Saturday, March 28, 2015

Is The Georgian Government Living On Borrowed Time?

Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili

Two recent developments have highlighted the erosion of popular support in recent months for Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition. But no rival political force currently appears strong enough to capitalize on that popular disillusion.

On March 21, the opposition United National Movement (ENM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili convened a demonstration in Tbilisi to demand that the government resign for its handling of the economy. Attendance was at least 10,000, and possibly as many as 30,000 people from across the country -- far more than the organizers anticipated, according to ENM law-maker Sergo Ratiani. 

Just days later, the findings of an opinion poll conducted in late February commissioned by the International Republican Institute showed support for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition at 36 percent, followed by the ENM with 14 percent and the Free Democrats headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania with 10 percent. In the June 2014 local elections, Georgian Dream garnered 50.8 percent of the vote.

Of the total 1,500 respondents, 55 percent opined that Georgia is “moving in the wrong direction,” up from 33 percent in February 2014. Just 25 percent considered the country is moving in the right direction, compared with 48 percent one year earlier.

Analyst Giorgi Kalatozishvili has attributed the decline in support for Georgian Dream to a combination of two factors.

One is what he terms “the psychology of post-Soviet Georgian society, which is predisposed to demand from the authorities consolidation and a clear and precise program, confidence in their own abilities and the ability to respond appropriately to challenges.”

The second is the decline in value of the Georgian lari over the past four months. That process began in November, when the lari fell by 11-12 percent against the U.S. dollar. National Bank President Giorgi Kadagidze and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili both attributed that development to the strengthening of the U.S. dollar and a fall in external funding, the combined effect of which, they said, had been exacerbated by “panic” and “over-reaction” among the population at large. The currency then stabilized, but the downward trend resumed in January. 

On February 19, the lari fell to 2.1472:US$1, compared with 1.7675:US$1 three months earlier, the lowest rate since January 2004. One week later, on February 26, it was trading at 2.2494:US$1, a decline of 28.2 percent in three months. Over the next 10 days, the lari rose slightly to 2.1:$US1, but by March 19 it had again fallen to 2.23:US$1. 

Meanwhile, exports fell by 26 percent in January-February compared with 2014, and remittances by 22.4 percent. Caucasus Press quoted the World Bank as estimating the dependence of the Georgian economy on remittances at 12 percent. As of March 13, annual inflation was already 23 percent. 

The financial impact of those trends was exacerbated by the spectacular lack of unity within the Georgian leadership. Georgian Dream founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire philanthropist who some observers believe continues to pull strings behind the scenes, laid the blame for the “crisis” squarely on the National Bank.

National Bank Chairman Kadagidze rejected that criticism as “slanderous,” arguing that “attempts to shift the blame” had weakened both the lari and the economy in general. At the same time, he distanced himself from the cabinet and implicitly criticized it, pointing out that the National Bank “cannot answer for the country’s economic policy.”

Kadagidze further expressed surprise at the timing of Ivanishvili’s statement, made public on February 26 when the lari was already stabilizing. Azim Sadykov, who heads International Monetary Fund’s mission in Georgia, was similarly quoted as dismissing Ivanishvili’s criticism of the National Bank.

Prime Minister Gharibashvili acknowledged in late February that the “very difficult situation” could necessitate revising downwards the 5 percent GDP growth target for 2015. At the same time, he said the cabinet was working with the National Bank on “improving the situation very quickly” and attracting investment. Those statements failed, however, to convince the ENM, which together with the extra-parliamentary Labor Party had demanded in early February the resignation of the economy and finance ministers.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is at odds with Gharibashvili, initially rejected a subsequent demand by the ENM to convene a special session of parliament to discuss the economic situation. Meeting on February 25 with the ministers of economy and finance, Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Nodar Khaduri, Margvelashvili said it was reasonable to give the government until March 5 to draft its plans for stabilizing the currency.

When the government failed to meet that deadline, the ENM again called on Margvelashvili to convene an emergency parliament session, which he duly did for March 13. That session failed to take place, however, because only 41 law-makers showed up; a minimum of 76 (of the total 150) is required for a quorum.

Kvirikashvili, Khaduri, and Kadagidze nonetheless outlined at a five-hour session of the parliamentary committees for finance and the economy on March 12 the “revolutionary” (Khaduri’s choice of adjective) measures the government envisages for restoring economic stability. According to Kvirikashvili, they include raising $300 million-$350 million over the next few months by privatizing state-owned enterprises and enacting measures to improve the business climate, including abolishing corporate income tax on reinvested profits.

At the same time, Khaduri stressed that the government will not raise taxes, although it may increase excise duty on alcohol and cigarettes.

Prominent ENM members told participants at the March 21 demonstration that the party plans to stage further protest rallies across the country, expose corrupt regional officials, and seek to initiate a parliament vote of no-confidence in Gharibashvili’s government.

At first glance, the ENM’s chances of forcing such a vote appear minimal. The ENM currently has 50 parliament mandates, the seven factions aligned in Georgian Dream – 87, and the Free Democrats – eight. Four law-makers are not members of any faction. One parliament seat is vacant.

A minimum of 60 votes (two-fifths of the 150 parliamentarians) is required to request a no-confidence vote, and 75 votes for it to pass. In that case, the parliament is required to approve by a minimum of 60 votes a candidate for prime minister, whom the president must endorse within five days. If the president vetoes the proposed candidate, the parliament is empowered to nominate him again, but a minimum of 90 votes are needed to do so, in which case the president must endorse the candidate. If, however, parliament fails to overcome the presidential veto, the president has the right to dissolve parliament and schedule pre-term elections.

Free Democrats leader Alasania, whom Gharibashvili dismissed as defense minister last November following a public row over the arrest of several ministry staffers, has already announced that his faction will not support a no-confidence vote. But even before the March 21 protest, analyst Mamuka Areshidze warned that the ENM was actively seeking to suborn at least 15 Georgian Dream law-makers.

The IRI opinion poll results suggest that in the event of a pre-term election, no party would gain a majority. And just days before the March 21 demonstration, several observers expressed doubts that the ENM would succeed in mobilizing a large number of protesters. The Caucasus Knot quoted NGO head Khatuna Lagazidze as explaining that “popular dissatisfaction is increasing by the day, but there isn’t any opposition force in the country that could mobilize voters, and for that reason the incumbent government feels more than confident."

One participant in the March 21 protest told the same website, however, that “in Kutaisi the number of active supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili has risen from 2,000 to 10,000, people want the country to develop.” Whether the ENM is enjoying a similar upsurge in popularity nation-wide, and whether the unexpectedly high attendance at the Tbilisi protest will serve as a catalyst for the party’s resurgence, is difficult to predict, however.

Assuming that Georgian Dream succeeds in averting a no-confidence vote, the question arises: can the government provide not just economic stability but genuine growth in the 18 months between now and the parliamentary ballot due in the fall of 2016?

Kadagidze told the parliament committee joint session on March 12 he thinks further turbulence on the currency market is unlikely. But Khaduri has confirmed that this year’s target for GDP growth will indeed be revised downwards from 5 percent to 2 percent, as Gharibashvili had hinted it might. From that point of view, the March 21 protest may in hindsight come to be seen as the de facto start of the parliamentary election campaign, with the ENM and Alasania’s Free Democrats in competition to win the favor of an electorate alienated by Georgian Dream’s lack of unity and failure to deliver on its 2012 election promises.

-- Liz Fuller 

New Date Set For Signing Of Russia-South Ossetia Treaty

The de facto president of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov (left), at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside Moscow in October 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to sign the new Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia on March 18 during a visit to Moscow by the region's de facto president, Leonid Tibilov, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced on March 12. The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta had reported that the signing of the treaty had been postponed indefinitely, without citing the rationale for doing so.

On March 13, 19 of the 20 South Ossetian parliamentary deputies from the Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) party headed by parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov passed a vote of no confidence in de facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev. Ten days earlier, Bibilov had criticized Sanakoyev for foreign policy "blunders" and for having made public in January a revised draft of the treaty.

Sanakoyev rejected that criticism as "a campaign launched by the parliament majority against those who disagree with it." He and Bibilov differ over the extent to which South Ossetia's state bodies, and the polity as a whole, should be subsumed into the Russian Federation. Bibilov called in January 2014 for a referendum on South Ossetia's integration into the Russian Federation to be held concurrently with the parliamentary elections in June 2014. Sanakoyev in contrast adduced the referendum held in November 2006, in which 99 percent of the region's voters expressed support for its self-declared independent status and for efforts aimed at securing international recognition of that status. Russia formally recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in late August 2008.

The parliamentary debate that preceded the March 13 vote of no confidence in Sanakoyev was reportedly stormy, with at least one speaker accusing him of having "betrayed" South Ossetia. Igor Kochiyev, who heads the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, countered that in that case, it is for the prosecutor's office, rather than the parliament, to evaluate Sanakoyev's actions. Kochiyev branded the parliament's approach "unconstructive," protesting that "one man should not be blamed for everything."

Amiran Dyakonov of the former ruling Unity Party argued that at the very least, the legislature should form a commission to evaluate Sanakoyev's imputed errors of judgment prior to a no-confidence vote.

Given that the South Ossetian constitution stipulates that only a simple majority is required for a no-confidence vote, Bibilov's faction succeeded in passing it. Six deputies from the Unity and People's parties voted against, while the four deputies from Nykhas left the chamber before the vote, as did Kochiyev.

De facto President Tibilov, who Sanakoyev admits was annoyed by his leaking the revised text of the treaty, has not yet commented publicly or taken action on the parliament vote. If he declines to dismiss Sanakoyev, the parliament may call a second no-confidence vote within two months. If Bibilov's faction again votes no confidence in Sanakoyev, Tibilov has no choice but to dismiss him.

Meanwhile, a new dispute appears imminent between parliamentary deputy speaker Dmitry Tasoyev and Vyacheslav Gobozov, chairman of the State Committee for Information and the Press and of the extraparliamentary socialist party Fydybasta. Gobozov expressed his "complete amazement" at Tasoyev's insistence during the parliamentary debate that journalists quote all his pronouncements in full and verbatim, "without omitting a single comma." Gobozov said that demand constitutes pressure on the media. At the same time, he stressed that the parliamentary majority "has the right to evaluate the actions of any member of the government, independent of whether the accusations against him refer to his professional duties."

-- Liz Fuller

Signing Of Russia-South Ossetia Treaty On Hold

Ossetia parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov has pushed for greater integration with Russia.

The signing of the framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and Georgia’s breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, to which Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his formal approval last week, has been postponed indefinitely, according to the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta.” No reason for the postponement was given.

Meanwhile, the South Ossetian parliament is planning a vote of no confidence in de facto Foreign Minister David Sanakoyev for various “blunders,” including having leaked the amended text of the treaty to the press two months ago.

As was the case in Abkhazia, the draft treaty triggered heated disagreements within the South Ossetian leadership over the optimum degree of rapprochement and cooperation between the two polities. Parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov, whose Yedinaya Osetiya (One Ossetia) party controls 20 seats in the 34 parliament elected in June 2014, advocated a far closer degree of “integration” with Russia than de facto President Leonid Tibilov and other political parties were apparently prepared to condone. In January 2014, Bibilov had called for a referendum on South Ossetia’s incorporation into the Russian Federation to be held concurrently with the parliamentary ballot.

The fourth and final version of the treaty provides for closer cooperation between the armed forces and security structures of the two polities but does not stipulate as a long-term goal the referendum on South Ossetia’s incorporation into the Russian Federation that Bibilov demanded, and that featured in the initial draft. 

It was Bibilov who last week first threatened to bring a vote of no confidence in Sanakoyev. His stated rationale for doing so was that South Ossetia’s ambassadors to Nicaragua and Venezuela, which recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in September 2008 and September 2009 respectively, have still not formally presented their credentials. (In fact the ambassador to Nicaragua did so in September 2011. 

In addition, Bibilov claimed that no steps have been taken to establish formal diplomatic relations with the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics in accordance with Tibilov’s pledge to do so.

Sanakoyev for his part dismissed those criticisms as “a campaign launched by the parliament majority against those who disagree with it.” He pointed out that rather than threaten a vote of no confidence, the majority parliament faction could have summoned him to account for those imputed failings. Sanakoyev’s New Ossetia party failed to surmount the 5 percent barrier for gaining parliament representation.

Aleksandr Pliyev, leader of the People’s Party that holds four parliament mandates, said he sees no valid reason for insisting on a vote of no confidence in Sanakoyev, and warned that such a vote could trigger “a crisis” within the leadership and destabilize the situation. The People’s Party is one of eight (not including Sanakoyev’s New Ossetia) that, together with 16 other political groups, aligned in January in a Coordinating Council of Political Forces.

An apparent attempt by Tibilov to rein in Bibilov had no effect. Meeting on March 4 with the parliament speaker and committee heads, Tibilov stressed the need for effective coordination between all branches of power. He also announced, possibly with the aim of mollifying Bibilov, that new premises had been allocated for the legislature in one wing of the government building.

Bibilov for his part assured the president that while the parliament “has its own opinion with regard to many issues,” it is not in open opposition to the executive branch.

On March 11, Sanakoyev appeared before the parliament presidium to present a report on the work of his ministry in 2014, stressing that priority had been given to the strengthening of South Ossetia’s “strategic partnership” with Russia.)

Sanakoyev further defended his decision at the height of the controversy over the draft treaty to make public the text under discussion. He argued that society had a right to know the content of the draft.

-- Liz Fuller 

New Wave Of Detentions Reported In Chechnya

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Over 100 people have been detained and questioned in Chechnya over the past two weeks, since three men were killed in a mysterious explosion south-west of Grozny late on February 23, according to the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial. 

The explosion took place on the highway that runs along the dam of a reservoir linking the settlements of Chechnoreche and Aldy. Two of the dead men were identified within hours as Dokka Khachukayev, 30, deputy director of a local school, and Islamic Institute student Said-Magomed Paramazov, 23, both from the village of Elin-Yurt (Gvardeyskoye) in the extreme north-west of Chechnya, on the border with Stavropol Krai. The third man, whose surname Caucasian Knot gave as Zavrayev, was from Nadtereche, a little further east.

Caucasian Knot quoted an unnamed member of the Chechen security services as saying none of the three dead men was a known insurgent. A Chernoreche resident told the same news agency that the men were clean-shaven and wearing civilian clothes. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov nonetheless announced during a visit to Chernoreche on February 27 that three insurgents had attempted to blow up the dam.

It is not clear from available reports when the dead men last had contact with their families, meaning whether they may have been apprehended hours or days earlier, possibly drugged, and then taken to the site of the explosion. If Kadyrov’s claim that they were trying to blow up the dam, but the bomb exploded prematurely, is true, the questions arise: where did they obtain the explosives, who assembled the bomb, and how did they transport it to the dam?

If on the other hand the object of the exercise was indeed to demonstrate that the insurgency still poses a serious threat (despite Kadyrov’s repeated statements that it now numbers only a handful of fighters), and security personnel loyal to Kadyrov staged the blast, why was it considered necessary to depart from the practice, long-established in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria, of snatching civilians, dressing them in camouflage fatigues, shooting them dead, and then announcing in front of a TV camera that they were killed during a “counter-terror operation”?

A third possible explanation, communicated to RFE/RL’s Radio Marsho, is that the three men did plant the bomb, but it exploded prematurely. Their motive was allegedly to protest the Chechen authorities’ failure to pay construction workers who participated in the reconstruction of the kilometer-long highway along the top of the dam. That two-year renovation was completed last summer.

Within hours of the blast, police detained the families of Khachukayev and Paramazov in Elin-Yurt. They were reportedly questioned for several days, and then released and told to leave Chechnya, in line with orders issued by Kadyrov following the insurgents' attack on Grozny in December 2014 that families of men known to have participated in that attack should be expelled from the republic.

Since then, however, more Elin-Yurt residents have been detained, not all of whom have been released. One man, construction worker Kana Afanasyev, 23, was apprehended in Grozny on February 26. His dead body, which bore marks on the wrists from electric shocks, was returned to his family that night. Afanasyev had left Chechnya in 2013 for Sweden, where his wife gave birth to a child; he returned to Chechnya three months ago after his application for political asylum was rejected. 

-- Liz Fuller

Four Chechens Detained In Connection With Nemtsov’s Murder

Russian security officials have detained four men, all reportedly Chechens, on suspicion of the murder on February 27 in Moscow of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

A fifth suspect killed himself in Grozny late on March 7 by detonating a hand grenade when police tried to force their way into the apartment in which he was holed up, according to Chechen police sources. 

The four surviving suspects are:

  • Anzor Gubashev, said to have worked until recently as a guard at a supermarket in the vicinity of Moscow.
  • His younger brother Shagid Gubashev, also based in Moscow.
  • Zaur Dadayev, who has served for 10 years in the “North” battalion that was initially subordinate to the Russian Interior Ministry Internal Troops and is now part of Chechnya’s elite Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov special motorized regiment. He is said to have been decorated by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Order of Valor.
  • Rustam Yusupov, also a member of the “North” battalion.


The Gubashev brothers and Dadayev are said to be distant cousins whose families left the southern Itum-Kale district of the then Checheno-Ingush ASSR in the 1960s for Malgobek in the present-day Republic of Ingushetia. Relatives say Anzor Gubbashev has not lived permanently in Ingushetia for 10 years.

Anzor Gubashev and Dadayev are said to have killed Nemtsov, one of them firing the four shots that killed him and the other driving the getaway car. That vehicle, a white Lada Priorat with Republic of Ingushetia license plates, was later found abandoned in Moscow. Police said they were confident the owner had no connection to the murder. The precise role of the other two suspects is not clear.

Anzor Gubashev is said to have left Moscow for Chechnya on March 2 and then travelled with Dadayev to Ingushetia, where the two were taken into custody. Acting Republic of Ingushetia Security Council Secretary Albert Barakhayev says Gubashev was apprehended on March 6 in Malgobek and Dadayev the following day in Nazran.

Later on March 7, it was announced that Yusupov was traveling in Dadayev’s car when the latter was apprehended. When Shagid Gubashev was detained is unclear.

Anzor Gubashev and Dadayev are to appear in court in Moscow later today.

Commenting on the news of the detentions, Ingush human rights activist Magomed Mutsolgov told Caucasian Knot that if the four men’s responsibility for Nemtsov’s death is confirmed, it would be a serious blow to the prestige of the Chechen leadership.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov is on record as declaring that “there can be no doubt” that Western intelligence services were behind Nemtsov’s murder.

-- Liz Fuller

Is Another Miscarriage Of Justice Imminent In Karachayevo-Cherkessia?

While Karachayevo-Cherkessia's economy is flourishing under young and personable republic head Rashid Temrezov, there are two trends that mar the image of the republic as the poster child of the North Caucasus.

In many respects, Karachayevo-Cherkessia is the poster child among the republics of the North Caucasus.

It has largely been spared the low-level fighting between security forces and the Islamic insurgency that still continues in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Its parliament has passed legislation regulating the ownership of land that precludes the kind of ethnically tinged disputes common in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria between Kabardian businessmen (the largest ethnic group) and Balkar villagers who account for just 12 percent of the population. And its economy is flourishing under young and personable republic head Rashid Temrezov.

By virtue of its relative stability, Karachayevo-Cherkessia is proving increasingly attractive to investors and tourists, and is the sole republic in the region whose budget for 2015 is not predicated on a hefty deficit

Yet two trends mar this overall positive picture. The first is the regularity with which men detained by police for minor infringements are found dead in their cells just hours later. And the second is the apparent lack of professionalism and objectivity of the republic's courts, which regularly hand down "guilty" verdicts in high-profile trials in which the prosecution fails to present convincing evidence (or sometimes, according to defense lawyers, any evidence at all) that the accused has committed a crime.

Those two trends converged in the case of Cherkessk deputy police chief Ruslan Rakhayev, who was found guilty in July 2013 of beating detainee Dakhir Dzhankezov to death, despite extensive evidence exonerating him. Rakhayev appealed the 13-year prison term handed down to him to the republic's Supreme Court, which overturned the verdict and called for a new investigation. 

Five more local police personnel went on trial in January 2015 accused of torturing detainee Murat Borlakov to death in February 2014. In August 2014, the republican prosecutor overruled an investigator's decision not to open a criminal case in connection with the death in pretrial detention in January 2014 of Artur Aydinov. Aydinov's relatives and lawyer say he was subjected to torture.

Similarly disquieting is the series of trials in which some 60-70 men, in groups ranging from four to 29, have been found guilty, often on the flimsiest evidence, of seeking to overthrow the republic's leadership with the aim of establishing an Islamic state, and/or of attacking police, illegal possession of weapons, and membership of an illegal armed group.

A further flawed judgment may be imminent in the case of Nazbi-hadzhi Adzhiyev, the former imam of the Kislovodsk mosque, who is accused of instigating the murder in September 2009 of Ismail-hadzhi Bostanov, deputy chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol Krai and longtime rector of Karachayevo-Cherkessia's Islamic Institute.

Adzhiyev, 43, denies any role in Bostanov's killing, which he described as "a tragedy for Islam, for the people, for the entire republic." His former parishioner Salavat Gandayev, who was jailed in August 2012 for 19 years for Bostanov's murder, has testified that Adzhiyev played no part in it, and that he acted of his own volition.

Bostanov was killed in a drive-by shooting in Cherkessk on September 20, 2009, in which his 16-year-old son was seriously injured. On December 17, four suspects were arrested: Nizhny Teberda municipality head Rashid Blimgotov, and three unemployed local residents, two of whom were apparently later released. Two days later, Gandayev was apprehended when the ship on which he was returning from the hajj docked in Sochi.

Adzhiyev was detained at the end of December 2009 at the airport in Mineralnye Vody on suspicion of organizing the killing. A seventh suspect, Ramazan Berdiyev, the nephew of Ismail Berdiyev, head of the Coordinating Center of Muftis of the Caucasus, was arrested in Moscow on February 3.

Within weeks of Adzhiyev's arrest, members of his congregation had collected several thousand signatures in his support. One of them, Tokmak Gadzhayev, said that "we all love and respect [Adzhiyev]," whom he characterized as "espousing not leftist or rightist or extremist, but centrist views in Islam," and as adhering "to the correct, classical interpretations of the Koran and Sunna."

That statement is at odds with the investigators' characterization of Adzhiyev's sermons as "calling for the use of force with regard to persons who preach traditional Islam."

After several postponements, the trial began in December 2010 of five men: Blimgotov, Gandayev, and Adzhiyev were charged with murder, forming an illegal armed group, and illegal possession of weapons. Berdiyev and Taulan Temirov were charged with being accessories to the killing. All the accused were Karachais, as was Bostanov.

The investigators claimed that in the spring of 2009, Blimgotov recruited a criminal band, of which Gandayev was a member, with the express intention of eliminating members of the clergy whose views they considered unacceptable. At a meeting in April 2009 in the village of Uchkeken, the two allegedly persuaded Adzhiyev to join them, and Adzhiyev and Berdiyev talked Gandayev into agreeing to kill Bostanov.

Adzhiyev's brother Umar, however, claimed that the investigators had absolutely no evidence to substantiate the charge against Adzhiyev.

In July 2011, the trial was halted pending further investigation and to incorporate additional charges relating to robberies allegedly committed by Blimgotov's armed gang. During that investigation, it was decided that Adzhiyev should stand trial separately.

New proceedings began in late November 2011 against Blimgotov, Gandayev, Berdiyev, Temirov, and four other men. In August 2012, Gandayev was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the killing of Bostanov, but the court ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove that Berdiyev and Blimgotov incited him to commit that murder.

Blimgotov, who had protested his innocence of the charges against him from the outset, was acquitted of murder, banditry, and forming an illegal armed group, but found guilty of concealing a serious crime by having helped Gandayev to destroy the car and weapon he used, and fined 100,000 rubles ($1,644 at the current exchange rate).

Ramazan Berdiyev was found guilty of robbery and jailed for five years, but the three presiding judges ruled that his involvement in Bostanov's murder was not proven.

The other five men, including Temirov, received labor-camp terms ranging from five to eight years for armed robbery.

It was only in November 2014 that Adzhiyev went on trial for the second time, on a charge of having incited Gandayev to kill Bostanov, purportedly out of jealousy and in the hope of succeeding him as deputy mufti. By that time, Adzhiyev had spent almost five years in pretrial detention and was seriously ill.

Testifying by video-link, Gandayev denied that Adzhiyev ever tried to persuade him to kill Bostanov. Of the remaining 23 witnesses for the prosecution, the only one to make any comment on Adzhiyev reportedly characterized him as "not the kind of person to commit such a crime."

In his final address to the court, Adzhiyev again insisted he was innocent. He rejected as ridiculous the motives imputed to him, stressing that he barely knew Bostanov and never had any dealings with him. He also pointed out that the argument that he hoped to succeed Bostanov as deputy mufti was "absurd," given that the deputy mufti is elected by some 200 fellow clerics, rather than appointed. He concluded by declaring that his purpose in life, is "to be of use to my country, my fellow citizens, my town, my people, by appealing to them to do good and helping them to avoid doing wrong. That is my calling before the Almighty, that is what I studied to do."

On February 9, the prosecutor called for a 12-year labor-camp term for Adzhiyev. Sentence is to be pronounced on March 6.

-- Liz Fuller


Were Chechen Security Personnel Responsible For Nemtsov's Death?

Recently, Boris Nemtsov questioned the rationale for the grandiose rally of security personnel Ramzan Kadyrov held in Grozny in late December, at which Kadyrov affirmed that he had at his disposal 10,000 volunteers loyal to Vladimir Putin who are ready "to carry out any command" in order to defend stability in Russia.

For many in both Russia and the West, the Kremlin is inevitably the prime suspect in the February 27 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

But the possibility of a Chechen connection should not be dismissed out of hand, given Nemtsov's repeated criticism of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, and the fact that since 2011, security personnel loyal to Kadyrov have reportedly engaged with total impunity in abductions and killings in Moscow. Alternatively, Kadyrov's men may have killed Nemtsov at Russian President Vladimir Putin's behest.

The independent Novaya Gazeta investigated those reports, and met with Federal Security Service (FSB) staffers who in 2013 threatened to resign to protest prosecutors' refusal to bring charges against a group of Moscow-based Chechen Interior Ministry personnel arrested on suspicion of such killings. Instead, the men were released.

The website Caucasus Knot recalls that four years ago Kadyrov publicly called for Nemtsov to be imprisoned in light of his role in the mass protests in Moscow in December 2010. Nemtsov responded by branding Kadyrov "a psychologically very sick man" in need of urgent medical care. Nemtsov expressed regret that such men control the entire Caucasus, adding that he hoped that "eventually he will be dismissed and have to answer for everything."

In May 2014, Nemtsov addressed a formal request to FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov to investigate reports that Chechen security personnel were being infiltrated into eastern Ukraine to fight on the side of the pro-Russian separatists.

More recently, Nemtsov questioned the rationale for the grandiose rally of security personnel Kadyrov convened in Grozny in late December, at which Kadyrov affirmed that he had at his disposal 10,000 volunteers loyal to Putin who are ready "to carry out any command" in order to defend stability in Russia. Nemtsov estimated the Kremlin's annual subsidies to Chechnya at 60 billion rubles ($974.77 million) and predicted that in light of Russia's economic problems, "the unspoken contract between Kadyrov and Putin -- money in exchange for loyalty -- is coming to an end."

History With Chechnya

Nemtsov was born in Sochi, on the fringe of the Caucasus, and his engagement in Chechnya dates back to at least 1997, when as fuel and energy minister he and then-Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko jointly persuaded the Chechen leadership headed by President Aslan Maskhadov to repair the Baku-Tikhoretsk-Novorossiisk oil pipeline, according to Argumenty I Fakty, No. 37, September 2001.

In December 2000, Nemtsov, then a State Duma deputy representing the Union of Rightist Forces, and fellow parliament members met in Moscow with Maskhadov's emissaries in the hope of launching formal talks to end the war that had erupted one year earlier.

As a basis for such talks, Nemtsov had drafted a five-point peace plan under which Chechnya would have broad autonomy within the Russian Federation, but would "never" become independent. Instead, it would become a parliamentary republic with a civilian non-Chechen governor-general, who would be in charge of all "administrative, financial, political and military power in the republic."

The stipulation that the governor-general should not be a Chechen meant that had Nemtsov's plan been endorsed and implemented, Kadyrov's father Akhmed-hadji, then Putin's appointed satrap in Chechnya, would have been sidelined.

That governor-general would seek to reach agreement by January 2003 with all influential Chechen leaders, including Maskhadov. In the event that deadline was not met, Nemtsov advocated splitting Chechnya, with the northern lowlands being incorporated into Stavropol Krai and separated by border fortifications from the southern mountains where the resistance had taken refuge. The plan also provided for state assistance to Chechens forced to flee during the fighting.

In September 2001, Nemtsov reportedly incurred Putin's ire by travelling to Chechnya to deliver computers to two schools in the Achkhoi-Martan district southwest of Grozny. Putin reportedly responded by issuing an ultimatum to Nemtsov: either conclude a peace deal with the Chechens within one month or resign from the State Duma.

Ramzan Kadyrov, for his part, was quoted as affirming in an Instagram post that there could be "no doubt" that Western intelligence services intent on destabilizing the situation in Russia were behind Nemtsov's death. Kadyrov also commented that Nemtsov was not impressed by his efforts to rebuild Chechnya.

-- 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.