Friday, May 22, 2015

How Much More Money Will Moscow Throw At Daghestan?

Daghestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov

The Russian daily Kommersant has reported that the federal Ministry for the North Caucasus is mulling a separate program of financial support for Daghestan under which that republic would receive a total of 170 billion rubles ($3.4 billion) over the 10-year period from now until 2025. Some analysts doubt, however, whether that would be enough to resolve the chronic social and economic problems the region faces. And officials from the federal Finance Ministry are reportedly wary of setting a precedent that could lead other North Caucasus republics to demand similar privileged treatment.

The separate program for Daghestan has reportedly been under discussion for two years, which suggests that it was the brainchild of current Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named to that post in early 2013. Abdulatipov publicly stressed the need for such a program last fall, complaining that many federal politicians responsible for the North Caucasus "don't know...what problems we face."

The rationale cited by the North Caucasus Ministry for a separate financial program for Daghestan stressed the need for sustained and dynamic economic growth in order to reduce poverty and unemployment, which currently stands at 10.7 percent, according to official statistics, but in all likelihood is at least double that figure.

The ministry also noted that oil and gas extraction in Daghestan has been declining steadily over the past few years, with a concomitant fall in the sum the sector contributes in taxes to the republican budget. At Abdulatipov's behest, a Daghestan State Oil and Gas Company was established in March 2014 to attract investment into that sector and thereby reverse the decline in its contribution to budget revenues.

The federal Economy Ministry, however, considers a separate program for Daghestan inexpedient, according to Kommersant. Ministry officials fear other North Caucasus republics might demand similar programs, and point out that Daghestan is already scheduled to receive 3 billion rubles in 2015 from the separate South of Russia federal program and a further 2.1 billion rubles in 2016.

Meanwhile, the news agency Regnum quoted Mikhail Chernyshev of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Market Problems as arguing that spread over a period of 10 years, the sum earmarked for Daghestan under the new program is insufficient to bring about the desired economic breakthrough.

None of the media comments on the proposed new program mentions the risk that a sizable proportion of the funds allocated will be embezzled.

Assuming that the new financial program for Daghestan goes ahead, it will be funded from the Socio-Economic Development Program for the North Caucasus 2012-25 approved in December 2012, under which Daghestan was to receive 33 billion rubles. The dimensions of that program were progressively cut from 3.89 trillion rubles in the initial draft in early 2011 (of which Daghestan was to have received 1.2 trillion) to 2.55 trillion.

But even if the federal Economy Ministry succeeds in nixing the planned new financial program, Daghestan is still in line to receive an additional 1 billion rubles from a nonbudget fund established last fall to promote the development of cities dominated by a single branch of industry. That money will be channeled toward the cost of developing infrastructure in the industrial zone of the town of Kaspiisk, southeast of Makhachkala. Abdulatipov's son Dalgat occupies a senior position in the Kaspiisk municipal administration.

-- Liz Fuller

Yevkurov Says Insurgency 'Defeated' In Ingushetia

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov cautioned that the 14, who he claims were trained by foreign intelligence services, can draw on a network of support personnel and relatives.

Ingushetian leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov claimed in a recent interview that the North Caucasus insurgency in Ingushetia had been "defeated," and currently numbered just 14 men. At the same time, he said, "there is still a long way to go" before it can be said to be completely destroyed.

Yevkurov cautioned that the 14, who he claims were trained by foreign intelligence services, can draw on a network of support personnel and relatives. In addition, he said, they had their own excellent counterintelligence network, maintained strict radio silence, and avoided the use of mobile phones in order to minimize the likelihood of capture or killing. In that respect, according to Yevkurov, "they are technologically ahead of the game."

Casualty statistics for 2014 complied by the news agency Caucasian Knot indicate that there has indeed been a decline in insurgent activity in Ingushetia, with the total number of casualties falling by more than 60 percent, from 94 to 37. Two civilians, four members of the security forces, and 15 militants were killed, and 16 security personnel wounded, according to the statistics.

One of the militants killed was Artur Gatagazhev, aka Emir Abdullah, head of the Ingushetia insurgency wing, who police believe was responsible for the killing in August 2013 of Republic of Ingushetia Security Council head Akhmed Kotiyev. The identity of Gatagazhev's successor as insurgency commander is being kept secret for security and operational reasons, but the decline in militant attacks over the past year may in part be a direct consequence of his death.

In addition, Yevkurov said that 80 young fighters had been persuaded over the past four years to lay down their arms, and had been amnestied.

There is, however, a further possible reason why neutralizing the insurgency in Ingushetia -- a small North Caucasus republic sandwiched between Chechnya and North Ossetia -- is proving an uphill struggle. Addressing the republic's parliament two months ago, Ingushetia's interior minister, Aleksandr Trofimov, disclosed that the insurgency wing and its support personnel included "several" police officers. He said one of the five men killed together with Gatagazhev in May 2014 was a policeman who had previously helped his fellow fighters and sheltered them in his home.

The comparative lull of the past year may, moreover, be drawing to an end. According to a recent blog post reposted on the Ingush website, the commander of Ingushetia's insurgents will soon release a video clip in which he will pledge his allegiance to the Islamic State militant group.

-- Liz Fuller


Former Makhachkala Mayor Says Latest Case Against Him 'Fabricated'

When longtime Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov was arrested two years ago (seen here in June 2013), public opinion was divided. After his ordeal, sympathy for the former leader has only grown.

Criminal charges against regional politicians in Russia who have fallen foul of the system are not uncommon. The prosecution usually at least attempts to present a convincing indictment, however.

That does not appear to be the case in a sensational trial involving a former but enduringly popular officeholder in the North Caucasus.

Wheelchair-bound former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, whose trial opened last week in the North Caucasus Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don, faces charges of commissioning a contract killing and a terrorist attack.

Those charges, as Amirov himself pointed out in court, are based largely on the testimony of one man that Amirov's 16-strong team of lawyers say was given under torture. The defense lawyers also say the prosecution has not produced any material evidence to substantiate the indictment.

Prior to his spectacular arrest in June 2013, Amirov, now 61, was regarded as one of the most powerful and ruthless politicians in Daghestan, and a potential challenger to incumbent Ramazan Abdulatipov in the event of a direct election for the post of republic head. Amirov was first elected Makhachkala mayor in 1998, and has twice been designated the best mayor in Russia. He placed third in this year's informal poll by the independent daily Chernovik to determine which political figure Daghestanis would like to see as "People's President."

Together with his nephew Yusup Dzhaparov and six other men, Amirov is charged with the contract killing of an investigator in December 2011 and planning a missile attack on a leisure center with ownership ties to a political rival. The prosecution's case is based largely on the testimony of Magomed Abdulgalimov (aka Kolkhoznik), a former assistant to the Khasavyurt city prosecutor.

Prior to his arrest, Amirov was considered a likely future leader of Daghestan.Prior to his arrest, Amirov was considered a likely future leader of Daghestan.
Prior to his arrest, Amirov was considered a likely future leader of Daghestan.
Prior to his arrest, Amirov was considered a likely future leader of Daghestan.

Abdulgalimov claims that Amirov co-opted him and six other men to carry out a missile attack on the leisure center, located southeast of Makhachkala in the town of Kaspiisk, to assassinate investigator Arsen Gadzhibekov, who at the time of his death was probing the illegal demolition of a building in Makhachkala.

Amirov, however, denied that he had any political interests in Kaspiisk, or that he had any reason to kill Gadzhibekov, whom he referred to as "just a kid." He pointed out that the initial investigation into the Kaspiisk attack, in which no one was injured, was for "hooliganism," for which the punishment is far less harsh than for an act of terrorism.

Amirov further denied any acquaintance with any of the six men the prosecution claims Abdulgalimov co-opted to perpetrate the assassination and the missile attack. Amirov is supposed to have hired Abdulgalimov, who in turn is said to have recruited the other six. The six, for their part, said they have never met Amirov and have only ever seen him on TV.

Amirov also said the testimony of his co-defendants had been extracted under torture. Abdulgalimov had similarly testified in April 2014 that he had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks while in pretrial detention in Daghestan.

Dzhaparov, too, has said he was subjected to electric shocks and had been warned that he would be transferred to a cell with habitual criminals unless he paid a substantial bribe. 

The testimony of other witnesses for the prosecution consists, according to Amirov, primarily of speculation and rumor concerning his imputed motives.

Abdulgalimov was also a key witness in the trial in 2014 of Amirov and Dzhaparov on a charge of plotting to kill a rival politician, Sagid Murtazaliyev, head of the Daghestan administration of the Federal Pension Fund, by shooting down his plane with a ground-to-air missile. Abdulgalimov described to the court in detail how he met personally with Amirov in April 2012 and agreed to his request to obtain a ground-to-air missile to shoot down a plane in which Murtazaliyev would be travelling.

Amirov, however, denied ever meeting with Abdulgalimov, and produced witnesses who confirmed that Abdulgalimov did not enter Amirov's office on the day he claimed the meeting took place. Amirov's defense also challenged the authenticity of video footage presented by the prosecution apparently showing Abdulgalimov retrieving the missile from the hiding place where he had buried it.


Amirov steadfastly rejected the charge against him as utter rubbish, based on rumor, wholly unsubstantiated, and politically motivated. Even though Amirov's lawyers pointed to numerous glaring flaws and discrepancies in the prosecution's case, the three presiding judges found both him and Dzhaparov guilty, and sentenced them to 10 and 8 1/2 years in jail, respectively.

One month later, in August 2014, Abdulgalimov concluded a plea bargain with the prosecution under which he pleaded guilty to charges of organizing, or participating in, an illegal armed formation; banditism; an act of terrorism; an attempt on the life of a judiciary official; and illegal trade in arms. He was sentenced in late September to 11 years in a strict-regime facility. The prosecution had asked for 17 years

Speaking in court last week on the opening day of his trial, Amirov claimed that the prosecutors fabricated the case against him on orders from his political enemies, but did not name them. As noted above, Amirov was influential enough to have posed a challenge to Abdulatipov in a direct election for the post of republic head. But even before Amirov's arrest on June 1, 2013, Daghestan's parliament had voted to amend the republic's constitution to stipulate that the republic head is elected by parliament, rather than in a direct ballot.

The fact that Amirov is currently on trial for a second time on poorly substantiated charges suggests that for whatever reasons, one or more top-level federal politicians have both a vested interest in ending his political career, and enough clout to pressure the presiding judges to hand down the required "guilty" verdict. Amirov himself said an investigator told him to his face that he should plead guilty, because "there's an order from high up, you understand, and we can't do anything."

At the time of Amirov's arrest two years ago, public opinion in Daghestan was split between those who assumed that he was the victim of political intrigue, and those who lent credence to the rumors that in the course of his career he had resorted to embezzlement, blackmail, and even murder. That latter perception was eloquently summarized by the blogger who commented that "there is not enough water in the Caspian to wash clean his sins, and we know it."

Recently, however, as a result of Amirov's remarkable fortitude during his two-year ordeal, the number of people who sympathize with his plight (he is wheelchair-bound as a result of injuries sustained in 1993 during one of several assassination attempts, and suffers from diabetes and hepatitis ) has not diminished, but may according to Chernovik even have increased, while the number of those convinced that the charges against him are indeed politically motivated has sky-rocketed.

-- Liz Fuller


Policeman's Teen Bride Puts Chechen Marital Practices In The Spotlight

A screengrab of LifeNews's interview with Chechen teenager "Kheda G.," who has married a man around three times her age.

Reports that a Chechen schoolgirl may have been press-ganged into marrying a man around three times her age has sparked a media frenzy in Russia, and focused attention on marital practices in the North Caucasus republic. 

The first report that Nazhud Guchigov, police chief in Chechnya's southeastern Nozhai-Yurt district, had threatened reprisals against the family of "Kheda G." unless they consented to the marriage once she reached the age of 17 on May 1, 2015, appeared on Kavkazcenter, the website of the North Caucasus insurgency. 

The following day, Russian investigative journalist Yelena Milashina published an article in Novaya Gazeta in which she said residents of Kheda's home village of Baytarki asked her to publicize the situation after an appeal by the teenage girl's fellow students on her behalf to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov went unanswered. 

Milashina also said that she had spoken by phone to Guchigov, whose age is variously given as 46 or 57. She quoted him as saying that he had never heard of Kheda; that he is aware of the ban imposed by Kadyrov in 2012 on underage marriages; and that he has been happily married for many years, and has no intention of taking a second wife.  (In a follow-up article, however, Milashina -- who has since left Chechnya -- claimed that Guchigov had earlier sought once before to marry a much younger woman from Nozhai-Yurt, but her parents thwarted him by sending her away.)

Chechen officials initially denied that any marriage between Guchigov and Kheda was on the cards, and then rejected suggestions that her family was under any pressure. Kadyrov himself declared  that, in light of the media coverage of the case, he had dispatched officials to Baytarki to clarify the situation. 

They reported back that Kheda, her mother, and her paternal grandfather had given their consent to the planned marriage, which took place in Grozny on May 16.
Kadyrov did not comment on the fact that Guchigov is, by his own admission, already married. In subsequent remarks, however, Kadyrov sought to downplay the discrepancy in their ages, quoting a line from Aleksandr Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin  when saying that "all ages submit to love."

ALSO READ: Russian Official Stirs Scandal With Underage Marriage And 'Shriveled' Women Remarks

The conflicting reports about Kheda's situation prompted the intervention of Russia's human rights ombudsman, Ella Pamfilova, who appealed to Kadyrov not to permit the marriage.

Presidential Human Rights Council head Mikhail Fedotov suggested that the prosecutor-general's office should look into the reports that a senior police official is seeking to take an underaged girl as his second wife. (According to Russian law, the minimum legal marrying age is 18.)

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) with district police chief Nazhud Guchigov. (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) with district police chief Nazhud Guchigov. (file photo)

Then, on May 12, LifeNews published an interview with Kheda G.

In this broadcast, Kheda  -- prompted by her aunt -- said she had freely consented to marry Guchigov, whom she described as "a good man...courageous and reliable." She also said she had been acquainted with him for the past year. Neither Kheda nor any of her family clarified Guchigov's current marital status. 

Gender Imbalance

Polygamy is illegal in Russia, even though it is permitted under Islamic law on condition that both the first wife and any subsequent brides consent, and their husband treats them equally. 

In 2006, Kadyrov, then Chechen deputy prime minister, and now Chechen Republic head, argued that polygamy was necessary in Chechnya to redress the imbalance between the sexes resulting from the 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 wars.

Three years later, Kadyrov similarly told an interviewer that "our customs and religion permit polygamy…there is no law [allowing it], but I tell everyone:  whoever wants to and can afford to do so should take a second wife." 

Unconfirmed rumors say that, in addition to the mother of his eight children, Kadyrov himself has a second wife, a former winner of a Chechen beauty pageant. 

Whether or not Kheda has indeed consented of her own free will to marry Guchigov, her case is by no means unique, according to Caucasus experts.
Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who heads the International Crisis Group's Moscow office, was quoted by the Regnum news agency as saying that, with Kadyrov's backing, Chechen police and security officials are increasingly taking younger women as their second wives. She did not cite any statistical data to substantiate that hypothesis; indeed, it is doubtful that any exists. 

Sokiryanskaya suggested that the women in question agree to becoming a second wife partly because the gender imbalance reduces their marriage chances, and partly because their prospective husbands can offer them "money and high social status."  

Sokiryanskaya did not mention the fact that such police and security personnel, by virtue of their affiliation with Kadyrov, are in a position to exert with impunity the kind of pressure and threats that Guchigov is said to have brought to bear on Kheda's family. 

Other analysts suggest that the women who are offered the opportunity to become a second wife are the lucky ones. Others, less fortunate, are simply abducted, raped, and then abandoned or even killed by members of the Chechen police and security forces confident that they will not be held responsible for their actions.  

-- Liz Fuller

Is Abkhazia Heading For A New Political Standoff?

Raul Khajimba taking the oath at his inauguration as Abkhaz leader in Sukhumi on September 25, 2014

Since the bloodless coup less than a year ago that culminated in the resignation of Aleksandr Ankvab, de facto president of Georgia’s breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, the new leadership of the largely unrecognized polity has already successfully navigated a major political crisis triggered by widespread opposition to the wording of the Treaty on Union Relations and Strategic Partnership that it signed with Russia in November.

But the arrest last month on corruption charges of construction magnate Vadim Matua could herald a new standoff between Ankvab’s successor Raul Khajimba and his team and the opposition party Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning).

Following Ankvab’s election as president in August 2011, Matua’s Southern Construction Company (YuSK) implemented some 20 infrastructure projects funded by Russia, which had recognized Abkhazia as an independent state in the wake of the August 2008 war over Georgia's other breakaway region, South Ossetia. (Only a handful of other countries, including Nicaragua and Venezuela, followed suit.)

Ankvab’s economic policy focused largely on the reconstruction of infrastructure that was either damaged during the 1992-93 war that ended with the total loss of the central Georgian government’s control over Abkhazia, or has since fallen into disrepair due to the region’s chronic shortage of funds.

Khajimba, by contrast, plans to channel the funds provided by Moscow into investment projects, rather than infrastructure. Russia has allocated a total of 9 billion rubles (about $180 million) over the three-year period 2015-17, of which Abkhazia will receive 3.6 billion rubles this year. That represents a 50 percent increase over 2014 and is more than Abkhazia’s total budget of a little over 3 billion rubles. Those funds are reportedly ring-fenced and will not be cut even in the event that the Russian budget is sequestered by 10 percent.

Matua is suspected, together with his son-in-law Inal Bargandjia, of embezzling over 7 million rubles (about $140,000) in budget funds allocated for construction of a kindergarten in the coastal town of Gudauta, north of the capital, Sukhumi. Some critics claim the quality of that construction work was substandard. Amtsakhara, on the other hand, says that YuSK is the largest company of its kind operating in Abkhazia, with a workforce of more than 1,000, and has implemented projects using cutting-edge technology and high-quality materials, winning plaudits from senior Russian officials including Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Khloponin.

This is not the first time Matua and Bargandjia have been suspected of financial irregularities. In March 2012, when Ankvab was still president, they were jointly charged with embezzling some 46 million rubles during reconstruction of the Gudauta district hospital. That investigation is still ongoing. Then in October 2014, the Republic of Abkhazia prosecutor-general brought a new case against Matua and YuSK’s chief bookkeeper Timur Otyrba of tax evasion to the sum of 3.49 million rubles.

Matua, who is being held in pretrial custody, responded to the most recent charge against him with an emotional diatribe claiming the case against him is politically motivated. He also accused Khajimba of hypocrisy, violating his presidential oath, and contempt for the Abkhaz people. That statement was posted on Amtsakhara’s website in early April, but removed just days later.

The Coordinating Council of Political Parties that was behind Ankvab’s ouster and Khajimba’s own Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia issued separate statements condemning Matua’s outburst.

Amtsakhara, whose core membership is veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia's central government, spearheaded the campaign last fall to rewrite several sections of the framework treaty with Russia that members argued would weaken the region’s ability to defend itself, insofar as they entailed subordinating or partly subsuming into their Russian counterparts Abkhaz military and security bodies.

The party issued a strongly worded statement in late April praising the work carried out by YuSK and accusing the Abkhaz leadership of making Matua a scapegoat in its efforts to demonstrate success in the promised crackdown on corruption in a bid to deflect attention from its failure to deliver on Khajimba’s election campaign promise to raise pensions. The Amtsakhara statement further chronicled procedural violations in the course of Matua’s arrest.

Matua has not been identified as a member of Amtsakhara, and it is not 100 percent clear whether the party has taken up his cause because it is convinced that he has been wrongfully accused, or simply as a convenient stick with which to beat Khajimba and his team.

Amtsakhara is scheduled to hold a congress on May 22 to discuss the "economic and political crisis" resulting from what it terms the "seizure of power" last year. Whether it can muster enough popular support to pressure the authorities to drop the charges against Matua is debatable, however. In last year’s presidential ballot to elect Ankvab’s successor, Amtsakhara’s candidate Aslan Bzhania placed second with 35.9 percent of the vote compared with 50.57 percent for Khajimba, who thus avoided a second-round runoff by just 559 votes.

-- Liz Fuller


Kadyrov-Khodorkovsky Feud Intensifies

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and exiled former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Four months after Ramzan Kadyrov called Mikhail Khodorkovsky his personal enemy, the feud between the two men is intensifying.

In an extensive interview with the news site Meduza last week, exiled former Yukos oil company CEO Khodorkovsky made a number of thoughtful and apposite but overwhelmingly negative comments about Chechen Republic head Kadyrov and his role in Russian politics. Predictably, those statements occasioned a spate of denunciations and rebuttals by public figures and organizations in Grozny seeking to uphold the carefully crafted image of Kadyrov as the "guarantor of peace and stability" in Chechnya.

In the Meduza interview, Khodorkovsky characterized Kadyrov and his minions as "a territorially isolated ethnic criminal group" that numbers in the tens of thousands and "is seeking to extend its influence across Russia's entire territory."

Khodorkovsky said he considered Kadyrov to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's "personal vassal," but cannot say to what extent Kadyrov constitutes "a structural element of the present political system," and is not sure to what extent Putin can control the various security bodies subordinate to Kadyrov.

Khodorkovsky was pardoned by Putin and flown out of Russia in December 2013 after having been tried and convicted on charges of financial crimes his allies say were fabricated, and spending over a decade in prison. His comments substantiate long-standing concerns about Kadyrov's methods in Chechnya and his clout beyond its borders.

Kadyrov caused controversy in March when he defended the main suspect in the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and raised hackles last month when he told Chechen law enforcement officers to "shoot to kill" Interior Ministry forces from elsewhere in Russia if they conducted operations in Chechnya without prior notification.

Khodorkovsky observed that, like Putin, Kadyrov "tries to gauge public opinion and other forces on Russian territory with the help of provocative statements or actions. And then he waits [to see] what kind of reaction [is forthcoming]. If the reaction is not harsh enough, he takes a further step. If it is harsh, that means he will wait for a short while, and then take it."

Critics of the Kremlin say Putin tolerates abuses of human rights and national laws in Chechnya because he believes Kadyrov is the sole figure capable of keeping in check the low-level Islamist insurgency there.

As he had done at the time, Khodorkovsky attributed a search last month of the Moscow office of his Open Russia organization to Kadyrov's displeasure over a documentary film Open Russia was making that focuses on abductions and torture of Chechen civilians and on the nature of Kadyrov's ties to Putin. (A short trailer for the film can be seen here).

The premiere of that film was scheduled for May 8, but on May 7 Open Russia announced that it had been postponed in order to incorporate additional material.

Also on May 7, the Grozny propaganda machine responded to Khodorkovsky's Meduza interview with a torrent of vilification, some of it potentially libelous.

Twenty-four Chechen writers, journalists, and academics signed a statement alleging that Khodorkovsky, "having been deprived of the opportunity to exploit and rob his own country, has zealously set about blackening its leadership." They go on to conflate Khodorkovsky's characterization of the Chechen leadership as "an ethnic criminal group" with blanket hostility toward the Chechen people as a whole. They further argue that the high regard in which Putin holds Kadyrov is entirely justified.

The Chechen Republic's Public Chamber accused Khodorkovsky of "seeking to play the 'Chechen card' incite mistrust of the policy of the republic's leadership [and] to drive a wedge into Russian society."

Sergei Vishnevsky of the official Chechen news agency Grozny-Inform branded Khodorkovsky "not just a thief and a traitor, but an insolent and shameless provocateur." He accused him of having financed radical Chechen field commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab during the second (1999-2000) Chechen war in a concerted effort to dismember the Russian Federation.

This is not the first time Khodorkovsky and Kadyrov have crossed swords. In January, Kadyrov branded Khodorkovsky his personal enemy after the latter appealed to international media to reprint, as a gesture of solidarity, the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that triggered the attack by Islamist gunmen on the editorial office of the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Khodorkovsky shrugged off Kadyrov's implicit threat of reprisal, which he argued was intended to serve exactly the same purpose as the attack on Charlie Hebdo: to intimidate and silence dissenting voices.

-- Liz Fuller

New Georgian Cabinet Wins Confidence Vote, But Rift Remains

Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli is one of just four new names in the cabinet.

A reshuffle of Georgia's government has done little to narrow political rifts in the former Soviet republic, which faces economic instability and persistent concerns about Russia's intentions nearly seven years after the August 2008 war over South Ossetia.

Following a protracted and acrimonious debate that dragged on beyond midnight, parliament approved the composition of the new cabinet in an 87-38 vote in the early hours on May 9. 

Predictably, the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) faction voted against the new government. So, too, did the Free Democrats -- despite Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's efforts to secure support of the faction that quit the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition after he dismissed Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in November 2014.

The composition of the cabinet remains largely unchanged, with just four new appointees: Tina Khidasheli (Republican Party) as defense minister; Gigla Agulashvili (Republican Party) as environment and natural resources minister; Nodar Javakhishvili as infrastructure and regional development minister; and Tariel Khechikashvili as minister for sport and youth affairs.

The objections of the parliamentary opposition factions to the new line-up focused less on the individual nominees than on the perceived shortcomings of the government's economic policy, as reflected in the ongoing depreciation of the national currency. Since November, the lari has lost approximately 32 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar.

ENM lawmaker Zurab Japaridze accused the government of mishandling the situation and predicted that the situation would continue to deteriorate. He contended that with the exception of Economy Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, "whom nobody listens to," the government "has no the economy works."

Garibashvili had predicted during a meeting with ENM lawmakers on May 7 that the Georgian currency would "begin to stabilize in the next two-three weeks."

Garibashvili has argued repeatedly that the lari's fall is not the result of flawed economic policy. He has called it the inevitable consequence of the wider strengthening of the dollar and the recession in Russia, which has contributed to a 22.8 percent decline in remittances from abroad during the first three months of this year. But he spread the blame wider during his address to parliament before the vote on the new cabinet, criticizing the National Bank for not having intervened "more actively" to prop up the lari.

The National Bank has intervened five times this year to support the currency, most recently selling $40 million on April 28, when the lari plummeted to a 16-year low against the dollar.

But Azim Sadikov, who heads the International Monetary Fund representation in Tbilisi, was quoted on May 9 as warning against further pressure on the central bank to shore up the lari, arguing that it should be allowed to float. Sadikov added that "this is not the time to allocate blame," and urged the government and the bank to work together to identify and remedy existing "weaknesses."

In his address to parliament, Garibashvili recapitulated the cabinet's achievements since GD trounced the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, sweeping Mikheil Saakashvili's party from power a year before his presidency ended. The prime minister said the time had now come to progress to "a very important stage of development" in which there were new jobs and "each and every citizen can benefit from the results achieved in healthcare, agriculture, economy, education, or in other sectors."

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili was more explicit, enumerating what he said were the three major challenges Georgia faces.

The first is the security situation: Usupashvili said Georgia faces a persistent danger from an aggressive and unpredictable Russia, enhancing the need to preserve domestic political stability.

The second is to implement -- before parliamentary elections due in the fall of 2016 -- reforms of the prosecutor's office, the Interior Ministry (from which the intelligence and security services are to be decoupled), and the electoral system. Last month, in his capacity as a rank-and-file parliament deputy, Usupashvili endorsed a memorandum drafted by several parties that have no parliament seats calling for changes to the electoral law to reduce the number of parliament mandates allocated under the majoritarian system (currently 73 of the total 150), or even switch to a 100 percent proportional system.

Any move in that direction could, however, exacerbate the long-standing tensions between Garibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who issued a statement on April 28 arguing for the transition to a wholly proportional system with the aim of creating what he termed "a pluralistic political environment."

The third challenge Usupashvili listed is the need to create jobs and bolster the economy. According to official data, unemployment among Georgia's able-bodied population of 2.3 million is between 14-15 percent. That figure does not reflect the high percentage of people who describe themselves as self-employed.

-- 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.