Friday, February 05, 2016

Chechen Republic Head Sides With Embattled Ingush Mufti

A combo photo shows Ingushetia's leader, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (left), and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Liz Fuller

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has elevated his long-standing feud with his Ingush counterpart, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, to a new level by overtly siding with Ingushetia's mufti, Issa-hadji Khamkhoyev, whose resignation Yevkurov called for in late December.

Yevkurov's rationale is that Khamkhoyev, whom Kadyrov previously criticized for his conspicuous absence from regional religious gatherings in Grozny, has discredited Ingushetia's Sufi-dominated Spiritual Center of Muslims (DTsM) through his confrontation in June 2015 with respected preacher Khamzat Chumakov, and his broader animosity toward Ingushetia's peaceful and law-abiding Salafi minority. Kadyrov as a staunch promoter of Chechen Sufism has long denounced Salafis as terrorists and extremists.

For the past seven years, Kadyrov and Yevkurov have exchanged barbs over where the border should be drawn between their respective republics and over the Ingush authorities' apparent inability to apprehend Islamic militants who used Ingushetia as a base for operations in Chechnya.

Now Kadyrov is implicitly affirming not only that he alone is qualified to define and defend "true" Islam in the North Caucasus but that Yevkurov is in the wrong in seeking to promote reconciliation between the DTsM and clerics such as Khamzat Chumakov and Issa Tsechoyev, who refuse to acknowledge the authority of that body or of Khamkhoyev personally.

The forum Kadyrov chose for sending those messages was a February 2 conference in Grozny attended, according to the website, by "many thousands" of representatives of the Qadariyya and Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhoods from Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan, including Khamkhoyev.

Addressing that conference, Kadyrov again equated Salafism with terrorism. He branded its representatives, including Chumakov and Tsechoyev, as "shaytans," or devils. He further claimed Tsechoyev receives funding from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kadyrov conflated the peaceful and nonviolent preachings of Chumakov, who has consistently denounced bloodshed and Islamic extremism and sought to dissuade young Ingush from "heading for the forest" to join the ranks of the Islamic insurgency, with the militant and puritanical Salafism professed by the North Caucasus insurgency and the terrorist organization Islamic State. Chumakov for his part has always rejected as artificial any differentiation between "traditional" and "nontraditional" Islam, meaning Sufism and Salafism.

Second, Kadyrov argued that insofar as Salafism is tantamount to "terrorism," its proponents should not be allowed to express their views publicly. He called on the Ingush leadership not to permit Chumakov and Tsechoyev to preach, and warned that if they try more than once to do so on Chechen territory, "heads will roll."

In short, Kadyrov, who in his entire political career has never quoted publicly a single sura from the Koran, appears to be setting himself up as the supreme arbiter and primary defender of "pure" Islam in the North Caucasus.

The conference participants adopted a resolution denouncing Salafism for preaching terrorism and extremism. They condemned the creation of any council on religious affairs that includes even a single representative of "pseudo-Salafism" and warned that Sufi brotherhoods will disavow any of their members who agree to serve on such bodies. (Yevkurov has recently established a new board tasked with supervising many aspects of religious life that were hitherto the preserve of the DTsM.)

They affirmed that dialogue between Sufis and Salafis is permissible only with the explicit intention of demonstrating to the latter the flaws in their beliefs and holding them accountable under Islamic law.

The resolution adopted at the Grozny congress also categorically rejects any "innovations" in Islam. Kadyrov's wholesale reinterpretation of what constitutes "traditional" Chechen Islam encompasses not only the veneration of sacred relics and the tombs of Sufi saints but the hitherto alien concept, apparently borrowed from the Roman Catholic Church, of "holy water."

One year ago, when Chumakov and Ingush oppositionist Magomed Khazbiyev were both under pressure from the Ingushetian authorities, Kadyrov welcomed them both in Grozny, where Chumakov addressed the mass meeting Kadyrov orchestrated to protest the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that led to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.

Kadyrov is also on record, according to Ingush human rights defender Magomed Mutsolgov, as having criticized Khamkhoyev as the only Muslim leader in the North Caucasus who refuses to participate in the large-scale religious events Kadyrov organizes. Mutsolgov attributed Khamkhoyev's reluctance to do so to the latter's desire not to antagonize Yevkurov, in light of the enmity between Yevkurov and Kadyrov.

Now that Yevkurov is openly seeking to remove Khamkhoyev from office for his reluctance to bury his differences with Chumakov, however, Kadyrov has demonstratively sided with Khamkhoyev against Yevkurov.

Chechnya's mufti Salakh Mezhiyev was quoted by as telling the Grozny conference he has tried for the past month to establish contact with Chumakov and Tsechoyev to arrange a meeting with them but that they ignored his invitations.

Chechens Who Fought In Ukraine Demand That Putin Restrain Kadyrov

The Chechens urge Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) to "crack down" on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov "and those like him, who subject the freedom-loving Chechen people to humiliations never seen before."

Liz Fuller

Chechen volunteers who fought in Ukraine on the side of that country's government have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that he risks ending up at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and laid out five steps he needs to take to avoid that fate. Topping that list is "cracking down on [Chechen Republic head Ramzan] Kadyrov and those like him, who subject the freedom-loving Chechen people to humiliations never seen before."

The Chechens' open letter is of interest not simply for its content but because Adam Osmayev, the current commander of the volunteer force in question, was apprehended in Ukraine four years ago on charges, which later proved to be false, of plotting to assassinate Putin at the behest of Doku Umarov, the Chechen leader of the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate.

The authors describe Putin as "our enemy" and go on to brand him "the head of a terrorist state, as London's High Court has just confirmed," an apparent reference to a British public inquiry that concluded the Russian president "probably approved" of the killing in London by radioactive poisoning of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. They call the Russian Federation "a petro-colony." They also say Russians "bring death and destruction to all those who come into contact with them."

The Chechens affirm that "the whole world understands that you have sustained a total failure in your efforts to occupy Crimea and Donbas." They warn Putin that "you...may still be an authority for the zombified Russian people. But it is just one step from love to hatred, and you will not be able to transform the territories under your control into a second North Korea, however hard you try. The sanctions are taking effect and the era of oil is slowly and irrevocably coming to an end -- you can see this happening and are furious at your inability to change it."

They warn the Russian president that "a sad and shameful fate awaits you: If you don't have the willpower to commit suicide like [German Nazi leader Adolf] Hitler, and if you're not torn to pieces by an angry mob like [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi, then you'll end up at The Hague like [former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic."

The authors then advise Putin that "you still have a slight chance to put an end to the crimes committed by your dogs and save the lives of many thousands of potential victims." They then list the following five things they claim he needs to do:

-- Rein in Kadyrov and his thugs (whose reprisals against Chechnya's civilian population have been painstakingly chronicled by both Russian and international human rights watchdogs)

-- Release unconditionally all "political prisoners" who are citizens of other countries and were "treacherously abducted" in Ukraine and Crimea

-- Release those "tens of thousands" of Chechens currently held in Russian "concentration camps" (presumably meaning Chechens sentenced by Russian courts on dubious criminal charges)

-- Abandon all efforts at preserving Russia's influence over Ukraine by countering the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to become part of Europe

-- Withdraw his "hordes" from Ukrainian territory immediately and return control of Ukraine's borders to Kyiv as required by the Minsk agreements. Pay adequate compensation to all "victims of Russian aggression," including the relatives of those who died in the downing over Ukraine in July 2014 of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

They advise Putin to waste no time in meeting those demands, as his window of opportunity is "narrowing day by day."

The International PeaceKeeping Battalion (MMB) named after Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Russian Air Force general who in October 1991 became the first president of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, was established in 2014 by veteran Chechen field commander Isa Munayev to fight alongside the Ukrainian Army against the Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

The announcement of its foundation prompted dozens of inquiries from people keen to enlist. Not all were Chechens: They also included Ukrainians, a woman from the town of Kaspiisk in Daghestan, and a Lithuanian living in the United Kingdom.

Munayev was killed one year ago during the battle for the Donbas town of Debaltseve, whereupon Osmayev took over as battalion commander.

Osmayev had been apprehended by Ukrainian security personnel in early February 2012, a few weeks after an explosion in the rented apartment in Odesa where he lived in which a man initially said to be one of his fellow plotters was killed. During the pretrial investigation he confessed to the assassination plot charge, but he subsequently retracted that confession, which he said was extracted under torture.

Ukraine's prosecutor-general suspended extradition proceedings against Osmayev in August 2014 at the recommendation of the European Court of Human Rights.

In November 2014, by which time Russian-backed separatists were battling Ukrainian forces following Russia's forced annexation of Crimea, an Odesa district court sentenced Osmayev to two years and nine months in prison on a charge of illegal possession of explosives and damaging another person's property. He walked free from the courtroom, having already spent that much time in pretrial custody.

Gazprom Seeks Again To Pressure Georgia Over Gas Supplies

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets in Georgia to protest against Tbilisi's negotiations with the Russian gas company Gazprom. (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Russia has again raised the possibility of curtailing gas supplies to Georgia at a time when Azerbaijan, the only alternative source, is unable to meet Georgia's expanding need in full.
Over the past four months, Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze has met four times with senior Gazprom officials to discuss possible changes in the tariffs Gazprom pays for supplying gas via Georgia to Armenia, and in the amount of Russian gas Georgia purchases.

Those talks have sparked protests by the opposition United National Movement (ENM), which accuses the current government of endangering national security by making the country dependent on Russian gas supplies. 
Such accusations appear overblown, however, given the comparatively modest volume of gas involved. That suggests that the ENM's position is strongly influenced by its desire to question the competence and pro-Western orientation of the Georgian Dream coalition, which defeated it in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot.
Provisional data from the Georgian Energy Ministry cited by the website shows that in 2015 Georgia consumed 2.478 billion cubic meters of natural gas (compared with 1.91 billion in 2013, an increase of almost 25 percent).Of the 2015 total, 2.195 billion cubic meters, or some 88.5 percent, was supplied by Azerbaijan: 1.48 billion in line with a contract signed with Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR, and 712 million in lieu of transit fees for gas transported via the BP-operated South Caucasus Pipeline to Turkey from the first stage of Azerbaijan's offshore Shah Deniz field. 

Just 275 million cubic meters -- a little over 10 percent of the total consumed -- was supplied by Gazprom, of which 200 million cubic meters was transit fees for gas supplied by Gazprom to Armenia via Georgia. (Gazprom claims the total volume it supplied in 2015 was 300 million cubic meters.) 

Seeking To Monetize
Georgia has long been entitled to 10 percent of the gas supplied by Gazprom to Armenia as transit fees. That tariff, according to Vartan Harutiunian, CEO of Armenia's national gas company which is owned by Gazprom, is the highest in the world. 
Kaladze disclosed after the most recent round of talks that Gazprom has sought for the past two years to monetize the transit fee. 
He said that Georgia initially rejected that option, but that Gazprom has now threatenedto reroute its gas exports to Armenia via Iran as soon as it becomes technically feasible to do so -- which would of course deprive Georgia of any transit fees, either in cash or in kind.
Kaladze gave no indication of what the cash tariff Gazprom has proposed might be, or the likely cost of purchasing additional Russian gas to make up the shortfall. 

In 2015, in addition to the gas it received in transit fees, Georgia purchased 75 million more cubic meters of Russian gas at the price of $110 per 1,000 cubic meters. 
At the same time, Kaladze stated categorically that even if Georgia is constrained to purchase more Russian gas in 2016 than it has done in recent years, it will not reduce the amount purchased from Azerbaijan, which he described as Georgia's "strategic partner."

Street Protests

The Georgian opposition has convened three demonstrations, in October, November, and January, to protest the government's imputed intention of reducing the amount of Azerbaijani gas it imports and increasing the Russian share. And on January 22, the ENM formally asked President Giorgi Margvelashvili to convene a special session of the National Security Council to discuss whether purchases of Russian gas should be increased. 
The organizers of the January protest, attended by some 1,000 people, argued that the Georgian government's stance is all the more counterproductive and irrational insofar as Azerbaijan "is prepared to supply any volume of gas." 
Kaladze, however, said after he and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili discussed the possibility of Georgia purchasing additional gas from Azerbaijan with visiting SOCAR President Rovnag Abdullayev on January 13 that Azerbaijan is not currently able to increase supplies for "technical reasons." He explained that the pipeline in question is already operating at maximum capacity. Kaladze said "we have a project" to build an additional gas pumping station to increase that capacity, but did not say who would provide the necessary investments.
The project will not, Kaladze admitted, be completed this year, which means the estimated shortfall in supply for 2016 could reach 300-400 million cubic meters, for which Gazprom is the most likely alternative supplier. 
On January 29, SOCAR announced that it has reached an agreement with the South Caucasus Pipeline operators to supply Georgia with an additional 50 million cubic meters during the winter months.
Asked about Georgia's vulnerability to pressure from Gazprom, U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi Ian Kelly told journalists on January 18: "I think that Georgia does have a short term energy need, and I think it's prudent to talk to all potential energy suppliers." 

At the same time, he expressed tacit approval of the government's approach to the problem, saying: "I think it's always important that governments be as transparent as possible about their energy policy, and they have been very open with us. We have expressed our concerns that Georgia not become too dependent on one source of energy -- that they keep a good diversification of energy -- and we are satisfied with their explanations." 

Republic Of Ingushetia Head, Mufti On Collision Course

Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (left) has been at loggerheads with the republic’s mufti Issa-haji Khamkhoyev (right) for months.

Liz Fuller

Addressing Muslim clergy in late December, Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov called for the second time in six months on the republic's mufti, Issa-haji Khamkhoyev, to resign. Yevkurov said Khamkhoyev, who is 53, is "tired" and cannot cope with his duties, and that he overreacts "emotionally" to criticism. He also said Khamkhoyev's open confrontation in June 2015 with the hugely popular imam Khamzat Chumakov, which narrowly missed turning violent, "undermined the authority" of the official clergy.

Khamkhoyev immediately countered that he was reelected in 2014 by fellow clerics for a third term in accordance with the statutes of Ingushetia's Spiritual Center of Muslims (DTsM), and only they can remove him from that post. The following day, Khamkhoyev traveled to neighboring Chechnya in a bid to secure the backing of his Chechen counterpart Salakh Mezhiyev. 

Yevkurov's frustration with Khamkhoyev derives from the latter's categorical rejection, as a member of the Qadiriya Sufi order, of the more traditional Salafism professed by Chumakov and the imams of some 13 other mosques. Those clerics are at odds with the Sufi-dominated DTsM, primarily over minor points of worship. Khamkhoyev has accused them of seeking to split Ingushetia's Muslim community by encouraging believers to reject the authority of the DTsM. He also claims they consider it permissible to kill those who do not share their views. 

In the wake of his confrontation with Yevkurov last month, Khamkhoyev wrote on the DTsM Facebook page that those groups of believers who distance themselves from the DTsM constitute "a time bomb that could ultimately lead to bloodshed." He said such religious communities cannot be considered legal until they acknowledge the authority of the imam appointed by the DTsM in their village and "stop designating other people unbelievers." 

The Salafi clergy had responded in December to Khamkhoyev's repeated attacks with an open letter rejecting his allegations and in turn accusing Khamkhoyev himself of sowing discord among believers through his dictatorial and heavy-handed approach. They also pointed out that the first religious communities to turn their backs on the DTsM, in the 1990s, were the Naqshbandi Sufis whom the DTsM also considers deviants. They appealed for reconciliation between the various Muslim communities, and concluded by saying that, if a new, qualified mufti is elected who "will defend the interests of all believers in a bid to consolidate our society," they will support him regardless of which branch of Islam he adheres to.

Yevkurov is a career Russian military intelligence officer whom then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev named president of Ingushetia in October 2008. As such, he is presumably motivated less by his own religious beliefs than by the pragmatic need to reconcile the Sufi and Salafi congregations

in Ingushetia before the tensions between them spill over into the kind of institutionalized violence that has plagued Daghestan for the past 15 years. As Magomed Mutsolgov, the head of the Ingush NGO Mashr, which provides free legal aid, observed in a blog post, that it is a paradox how the republic's official clergy take such a hard line on any manifestations of religious dissent, whereas the secular leadership actively seeks to promote unity among the various currents of Islam.

Yet, as Moscow-based analyst Akhmet Yarlykapov points out, the DTsM is not subordinate to the republic's authorities and Yevkurov cannot impose his will on its members. When Yevkurov demanded Khamkhoyev's resignation last summer, Khamkhoyev categorically refused, and some 60 imams addressed a collective missive to Yevkurov affirming their support for the mufti. 

In a clear attempt to reduce the power of the muftiate, Yevkurov has just established a new board tasked with supervising many aspects of religious life that were hitherto the preserve of the DTsM, including overseeing madrasahs and the lucrative business of organizing the hajj. 

Yevkurov also named as his personal advisor on religious affairs Salekh Khamkhoyev, who served previously in that capacity under Republic of Ingushetia President Ruslan Aushev. Salekh Khamkhoyev belongs to the same clan as the mufti but they are not close relatives. Among his immediate tasks is convening a conference to which both Sufis and Salafis will be invited with a view to restoring unity between them. 

Daghestani Police Thwart Show Of Support For Kadyrov Ally

The rally was broken up in Daghestan.

Liz Fuller

Police in Daghestan intervened on January 24 to prevent a planned large-scale auto-rally from Kizlyar, in the north of the republic, via the Chechen town of Gudermes, to the southern coastal town of Derbent.

The event was said to have been organized “spontaneously” by supporters of Sagid Murtazaliyev, an influential Avar politician who was removed last year from his post as head of the Daghestan subsidiary of the federal Pension Fund and charged in absentia with contract killings and financing terrorism. His current whereabouts are not known.

It is conceivable, however, that the initiative originated with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, a close associate of Murtazaliyev. When the criminal case against Murtazaliyev was announced, Kadyrov publicly implied that the charges brought against him were unfounded. Kadyrov characterized Murtazaliyev as “a genuine patriot and a true son of Russia,” and as his “brother and loyal friend.”

The stated rationale for the planned motor rally was to demonstrate support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and for Kadyrov, who launched a series of vicious verbal attacks two weeks ago on Russia’s extra-parliamentary opposition. Kadyrov has said the attacks constituted a legitimate response to what he called efforts by “traitors” and “enemies of the people” to use the current unfavorable economic situation to undermine stability in Russia.

Kadyrov followed up on his controversial statements by convening a mass meeting in Grozny on January 22 intended to demonstrate widespread popular support for his position and, by extension, for any measures Putin considers appropriate to counter the alleged threat to “national unity” posed by the political activists in question. He claimed that the estimated 800,000 participants at that meeting included some who had travelled in a column of some 500 vehicles from Daghestan.

The planned rally in Daghestan was envisaged as the continuation of the Grozny rally, one of its organizers, Akhmedpasha Amirilayev, told the website “We wanted to show that not only the Chechen, but also the Daghestani people show solidarity with the course of country’s president and with the patriotic pronouncements of Ramzan Kadyrov,” Amirilayev was quoted as saying.

Amirilayev suggested that if anyone except Murtazaliyev’s supporters had come up with the idea of the “spontaneous” motor rally, the police would not have intervened to thwart it. The organizers had failed to obtain official police permission for the undertaking.

Instead of proceeding south from Kizlyar with additional participants joining the convoy in the towns of Kizilyurt, Makhachkala, Kaspiisk and Izberbash, Murtazaliyev’s backers had to content themselves with isolated rallies. Some 500 vehicles participated in a rally in Makhachkala, including some from Chechnya representing Kadyrov. Photos of the Makhachkala rally show cars displaying posters of Kadyrov together with Murtazaliyev, or of Kadyrov and Putin. Some vehicles reportedly displayed pictures of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov.

As noted above, it is not impossible that Kadyrov himself, convinced by the Kremlin’s failure to distance itself from, let alone condemn his most egregious pronouncements that he can act, speak, and behave as he pleases with impunity, was behind a PR stunt intended to present his disgraced buddy Murtazaliyev in a favorable light. Analyst Abbas Gallyamov observed that Kadyrov has succeeded in persuading the Russian leadership to side with him against the marginalized opposition, and that consequently, “he now has carte blanche…whatever he does in the next few months, no one will touch him.”

At the same time, it is worth noting that the Daghestani police who intervened to prevent the planned motor rally take their orders from the federal Interior Ministry, which seemingly is still prepared to stand up to Kadyrov.

Has Ramzan Kadyrov Finally Gone Too Far?

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is arguably one of the most powerful (and feared) men in Russia.

Liz Fuller

Making outrageous and palpably untrue assertions has long been Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's stock-in-trade, and because he is arguably one of the most powerful men in Russia, few people have dared to publicly take issue with him for fear of ending up "disappeared" (meaning abducted in broad daylight by unidentified gunmen, after which all trace of them is lost) or dead. 

That impunity is now in the balance, however, in light of Kadyrov's statement last week in which he accused unnamed members of Russia's extraparliamentary opposition of trying at the behest of their alleged paymasters in Western intelligence services to use the current unfavorable economic situation to undermine domestic stability in Russia.

Kadyrov declared that such persons "should be treated as enemies of the people, as traitors." Those epithets from the darkest years of the Stalinist terror are irrevocably associated in the minds of the older generation of Russians with show trials, executions, and draconian prison camp sentences. Kadyrov said such people should be brought to trial for their "subversive activity." 

That statement elicited negative reactions across the Russian Federation. Human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova was quoted as commenting that such statements are a disservice to President Vladimir Putin and reflect badly on the country as a whole. 

Maksim Reznik, a member of St. Petersburg's parliament, has addressed a formal request to the federal Prosecutor-General's Office to pronounce on whether Kadyrov's statement contains "a public call for extremist activity."

Reznik noted that, in 1995, Russia's Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional Article 64 of the Soviet-era Criminal Code under which people were sentenced as "enemies of the people." He further called for access to the Chechen government website that posted the summary of Kadyrov's address to be restricted. 

Russian State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin described the altercation between Kadyrov and his critics as "unpleasant," stressing that the Duma should set an example for dialogue between various political forces and that he personally "has always stood for open and respectful political dialogue." 

Konstantin Senchenko, a businessman and member of the Krasnoyarsk legislature, responded with an ad hominem attack in which he accused Kadyrov of having brought shame on Russia and discrediting the titles of academician and Hero of Russia. 

Kadyrov publicly construed Senchenko's comment in a telephone conversation that he should perhaps not have resorted to such language as an apology. 

Meanwhile, the informal Congress of the Intelligentsia formed in March 2014 to protest Russia's annexation of Crimea has launched a petition calling for Kadyrov to resign immediately. Signatories include human rights campaigners Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Svetlana Gannushkina, Committee Against Torture head Igor Kalyapin, and Lev Ponomaryov.

Chechnya's human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev responded that, insofar as Kadyrov was elected in an open ballot, only the Chechen people have the right to demand his removal as republic head. 

Kadyrov, for his part, retaliated by implying, in an article published in Izvestia, that the initiators of the petition are the victims of "mass psychosis" and are in need of psychiatric treatment. 

Kadyrov further advocated that the prosecutor's office should investigate statements by those officials who speak out in support of, or call for dialogue with, the "jackals" who "call for violence" and "dream of the destruction of our state."

The presidential Human Rights Council, too, is toying with the possibility of asking Putin to remove Kadyrov, according to its deputy chairman Yevgeny Bobrov. Bobrov said Kadyrov's statements, and similar pronouncements by his subordinates, including parliament speaker Magomed Daudov, will be subjected to linguistic analysis to determine whether they are extremist and/or unconstitutional. 

At the same time, Bobrov acknowledged that "reinforced concrete evidence" would be needed to substantiate any formal demand for Kadyrov's dismissal. Any such evaluations would risk being rejected out of hand as subjective. 

There has been no formal comment to date from the Kremlin on the controversy, although the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on January 18 quoted an unnamed "source close to the presidential administration" as saying that Kadyrov, "as the head of a federation subject, should be more responsible in his choice of words."

Whether President Putin will feel constrained to utter an anodyne rebuke is questionable, especially if the Human Rights Council decides against asking Putin to dismiss Kadyrov. 

True, on one previous occasion Putin was forced to acknowledge that Kadyrov had overstepped the mark. Asked by journalist Kseniya Sobchak from the TV station Dozhd during his annual press conference in December 2014 to comment on whether Kadyrov's orders to torch the homes of the families of the young fighters who had attacked Grozny two weeks earlier were unconstitutional, Putin stressed: "In Russia, everyone must abide by the laws of the country. No one considered guilty until he has been sentenced by a court." At the same time, Putin said that Kadyrov's "emotional" outburst was understandable in light of the casualties the Chechen police incurred during the fighting.

Since then, however, Kadyrov has scored at least one notable victory, pushing through the Russian parliament a new law, which he has described as"a triumph of justice," barring Russian courts from designating passages from Holy Scripture extremist.

The rationale for that law was a ruling handed down in August 2015 by a court in Yuzhno-Sakahlinsk in Russia's Far East, and which Kadyrov promptly appealed, designating two ayats from the Koran as "extremist." 

Kadyrov may also have obstructed the investigation into the February 2015 assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Every such success in redefining what in today's Russia is politically possible only serves to strengthen Kadyrov's conviction that he is above and beyond reproach, and thus to impel him to utter ever more outrageous and offensive denunciations of anyone who incurs his disapproval. He boasted on January 18 in an Instagram post that those oppositionists who were the target of his criticism "will be unable to do anything…against me personally." 

At the end of the day, the Kadyrov phenomenon is one of Putin's making, and only he can decide how to handle it.

Kadyrov's second term in office expires in two months' time, but the chances he will not be reelected for a third term are minimal. Apart from his role as commander of what amounts to Putin's private army, he serves a further valuable purpose. As Konstantin Kalachov of the Politic Experts' Group told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, like Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the 1990s, Kadyrov is the mouthpiece for a specific faction within the Russian elite, and in that capacity he "says things that everyone thinks, but no one can put into words" because they are not politically correct. 

Russia’s Top Muslim Cleric Affirms Support For North Ossetian Colleague

Russia's Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin

Liz Fuller

Council of Muftis of Russia Chairman Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin has formally expressed concern and support for Hadji-Murat Gatsalov, mufti of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, the population of which is predominantly Orthodox Christian. On January 11, Gatsalov submitted to the republican prosecutor’s office a formal complaint about a threat he received of unspecified retribution unless he resigns as mufti.

According to Gatsalov, the warning was communicated in an e-mail he received from an acquaintance in the North Ossetian town of Mozdok. That unnamed acquaintance had been summoned to the republican Center for Countering Extremism (TsPE), which is subordinate to the Interior Ministry, after which he passed on to Gatsalov a demand from the center’s personnel that he should step down immediately, and should not try to leave North Ossetia as “you’ll be tracked down and killed wherever you are.”

Gatsalov construed that warning as the latest in a chain of events that encompasses the murders of two of his deputies, Ibragim Dudarov in December 2012 and Rasul Gamzatov in August 2014. Neither killing has been solved.

Nor was the warning the first Gatsalov has received.

Last summer, the website, which is reportedly favorably disposed toward Russia’s “force” agencies, posted a comment by a blogger on an article titled The Wahhabis In The Spiritual Board Of Muslims that Muslims in North Ossetia construed as a threat against Gatsalov.

At the same time, there was bad blood between Gatsalov and long-time Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Artur Akhmetkhanov. After Gatsalov criticized the ministry for its failure to track down Dudarov’s killer, in 2013 Akhmetkhanov cited the fact that four young men from North Ossetia had reportedly been killed fighting in Syria as evidence of the spread of Islamic extremism.

(Estimates of how many of North Ossetia’s population of a little over 700,000 are Muslims range from 15 percent to 40 percent.)

More recently, in March 2015, Akhmetkhanov claimed that younger believers have so little regard for the older generation of clerics that they prefer to travel abroad to study Islamic theology, frequently returning home with “extremist” views. He said that in 2014, eight “crimes of an extremist nature” were registered in North Ossetia and six criminal cases were opened into terrorist activity or establishing an illegal armed group.

Local commentators quoted by the website took issue with Akhmetkhanov’s assessment, however, pointing out that the mood within the republic’s Muslim community has improved markedly since Gatsalov was named mufti, partly as a result of the sermons preached by that older generation of imams whom Akhmetkhanov had criticized. (Gatsalov’s predecessor, Ali –haji Yevteyev, was constrained to resign in May 2010 after admitting in an interview to having studied theology in Nalchik with Anzor Astemirov and Musa Mukozhev, both of whom subsequently became prominent figures in the North Caucasus insurgency.)

Gainutdin, too, praised Gatsalov’s track record, noting the considerable authority and influence that he enjoys. Gainutdin stressed that North Ossetia is the most peaceful republic in the North Caucasus, and that any move to discredit Gatsalov will inevitably jeopardize that stability. Gainutdin also recalled that North Ossetia’s Muslim Spiritual Board is the only one in Russia to have issued a formal fatwa condemning the terrorist organization Islamic State.

The threat Gatsalov received earlier this month is unlikely to have originated with Akhmetkhanov, given that the latter was fired in December, apparently over the scandal surrounding the beating to death in police custody of Vladimir Tskayev, a resident of Vladikavkaz who had been apprehended on suspicion of shooting and wounding a police officer. One of Tskayev’s neighbors subsequently confessed to that shooting. Four police officers have been arrested in connection with Tskayev’s death.

It is, however, possible that one of the reportedly numerous senior Interior Ministry officials whom Akhmetkhanov brought with him to North Ossetia from his native Bashkortostan, and who presumably share his views on the threat posed by radical Islam, may regard Gatsalov as a liability and/or are out to make problems for new Republic of North Ossetia head Tamerlan Aguzarov. Aguzarov is on record as saying the republic’s next interior minister should be a local man, and that those ministry officials whom Akhmetkhanov brought with him “should pack their bags, our railway stations and airports are open for them.”

Alternatively, it is equally possible that the TsPE chose to issue a warning to Gatsalov simply to demonstrate that it takes its duties seriously and is visibly carrying out the function for which it was established.

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.