Saturday, October 25, 2014

Is The Clock Ticking For Azerbaijan's Leadership?

Police officers detain a man at a protest in Baku in January 2013.

One year after the presidential ballot in which incumbent Ilham Aliyev was reelected for a third term, Azerbaijan's opposition National Council of Democratic Forces (NSDS) convened a mass meeting in Baku on October 12 to protest the unprecedentedly harsh crackdown launched by the authorities in the wake of that vote.

Human Rights Watch calculates that since Azerbaijan assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe on May 1, the government has "dramatically escalated its attack on activists, with [the] authorities arresting at least 11 people"  and jailing at least nine others on politically motivated charges following "flawed trials."

That wave of arrests has elicited criticism not just from human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch, but also from the European parliament and U.S. President Barack Obama. Former U.S. Ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich called earlier this month for the U.S. to impose sanctions in the form of a law modelled on the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act.

Attendance at the October 12 protest, which was held at a stadium on the outskirts of Baku, was 2,500 – 3,000, according to the independent website Caucasus Knot. Baku police gave a far lower estimate of 900.  The number would doubtless have been higher if the rally had taken place closer to the city center, but legislation on freedom of assembly adopted in 2008 empowered the municipal authorities to allow such rallies only in a very few selected venues.

The demographic was varied: Pictures posted on the website show not only men in their 20s-40s, but a group of elderly men and a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman with a black head-covering, all holding pictures of political detainees/prisoners.

Addressing the gathered crowd, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli construed the ongoing wave of arrests as evidence of the leadership's inability to engage in honest political competition. He argued that the authorities' efforts to isolate Azerbaijan from the outside world in response to increasing international criticism of human rights violations is fraught with risk. Kerimli further predicted that "the Azerbaijani people are changing, they will no longer put up with repression but will say 'no' to arbitrary [reprisals], injustice and despotism."

Kerimli is now the de facto leader of the opposition following the resignation of Isa Gambar last month after 22 years as Musavat Party chairman. Gambar nonetheless plans to participate in the presidential ballot due in 2018.

Referring to the recent arrests, Camil Hasanli, the defeated NSDS candidate in last year's presidential ballot, characterized the victims as "Azerbaijan's most worthy sons and daughters," who have been  thrown into prison and subjected to "medieval tortures" for their political convictions, their civic position, or their religious beliefs."

The meeting, for which the municipal authorities had granted permission, ended with the adoption of a resolution enumerating the opposition's primary demands: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners; a guarantee of fundamental freedoms; reform of the electoral system, including a return to the mixed majoritarian-proportional system and changes to the composition of electoral commissions at all levels to ensure adequate opposition representation; and a firm commitment by the authorities that they indeed plan to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union.

Some individual participants called for President Aliyev to resign.

It is impossible to say with any certainty whether the authorities' decision to grant permission for the demonstration was taken in response to international criticism, or whether it reflects a firmly held assumption that after years of harassment, the opposition is now a spent force -- or both. Several days afterwards, President Aliyev signed an amnesty for 84 prisoners, including four persons considered political prisoners. The same day, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted amendments to the law on NGOs tightening the conditions under which they may receive foreign grants.

That pattern of reprisals alternating with occasional tactical concessions dates back to the era of President Aliyev's father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan faces a more tangible and immediate threat in the form of falling oil prices. The price of Brent crude, the global benchmark, has fallen by 16 percent since June. The reason, according to Stratfor, is a combination of over-production by Libya, the U.S., and Iraq, and sluggish demand.  Last week the price dipped below $83 for the first time in four years, before stabilizing.  As of October 22, it was $86.58. 

In 2013, crude oil accounted for 84.44 percent of Azerbaijan's total exports. But addressing the cabinet on October 8, when the oil price was still above $90, President Aliyev downplayed the significance of the decline. 

The online-daily quoted Center for Economic and Social Development Chairman Vugar Bayramov as explaining that the Azerbaijani government is currently considering three possible scenarios. The first, optimistic one is that the oil price remains above $80 per barrel, in which case the country's economy will continue to grow at the current rate. GDP grew by 5.8 percent in 2013, and projected growth for 2014 is 5.0 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

The second is based on a price between $60 and $80 per barrel, in which case the economy will stabilize, while the third, under which the oil price falls below $60 per barrel, would necessitate cutbacks in budget spending given that 75 percent of budget revenues are generated by the oil and gas sector.  

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is having to pay more to service its external debt, which grew by almost 50 percent in 2011-2012, and as of May 2014 amounted to $12 billion. 

If the price of oil falls below $80 per barrel, the ensuing decline in budget revenues could constrain the Azerbaijani authorities to cut social spending. (It is unlikely that the military budget will be affected: defense spending was predicted at over $3.7 billion in 2014 and is to grow by 3.1 percent in 2015, when it will account for 17.9 percent of all budget expenditure.)  Implementing drastic cuts in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2015 could, however, spark spontaneous popular unrest on the lines of the violent protests in Quba in March 2012 and Ismailly in January 2013.

On the other hand, even in the event of a protracted period of low oil prices, the period of comparative financial vulnerability will last only until natural gas from the second phase of development of the Shah Deniz deposit begins to flow to Turkey in late 2018, and to Europe via the TANAP pipeline one year later.

-- Liz Fuller

Reported Killing Of Organizer Of Grozny Suicide Bombing Lacks Credibility

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov addresses the audience at a concert marking the Day of Grozny, following a suicide bombing on October 5. Kadyrov has since yet to comment on the case.

The Chechen Interior Ministry announced on October 18 the killing in Grozny of Aslan Aliskhanov, 33, who was identified as the "organizer" of a suicide bombing perpetrated 13 days earlier by a young Chechen man identified as Apti Mudarov. But the details divulged, first by the Chechen police and the following day by representatives of the federal Investigative Committee, of how he was killed are not entirely convincing.

According to the Chechen Interior Ministry, Aliskhanov was shot while resisting arrest. He was armed with a gun and was wearing a suicide belt packed with explosives. Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin for his part said that joint measures by the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service had established that Aliskhanov had planned to perpetrate on October 4 a suicide bombing similar to that carried out by Mudarov.

Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin explained that Aliskhanov had asked friends in Grozny at whose home he was staying to summon the police, with the intention of blowing up himself together with the police when they arrived. Aliskhanov's friends refused, however, whereupon, according to Bastrykin, Aliskhanov detonated an explosive device that damaged their home.

Bastrykin did not divulge any details of the relationship or cooperation between Aliskhanov and Mudarov. Neither have Chechen police explained why they are convinced beyond all shadow of doubt that it was Aliskhanov who induced Mudarov to undertake the suicide bombing.

Bastrykin's account is questionable for at least two reasons. First, if Aliskhanov had in his possession a suicide belt stuffed with explosives, the weapon of choice of insurgency suicide bombers, why did Mudarov use a homemade bomb based on a mortar shell?

And second, why did Aliskhanov remain in Grozny after the October 5 suicide bombing and thereby risk discovery and arrest, especially given that Chechen law enforcement officers had announced on October 16 that they had identified him as Mudarov's accomplice and launched a large-scale search for him, posting photographs of him publicly in the district of Grozny where he was subsequently spotted and killed?

Two other aspects of the search for, and killing of, Aliskhanov are puzzling. First, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who routinely seizes on the killing of any young man implicated in contacts with the Islamic insurgency in order to play up his and his minions' zeal in countering it, has failed to comment on it.

And second, neither the Chechen authorities nor the federal Investigative Committee have made any mention of the putative connection between the October 5 bombing and the Syria-based Islamist group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Jamwa), many of whose members are reportedly from Chechnya or elsewhere in the North Caucasus. "The Moscow Times" reportedly claimed, in an article that is no longer accessible, that a comment on the bombing was posted on an account on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte.

The website Caucasus Knot in turn reported that Jamwa had actually taken responsibility for the Grozny bombing in a post to a VKontakte account. At the same time, it quoted two Russian experts, Aleksei Malashenko and Akhmet Yarlykapov, as casting doubts on the authenticity of that claim, while blogger Joanna Paraszczuk affirmed categorically that Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar did not claim responsibility on Vkontakte for the Grozny bombing. (Again, the question arises: If Jamwa was responsible, why was Mudarov not provided with a more sophisticated bomb?)

Meanwhile, the Chechen police are hunting for a third man, named as Magomed Zaurbekov, who reportedly had ties to Aliskhanov. There has been no further word on the fate of Mudarov's mother, uncle, and sister, who have been taken into custody.

-- Liz Fuller

New Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Head Extends Olive Branch To Balkar Minority

One analyst said Yury Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic head.

As widely anticipated, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) parliament elected last month has unanimously elected as republic head Yury Kokov, 59, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named acting republic head in December 2013 after Arsen Kanokov stepped down halfway through his second term.

Kokov's initial moves as acting republic head earned him widespread respect. In early April, Strategia Institute head Aslan 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 head. But the parliament amended the KBR Constitution to abolish such direct elections.

As required by the constitution, the government resigned immediately after Kokov's election on October 9, whereupon he signaled his desire for improved relations with the republic's largely embittered and alienated Balkar community by proposing one of their number to head the new republican government. The parliament duly approved as prime minister Aly Musukov, 45, who has served since 2004 as economic development minister.

Until now, it has been accepted practice that the post of republican leader is reserved for a Kabardian, with a Russian serving as prime minister and a Balkar as parliament speaker. Those three nationalities account for 57.2 percent, 22.5 percent, and 12.7 percent, respectively, of the republic's total population of 859,000.

That unwritten law exemplified what the Balkars, who on paper enjoy equal rights with the Kabardians as one of the republics two titular nationalities, consider a long-standing policy of deliberate discrimination against them. The Balkars and their ethnic cousins the Karachais, but not the Kabardians, were deported en masse by Soviet leader Josef Stalin to Central Asia in March 1944 and November 1943, respectively, on suspicion of collaboration with the advancing Nazi German forces. They were exonerated and permitted to return to the Caucasus only in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1956 denouncing Stalin's crimes. They received only minimal, if any, compensation for the destruction of their homes and the suffering they underwent in exile.

Successive campaigns by the Balkars in the 1990s for the creation of a separate Balkar republic within the Russian Federation were ruthlessly suppressed. More recently, legislation on land ownership paved the way for the acquisition by Kabardian businessmen of thousands of hectares of grazing land traditionally used by rural Balkar communities to pasture the sheep on which many Balkars depend for a livelihood.

In recent years, a disproportionately large number of the members of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing of the North Caucasus insurgency have been Balkars, as have at least two of its commanders (Asker Dzhappuyev and Alim Zankishiyev). 

For years after his appointment in 2005, Kanokov ignored the Balkars' grievances. When he finally met with a group of them in late 2008, he was anything but sympathetic: a Balkar present at that meeting subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service "he didn't understand us, and he doesn't want to understand." 

Immediately after the September election, Kokov proposed as parliament speaker, and deputies duly elected to that post, a Russian woman, Tatyana Yegorova. Yegorova, 58, a former teacher of Russian, is married to Aleksandr Khashkhozhev, a Kabardian who has for years headed the republican presidential administration.

The choice of a Russian as parliament speaker led some observers to predict that the previous speaker, Anuar Chechenov (a Balkar), was in line for the post of prime minister. Along with Kokov and KBR Deputy Prime Minister Irina Maryash, Chechenov was one of the three candidates for the post of KBR head whom the Kremlin-backed United Russia party proposed to President Putin in August. But when Putin submitted his shortlist of three candidates to the KBR parliament, he substituted Musukov, a qualified bookkeeper with degrees in law and mathematics, for Chechenov. The Russian daily "Kommersant" quoted unidentified experts as characterizing Musukov as a consummate professional.

Chechenov, who was reelected to parliament, surrendered his mandate after Mukusov was named prime minister. He has since been elected a member of the KBR Public Chamber, which is headed by another Balkar, Zhamal Attayev, the former editor of the Balkar newspaper "Zaman."

Whether the appointment of a Balkar prime minister is simply a courtesy gesture, or indeed heralds a more sympathetic approach to their grievances on the part of the republic's leadership, is difficult to predict. Balkar activist Munir Malkonduyev commented in April that "not a single Balkar parliament deputy has ever stood up to defend the rights of his people, has not said that we have problems with land, which is the reason why people are leaving [rural mountain areas.]"

Kokov has also sought to appease militant Circassian nationalists (who protested the celebration in 2007 of the 450th anniversary of Circassia's "voluntary incorporation" into the Russian Empire and have since called for redrawing the map of the North Caucasus to create a pan-Circassian republic) by instituting an annual Days of the Adygs (Circassians) holiday on September 20. Kokov stressed, however, that "this is a day of unity not just of the Circassian people, but of all the peoples of the [Kabardino-Balkaria] republic."

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Kabardino-Balkaria, balkars

Russian Defense Ministry Plans Network Of Reservist Armies

Russian Army conscripts put on their uniform at the military registration and enlistment office in St. Petersburg in April.

Russia's Defense Ministry is currently drafting amendments to the federal Law On Defense that would allow for the creation of several reservist armies, according to Frants Klintsevich, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma's Defense Committee.

Klintsevich explained that those forces would consist of men who have performed their compulsory military service or enlisted as contract servicemen. They would report for training on a monthly basis while continuing to work at their civilian jobs. He did not cite any figure either for the number of such armies or of their optimum strength.

Retired Colonel Viktor Litovkin predicted that this innovation would enhance the combat readiness of the Russian armed forces as a whole and ensure that in the event of unanticipated hostilities, conscripts would not be used as "cannon fodder" (as was the case during the initial advance on Grozny during the 1994-96 Chechen war).

But a second military observer, Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies Director Roman Pukhov, warned that in the long term, the creation of a network of regional armies not directly subordinate to the federal Defense Ministry could create more problems than it solved. He recalled that the Bolshevik victory in 1917 was largely thanks to the extensive network of such reservist battalions.

It is not clear whether the new proposal is in any way linked to the recent fighting in eastern Ukraine, in which Russian officials deny any military participation, or whether the planned new forces are being created in anticipation of an attack on Russian territory from beyond its borders, or to suppress large-scale domestic unrest. (The latter was the most plausible explanation for the decision in the fall of 2011 to train thousands more snipers). 

Nor is it yet clear in which Russian regions these planned new forces would be based. The one regional leader who is most likely to embrace this idea wholeheartedly is Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. But the stipulation that only men who have performed their military service will be eligible to serve in the reservist armies automatically disqualifies most Chechen men in their 20s and 30s, given that since the early 2000s no young men from Chechnya, and only a few from other North Caucasus republics, have been drafted.

That ban has now been lifted: as of this year's fall draft, 500 Chechens will be inducted, with priority going to university graduates. The figure will rise to 1,000 in 2015. The planned total number of draftees from the North Caucasus Federal District this fall is 4,100, of whom 2,000 will come from Daghestan, 600 from Kabardino-Balkaria, and 500 from Ingushetia.

-- Liz Fuller

Daghestan Abolishes Direct Elections For Municipality Heads

Daghestani President Ramazan Abdulatipov is said to be frustrated at his lack of leverage over entrenched powerful local barons.

Having abolished last year direct elections for the post of republic head, Daghestan’s parliament adopted analogous legislation last month excluding the direct election of heads of municipalities.

Instead, in future the municipality head will be chosen by the municipal council. But whereas urban municipal councils will still be directly elected (either under the majoritarian or proportional system or a combination of the two), at the raion level they will be composed of the heads of lower level district councils plus additional members of the district councils in question (one such representative per 1,000 population). The independent weekly “Chernovik” has calculated that this will result in huge discrepancies in the size of the raion-level municipal councils (from 12 to 142 members). At present, the average is 19 to 25 members.

The new law thus effectively divides Daghestan’s population into two categories, one of which will have even less say than the other in determining who will (at least in theory) promote and defend the interests of the region or town in which they live.

The handful of parliament deputies representing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation denounced the law as antidemocratic. Other opposition politicians have questioned its constitutionality. Albert Esedov, head of the regional branch of Yabloko, pointed out that the members of local councils were not elected with a specific mandate to elect the head of that municipality.

Magomed Magomedov of the Mediafakt news agency  and Milrad Fatullayev, chief editor of the weekly “Nastoyashchee vremya,” both objected that the constitution of the Russian Federation and the relevant federal legislation both give local councils the choice to determine how district heads are elected. Daghestan is nevertheless not the first or the only federal subject where direct elections for the post of municipality heads have been done away with: the oblasts of Volgograd and Rostov did so in May and July respectively.  

It is true that elections in Daghestan, whether to local councils or to the republic’s parliament, have frequently given rise to violence and bloodshed between supporters of rival candidates from different ethnic groups. Most commentators, however, interpret the new law as dictated in the first instance not by the need to preclude such clashes but by republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov’s frustration at his lack of leverage over entrenched powerful local barons.

At the same time, some of them doubt whether the new procedures will have the desired result, especially given that the officials in question will continue to serve in that capacity until the end of their elected term.

The widespread popular perception of Abdulatipov, a former diplomat and expert on interethnic relations whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named as  Daghestan’s acting leader in January 2013, is of a man enamored with the sound of his own voice who can hold forth until the cows come home on his vision of what kind of polity Daghestan should become. He is, however, prevented from transforming that vision into reality by powerful political and economic interest groups whose members perceive it as a threat to their own, diverging agendas and thus seek constantly to undermine him.  And having spent virtually his entire political career outside his home republic, Abdulatipov does not have a long-established and loyal support base to counter those efforts.

Some observers posit a direct link between the timing of the parliament vote on the new law and the ongoing standoff between Abdulatipov and Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani who has headed the southeastern Derbent Raion since 1998. Abdulatipov had announced in June that Kurbanov would step down, and hinted that he would be replaced by Justice Minister Azadi Ragimov (also an Azerbaijani). But Kurbanov refused to quit his post, arguing that he had been elected by popular vote and intended to serve until his term ends in March 2015. Kurbanov was arrested last week on a charge of exceeding his authority by illegally selling 56 hectares of state-owned land and is currently under house arrest.

A second possible reason why Abdulatipov wanted the law changed concerns the vacant post of mayor of Makhachkala.

On September 18, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the 10-year prison term handed down in July by the North Caucasus Military Court to Said Amirov, who was suspended last year from the post of Makhachkala mayor after being arrested and charged with plotting to kill Sagid Murtazaliyev, the former wrestling champion who now heads the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Pension Fund. Murtazaliyev, whom the prosecution identified as Amirov’s main political opponent, was a key witness at his trial.  The Supreme Court ruling means that Amirov can now at last be formally removed from office.

The Makhachkala municipal council voted in late August, presumably at Abdulatipov’s bidding, to abolish direct elections for the post of mayor, but the Justice Ministry declined to endorse that decision. Direct elections would therefore have been unavoidable had the new legislation not been rushed through parliament. Some observers have suggested that in such a direct ballot, Murtazaliyev might have defeated the current acting mayor, Magomed Suleymanov, whom Abdulatipov named to that post in April.

A win by Murtazaliyev, who like Abdulatipov is an Avar, would have contravened the unwritten agreement that the post of Makhachkala mayor is reserved for a Dargin. 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). Both Amirov and Suleymanov are Dargins, as are Abdulatipov’s predecessor as republic head, Magomedsalam Magomedov (currently a senior Kremlin official) and Magomedov’s father Magomedali, who served State Council chairman (de facto president) from 1994-2006.

The Dargins do not constitute a monolithic political lobby, but the various powerful Dargin families, including the Magomedovs, reportedly do not encroach on each other’s interests. At present the so-called “Mekegi clan,” named after a village in Daghestan’s Lavash Raion south of Makhachkala, is regarded as the most influential Dargin grouping. Its members include republican Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov; his brother Sirazhudin; their cousins on their mother’s side, Magomed Suleymanov and former Izberbash Mayor Abdulmedjid Suleymanov; State Procurement Committee Chairman Marat Dalgatov; and Djamaludin Omarov, who resigned in August after serving for 16 years as mayor of Kaspiisk.

In a further move to render the post of Makhachkala mayor less influential, and thus less attractive as a possible stepping-stone to that of republic head, Daghestan’s parliament has passed in the first reading a bill on dividing the capital into four separate municipalities, of which each would have its own head. According to Eduard Khidirov, who heads the Patriots of Russia parliament faction, one option being discussed behind the scenes is to restore municipality status to the predominantly Kumyk-populated settlement of Tarki on the city’s southwestern outskirts. The Kumyks launched a series of protests in June 2012 to demand that the villages of Tarki, Alburikent, and Kyakhulay be designated a separate municipal district, but without success.

Who Was Behind The Grozny Suicide Bombing?

The site of the deadly suicide bomb attack in Grozny on October 5.

A young man blew himself up late on October 5 in the center of Grozny, killing himself and four police officers and injuring a further 12 people. He has been identified as Opti Mudarov, 19, who reportedly disappeared without a trace two months ago from his home in Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district.

According to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, the suicide bomber, holding a pistol, approached a police post near the entrance to a theater where a concert was scheduled to begin as part of the celebrations for Grozny Day (marked on October 5, coinciding with Kadyrov’s birthday). When the police officers asked for his identity documents, he blew himself up.

Predictably, Kadyrov blamed the incident on the North Caucasus insurgency, which is plausible given that the bomber deliberately sought to kill the maximum number of police officers. It was Aslan Byutukayev (Amir Khamzat), head of the Chechen insurgency wing, who served as mentor to Magomed Yevloyev, the young Ingush man who blew himself up at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011, killing at least 37 people.

On the other hand, Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Amir Ali Abu-Mohammad), the Avar theologian who succeeded Doku Umarov as head of the Caucasus Emirate, has recently come out against suicide bombings as a tactic. And Byutukayev has pledged allegiance (together with seven fellow Chechen commanders) to Kebekov and is thus constrained to comply with his orders.

Assuming that Byutukayev did not deliberately defy Kebekov’s stated disapproval of suicide bombings, two possible explanations suggest themselves.

First, that Mudarov was acting of his own volition. In which case, the questions arise: Where did he get access to explosives? And what was his motivation? Was he one of the dozens of young believers rounded up and roughed up by Kadyrov’s security police since the start of the year on suspicion of preferring Salafism to Kadyrov’s reinvention of Chechen Sufism?

And second, that he was the unwitting victim of a false-flag recruitment by someone out to spoil Kadyrov’s birthday.

The insurgency website reported the suicide bombing just hours after it occurred, citing eyewitness reports suggesting that the death toll may be higher than officially stated but has not yet posted any claim of responsibility.

-- Liz Fuller

Georgian Prosecutor Orders Exhumation Of Former Prime Minister's Body

The late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was found dead in 2005.

Georgian prosecutor Revaz Nadoy announced on September 30 that the body of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania will be exhumed and tests conducted by international pathologists in order to clarify the cause of his death. He did not specify a time frame.

Zhvania was found dead in a rented apartment in Tbilisi together with a friend, Kvemo Kartli Deputy Governor Rasul Yusupov, early on February 3, 2005. The postmortem concluded that the two men died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from a malfunctioning gas heater.

But Zhvania's brother, Giorgi, has consistently rejected that ruling, citing circumstantial evidence that the two men had died at another location.

In 2012, he openly accused three former senior government officials -- former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, former Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and former Prosecutor-General Zurab Adeishvili -- of having moved the two bodies to the apartment where they were subsequently found and faked the evidence of asphyxiation. At the same time, Giorgi Zhvania stressed that he was not accusing the three men of murder.

In March 2014, photographic evidence surfaced that seemed to corroborate Giorgi Zhvania's doubts about the circumstances of his brother's death. Photos were uploaded to YouTube apparently taken at the time of the postmortem that -- according to current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili -- showed that Zhvania had sustained head injuries prior to his death

Levan Chachua, the pathologist who had carried out the postmortem, was immediately arrested, as was Mikheil Dzadzamia, the bodyguard tasked with watching over Zhvania on the night he died. Both were subsequently charged with dereliction of duty and remanded in pretrial custody.

Dzadzamia is currently on trial together with the head of Zhvania's security detail, Koba Kharshiladze. He is pleading not guilty.   

Nadoy, who is prosecutor at the trial, ruled on September 30 that five senior members of the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) should be summoned to testify. The five are: Merabishvili, who is currently serving three separate prison terms on charges of exceeding his official authority and using public funds to bribe voters; Baramidze; and ENM parliament deputies Goka Gabashvili; Mikheil Machavaviari; and Khatuna Gogorishvili.

Nadoy also said it had been established that the photos of the dead bodies of Zhvania and Usupov were uploaded to YouTube from Turkey, but he declined to specify the precise location, or the identity of "Hakim Pasha," who uploaded them.

Nadoy is not quoted as saying that Yusupov's body too will be exhumed. Yusupov's father Yashir Yusupov, who is convinced that his son was the target of "a planned killing of a political character," said last year that the bodies should be exhumed if it is impossible to clarify the cause of death by other means.

-- 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.