. (Vanchenko is said to have driven the car, and Tambiyev to have given street directions.) The jury, however, was apparently convinced by Achmiz’s argument that he is right-handed, whereas ballistic expertise had indicated that the killer was left-handed.

From the outset, official information about who killed Tebuyev and why was fragmentary and contradictory. A few days after the murder, a senior federal Interior Ministry official announced that police had compiled from eyewitness reports an identikit picture of the shooter, who was said to be of Slavic appearance and aged between 15 and 17.

In September 2005, Batdyyev announced that the murder had been solved. He said two suspects had been apprehended, a third killed, and a search was under way for two more, but did not name any of them.

The two men apprehended were subsequently identified as Marat Chotchayev, 20, a Karachai student, and Marat Albotov, 29. They were tried and found guilty in late 2005 of having stolen in Nevinnomyssk (in Stavropol Krai) in late September 2004 the car used in Tebuyev’s murder. They were not, however, charged with killing him. Tambiyev was arrested in 2006, brought to trial, and jailed for six years for his role in the theft of the car. But he too was not implicated in the actual killing.

There were no further developments in the case until late May 2013, when the arrest of a suspect was announced. Reports differed, however, as to the date and location of the detention and the identity of the man in question.

The Investigative Committee announced that as a result of lengthy investigations, a resident of Karachayevo-Cherkessia’s Malokarachayevsk district was apprehended on May 30 in Cherkessk. The man in question was said to have served a prison term for the theft of the car used in Tebuyev’s murder and to have confessed to the actual killing and named the organizer and other perpetrators.

The Karachayevo-CherkessiaInterior Ministry, for its part, said the suspect was apprehended on May 29 in Sochi. It gave his age as 33, and his place of residence as Rimgorskoye in Malokarachayevsk district -- Chotchayev’s home village.

That characterization led several journalists to identify the suspect as Chotchayev. But Chotchayev was never formally charged, and there has been no further mention of him in connection with the killing.

The daily Kommersant identifies the man apprehended in Sochi as Tambiyev, who is also a native of Malokarachayevsk district, and says it was he who fingered Achmiz and Vanchenko.

Achmiz’s lawyer, Vyacheslav Merzakulov, likewise said Achmiz was incriminated by Tambiyev, and that the entire case against Achmiz was based on Tambiyev’s inconsistent testimony.

Within weeks of the suspect’s arrest , Achmiz was taken from the camp where he was serving his term to Cherkessk, where he claims he was repeatedly tortured and subjected to electric shocks to induce him to confess to killing Tebuyev and to incriminate people, including Vanchenko, whom he had never met.

Achmiz finally confessed under duress to the murder of Tebuyev, but publicly retracted that testimony in court last month.

Vanchenko, who was arrested in early July 2013, was likewise held in solitary confinement in Cherkessk and subjected to electric shocks until he confessed.

Whether or not Tambiyev was the man apprehended in late May, by late 2013 he had confessed to Tebuyev’s murder under a plea bargain. But shortly after his trial began in February 2014, he retracted that confession.

More than a year later, Tambiyev, Achmiz, and Vanchenko went on trial on charges relating to Tebuyev’s murder, plus an additional charge of banditry based on their imputed membership in an armed gang headed by former deputy district police chief Islam Salpagarov (Tambiyev’s boss) that was active from 2003-2005 and that also included Salpagarov’s relative Marat Bostanov. (Salpagarov was killed in 2011.)

Working on the assumption that Salpagarov masterminded Tebuyev’s murder out of personal animosity, the prosecution claimed Tambiyev coopted Achmiz and Vanchenko to kill him for a promised payment of $5,000.

Vanchenko’s defense lawyer Olga Pazy quoted testimony given by Albotov under interrogation in 2006 corroborating that it was Salpagarov who orchestrated Tebuyev’s murder. Albotov reportedly said Bostanov told him that Tambiyev drove the car used in the killing, and that the shots were fired by a man named Nazim Kusheterov.

Albotov and Bostanov are both dead. Kusheterov was sentenced two years ago to 14 years’ imprisonment for his role in the murder in May 2010 of Fral Shebzukhov, an aide to Batdyyev’s successor as KChR president, Boris Ebzeyev.

Achmiz and Vanchenko, both of whom pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them, walked free from the courtroom late last month, having spent over two years in custody prior to and during their trial.

It seems odd that Salpagarov, a Karachai from a predominantly Karachai-populated district, should have co-opted men from other ethnic groups or regions, whose reliability was not proven, to perpetrate a high-profile killing.

Numerous questions remain about Tambiyev’s role, specifically whether new evidence surfaced linking him with Tebuyev’s death, and who induced him to incriminate his two co-defendants and why, but it is unlikely they will ever be answered.

And with Tambiyev behind bars, there is no longer any reason to investigate the persistent rumors linking Tebuyev’s murder and the disappearance and killing one week earlier of a parliamentarian and six prominent businessmen, for which Batdyyev’s then son-in-law Ali Kaitov was subsequently jailed for 17 years. Tebuyev is said to have personally questioned Kaitov about the disappearances just hours before he himself was killed.

Caucasus Emirate Weakened By Death Of New Leader, But Not Defunct

Magomed Suleymanov (aka Abu Usman Gimrinsky) was the third Caucasus Emirate leader to die in less than two years.

Liz Fuller

The death last week in a counterterror operation in central Daghestan of Caucasus Emirate (IK) leader Magomed Suleymanov (aka Abu Usman Gimrinsky) has been widely construed as the coup de grace for an organization already weakened over the past nine months by the large-scale defection of its fighters to the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS).

Yet to affirm, as does Russian analyst Yana Amelina, that the IK is now "clinically dead" is premature.

True, Suleymanov was the third IK leader to die in less than two years. The Chechen Doku Umarov, who first proclaimed the IK in late 2007, died of food poisoning in September 2013; his successor, Aliaskhab Kebekov (an Avar, and the first non-Chechen to be chosen IK head) was killed in a counterterror operation on the outskirts of Buynaksk in April 2015.

But over the past decade, the North Caucasus insurgency has survived the loss of numerous talented commanders and fighters, including Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov (March 2005); field commander Shamil Basayev (July 2006); ideologist Said Buryatsky (March 2010); the group of fighters led by Asker Djappuyev who perpetrated a string of murders in late 2010-early 2011 in Kabardino-Balkaria; and the Chechen brothers Khusayn and Muslim Gakayev (January 2013).

Official casualty figures indicate a decline in the number of major attacks launched over the past two years and a concomitant dramatic fall in casualty figures. But those trends are at least partly the result of more a effective counterterror strategy on the part of the federal security bodies that have systematically rounded up insurgency support personnel, thereby depriving fighters of food and medical supplies and weaponry, and making it more difficult for them to travel between clandestine military bases. That intensified surveillance has also made it even more difficult for the various IK wings to communicate among themselves.

That is not to suggest that the formal transfer by several prominent commanders in Daghestan and Chechnya of their allegiance from the IK to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has had no impact on the IK's effectiveness as a fighting force. But there is no way of estimating what proportion of those who have split with the IK has indeed left the Caucasus to swell the ranks of IS's fighters in Syria.

Similarly unclear is how many were motivated by an unquestioning espousal of IS's ideology and brutal tactics, rather than by pragmatic acceptance that in present conditions it makes more sense to leave for Syria and hone one's military skills there with a view to returning to the North Caucasus to launch a full-scale jihad in a few years' time.

It appears that even though Aslan Byutukayev (Amir Khamzat), the head of the IK wing in Chechnya, has pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in the name of all Chechnya's insurgents, some remain loyal to the IK. Those fighters are reported to have held a series of councils of war in June and early July to discuss the situation and elect a successor to Byutukayev. His identity has not been disclosed. Islamic Committee of Russia head Geydar Djemal suggests that the security forces are systematically targeting IK leaders because they hope IS will take advantage of the insurgency's weakened state to expand operations into the Caucasus. This, according to Djemal, would enhance the importance of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and facilitate the resumption of cooperation between Russian and Western security services that collapsed in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

At the same time, in a seeming contradiction, Djemal acknowledges that if the remnants of the IK are completely subsumed into IS, the FSB "moles" that have infiltrated the IK will no longer be able to transmit information about upcoming operations to their handlers so easily.

Assuming that the IK continues to maintain an independent presence in the North Caucasus, it may still be months before the identity of Suleymanov's successor as IK head becomes known. Akhmet Yarlykapov of the Center for Ethno-Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology predicts that the new leader will be a military commander rather than a religious authority like Kebekov and his fellow Avar Suleymanov. Both Yarlykapov and Russian scholar Mikhail Roshchin regard veteran Chechen commander Aslambek Vadalov as the most likely candidate.

Gadji Abdullayev (aka Abu Dudjana Gimrinsky), who recently returned to Daghestan after a decade studying and then fighting in Syria, might have stood a chance had he not been killed in a counterterror operation on August 16. Alternatively, Chechen historian Ruslan Martagov makes the point that the new leader could be "someone whom we have never heard of," possibly even "a new Said Buryatsky" from outside the North Caucasus.

Derbent Mayor Resigns Ahead Of Jubilee Celebrations

Ramazan Abdulatipov

Liz Fuller

The protracted standoff in Daghestan between Republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov and Imam Yaraliyev, mayor of the southern town of Derbent, has ended with the latter’s purportedly “voluntary” resignation. Russian State Duma deputy Gadjimet Safaraliyev has accepted Abdulatipov’s invitation to take over as acting mayor of the town on the Caspian Sea coast. 

A Lezgin, Yaraliyev is a former Daghestani prosecutor-general who was first elected Derbent mayor in December 2010 with 98.6 percent of the vote. His political influence extends across southern Daghestan, particularly in districts with a majority Lezgin population. The Lezgins are the fourth largest of Daghestan’s 14 titular nationalities. Lezgins and Azerbaijanis each account for 35-36 percent of Derbent’s population of some 120,000.

Rumors of Yaraliyev’s imminent dismissal had been circulating for months, since he adroitly engineered his reelection until 2018 in mid-January. The Daghestan subsidiary of the federal Investigative Committee retaliated by opening a criminal case against Yaraliyev that the Derbent municipal court pronounced unfounded. The possibility that Safaraliyev would be named to a senior post in Derbent was likewise raised as long ago as February.

The consensus among local analysts and commentators quoted by the news site Caucasus Knot is that Yaraliyev’s resignation, whether indeed voluntary or under pressure, is part of Abdulatipov’s ongoing campaign, with Moscow’s backing, to squeeze out political figures whose influence enables them to act independently, and even in defiance, of the republic’s leadership. Both former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov and former Derbent municipal district head Kurban Kurbanov were classic examples of such defiance.

Journalist Milrad Fatullayev points out that Yaraliyev is not currently suspected of any crime (unlike the Kizlyar, Kizilyurt, and Tarumov municipality heads who have likewise been removed from office in the past few weeks), and predicts that he will be offered a new job outside Daghestan, possibly on the staff of the federal Ministry for the North Caucasus.

Most analysts similarly discount any connection between Yaraliyev’s resignation and the chaos surrounding the preparations for the launch in mid-September of celebrations of the 2000th anniversary of the founding of Derbent. With just one month to go, reconstruction and renovation work is still behind schedule, despite frequent tours of inspection and pep talks by senior officials. Daghestan Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov has travelled to Derbent three times in the past month to assess progress, on July 15, July 24, and August 8.

The reasons for the delay are difficult to pinpoint. Some commentators suspect construction work has been held up because the funds allocated by Moscow for that purpose have been used by the republican leadership for other purposes, while others suspect unnamed local officials of pocketing the money. Much of the work that has been done repaving streets and sidewalks was reportedly sub-standard.

Magomed Magomedov, a commentator for the independent weekly Chernovik, has suggested that having failed to dislodge Yaraliyev by other means, the republican leadership set out to sabotage preparations for the Derbent jubilee celebrations with the intention of making Yaraliyev the scapegoat, a fate he has avoided by stepping down at this juncture. Responsibility for the final preparations currently lies with former Justice Minister Azadi Ragimov, an Azerbaijani who was elected Derbent city administration head in late May by a margin of just one vote. One year ago, Ragimov had been Abdulatipov’s preferred candidate to succeed Kurbanov as Derbent municipal district head.

Whether Safaraliyev is to be installed as Derbent mayor before or after the start of the jubilee celebrations is not clear. Fatullayev notes a major legal obstacle to doing so, insofar as following the abolition of direct mayoral elections, the mayor is elected by members of the municipal council from among their number -- and Safaraliyev is not a municipal council member.

In other respects, however, Safaraliyev, 65, conforms to Abdulatipov’s imputed preference for a political figure who will implement orders unquestioningly rather than promote an agenda of his own. He is described as having demonstrated the utmost loyalty to successive Daghestani leaders; devoid of political ambitions; and not aligned with or beholden to any powerful “clan” or interest group.

On the minus side, Safaraliyev is described as an intellectual and political theorist, rather than an economist and hands-on manager. Moreover, he has never lived in Derbent and does not know the town. 

On the other hand, he can presumably call for advice on his co-ethnic and fellow State Duma deputy Murad Gadjiyev, a former chairman of the Derbent city administration, and on a third prominent Lezgin, Presidential Plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus Federal District Sergei Melikov.

Death Toll In North Caucasus Fighting Continues To Fall

A screengrab of Caucasus Islamist insurgent Mukhammad Abu Dudjana Gimrinsky who recently made a video appeal calling on "sincere believers" to join the jihad against "unbelievers."

Liz Fuller

The number of people killed and injured during the first six months of this year in fighting in the North Caucasus between police and security forces and the Islamic insurgency has fallen by almost two-thirds compared with the same period in 2014, from 279 to 95.

Between January and June 2014, 180 people were killed and a further 99 injured; the figures for 2015 were 77 (including 65 militants) and 18, respectively. The overall casualty figures for 2014 reflected a 46.9 percent drop compared with 2013.


The most obvious explanation for that ongoing trend is the transfer by many fighters in Chechnya and Daghestan of their allegiance from the Caucasus Emirate (IK) proclaimed in October 2007 by then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS).

But those two republics still account for the overwhelming majority of fatalities (52 and 10, respectively), suggesting that not all fighters who have sworn allegiance to Baghdadi have left the North Caucasus to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq. According to the National Antiterrorism Committee, the eight fighters killed a few days ago in Ingushetia's Sunzha district that borders on Chechnya were all residents of Chechnya and belonged to a group based in Achkhoi-Martan that was directly subordinate to Aslan Byutukayev (aka Amir Khamzat), who heads the insurgency wing in Chechnya.

Byutukayev was reported in June to have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi; the eight men who died were said to have aligned with IS "not long ago."

Meanwhile, Said Arakansky, who heads the IK's Daghestan wing, has named two new sector commanders: Abu Abdulla Kasumkentsky to command the Southern sector and Mukhammad Abu Dudjana Gimrinsky to command the adjacent Mountain sector.

Abu Dudjana Gimrinsky, born in 1984, is said to have studied Islamic law in Syria from 2003 to 2010, and then returned there three years ago. It is not clear whether he was one of the fighters who left Daghestan for Syria via the so-called "green corridor" with the blessing of the Federal Security Service, a practice chronicled in detail last week by Russian journalist Yelena Milashina. 

Abu Dudjana "acquired military experience" at the Sheikh Suleiman military base west of Aleppo, and is said to have taken part in the liberation of the settlement of Ma'arat al-Artik, which RFE/RL blogger Joanna Paraszczuk suggests indicates that he was fighting in the ranks of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar or Seyfullakh Shishani's jamaat, both of which participated in that operation in 2014.

In a five-minute video clip, recently posted on the insurgency website, Abu Dudjana pledges allegiance to Arakansky, and appeals to "sincere believers" to join the jihad against "unbelievers." He also reminds his own fighters, and the other Daghestani amirs, of the need to avoid shedding the blood of fellow Muslims and destroying their property. Whether his military expertise will translate into a change of tactics on the part of the fighters in Daghestan, meaning a departure from the usual small-scale ambushes and killings of policemen and local officials, remains to be seen.

Allies Speak Out On Behalf Of Daghestani Strongman, Muftiate Maintains Distance

Andrei Vinogradov appeared in Moscow's Basmanny District Court on July 29.

Liz Fuller

The accusations of murder, attempted murder, and “financing terrorism” leveled against two prominent Daghestani political figures have mobilized thousands of people in their support -- including Ramzan Kadyrov. The Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya has publicly implied that the charges are unfounded; he described one of the men, former Olympic wrestling champion Sagid Murtazaliyev, as “a genuine patriot and a true son of Russia” and as his “brother and loyal friend.”

Kadyrov is not the only prominent figure to rush to the men’s defense. Former Daghestan Deputy Prime Minister Rizvan Kurbanov denounced the deployment of federal security personnel backed by armored carriers to search the homes of Murtazaliyev and his brother-in-law Andrei Vinogradov, head of Daghestan’s northernmost Kizlyar municipal district, as both illegal and a colossal waste of public money. Kurbanov appealed to Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika to clarify who initiated the criminal case against Vinogradov and Murtazaliyev, and on the basis of what evidence.

Kurbanov further argued that it is “inadmissible and wrong” that the Investigative Committee, which is subordinate to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, should be “beyond criticism.”

Kurbanov -- who is now a member of the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house -- is close to Kadyrov.

Following a search of his home early on July 27 that reportedly yielded a number of unregistered firearms, Vinogradov was transported to Moscow, where he was formally charged and remanded in pretrial detention for two months.

Murtazaliyev’s whereabouts are unclear. The independent weekly Chernovik reported that he was alerted to the impending criminal case by senior law-enforcement officials over a month ago and immediately left Russia. On July 30, allies announced that he had been in Dubai but later traveled to Germany for knee surgery and was recuperating there.

According to Kurbanov, Murtazaliyev underwent knee-replacement surgery on July 20.

Sagid Murtazaliyev speaks at a rally in 2005Sagid Murtazaliyev speaks at a rally in 2005
Sagid Murtazaliyev speaks at a rally in 2005
Sagid Murtazaliyev speaks at a rally in 2005

On July 29, two days after the searches and Vinogradov’s detention, some 3,500 to 4,000 people attended a rally in Kizlyar in support of him and Murtazaliyev. Murtazaliyev had served as Kizlyar municipality head from 2007 to 2010, when he was named to head the Daghestan subsidiary of the federal Pension Fund. Speakers at the rally said that Murtazaliyev had revitalized the district’s stagnating economy and personally funded the construction of several schools and kindergartens. They credited Vinogradov with mobilizing police and security personnel in 2010-2011 to crack down on the North Caucasus insurgency. In 2013, the Kizlyar municipal council was ranked as the most effective in Daghestan.

Rally participants adopted a resolution addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin listing the two men’s merits and achievements and questioning the charges against them. Daghestan Pension Fund employees likewise addressed an appeal to Putin to intervene on behalf of Murtazaliyev, describing him as “a brilliant leader” and “one of Daghestan’s most worthy sons.”

In light of Murtazaliyev’s imputed ambition to become mayor of Makhachkala, Daghestan’s capital, his supporters linked the move against the two men to the municipal elections to be held in September. That hypothesis is dubious, however. True, Murtazaliyev is said to have made clear several years ago that he wanted that post. But in the interim, the rules have been changed, and direct elections for the post of mayor have been abolished.

Moreover, since the spectacular arrest two years ago of then-Mayor Said Amirov, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov has scrupulously abided by the unwritten agreement that the post of Makhachkala mayor is reserved for a Dargin. (The Dargins are the second-largest of Daghestan’s 14 titular nationalities after the Avars, who account for some 29 percent of the total population of 3 million. Both Abdulatipov and Murtazaliyev are Avars.)

Furthermore, it is clear from the detailed account of the house searches and Vinogradov’s detention given by Chernovik that the decision to move against him and Murtazaliyev was taken in Moscow, not Makhachkala, and that Daghestan’s law-enforcement agencies were kept in the dark until after the event.

The weekly goes on to examine two alternative explanations for the criminal case against Murtazaliyev and Vinogradov, taking into account that the charges against them of the murder of two officials in Kizlyar in 2010 were reportedly based on new testimony from the men who were tried and sentenced for those killings. If those men were induced to implicate Murtazaliyev and Vinogradov, it is unclear how and by whom.

The first alternative explanation is that the charges were orchestrated by Amirov, who was sentenced in July 2014 to 10 years in prison on a charge of plotting to kill Murtazaliyev by downing his plane with a ground-to-air missile. Murtazaliyev was a key witness for the prosecution at Amirov’s trial and had told an interviewer in 2013 that a senior official had taken out a contract on him.

But it is questionable whether Amirov, who is now being tried on separate charges of murder and terrorism, still exercises enough influence to engineer a criminal case against his nemesis. Chernovik cited unnamed sources as saying that consent to do so was facilitated by a $6 million sweetener.

The second hypothesis, floated earlier by Moscow-based analyst Konstantin Kazyonin -- and considered by Chernovik to be more plausible -- is that the accusations against Murtazaliyev are a move to discredit his patron Kadyrov.

The weekly surmises that a faction in Moscow including senior members of the federal security bodies and the National Antiterrorism Committee may be out to curtail Kadyrov’s power, which already extends beyond the North Caucasus. Murtazaliyev was a key component of Kadyrov’s influence across the north of Daghestan, and his elevation to the post of Makhachkala mayor, had it taken place, would have given Kadyrov indirect control over the city.

In his first public comment on the affair to date, Abdulatipov affirmed on July 30 that insofar as the crimes of which Vinogradov and Murtazaliyev are suspected “took place so long ago,” meaning several years before Abdulatipov’s appointment in January 2013 as republic head, assessing whether or not the charges against them are justified is problematic.

Abdulatipov acknowledged Vinogradov’s contribution to Kizlyar’s “notable achievements in the sphere of socioeconomic development” and Murtazaliyev’s positive track record as head of the Daghestan branch of the Pension Fund. At the same time, he stressed his single-minded commitment to weeding out corruption and ensuring that the republic’s leadership is composed exclusively of “competent, law-abiding persons of integrity.”

On August 3, Abdulatipov said the arrests of Vinogradov, Murtazaliyev, and Buynaksk municipal district head Daniyal Shikhsaidov, the son of parliament speaker Khizri Shikhsaidov, and the criminal case opened against Kizilyurt municipal district head Bagautdin Adjamatov are part of a comprehensive crackdown on embezzlement of budget funds and collaboration with the North Caucasus insurgency.

Abdulatipov warned against convening mass meetings in support of persons charged with such offenses, and advised government and municipal officials who want to lobby on behalf of friends or relatives they believe have been wrongly accused to resign in order to devote themselves full-time to such efforts.

The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan, with which both Murtazaliyev and disgraced former Deputy Prime Minister Abusyupyan Kharkharov reportedly have close ties, has similarly made clear in a statement on August 4 that it cannot and will not intervene with state bodies on behalf of officials accused of breaking the law.

Kadyrov's Daghestani Crony Wanted On Suspicion of Murder, 'Financing Terrorism'

Sagid Murtazaliyev (right), a former free-style wrestler, speaks at a rally in Daghestan's Kizlyar district in June 2005.

Liz Fuller

Russia's Investigative Committee reportedly plans to issue an international arrest warrant for former wrestling champion Sagid Murtazaliyev, who currently heads the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Pension Fund. Murtazaliyev is suspected, together with Andrei Vinogradov, the head of Daghestan's northernmost Kizlyar district, and businessman Omar Asadulayev, of two murders, one attempted murder, and financing terrorism.

On July 27, Murtazaliyev's dacha on the outskirts of Makhachkala was cordoned off by security personnel in armored vehicles and searched.  Earlier the same day, federal security personnel detained Vinogradov after a search of his home reportedly yielded quantities of unregistered weapons and drugs. Vinogradov, whom the daily Kommersant identifies as Murtazaliyev's brother-in-law, was transported by helicopter to the federal Interior Ministry regional base at Mozdok for interrogation.

Murtazaliyev, who is reportedly in Dubai recuperating from surgery, is quoted as describing the searches as undertaken for political reasons. He declined to comment further.

Murtazaliyev, 41, is one of Daghestan's most colorful and influential political figures. Born in Makhachkala, he trained from an early age as a freestyle wrestler. He won the 1999 World Championships in Ankara and a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000.

On his retirement from wrestling, Murtazaliyev entered local politics. He was elected to the republican parliament in March 2003 and as head of the Kizlyar municipality in March 2007. Magomedsalam Magomedov, at that time Republic of Daghestan president, appointed Murtazaliyev as head of the Daghestan office of the Pension Fund in March 2010. That regional office was designated the best in the North Caucasus in 2013. 

Murtazaliyev has come to be regarded as one of the republic's political heavyweights, not least thanks to his close relations with Moscow-based oligarch Suleiman Kerimov and with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. At the same time, the Pension Fund office in Daghestan has made headlines on several occasions. In late September 2013, it was searched and documents confiscated, giving rise to rumors of embezzlement of maternity benefits. Less than a year later, it was reported that up to 100 Pension Fund staffers had been pressured to resign "voluntarily." That figure was subsequently revised downward to eight. 

Meanwhile, Murtazaliyev was a key witness for the prosecution in former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov's trial last year on a charge of plotting an act of terrorism. Amirov, together with his nephew Yusup Dzhaparov, was found guilty of having co-opted Magomed Abdulgalimov to obtain a ground-to-air missile with the aim of shooting down a plane in which Murtazaliyev would be traveling. The motive imputed by the prosecution to Amirov, who categorically rejected it as unfounded and preposterous, was that Amirov regarded Murtazaliyev as a political rival.

In recent months, however, there have been reports that Murtazaliyev is a possible candidate for the post of Makhachkala mayor in the elections due in September.

Observers initially suggested that the homes of Vinogradov and Murtazaliyev may have been searched in connection with an incident in March 2012 in which five men were killed in a shoot-out in Kizlyar in which Vinogradov's bodyguards were implicated. The bodyguards stood trial but were acquitted. It is not clear, however, whether and how Murtazaliyev was involved.

Analyst Konstantin Kazyonin for his part suggested that either Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov wanted to sideline Murtazaliyev in the run-up to next month's municipal elections or that Moscow might be planning to use Murtazaliyev as a means of compromising and weakening his patrons (meaning Kadyrov and Kerimov).

The charge of financing terrorism that the Investigative Committee plans to bring against Murtazaliyev almost certainly relates to the widespread and well-documented practice of "zakiyat," whereby the North Caucasus insurgency funds its activities from the proceeds of blackmailing both local businessmen and officials.


Is Chechen Stability Tenable Or Deceptive?

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Liz Fuller

For the past seven years, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has been perceived as exercising total control over his fiefdom, thanks to a handful of ruthlessly competent aides, to the extensive police and security network subordinate to him, and to seemingly limitless financial subsidies from the federal center courtesy of his mentor and idol, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, titled Chechnya: The Inner Abroad, questions that perception, however. The executive summary acknowledges that Chechnya under Kadyrov has become "a virtually independent polity, with its own ideology, religious policy, security structures, economy and laws."

At the same time, it suggests that the apparent peace in Chechnya "is fragile, a result not only of highly personalised governance reliant on repression and arbitrariness that Moscow tolerates and covers up, but also economic inequality, poor social infrastructure, lack of genuine reconciliation and almost full impunity for abuses."

There are at least five factors that, singly or collectively, could over time weaken Kadyrov.

The first is the North Caucasus insurgency, some of whose fighters have reportedly transferred their allegiance from the Caucasus Emirate (IK) proclaimed in late 2007 by then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov to the terrorist grouping Islamic State (IS). The commander of the Chechen insurgency wing, Aslan Byutukayev (aka Amir Khamzat), was reported in mid-June to have sworn allegiance to IS head Abu-Bakar al-Baghdadi. IS formally acknowledged that oath of allegiance on June 21.

It further claimed to have received analogous professions of allegiance from the former Caucasus Emirate wings in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Days later, an IS spokesman announced the creation of a North Caucasus subsidiary.

Whether the militants in Chechnya have in fact unanimously aligned with IS, and how many of those that did so have left Chechnya to fight in Syria, is not clear, however. Some Daghestani fighters still remain loyal to Magomed Suleymanov (aka Amir Abu-Usman Gimrinsky), the Daghestani who was chosen earlier this year to replace Umarov’s slain successor as Caucasus Emirate head, Aliaskhab Kebekov. The position of the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai insurgency wing is similarly unclear.

As recently as December, Chechen fighters staged a major attack on Grozny apparently on orders from Byutukayev, briefly occupying the central press and media building and a nearby school and killing 14 police and security personnel. Young men were still "heading for the forest" to join the insurgency two months later.

But by then, IS was apparently already perceived by at least some Chechens as either more attractive ideologically than IK or as a potentially more effective means of displacing Kadyrov. Kadyrov himself indirectly confirmed in early February a report that the black jihadi banner was painted on a wall in his home village of Tsentoroi, together with the words, in English, "Khosi-Yurt is support ISIS."

The transfer of allegiance between IK and IS works both ways, however. Earlier this month, Salakhuddin Shishani, the former head of Jaish al-Muharijeen wal-Ansar (JMA), together with a group of fighters from the North Caucasus, pledged allegiance to Suleymanov, and are calling themselves the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.

The second factor is widespread popular alienation and resentment, not only at the economic inequality and poor social infrastructure noted by the ICG, but at the concentration of political power in the hands of Kadyrov and his trusted cronies, the imposition of a bizarre synthesis of traditional Sunni Islam and selected elements of Chechen Sufism, and the arbitrary brutality of the Chechen security forces toward anyone whose loyalty to the Kadyrov regime is deemed even remotely questionable.

That resentment has surfaced twice in the past six months. In late February, three men apparently tried to blow up the dam of a reservoir southeast of Grozny. 

And in late May, young men in the village of Zakan-Yurt, west of the capital, clashed with police who had assaulted three young women in head scarves.

The third factor is the disinclination of the Russian leadership, and of Putin personally, to be seen to condone unquestioningly Kadyrov's most egregious statements and decisions. Shortly after the militant attack on Grozny in December, Putin made clear his disapproval of Kadyrov's injunction to expel insurgents' relatives from Chechnya and torch their homes.

In late April, Russian Investigative Committee (SKR) Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin intervened to quash a criminal case launched by the SKR's Chechen subsidiary into the circumstances under which Djambulat Dadayev, a Chechen suspected of having committed a crime in Stavropol Krai, was pursued to Grozny and gunned down there by Stavropol police and personnel from the federal Interior Ministry's Temporary Operative Grouping of Organs and Sub-Units (VOGOiP) in Chechnya. Outraged at not having been informed in advance of the operation to apprehend Dadayev, Kadyrov issued orders to the Chechen security forces to "shoot to kill" in the event that police from elsewhere in Russia appeared in Chechnya without giving prior notification.

While such moves indicate that there are apparently still red lines that Kadyrov is not permitted to cross, the leeway permitted him and the extent to which Moscow is prepared to turn a blind eye to his most outrageous and provocative statements may well change, especially if the threat to southern Russia posed by IS is perceived to be growing and Kadyrov is regarded as a key component of the strategy to counter it. Federal Nationalities Minister Igor Barinov identified IS last week as one of the most serious problems Russia faces.

The fourth factor is the limited number of experienced, effective, and trusted officials on whom Kadyrov can rely to maintain "order" and run the economy. The death late last month of longtime parliament chairman Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov set in motion a reshuffle of Kadyrov's most trusted henchmen that highlights that dearth.

Presidential and government administration head Magomed Daudov was elected Abdurakhmanov's successor despite a lack of any relevant experience. Grozny Mayor Islam Kadyrov, 28, a distant cousin to Ramzan, took over from Daudov as administration head. 

Islam Kadyrov served previously as an aide to Ramzan and as minister for property and land. Ramzan has described him as experienced, knowledgeable, determined, demanding both of himself and his subordinates, and capable of working well with other people. 

Some observers, however, attribute Islam Kadyrov's appointment to the key post of administration head to Ramzan Kadyrov's desire to expand the influence wielded by members of his own family and/or to his valuing absolute personal loyalty above all other qualities. It was pointed out that young men of Islam Kadyrov's generation have only the haziest memories of the period prior to the 1994-96 war and have come to maturity pinning their hopes for peace and stability first on Ramzan's late father, Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, and then on Ramzan himself, to whom they are consequently fiercely loyal.

Two further appointees combine loyalty with expertise and experience. Muslim Khuchiyev, 42, was named to replace Islam Kadyrov as acting Grozny mayor. Khuchiyev had previously served in that capacity from 2007-12, when he was dismissed for imputed serious violations of land legislation that never materialized into a criminal case and subsequently appointed economic and regional-development and trade minister. In that capacity, he focused specifically on seeking to attract international investors.

Abdula Magomadov, 52, Khuchiyev's predecessor as head of that mega-ministry from 2003, returns to that post, having served for the past three years as deputy prime minister. Magomadov is arguably one of the most qualified, competent, and experienced members of Kayrov's team, having begun his career in the Chechen government in 2001.

The fifth factor is the continuing impact on the Russian economy of Western sanctions, which have necessitated cuts in budget spending of up to 10 percent. Granted, the Chechen leadership is cushioned from the effects of such cuts by having at its disposal alternative financial sources in the form of the Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov Regional Charitable Fund. But if spending cuts result in wage arrears to budget-sector employees who are nonetheless required to continue making mandatory "voluntary" monthly contributions to that fund, public discontent is likely to become both more widespread and more vocal.

In addition, cutbacks on investment will negatively affect Kadyrov's stated plans to create 20,535 new jobs this year alone and to reduce unemployment by 2018 from the current (official) level of 15.3 percent to 5 percent.

Meanwhile, real-estate prices in Grozny fell by 10.9 percent during the second quarter of 2015, the steepest drop anywhere in Russia. That trend will hit not only those Chechens who hope to sell their homes and emigrate to escape the Kadyrov regime, but also senior officials close to him who have invested in property.

Whether and to what extent Kadyrov is aware of these potential threats, and how seriously he takes them, are not easy to say. He has, after all, invariably responded with indiscriminate brute force to any perceived challenge to his authority, and continues to do so. Young men whose appearance gives grounds to suspect Salafi sympathies, or who travel to neighboring Daghestan to attend Friday Prayers at mosques there, are routinely detained and roughed up.

The human rights watchdog Memorial estimates that at least 100 people were detained for questioning in the wake of the reservoir-dam bomb in February. 

As for IS, in recent months Kadyrov has repeatedly downplayed its military capabilities, even after the reports that it has established a subsidiary in Chechnya. He nonetheless mobilized Interior Ministry special-purpose forces (spetsnaz) twice within 24 hours last week for special antiterrorism drills, citing the need for them to be prepared to repel attacks by terrorists operating individually or in small groups. (State Duma Defense and Security Committee Deputy Chairman Frants Klintsevich says that move was illegal, insofar as the spetsnaz are subordinate to the federal Interior Ministry Directorate and Kadyrov is not empowered to give them orders.)

Like the mass antiterrorism meeting convened in late December, which was attended by up to 10,000 members of the police and security forces, last week's exercises may well have been intended primarily to substantiate the perception in Moscow that Kadyrov is supremely capable of deflecting any threat to the North Caucasus, whether real or imaginary. 

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.