Friday, August 29, 2014

Elected By A Hair, New Abkhaz Leader Faces Herculean Tasks

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

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

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

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

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he placed third with 19.83 percent of the vote after Ankvab and former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who has since withdrawn from politics.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Liz Fuller


Abkhazia Braces For Tumultuous Presidential Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Yet Another 'Coup' Trial Ends in Karachayevo-Cherkessia

Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic President Rashid Temrezov

The Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, with a total population of just 480,000, has brought more men to trial over the past 15 years on charges of plotting coups d’etat than any other Russian Federation subject. In the past five years alone, at least 76 men, in groups ranging in size from four to 29, have stood trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the republic’s leadership with the aim of establishing an Islamic state, and/or of attacking police, illegal possession of weapons, and membership of an illegal armed group.

Most of those accused have received prison terms ranging from two to 20 years; a handful were acquitted, or avoided imprisonment by virtue of having spent months, if not years, in pretrial detention. Sentence was passed on August 8 on the 16 defendants in the most recent such case.

The incidence of such alleged plots and the imputed objective of establishing a state based on shariat are all the more implausible given that Karachayevo-Cherkessia is one of the least Islamicized republics of the North Caucasus, in contrast to Chechnya at the other end of the spectrum. (The Muslims of the northwest Caucasus are Hanafis, whereas in Chechnya canonical Islam of the Shafii legal school co-exists with, but is losing ground to, republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s bastardized version of traditional Sufi Islam.)

Local journalist Murat Gukemukhov has pointed out that while some young men in Karachayevo-Cherkessia have indeed taken up arms to oppose the authorities, the primary motivation for doing so is adverse socioeconomic conditions, corruption, and inequality. “This is not so much Salafism as Che Guevara-ism,” Gukemukhov said.

Information about the earliest “coup” trials, in 2002 and 2007, is fragmentary, and even media reporting of more recent cases is sketchy and sometimes based solely on the prosecution’s indictment. Informed observers acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining a halfway clear picture of what happened but nonetheless question the assumption that the men sought to seize power, a charge to which none of them has been quoted as pleading guilty. As Gukemukhov asked rhetorically, how could such small numbers of men have any realistic hope of doing so?

Other charges too have been unconvincing. For example, some of the murders that 29 men who went on trial in April 2009 were accused of had been previously attributed to a militant group that the authorities claimed to have wiped out in 2006.

The defendants in that trial, as in earlier ones, were said to be members of the local wing of the North Caucasus insurgency.  A group of 16 young men who went on trial in August 2013 was similarly said to have belonged to an illegal armed group formed in April 2011 by Islam Uzdenov, who was killed together with two other members of the group in December of that year during a special operation by the FSB.

Two of the 16, Denislam Semyonov  and Osman Baychorov, had been apprehended during a special police operation in February 2013 during which Semyonov allegedly tried to shoot a senior police officer. They were sentenced earlier this month to 18 and 17 years’ imprisonment respectively, despite pleading not guilty to the coup charge.

Semyonov pleaded guilty only to illegal possession of weapons and membership in an illegal armed group, but denied attacking police. Baychorov pleaded not guilty to all four charges; he further said his pretrial testimony was extracted under torture. Eight other group members were jailed for up to two years.

While at least some members of the “Uzdenov Group” apparently did take up arms, even if they never fired them, a second group of 13 men who went on trial in April 2012 on similar charges of setting up two illegal armed formations with the aim of seizing power were not even in possession of weapons, according to their defense lawyers. The men were characterized as law-abiding practicing Muslims from rural areas, all with university educations and gainfully employed. Not all of them were acquainted among themselves, and those who did were not in constant contact. They apparently incurred suspicion by spending several days together discussing their shared fear of being targeted for “not praying correctly.”

Svetlana Avdjayeva, representing one of the 13, Artur Ismailov, said the prosecution did not adduce a shred of evidence to substantiate the charge of plotting to overthrow the authorities. What is more, the prosecutor reportedly failed to ask Ismailov a single question about the imputed coup, focusing exclusively on how often he prayed or went to the mosque. Avdjayeva claimed the men were beaten or tortured to induce them to confess. Lawyers for other defendants similarly said the charges against them were fabricated and unsubstantiated. All were nonetheless jailed for between six years and 10 months and 12 years.

The fact remains that despite changes in the republic’s leadership in 2008 and 2011, the KChR prosecutor’s office and courts have resorted for years to the same dubious “coup” charges against successive groups, reportedly underpinned by testimony from the same witnesses. Over the same time period, the KChR Interior Ministry has routinely resorted to the beating of suspects to extract incriminating testimony.

Discussing the jail terms handed down to the “Group of 13,” Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Malashenko drew a parallel with the systematic reprisals meted out by police in the early 2000s to young practicing Muslims in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic that borders on Karachayevo-Cherkessia. The victims of that harassment finally launched multiple retaliatory attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the republican capital, in October 2005.

-- Liz Fuller

Fighting In Nagorno-Karabakh: War Or War Dance?

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (center) visits a military unit in Agdam, on the front line of the battle over Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, on August 6.

On August 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet separately in Sochi with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the recent upsurge in hostilities in the vicinity of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that has reportedly left at least 20 dead.

That fighting, according to Armenian military spokesmen, has taken the form of repeated small-scale Azerbaijani attacks interspersed with occasional retaliatory operations by the Armenians. Baku for its part says the Armenian side has consistently been the aggressor, which seems implausible insofar as Armenia, in contrast to Azerbaijan, has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from unleashing, or even taking steps that could trigger, a new full-scale war.

Even though the recent clashes are the most serious since the signing of a cease-fire 20 years ago, however, most Armenian observers doubt that they presage all-out war.

The May 1994 cease-fire agreement left the Defense Army of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in control of seven neighboring districts of Azerbaijan it had wrested control of from a shambolic and poorly-trained Azerbaijani Army over the previous two years. All efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, created in 1992 to mediate a peaceful diplomatic solution to the conflict, have foundered over the time frame for and logistics of the return of those districts to the control of the Azerbaijani government, and what the government and people of Nagorno-Karabakh would receive in return for relinquishing its only bargaining chip.

The most recent blueprint for conflict resolution, the so-called Basic or Madrid Principles, envisages the return of six occupied districts plus special modalities for the seventh, the so-called Lachin Corridor that serves as the sole overland link between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia. In return, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government would be decided in a "manifestation of popular will" (the original formulation specified a referendum) at some unspecified future date.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has used the proceeds from the exploitation of its Caspian oil and natural-gas reserves to build up and reequip its armed forces with the aim of launching a new war to win back control over Nagorno-Karabakh if/when negotiations are deemed to have failed absolutely. That said, Azerbaijani officials' frequently vaunted boast that the country's $3 billion defense budget exceeds the entire budget of the Republic of Armenia is misleading in that much of the weaponry it has acquired is intended for the defense of its offshore oil and gas installations.

Over the past three years, however, the military, diplomatic and geopolitical situation has changed, partly on Baku's initiative, and seemingly to its advantage. As of the summer of 2011, the Azerbaijani Army has launched ever more frequent raids and attempts to penetrate the Line of Contact east of the de facto border between Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of Azerbaijan and that separates the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces. The objective of those probes is presumably to test the enemy's combat readiness and identify weak points in the Armenian defenses.


At the same time, Azerbaijan has stepped up its deployment of snipers along the Line of Contact, and consistently rejected successive appeals by Minsk Group co-chairmen to withdraw them, in contrast to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which have publicly expressed willingness to do so provided Azerbaijan reciprocates.

On the diplomatic front, following the failure of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to reach a widely anticipated interim peace agreement during talks in Kazan in June 2011, Baku has upped the ante by implicitly pegging a resumption of the process of hammering out differences over the Basic/Madrid Principles to Armenia's implementation of one of those principles, namely the immediate return of the seven occupied districts to Azerbaijani control. 

That gambit has effectively deadlocked the peace process, even though it has not put an end to the tireless efforts of the Minsk Group to induce the conflict sides to reach a compromise.

The chances of doing so are minimal, however, in light of the difference of opinion between the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh leaderships over what constitutes an acceptable solution to the conflict. Writing on Facebook in late July, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto prime minister, Ara Harutiunian, reportedly rejected as "unacceptable to us" the requirement that the seven occupied districts contiguous to the disputed region be returned to Azerbaijani control. Harutiunian said those districts were vital to the republic's continued economic development.

That intransigence places Armenia in a difficult position insofar as President Sarkisian (who himself was born and brought up in Nagorno-Karabakh) has said repeatedly that Armenia will never sign a peace agreement that is unacceptable to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku Seeing Its Chance?

Three factors may have contributed, singly or in combination, to the recent escalation of fighting.

The first, as U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman James Warlick has pointed out, is that the international community is already facing two major crises, in Ukraine and the Middle East, that require its undivided attention. This may have emboldened Azerbaijan.

The second is that in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the threat it is perceived to pose to Ukraine and the Baltics, the search for alternative supplies of natural gas to Western Europe has become more urgent. Azerbaijan, by virtue of the agreement it signed in June 2012 with Turkey on construction of the TANAP pipeline to export gas from its offshore Shah Deniz field, could at least partially fulfil that need, albeit not until 2018-19.

It is therefore not inconceivable that the Azerbaijani leadership has advanced, or is preparing to advance, the argument that in light of its increasing strategic importance as a source of energy, its international partners should either (figuratively) bludgeon Yerevan into agreeing to a Karabakh peace deal on Baku's terms, or turn a blind eye should it launch a new war with the aim of restoring its control over the break-away region.


The third is the appointment in October 2013 of former interior-troops commander Zakir Hasanov to succeed veteran Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev. Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army commander Lieutenant General Movses Hakobian opined earlier this week  that Hasanov may have initiated the recent offensive with the twin aims of putting his stamp on military tactics and pressuring Armenia to make concessions in the peace process.

At the same time, Hakobian said that despite its acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry, the Azerbaijani armed forces are no match for their Armenian counterparts. Armenian Defense Minister Seiran Ohanian (who lost a leg in the fighting of the early 1990s) similarly told journalists this week that "we need to bear in mind that any weapon requires a person qualified enough to use it.... The acquisition of large quantities of weapons requires their personnel to learn how to use them effectively."

Even some Azerbaijani experts have cast doubts on official Azerbaijani accounts of the nature of the fighting and the Armenian death toll. Military analyst Uzeir Jafarov was quoted by ANS Press as questioning how the Armenians as the attacking side incurred fewer casualties, given that "under the laws of war, the attacking side usually sustains more casualties." He said the Azerbaijani military command was guilty of "a serious tactical error."

Assuming that Azerbaijan has indeed merely been engaging in muscle-flexing intended to intimidate, rather than preparing for a major offensive, it may have played into Moscow's hands if, as many Armenians suspect, Putin intends to take advantage of the upsurge in tensions to "offer" to deploy peacekeeping force in the conflict zone. (Ohanian has affirmed unequivocally that third-party peacekeepers are not necessary.)  The deployment of Russian peacekeepers would not only preserve indefinitely the current situation of "not peace but not war," it would also preclude the use of much of the battlefield weaponry Azerbaijan has purchased from Russia in recent years at considerable expense.

-- Liz Fuller


OSCE Calls For 'Thorough Investigation' Of Kabardian Journalist's Death

Journalist and human rights activist Timur Kuashev was found dead on August 1.

The Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dunja Mijatovic, issued a statement on August 4 calling for a thorough investigation into the death of Kabardian journalist and human rights activist Timur Kuashev. 

Kuashev was found dead near his home in Khasanya, south-west of Nalchik, on August 1, having disappeared after leaving home the previous evening. His body showed no signs of violence, but his friends and colleagues dispute the findings of an autopsy that concluded he died of heart failure. They are convinced he was killed, possibly by an injection of poison. 

Whatever the circumstances, Kuashev's death is an embarrassment for acting Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) head Yury Kokov, who has still to be confirmed in that post by the new parliament to be elected on September 14. Kuashev had intended to run in that ballot as a candidate for the opposition party Yabloko. 

Two Yabloko members staged a picket outside the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic representation in Moscow on August 4 to demand clarification of the circumstances of Kuashev's death, and Yabloko head Sergei Mitrokhin has appealed to Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin to open a criminal investigation.

Kuashev, 26, graduated from a Moscow law school in 2010 with a degree in criminal law. He then returned to Nalchik, where he sought to promote interconfessional dialogue and defend the rights of practicing Muslims. He also wrote for the independent monthly journal "Dosh," focusing primarily on human rights violations and, in particular, the ongoing trial of 58 men charged in connection with multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005, according to "Dosh" chief editor Abdulla Duduyev. 

Those activities earned Kuashev respect across the North Caucasus: Just days before his death he was invited to participate in a seminar in Makhachala on the situation in Gaza.  Among the 200-plus mourners at his funeral was a delegation of five people from Daghestan. 


At the same time, Kuashev's engagement on behalf of fellow believers inevitably attracted the suspicion of the police and security organs, as did his adherence to Salafism. In December 2012, together with other Muslim lawyers from South Russia, he prepared an appeal to Russia's Constitutional Court questioning the constitutionality of the Stavropol Krai government's ruling that effectively prohibited school girls wearing the hijab.

In May 2014, Kuashev was detained by police for participating in a ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Tsarist war of conquest in which tens of thousands of Circassians were slaughtered or driven into exile. 

Just days later, he addressed a formal appeal to the KBR Prosecutor General and Interior Minister, to the head of the KBR subsidiary of the Investigative Committee, and to Amnesty International, demanding an investigation into death threats he had received, but the Interior Ministry declined to open a formal investigation. 

Circumstantial Evidence

Last month, Kuashev posted a diatribe on Live Journal addressed to Kokov and Nalchik Mayor Mukhamed Kodzokov detailing shortcomings in Nalchik's public transport and markets, and demanding the construction of small local mosques.

Kuashev's friends and associates are convinced he was killed because of his professional engagement. They cite the marks left by a hypodermic needle in his armpit and the fact that his fingers were turning black as evidence of "a planned professional killing." 

That circumstantial evidence points to the possible involvement of the security forces, and raises the question whether the perpetrators were acting at Kokov's behest or without his knowledge. 

Human rights activist Valery Khatazhukov points out that since, his appointment in December 2013 to replace Arsen Kanokov, Kokov  (who is a former head of the federal Interior Ministry's Main Administration for Countering Extremism, and thus should have a clearer idea than most of what tactics are most effective in containing it) has taken a moderate approach to combating the Islamic insurgency. 

Kokov advocates dialogue with the Salafi community and allowing the bodies of slain militants to be returned to their families for burial despite federal legislation to the contrary. 

That rejection of "force" methods may have antagonized the siloviki, in which case Kuashev's murder may have appeared a convenient way of killing two birds with one stone: getting rid of a journalist who had fearlessly criticized abuses by the power agencies, and embarrassing Kokov.

A second commentator, "Strategiya" Institute head Aslan Beshto, likewise spoke with approval of Kokov's first efforts to restore order in the health, education and construction sectors. In early April, Beshto opined that, so far, Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic. 

That view of Kokov's track record is apparently not shared in Moscow. In the most recent ranking by effectiveness of 83 federation subject heads, Kokov occupied 64th-65th place with a score of 61 out of 100. Of his fellow North Caucasus leaders, only North Ossetia's Taymuraz Mamsurov ranked lower, in 80th place.

-- Liz Fuller

Russia Hits Back At Georgia Over Trade Agreement With European Union

Former Georgian ambassador to Moscow Zurab Abashidze (right) and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin have held a series of meetings on relations between the two countries. (file photo)

Just three weeks after down-playing the anticipated impact on bilateral relations of Georgia's Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union, Russia is moving to suspend the Free Trade Agreement it signed with Georgia two decades ago. Senior Georgian officials in turn are now seeking to assure the population that the Russian move does not constitute "a tragedy."

Georgia signed the DCFTA on June 27 as part of its Association Agreement with the EU, which Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili described as "a big step towards free Europe."  

The Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the Agreement on July 18. The DCFTA takes effect on September 1. An EU study estimated that it will increase Georgian exports to the European Union by 12 percent.

Meanwhile, Russian and Georgian experts met in Prague on July 7 to discuss the anticipated impact of the DCFTA on bilateral trade, which had grown by 35 percent during the first five months of this year.  

Two days later, on July 9, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Georgia's special representative for talks with Moscow, former Ambassador Zurab Abashidze, met, also in Prague on July 9 for the seventh time since relaunching an "informal dialogue" in late 2012 in the wake of the parliamentary election in which then President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement was defeated by the more pragmatic and less overtly anti-Russian Georgian Dream coalition headed by philanthropist and businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Both sides described the two separate meetings as "productive" and "useful." Karasin was quoted as stressing that "concrete and open dialogue is needed about how [the DCFTA] will impact our bilateral trade."

At the same time, he affirmed that "I think that there is no need to threaten neither ourselves nor partners in advance with measures and sanctions; what is needed is to sit down calmly in mutual respect and thoroughly calculate in which areas and to what extent changes may occur in trade and economic ties between our countries following the recent signature by Georgia of the Association Agreement with the EU."

Notwithstanding Karasin's assurances, Russia's Ministry for Economic Development has drafted, without any prior consultations with Tbilisi, a decree on suspending the Russian-Georgian Free-Trade Agreement signed in February 1994. 

Abashidze reportedly told Georgia's Maestro TV that there is "a political element" in the Russian move. "Our take has always been that free trade with the EU does not in any way hinder our free trade with Russia, but they [the Russian authorities] as it seems think otherwise," he said. 

Abashidze explained that the suspension of the free-trade agreement with Russia will probably make Georgian exports to the Russian Federation more expensive and thus less competitive on the Russian market. In addition, he said, some tariffs will increase and others will be revised. 

Georgian Deputy Economy Minister Mikhail Djanelidze said Georgian imports to Russia would be subject to customs tariffs, but at a rate not exceeding 20 percent. 

Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri, however, told journalists on August 1 that he does not anticipate either a rise in the price of Georgian products on the Russian market or a fall in exports. 

On the contrary, Khaduri said, suspension of the free-trade agreement with Russia means that Russian imports will henceforth be subject to customs duty, which will bring in some 15-20 million laris ($8.6 -- $11.5 million) annually to the state budget. 

Like Abashidze, Georgian Prime Minister Gharibashvili said the suspension of the free-trade agreement with Russia "is not a tragedy." He said Abashidze will hold further talks with the Russian side, "and I think we shall reach an agreement." 

Whatever the impact on Georgia's economy, the planned suspension of the 1994 free-trade agreement raises the question whether individual Russian agencies or interest groups are again pursuing separate, even diverging policies with regard to Georgia, as this writer posited in 1994 (see "Russian Strategy in the Transcaucasus since the Demise of the U.S.S.R.,"  Bundesinstitut fuer ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, Cologne, ISIN 0435-7183)

-- Liz Fuller

Local Azerbaijanis Rally in Support of Embattled Daghestani Official

A Daghestani man pickets against the renaming of a street in Derbent after former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev in 2013.

A new standoff is underway between the Azerbaijanis, one of the largest ethnic groups in south-eastern Daghestan, and the republican leadership.

As part of an ongoing systematic purge of local administrators regarded as inefficient and/or corrupt, Republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov announced last week the imminent dismissal as head of Derbent Raion of Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani who had held that post since 1998. 

On July 30, however, supporters of Kurbanov (their numbers were variously estimated at 300 and 1,000 people), congregated outside the district administration building to protest that decision.

One participant argued that Abdulatipov had no right to sack Kurbanov, who was elected by a popular ballot and whose term does not expire until next year. 

A second, smaller protest against Kurbanov's planned dismissal took place on August 1 in the village of Mamedkala.

Kurbanov, who is 58, told his supporters on July 30 that he will not step down voluntarily. He was hospitalized later that day after a meeting with unidentified government officials who pressured him without success to sign a letter of resignation. 

According to unconfirmed reports, Abdulatipov intends to appoint as Kurbanov's successor Azadi Ragimov, also an Azerbaijani, who was dismissed last week after serving for 12 years as minister of justice.
Azerbaijanis are the sixth largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups, accounting for 4.5 percent of the total population, but the largest in Derbent Raion, where -- according to the 2010 All-Russian census -- they make up 58 percent of the total population of 99,500. The second largest group (18 percent) are the Lezgins. In the city of Derbent, which is celebrating its 2000th anniversary next year, Azerbaijanis and Lezgins each account for 35-36 percent of the total population of 120,000.

The Kurbanov family has long played a prominent role in local politics. Kurbanov's father, Said, served as first secretary of the Derbent Raion committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1962 to 1991, and then until 2006 as the Azerbaijani representative on the 14-person collective republican presidency. His brother Magomed was Daghestan's representative in the Azerbaijan Republic until last year, when Abdulatipov dismissed him. 

Even though Derbent Raion is not contiguous with Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has long played a prominent role in the region and seeks to expand it.  


In 2010, two Russian analysts went so far as to argue that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is one of the most influential political figures in southern Daghestan.  In the run-up to the October 2013 Azerbaijani presidential ballot in which Aliyev ran for a third term, Abdulatipov officially appealed to Azerbaijani voters who belong to one of Daghestan's ethnic groups (primarily Avars, Tsakhurs and Lezgins) to cast their ballots for Aliyev. 

Some Daghestani observers cite Azerbaijani claims that Derbent is historically an Azerbaijani town as evidence that Baku harbors irredentist aspirations. 

In particular, the Lezgin population of the town of Derbent appears to resent what it perceives as unwarranted and inappropriate concessions by the municipal council to the leadership of the Azerbaijan Republic, as epitomized by the decision in the spring of 2013 to rename one of the town's streets in honor of Ilham Aliyev's late father, Heydar Aliyev. Many Lezgins similarly regard Kurbanov as too eager to please Baku.

Azerbaijan's expanding economic presence in the region may indeed be intended as a vehicle for political influence.  

In the run-up to the Derbent-2000 celebrations, Azerbaijan plans to build in Derbent Raion an Olympic sports complex comprising a soccer stadium, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and hotels. 

In addition, Kurbanov informed Republic of Daghestan Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov in March that Azerbaijani investors plan to build a canning factory, a factory to manufacture ceramic tiles, a cement plant, and a logistical center. Abdulatipov had criticized Kurbanov in July 2013 for his failure to attract investment in a predominantly agricultural district. 

-- 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.