Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Azerbaijan Arrests Prominent Journalist For Espionage

Azerbaijani journalist and commentator Rauf Mirqadirov (file photo)

Rauf Mirqadirov, a commentator for the independent Russian-language daily "Zerkalo," was taken into custody by security personnel at Baku's Heydar Aliyev Airport on April 19 after being deported from Turkey, where he had lived with his family for the past three years. 
Mirqadirov's lawyer, Faud Agayev, said on April 20 that the Prosecutor-General's Office was charging his client with state treason, specifically with espionage. Agayev added that Mirqadirov was being held at the detention center of the National Security Ministry and cannot be visited by lawyers until April 22.

According to Mirqadirov's wife, Adelya Babakhanova, Turkish police approached them on a bus in Ankara on April 18, claiming that Mirqadirov's residence and work permits had expired, although they had been extended until the end of the year. ("Zerkalo" says his accreditation was valid until September, but was revoked without explanation two weeks ago.)  Mirqadirov was taken to a police station. Babakhanova was informed later the same day that her husband would be deported; the reasons were not specified.
Mirqadirov is a veteran commentator widely respected for his analysis of a wide range of issues, including Azerbaijan's relations with Russia and Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. His most recent published article analyzed Russia's recent moves in Ukraine, and their implications for the South Caucasus.
Emin Guseynov, who heads the Institute of War and Peace Reporting's Baku office, described him as "a well-known journalist with liberal views," who systematically criticizes human rights violations in Azerbaijan, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Prior to takeoff in Ankara, Mirqadirov reportedly telephoned a colleague, Zaur Bayramli, and told him that his problems with the Turkish authorities started immediately after the April 7 visit to Baku by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Mirqadirov is said to have criticized on more than one occasion.

Bayramli is quoted as saying Mirqadirov believes Ankara acceded to a demand by the Azerbaijani authorities for his extradition, given that he had not written anything that might have offended the Turkish government.

But the website reportedly quoted Elsever Agayev, the press secretary of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Ankara, as telling journalists that Baku played no part in Mirqadirov's deportation.
Mirqadirov is not the first Azerbaijani journalist to be deported from Turkey this year.

Makhir Zeynalov was expelled from Turkey in February after police accused him of an unspecified violation of the law.
Zeynalov contributed articles for the Turkish daily "Today's Zaman." He attributed his expulsion to his criticism of the Turkish government and of Prime Minister Erdogan personally.
-- Liz Fuller

Ingush Human Rights Activist Unfazed By Reports Death Squad Closing In On Him

Ingush human rights activist Magomed Mutsolgov (file photo)

Magomed Mutsolgov, head of the Mashr human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), which celebrated its ninth anniversary on April 14, has affirmed that he has no intention of either abandoning his human rights activities or modifying his way of life in response to a recent blog post claiming that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has dispatched a hit squad to Ingushetia with orders to kill him. Mutsolgov explained that "like any believer, I understand that my fate is in the hands of the Almighty and that I shan't die 'before my time is up.'"
While admitting that he takes the blog post seriously and will be "a bit more careful," Mutsolgov said that "I'm not some oligarch to spend money on bodyguards." He further pointed out that since  the republic is already "stuffed" with servicemen and security personnel, there is no need for a special hit squad, all the more so as "one trained sniper is quite enough" to do the job.
More than most, Mutsolgov, 40, is aware of the risks he faces. A stern and imposing figure, he trained as a lawyer before going into business. He became involved in human rights issues after his younger brother Bashir was abducted in broad daylight in their home town of Karabulak in 2003 by armed masked men whom Mutsolgov subsequently succeeded in identifying as FSB and federal Interior Ministry personnel. Bashir was taken to the Russian army base at Khankala near Grozny, after which he disappeared without trace.      
In an interview first published in the journal "Dosh," Mutsolgov recalled that when he was seeking help in tracing his brother, he went to the office in Nazran of the human rights watchdog Memorial where he was confronted with an entire wall covered with photographs and lists of 1,927 Chechens who disappeared during the fighting of 1999-2000.  He decided on the spot, he said, to do all in his power to prevent the same thing happening on such a scale in Ingushetia.
Respected In Russia And Abroad
To that end, Mutsolgov founded Mashr in April 2005 together with relatives of other men who had disappeared without trace after being detained by police or security personnel.  Since then, he has survived several attempts to intimidate or kill him. His imminent assassination was rumored in October 2010 and January 2014.
Two of Mutsolgov's relatives were killed within the space of one week in 2008. Mashr co-founder Zurab Tsechoyev was himself abducted and brutally beaten in July 2008. (Tsechoyev quit Mashr in August 2012, accusing Mutsolgov of treating the organization as his private property.)

The primary focus of Mashr's activity is in providing legal advice and assistance free-of-charge to the population of Ingushetia; promoting the ideals of peace, humanity, and compassion, and human rights; and monitoring the human rights situation in Ingushetia and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. 
In 2010 alone, its lawyers drafted some 2,500 appeals to the prosecutor's office and local courts and offered advice to more than 3,500 people (of a total population of less than half a million). Starting in 2006, it has compiled an annual overview of the human rights situation in Ingushetia; those reports can be found on its website.
From the outset, Mashr cooperated with other Russian human rights organizations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group. It receives funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Mutsolgov's engagement as head of Mashr has earned him respect both within Russia and abroad. According to Chechen Committee of National Salvation chairman Ruslan Badalov, for whom Mutsolgov worked for 10 months before founding Mashr, "having surrounded himself with a team of professionals, Magomed raised the organization to the national and international level, he participates in all authoritative organizations, the Council of Europe, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation  in Europe], and in a short period of time he has won very serious authority, respect and renown." 
Problematic Relations
In 2012, Mutsolgov was one of six North Caucasus candidates shortlisted for a vacant position on Russian President Vladimir Putin's Human Rights Council.
Mutsolgov's relations with Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov are problematic. During his first months in office in late 2008-early 2009, Yevkurov met repeatedly with Mutsolgov and other human rights activists, and according to Mutsolgov was willing to listen to their criticism. In December 2008, Mutsolgov was named chairman of the Public Oversight Commission tasked with monitoring conditions in the republic's prisons.
Two years later, when Mutsolgov, along with a dozen other human rights activists, was presented with an award by the Moscow Helsinki Group, Valery Borshchev singled out how Mutsolgov had worked to secure the republican leadership's respect as one of his primary achievements.
Borshchev  admitted that, although relations between the authorities and the human rights community "are not and cannot be harmonious, Mutsolgov nonetheless manages to organize dialogue and work toward concrete goals, which in itself counts for a great deal."
As time passed, however, and the security situation in Ingushetia deteriorated, Mutsolgov became ever more critical of perceived connivance between the security agencies and the North Caucasus insurgency. 
He blamed Yevkurov for not intervening to prevent human rights violations by the "siloviki," (people linked to the security-services), arguing that "everything that happens here is on his conscience," and he is answerable for every single member of the population.
Yevkurov, for his part, has admitted that during the early years of his work, Mutsolgov "provided real help" to the republic's leadership, but has since "switched direction."  Visiting a camp for displaced persons in Karabulak last summer, Yevkurov criticized Mutsolgov for going public with information about  abductions and other human rights abuses that he said should have been passed instead to the Prosecutor's office. He also complained that Mutsolgov ignores the republic's human rights ombudsman.
Yevkurov further complained that the information contained in Mashr's annual reports has a negative effect on the younger generation and impels disadvantaged and disaffected young men to "head for the forest" and join the insurgency. He called for a criminal case to be opened against Mutsolgov.
Mutsolgov responded with an open letter to President Putin, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, and Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin complaining that, for two years, the Ingushetian authorities have repeatedly pressured and sought to discredit Mashr and its staff.
Mutsolgov stressed in that open letter that "as a matter of principle we do not engage in either political or religious activity." He categorically rejects Yevkurov's perception of Mashr -- as expatiated last week by acting Security Council secretary Albert Barakhoyev -- as part of the political opposition.
Mutsolgov explained that "we are not oppositionists, but human rights activists, and that is not one and the same thing. Oppositionists are people who aspire to come to power, but we don't aspire to come to power, we demand that government bureaucrats and employees of the various 'power' structures should respect the law and not use their official position to crack down on ordinary people."
As noted above, Mutsolgov remains committed to his human rights engagement despite the risks it entails. He told the "Dosh" periodical that "violence breeds violence. For that reason, as long as I live, I want as far as I can to help people, those who are in need, to fight using legal methods against...arbitrary and excessive violence. I am trying to win respect for myself and my people, and I hope to remain just and independent in my actions."

-- Liz Fuller

Is The Clock Ticking For Ramzan Kadyrov?

Vladimir and Ramzan in 2007 -- is the Russian leader prepared to indulge the Chechen strongman's flamboyant self-promotion?

The Russian government recently submitted to the State Duma a draft law that empowers the president and government to delegate to the regions responsibility for various spheres that have hitherto been the prerogative of the federal authorities. At the same time, the bill empowers the government to initiate the dismissal of federation-subject heads who fail to fulfill adequately those new duties. In that respect, it is a variation on the proposal made in 2005 by then-Southern Federal District head Dmitry Kozak.

Kozak's plan, which was never formalized, envisaged augmenting the powers of federation-subject heads, but at the same time restricting the potential for independent decision-making of the governors of regions where the budget is heavily dependent on subsidies from the federal center.

Commentator Maksim Shevchenko wrote last year that Moscow's approach to governing the North Caucasus has changed, and the era of giving local leaders carte blanche to do as they please, provided they maintained "order," has ended. Instead, Shevchenko wrote, the emphasis has shifted to economic development and strengthening the "power vertical."

The possibility of legally empowering the federal leadership to remove a federation-subject head for failing to discharge his duties to the required standards  raises the question whether the new legislation  is intended to facilitate the sidelining of leaders who either fail to adapt to those new demands, or have come to be regarded as a liability, or both.

Specifically, it raises questions about the long-term prospects of Ramzan Kadyrov, who has just completed the third year of his second term as Chechen Republic head. The 2012 law on reintroducing direct elections for federation-subject heads does not impose any limitation on the number of terms they may serve.

No Longer Untouchable?

For years, it has been accepted wisdom that notwithstanding Kadyrov's outrageous pronouncements and tasteless self-promotion, no attempt to rein him in would be undertaken prior to mid-2014 because he and the thousands of police and security personnel subordinate to him were regarded as essential to preventing a terrorist attack on the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi by Islamic militants acting at the behest of self-styled Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov.

That constraint no longer applies. Not only did the Games take place without any such disruption. Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov announced last week that thanks to close cooperation with the security services of the United States, Austria, France, Germany, and Georgia, several groups that planned terrorist attacks on the Games were neutralized. Bortnikov did not mention any input by the Chechen power agencies.

Bortnikov also formally confirmed the death of Umarov late last year as a result of a covert operation. Again, he did not give any credit to Chechnya.

Kadyrov for his part declared that in the wake of Umarov's death, the insurgency in Chechnya, whose strength he estimated at between five and 12 men, is without a leader and "no longer poses  a real threat." That statement is questionable in the light of the recent ambush in Achkhoi-Martan district in which an armored personnel carrier was blown up, killing four Russian servicemen and injuring seven more. Heavy artillery and combat helicopters were deployed against the perpetrators; one fighter was reported killed in the vicinity a week later.

Kadyrov further claimed that not a single young man from Chechnya had joined the ranks of the resistance in recent years. In early 2012, however, hundreds of new recruits were reported to have joined the insurgency ranks in Chechnya within the previous few months.

A further indication, Kadyrov continued, of the lack of support in Chechnya for the resistance is the appointment of an Avar, rather than a Chechen, as Umarov's successor. The Avar in question, Aliaskhab Kebekov, together with the commander of the Daghestan insurgency wing, had, however, urged that the veteran Chechen fighter Aslambek Vadalov be named to succeed Umarov.

Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Malashenko has made the point that Kadyrov is increasingly positioning himself as a national, rather than a regional political figure. Malashenko pointed specifically to Kadyrov's pronouncements on Crimea.

True, Kadyrov has managed to secure, whether by threats or blandishments, the public backing of a number of high-level federal officials. Visiting Grozny in June 2013, Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin was unstinting in his praise of postconflict reconstruction in Chechnya under Kadyrov's leadership. Stepashin described Chechnya as "an example to all Russian regions," and expressed confidence that if the planned industrial development program is adopted and implemented, within a few years Chechnya will no longer require subsidies from the federal budget. Just four years earlier, Stepashin had commented a propos of Kadyrov's declaration of his annual income and assets that "Ramzan Kadyrov owns the entire republic."

But to judge by the published account of Kadyrov's meeting on April 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin regards Kadyrov no differently from any of his peers -- or at least seeks to create that impression.

During that meeting, Putin posed a series of routine questions about the level of unemployment, the birthrate, and public-sector wages very similar to those he put to Republic of Ingushetia President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in February 2013. Putin was not quoted as having expressed appreciation of Kadyrov's offer to mobilize a peacekeeping force for deployment in Crimea.

It would nonetheless be unwise to read too much into Putin's public treatment of Kadyrov. Kadyrov's absence in December 2012 on the occasion of Putin's address to the Federation Council was construed by some observers as evidence that Kadyrov had committed a "fatal error" several months earlier by advancing territorial claims on Ingushetia, and in doing so incurred Putin's wrath. But predictions that he would be dismissed proved premature.

For the moment, the Kremlin still appears willing to indulge Kadyrov's flights of fantasy, such as the proposed special industrial zone comprising enterprises in Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Stavropol Krai, provided it is not required to fund them. Stepashin last year characterized Chechnya as one of the Russian regions where subsidies from the federal budget are used with the maximum effectiveness. Only if that perception changes fundamentally is Kadyrov's position likely to become vulnerable.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov

Republic Of Daghestan Head Names New Acting Makhachkala Mayor

The head of the Republic of Daghestan Ramazan Abdulatipov (right) and Magomed Suleymanov, the new acting mayor of Makhachkala.

Last week, the head of the Republic of Daghestan Ramazan Abdulatipov appointed as acting mayor of Makhachkala Magomed Suleymanov, 54, a former National Assembly (parliament) chairman whose most recent post was overseeing the mandatory health insurance fund.
Suleymanov replaces Daghestan State University rector Murtazali Rabadanov, described by one blogger as "a technocrat with a mathematician's mind, and essentially a humanist." Abdulatipov had named Rabadanov to the post in June 2013 following the arrest of long-time city mayor Said Amirov.
Why Rabadanov was pressured to step down after less than 10 months in office is not immediately clear. As lawyer Rasul Kadiyev pointed out, judging by the report Rabadanov delivered last week, "he didn't do anything wrong, and even managed to achieve something."
The Caucasus Knot website quoted an unidentified source within the municipal administration as saying Abdulatipov was furious that Rabadanov had not prevented the holding of a gala concert to mark Amirov's 60th birthday last month which was attended by several thousand people. Rabadanov reportedly told Abdulatipov that there was no legal way to ban a privately organized event.
Announcing Suleymanov's appointment on April 4, Abdulatipov praised Rabadanov's role in "maintaining political stability" in the wake of Amirov's arrest, stressing that at the time there had been "no better candidate" to fulfill that role. Abdulatipov characterized Rabadanov's work as "heroic." Rabadanov himself was more modest, saying only that "I think we managed to fulfill the quite complex tasks set before us."
Rabadanov offered some insight into the magnitude and complexity of those tasks in an interview he gave the independent weekly "Chernovik" prior to his replacement, but which appeared in print only the day after. The legacy he inherited from Amirov was more than daunting. For a period of 15 years, during which the city's population had almost doubled (from 450,000 to an estimated 800,000), Amirov had approved (reportedly for massive bribes) countless private commercial construction projects, many of which blatantly violated planning and/or building regulations. At the same time, he ignored the pressing need to build additional schools and hospitals, and failed to ensure that public transport was extended to the city outskirts, or even that roads there were asphalted.
Amirov likewise did little to modernize the city's obsolescent gas and electricity networks and the water supply system.  The city prosecutor recently warned that Makhachkala's drinking water is unfit for human consumption.
Rabadanov, on his own admission, focused initially on seeking to clarify what could and should be built where, but encountered resistance from entrepreneurs unwilling to accept that "you mustn't build where you mustn't build."  He expressed satisfaction at having expedited the construction of three new kindergartens, but admitted his frustration at financial constraints resulting from the city's inadequate budget, and at being powerless to ensure either that garbage was collected regularly or that the streets were kept clear of snow. Both those duties have been farmed out to privately-owned companies. (Blogger Gulbariyat Gasanova claimed that the tender for clearing the snow was won by a company owned by Abdulatipov himself, which proved to have neither the equipment nor the manpower to do the job properly.)
The former and new acting mayors have little in common except their ethnicity:  both are Dargins, as is Amirov. The Dargins (who account for 17 percent of the total population of 2.96 million) are the second largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups after the Avars (29.4 percent).

Most observers attribute Abdulatipov's choice of Suleymanov  as Rabadanov's successor  to Suleymanov's track record as mayor of his home town Izberbash (on the Caspian coast some 55 km south-east of Makhachkala) from 1997-2007. Under Suleymanov's watch, Izberbash had the reputation of being the neatest, cleanest, best-run town in Daghestan. 

Whether Suleymanov will be able to duplicate that success in a city the size of Makhachkala is questionable, however. The population of Izberbash was just 41,800 when Suleymanov stepped down as mayor in 2007, having grown from 35,000 in 1997.
One analyst characterized Suleymanov, aka "Seaman," as more than just a competent economic manager, but not an independent political actor. He has never sided overtly with a particular political faction in any of the countless turf wars of the past two decades, and is reportedly one of only very few Daghestani political figures not to rely on backing from the "power ministries."  (He may never have needed to, given that he is related to several prominent and influential Dargin families, including that of Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov.)
Suleymanov is perceived as not being over-ambitious. Indeed, it has been suggested that his career advancement has resulted largely from the need to select a competent Dargin for a specific political post in line with the unwritten law on allocating top posts among the largest ethnic groups -- for example in 2007, when a Dargin was needed to chair the National Assembly, the president (Mukhu Aliyev) was an Avar and the prime minister (Atay Aliyev) a Kumyk.
While some bloggers have expressed confidence that Suleymanov is capable of bringing about radical and desperately needed improvements, other commentators have expressed regret at the return  to academia of a mayor "with whom you could discuss existentialism, the 'Big Bang' theory and a just social order,"  and whose appointment had seemed to herald a more intellectual and conscientious approach to municipal politics. Isalmagomed Nabiyev, who heads Daghestan's Independent Trade Union of Entrepreneurs and Drivers, told Caucasus Knot he was amazed that such a "profoundly intelligent person" as Rabadanov should have agreed in the first place to work in a "swamp" in which relations between superior and subordinates were structured on "feudalist" lines.
Meanwhile, in a long-overdue indication that the republic's government has finally realized the urgency of the problems facing the capital, Economy and Territorial Development Minister Rayudin Yusufov announced on April 2 (the day before Suleymanov was named acting mayor) that 500 million rubles ($14 million) will be spent over the next three years on rebuilding the city's main Imam Shamil Prospect. The entire city budget for 2014 is just 5 billion rubles.
-- Liz Fuller

Why Did Armenian Prime Minister Resign?

Did Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian go of his own volition, or was he pushed? And if so, why?

Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian's announcement on April 3 of his resignation came as a complete surprise, even though rumors of his impending dismissal had surfaced on half a dozen occasions during the six years he held the post. But inconsistencies in the various explanations given for Sarkisian's decision cast doubt on his insistence that he quit voluntarily.

Serzh Sarkisian, to whom he is not related, had appointed Sarkisian, then chairman of Armenia's Central Bank, as prime minister following his election as president in spring 2008. At that juncture, Tigran Sarkisian was not aligned with any political party, although in the early 1990s he had been a member of the opposition National Democratic Union. He joined the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) only in November 2009, 18 months after being named prime minister. Serzh Sarkisian reappointed him to head the cabinet after his reelection for a second presidential term in February 2012.

There are at least six possible explanations for why Tigran Sarkisian has relinquished his post. The first is that he did indeed do so of his own volition, possibly for health reasons (he is 54 and was briefly hospitalized four years ago with high blood pressure), or because he has been offered a prestigious post with an international financial organization. His spokesman Harutiun Berberian has been quoted as denying a report in the daily "Zhoghovurd" that Sarkisian will be named a vice president of the World Bank.

If that is indeed the case, however, the question arises why Sarkisian did not say anything to colleagues during the April 3 cabinet meeting. And if, as Sarkisian himself told journalists, he had submitted his resignation several weeks earlier but been asked by the president to continue in his post until after "a series of important state events, including a HHK economic forum," the president would have had plenty of time to reach a decision on his successor, who has not yet been named.

The second is that Sarkisian's resignation was precipitated by new and as yet unannounced developments in the corruption scandal in which he was implicated last year. The case centers on allegations made public in June 2013 against businessman Ashot Sukiasian, who is accused of misappropriating a $10.7 million loan to a second businessman and depositing the cash in the offshore bank account of a Cyprus-based company named Wlispera Holdings. Sarkisian and Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan were identified as co-owners of Wlispera, together with Sukiasian. Both men deny any connection with it; Sarkisian said he had been registered as a co-owner without his knowledge, although Cyprus's attorney general, Petros Clerides, said that was not possible.

At the time those allegations surfaced, senior HHK member Samvel Nikoyan was quoted as dismissing them as "an organized campaign against the prime minister." Nikoyan went on to point out that "everybody has come to terms with the fact that the president has been elected for a second term and will serve until 2018. This means that the only influential post over which one can haggle and which can be used for influencing political developments is that of prime minister."

The third is that Sarkisian's resignation marks the culmination of a protracted power struggle between him and parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian, who has reportedly long aspired to the premiership. When rumors first surfaced in the spring of 2009 of Tigran Sarkisian's impending dismissal, the daily "Hraparak" reported that Serzh Sarkisian personally summoned Abrahamian and ordered him to stop spreading them.

Two years later, Tigran Sarkisian admitted in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he faced "competition" from other members of the leadership. Asked how long he expected to remain in his post, he replied "God knows."

The fourth is that questions had arisen about Sarkisian's loyalty to the HHK. Last summer the daily "Zhoghovurd" reported, citing unidentified "reliable sources," that the prime minister was sounding out like-minded colleagues with a view to creating his own political team.

The fifth is that President Sarkisian is profoundly concerned by the alarming socioeconomic situation and decided to make the prime minister the scapegoat for it, rather than face the mass protest demonstrations to call for the prime minister's resignation that major opposition parties had scheduled for the end of this month to coincide with a no-confidence vote in the government.

True, the president praised the prime minister's track record, but at the same time he declared that "the new government must be able to restore our citizens' trust in reforms and its activities.... I think there will be substantial changes in the new government. There is a need to take a fresh look at existing problems and areas."

This is the explanation favored by the opposition parties involved. Levon Zurabian of the Armenian National Congress (HAK) claimed that the prospect of the mass protests had caused the authorities to "panic," while former President Levon Ter-Petrossian construed Prime Minister Sarkisian's resignation as a sign that "the authorities have never been so weak."

And the sixth possibility is that President Sarkisian sought simultaneously to pull the rug from under, and drive a wedge between, the four parliamentary parties not represented in the ruling coalition by acceding to their demand for Tigran Sarkisian's replacement as prime minister. The president may have been gambling on those four parties not being able to reach a consensus on their future course of action.

Two of them, Ter-Petrossian's HAK and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, see the logical next step as forcing the president too to step down. But the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), which was briefly part of the coalition in 2008-09, and the Prosperous Armenia (BH) party have until now stopped short of demanding Serzh Sarkisian's resignation.

Zharangutiun member Ruben Hakobian told journalists after a meeting of the four parties' representatives on April 4 that they were "determined" to keep up their joint efforts and work out "a new agenda." He said they will meet soon to discuss proposals for alternative action.

'Treasurer' Declared Winner in Daghestan's 'Cockroach Race'

The "Chernovik" runs the poll to determine the People's President

Of the many differences between the seven North Caucasus republics, one of the most striking is the huge disparity in the level of openness, objectivity, and intellectual sophistication of their respective media.
At one end of the spectrum is Chechnya, where the function of the media has been reduced to promoting the cult of personality surrounding republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and promulgating his frequently outrageous and illogical pronouncements. At the other is Daghestan, where the Russian-language weekly newspapers “Chernovik” and “Nastoyashchee  vremya” provide insightful and objective analysis for which both publications have been taken to court, and “Chernovik” founder Khadjimurad Kamalov was murdered in December 2011. 
Among the initiatives “Chernovik” has launched over the past few years is an annual poll to determine the “People’s President.” That title is misleading insofar as the objective is not so much to try to measure relative popular support for potential presidential candidates, as to identify which political figures possess the political and economic resources, and the requisite support from Moscow, to influence the outcome of a popular election, should such a ballot take place.

Daghestan and Ingushetia were the first North Caucasus republics to amend their respective constitutions to abolish direct elections for the post of republic head, which were reinstated across the Russian Federation last year. Instead, the parliament elects the republic head from among three candidacies approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin. North Ossetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria have since followed suit.
The logistics of the “Chernovik” poll are as follows. The weekly enumerates those political figures whom it considers potential presidential material and invites readers to “vote” for them over a five-week period by sending a text message to a specific phone number. The number of “votes” each candidate receives is tallied separately each week. The total number of votes each candidate receives is then divided by five to give the “average” rating. Any anomalies (disproportionately high or low numbers within a given time period) are factored out.
The exercise is predicated on the assumption that the politicians in question will issue orders to their respective entourages to ensure they receive the optimum number of votes (in addition to bona fide votes from “Chernovik” readers). Across the North Caucasus, the mere perception of enjoying strong popular support can serve to engender even greater support, given that undecided voters are more likely to play safe and cast their ballots for the candidate who appears to stand the best chance of winning than for one whose chances are minimal. By the same token, as “Chernovik” points out, the perception of enjoying popular support can influence the Kremlin.
The paper freely admits that its methodology is not scientific and is open to abuse. It also acknowledges that in a genuinely free and fair ballot none of its candidates would stand much chance of winning, given that the population at large has a negative perception of politics and politicians.
“Chernovik” nonetheless maintains that the poll serves a useful purpose, for two reasons. First, it stimulates debate about the merits and shortcomings of the most likely candidates to aspire to the post of republic head. (The paper notes that no new candidates are likely to emerge in the near future. As one blogger put it, “the gulf between the people and the authorities has become so great that the path to power is closed to any normal, educated, intelligent and worthy young person, which is depressing”).

And second, it encourages individual voters to make a rational and objective choice “between the bad and the even worse,” and by doing so gradually squeeze blatantly corrupt figures out of local politics. 

This year, “Chernovik” listed 12 candidates for the post of “People’s President,” compared with 10 last year and 15 in 2012. They were incumbent republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov; his predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov; Deputy Prime Minister Abusupyan Kharkharov (said to enjoy the backing of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan); acting Makhachkala Mayor Murtazali Rabadanov;  Khasavyurt Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov; Saygidguseyn Magomedov (no relation to the former president), who heads  the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Treasury; Anti-Extremist Center head and Interior Ministry Colonel Akhmed Bataliyev;  plus five candidates currently based outside Daghestan: Shamsutdin Bagirov, who heads the North-West regional center of the federal Emergency Situations Ministry; Federation Council First Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov (no relation to Saygidpasha); former Daghestan First Deputy Premier Rizvan Kurbanov, now a State Duma deputy; and two Moscow-based oligarchs of Daghestani origin, Suleiman Kerimov and Summa Group President Ziavudin Magomedov (no relation to either Magomedsalam or Saygidguseyn).
The most notable change in the composition of this year’s list was the absence of former Makhachkala mayor Said Amirov, who was the clear winner of the poll in both 2012 and 2013
Amirov was arrested in June 2013. His trial on a charge of plotting a terrorist attack is due to begin in Rostov-na-Donu next week. 
A second figure from last year’s list, Kumtorkala district head Ruslan Toturbiyev, has likewise since been arrested. He is suspected of master-minding the embezzlement of more than 160 million rubles in budget funds. 
Six candidates have figured on the list every year: Abdulatipov, Magomedsalam Magomedov, Saygidguseyn Magomedov, Saygidpasha Umakhanov, Kerimov, and Kurbanov.
This year’s clear winner was Saygidguseyn Magomedov, followed by Saygidpasha Umakhanov, Ilyas Umakhanov, Magomedsalam Magomedov, and Kurbanov. 
Abdulatipov, who had commented shortly after the poll was launched in February that he saw “no need to stage cockroach races,”  placed ninth.  Just a few weeks later, Abdulatipov was jeered and catcalled when he appeared at a soccer match in Makhachkala, a further indication of just how far his popularity had plummeted in the 13 months since President Putin named him acting president. 
Saygidguseyn Magomedov, 53, aka “The Treasurer,” had ranked second in the 2013 poll and third in 2012 after Amirov and Saygidpasha Umakhanov. He had been shortlisted as a candidate to succeed Magomedsalam Magomedov’s father Magomedali as Republic of Daghestan president in 2006 and Mukhu Aliyev in 2010.

Like Abdulatipov, he is an Avar (the largest of the republic’s 14 titular ethnic groups).
“Chernovik” describes Saygidguseyn Magomedov  as an eminence grise who avoids contact with the media, but who is well-known and respected within the political “beau monde.” He is said to have excellent ties with the “power ministries” and to enjoy the support of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, whom he has known since their student days. Magomedov might therefore stand a chance of succeeding Abdulatipov if the security situation in Daghestan threatens to deteriorate into total chaos, but so too might Kurbanov, a master in promoting himself as both tough and just. Granted, Kurbanov’s nationality (he is a Lak) might prove a disadvantage, but on the other hand, he is known to be close to Kadyrov.

-- Liz Fuller

Is Armenia's Government Running Scared, Or Playing For Time?

Armenian riot police clash with activists protesting against pension reform in Yerevan last month.

In a move few observers anticipated, the Armenian Constitutional Court ruled on April 2 that the pension reform that took effect as of January 1 is unconstitutional. The court gave the government and parliament six months, until September 30, to bring the relevant legislation into conformity with the constitution.

Whether that decision is intended to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition, which had announced the previous day plans to launch nonstop demonstrations on April 28-30 in a bid to force Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian to step down, is not clear.

The introduction of the new pension system, under which persons under the age of 40 are required to pay 5-10 percent of their gross salary into one of two private pension funds authorized by the government and central bank, served as the catalyst for widespread protests. The number of participants, many of them aligned in the informal group Dem.Am ("I am against"), increased steadily from hundreds in November and December to thousands in January.

A bid last November by the four noncoalition parties in parliament to force an emergency debate on the reform failed because legislators from the majority Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) boycotted the session. The opposition condemned that boycott as "blatant disdain" of the constitution.

Two weeks later, the parliament rejected by a vote of 54 to 46 a bill drafted by the same four parties that would have postponed for one year implementation of the new system. 

In mid-December, the opposition formally appealed to the Constitutional Court to scrap the new system. The court duly suspended it in January pending a formal ruling, but some government agencies and private companies continued to make the relevant deductions from employees' salaries, triggering a new wave of protests and strikes by rail workers, the staff of the National Opera and Ballet Theater,     the Yerevan subway, and the national electricity company.

In the face of those protests, senior officials began to back pedal. Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian said in late February that the government was willing to "amend" the new system if it is flawed. A month later, Prime Minister Sarkisian, who in November had staunchly defended the new system, as the fruit of 10 years' consultations with the world's best specialists, admitted that "there are certainly shortcomings in those laws [regulating the reform]." "We are declaring that the right path is the path of dialogue and are inviting our young partners, representatives of the Dem.Am movement, to [engage in] a dialogue," Sarkisian said.

Two other factors may also have contributed to the authorities' apparent readiness for concessions. The first is the increasingly close alignment between the three openly opposition parliamentary parties -- former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National  Congress (HAK), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) (HHD), and U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian's Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party -- and  oligarch Gagik Tsarukian's Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second-largest parliament faction, which positions itself as an "alternative" to the present leadership.

According to HAK lawmaker Aram Manukian, it was the wave of popular protest over the pension reform that finally "united four political forces that had serious problems with each other."

Until recently, the BHK and Tsarukian personally stopped short of endorsing the calls for regime change espoused by the other three parties. But in late March, all four parties decided to jointly propose a vote of no confidence in the cabinet at the April 28 parliament session. The BHK likewise endorsed the plan for mass protests. BHK legislator Vahan Babayan said last week that "in order to succeed we will need to ensure the presence of hundreds of thousands of people in Yerevan's streets, squares, in front of certain [government] buildings."

The second factor is the time frame for Armenia's accession to the CIS Customs Union, another initiative that Prime Minister Sarkisian has staunchly promoted in the face of popular outrage at the anticipated curtailing of Armenia's sovereignty and higher consumer prices that will result. Sarkisian announced recently that the formal agreement under which Armenia will be admitted to that body will be signed in May. By signaling readiness for concessions on the pension reform, the authorities may have hoped to remove at least one of two potential catalysts for mass protests.

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.