Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fledgling Party Could Shake Up Georgia With Vote Looming

In a recent opinion poll, Paata Burchuladze scored the highest favorability rating (75 percent) of any Georgian political figure.

Liz Fuller

Within days of the announcement last week that campaigning for the October 8 parliamentary elections will begin next month, Georgian opera singer Paata Burchuladze announced the launch of his new political party, The State for the People, which he predicted will win "strong representation" in the new parliament, given that "the whole of Georgia stands beside us."

That latter statement may be an exaggeration, but several political commentators agree that Burchuladze, whose age is variously given as either 61 or 65, is well positioned to profit from widespread public disillusion with both the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, which has failed to make good on many of its preelection promises, and with former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM), which Georgian Dream defeated in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot.

An opinion poll conducted in March by the International Republican Institute ranked Burchuladze's Georgian Development Foundation third in popularity. Asked which party they would vote for if elections were to take place the following Sunday, 12 percent of the 1,500 respondents named the Georgian Development Foundation, compared to 19 percent support for Georgian Dream and 18 percent for the ENM. Burchuladze himself scored the highest favorability rating (75 percent) of any Georgian political figure.

That popularity is due in part to Georgians' collective pride in any of their compatriots who succeeds in acquiring an international reputation, and in part to his charitable engagement. In 2004, he set up the charitable foundation Iavnana to help vulnerable families, especially deprived children.

The founding of Burchuladze's new party was not unexpected. In late November, he had canceled all his future operatic engagements and set up the Georgian Development Foundation civic movement. Its primary objective was defined as promoting dialogue within society with the aim of "putting an end to an era of nepotism, irresponsibility, fear of what tomorrow might bring, and to the division of society into 'us' and 'them.'"

Burchuladze stressed in late December that the Georgian Development Foundation, of which he took over as head two months later, "is a public initiative and not a political organization." At the same time, he criticized Georgian Dream's track record, in particular the slowdown in 2015 in economic growth. At that rate, he argued, "we shall never catch up even with Europe's poorest states."

Burchuladze outlined his rationale for entering Georgian politics in a rambling and populist statement on May 12. Declaring that "it has finally become clear that we can no longer watch what is happening from outside," he argued that Georgia needed to break free of the alternation between hope that a new leadership will improve the situation and disillusion when it proves unable to do so.

He criticized Georgian Dream for failing to formulate, let alone implement, a precise vision for the country, and in a clear allusion to Georgian Dream founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who many Georgians believe continues to dictate policy, he affirmed, "We don't want this country to have an informal master...and we don't want to live in a universe formed according to his tastes," given that "we have the right to be a happy nation."

Burchuladze went on to argue that "new people" with "clean hands" should come to power, people "who are capable of getting things done but have not been involved in politics previously because they didn't want to work side by side with today's politicians." He did not explain how such a team with little or no experience would make a better job of governing the country and creating "a strong independent state," let alone reversing economic decline and tackling unemployment, which respondents in the above-mentioned opinion poll consistently singled out as Georgia's most serious problem.

Burchuladze's pronouncements on foreign policy were similarly vague: He said Georgia should take its place as an equal member of the European family, but did not mention relations with Russia and how to counter the possible threat that Moscow poses.

Speaking at a press conference later on May 12, Burchuladze declared with bathos that "I had to abandon my career and the good life because the country is in such a state." He went on to divulge that he had begun creating a network of local party organizations and that he had the backing of unnamed members of the Georgian diaspora.

It is logical to assume that Burchuladze hopes to emulate Ivanishvili, who succeeded in parlaying his reputation as a philanthropist into Georgian Dream's landslide victory over the ENM in 2012. In many ways, however, the situation today differs from that in 2012. First, there are fewer than five months to go before the elections; Ivanishvili launched Georgian Dream a year in advance.

Second, Georgian Dream swiftly came to be perceived as the sole political force capable of unseating the ENM, and consequently numerous political parties with diverging ideologies aligned under its banner for that specific purpose. Today, by contrast, most of those parties plan to run independently in the October ballot.

And third, Ivanishvili's financial resources (he made a fortune in business in Russia in the 1990s) almost certainly far exceed Burchuladze's, although it remains unclear who funds the Georgian Development Foundation. State Audit Service head Lasha Tordia has warned that there can be no overlap whatsoever between the Georgian Development Foundation and The State for the People party.

Chechen Leader Denies Whistle-Blower’s Home Intentionally Destroyed

The home of Ramadan Dzhalaldinov, destroyed in a fire on the night of May 12-13.

Liz Fuller

The home in the Avar-populated village of Kenkhi in southeastern Chechnya of Ramadan Dzhalaldinov, who sought last month to alert Russian President Vladimir Putin to blatant corruption among local officials, was burned to the ground during the night of May 12-13. 

The home, on the outskirts of Grozny, of Shamil Dzhanaraliyev, one of two men killed when they attacked a police post early on May 9, has reportedly also been destroyed. 

In video footage uploaded to YouTube by the independent Daghestani weekly Chernovik, one of Dzhalaldinov’s three daughters said it was law enforcement personnel who torched their home. She said the men also used force on herself and her mother and threatened to kill them.

Kadyrov, however, immediately denied that anyone had set fire to the Dzhalaldinov family home and suggested in an Instagram post that Dzhalaldinov himself orchestrated its destruction. Kadyrov did not explain how Dzhalaldinov could have done so from neighboring Daghestan, where he is currently in hiding. Dzhalaldinov’s wife and children reportedly left Chechnya on May 13 to join him there. 

Dzhalaldinov incurred the wrath of the Chechen leadership by addressing a video appeal to Putin a month ago urging him to take action to curtail embezzlement by local officials of funds allocated for the reconstruction of homes in Kenkhi destroyed during the fighting of 1994-96 and 1999-2000, and also of local teachers’ salaries. Village residents were constrained to denounce Dzhalaldinov and to affirm publicly that his complaints were unfounded. But Moscow-based journalist Valery Polonsky succeeded in traveling to Kenkhi, where he met with villagers who readily confirmed that Dzhalaldinov was telling the truth.

Asked to comment on the destruction of Dzhalaldinov’s home, Russian presidential press spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted on May 13 as saying that if the report proves true, the law enforcement agencies should take immediate action. The Daghestan chapter of the opposition Yabloko party has called on Putin to launch an investigation into the reported incident and to take steps to end the pressure on Dzhalaldinov’s fellow villagers. 

Republic of Daghestan head Ramadan Abdulatipov, for his part, reportedly reached agreement during a telephone conversation with Kadyrov on May 13 on sending a joint governmental/parliamentary delegation to evaluate the situation in Kenkhi. But the four men from Daghestan who traveled to Kenkhi the following day told local residents they had been sent by Sagid Murtazaliyev, the former head of the Daghestan branch of the federal Pension Fund. 

A close associate of Kadyrov, Murtazaliyev currently faces criminal charges of commissioning political killings and abetting the North Caucasus insurgency. His whereabouts are unknown. According to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, his henchmen have already tried to pressure Dzhalaldinov to stop publicly bad-mouthing the Chechen authorities. 

Yet despite their proclaimed affiliation with a prominent Kadyrov ally, the four men were prevented from either meeting with villagers or inspecting the site of Dzhahaldinov’s home. Instead, they spent over an hour closeted with local officials and budget sector employees whose livelihood is contingent on their endorsement of the official version of what happened.

Despite the Chechen authorities’ blanket rejection of Dzhalaldinov’s complaints, Kadyrov traveled to Kenkhi on May 6 to talk to local officials and assess the situation at first hand. He assured the villagers that damaged buildings will be renovated and that local officials will be held to account for the missing budget funds.

Kadyrov also pledged that within three months, gas supplies would be extended to the village and local highways repaired. For good measure, he designated 2016 the Year of Sharoy District (where Kenkhi is located), and replaced the Sharoy district head and police chief. 

At the same time, at least three Kenkhi residents -- Khizbula Akhmedov, Seidmagomed Nasibov, and Magomedrasul Gitinov, director of one of the village schools -- who told Kadyrov to his face that Dzhalaldinov was telling the truth were subsequently taken into police detention. Nasibov has been charged with illegal possession of drugs.

Chechen Whistle-Blower Disappears After Demanding Legal Action Against Kadyrov

Within days, Kenkhi residents were required to attend a public meeting to deny the allegations made by Ramazan Dzhalaldinov (above).

Liz Fuller

It is no secret that just about any resident of Chechnya courageous or foolhardy enough to criticize the republican authorities, let alone republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, might risk being summarily detained and questioned and subject to orchestrated public humiliation, at best, or, at worst, disappearing without trace. But a handful of people continue to run that risk, undeterred by the possible consequences. 

One such person is Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, a resident of the Avar-populated village of Kenkhi in Chechnya’s southernmost Shatoy district. Dzhalaldinov has not only complained publicly to Russian President Vladimir Putin about corruption among local officials, he lodged a formal complaint with Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika on May 2 requesting that he take legal action against Kadyrov for having publicly insulted him by rejecting his criticisms as lies. 

In mid-April, Daghestan’s independent Russian-language weekly Chernovik uploaded to YouTube (below) a nine-minute video address by Dzhalaldinov to Putin complaining about conditions in Kenkhi. Dzhalaldinov recalls in that footage that he has tried "dozens of times," without success, to bring the situation there to the attention of the federal authorities and to demand the creation of a special commission to investigate.

Specifically, Dzhalaldinov says that the remote mountain village, which has a population of some 1,500, suffered serious damage during the 1999-2000 war. But residents receive the statutory compensation for that damage only if they sign an agreement to forego two-thirds of the sum due, which is pocketed by local officials. (Journalists from Chernovik had reported similar problems with compensation payments two years ago. The Avars may be a tiny minority in Chechnya, but they are the largest ethnic group in Daghestan.)

Dzhalaldinov also highlights the plight of the village’s three schools, explaining that all of the most qualified teaching personnel have quit because local officials systematically withheld their salaries. 

Within days, Kenkhi residents were required to attend a public meeting to deny Dzhalaldinov’s allegations. Footage of that meeting was shown on Chechen TV. Writing on the official news portal Grozny-Inform, Chechen journalist Ibragim Estamirov claimed that Dzhalaldinov does not live permanently in Kenkhi and that he has three criminal convictions, including one in 2007 for abetting the North Caucasus insurgency.

Chechen leader Ramzan KadyrovChechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Meanwhile, bloggers and human rights activists, unable to determine Djalaldinov's whereabouts, expressed concern for his safety.

Moscow-based journalist Vasily Polonsky of the independent TV station Dozhd, who traveled to Kenkhi via Daghestan to follow up on Dzhalaldinov’s complaints, has confirmed that Dzhalaldinov is no longer in Chechnya. Polonsky met on April 29 with some 100 Kenkhi residents, who readily confirmed that Dzhaladinov was telling the truth about the situation there. 

Polonsky was constrained to leave shortly afterward after someone alerted the Chechen authorities to his presence in Kenkhi. Villagers guided him on foot by mountain paths the 22 kilometers to the border with Daghestan. He has since returned to Moscow. But the taxi driver who brought him to Kenkhi was detained on April 30 for questioning, along with two other village residents who talked to Polonsky.

Dzhalaldinov subsequently told RFE/RL’s Avar-language Radio Erkenli that his sister and brother-in-law had been offered 100,000 rubles ($1,508) to tell journalists that he is mentally ill, but they both refused to do so.

Kadyrov’s next move will show just how far his influence still extends beyond Chechnya’s borders into Daghestan, meaning whether he can pressure or bribe whoever is currently sheltering Dzhalaldinov to hand him over. Alternatively, Kadyrov may try to send in his heavies to snatch Dzhalaldinov, just as he reportedly personally intervened to secure the release of his sister Zulay from a Daghestan police station 11 years ago.

Any such move would, however, appear to be in blatant defiance of Putin’s warning to Kadyrov in late March that like any other citizen of the Russian Federation, he is required to obey the law.

Moscow Moves To Alleviate Major Ecological Problem In North Ossetia

Until recently, the authorities have consistently downplayed the alleged threat posed to public health by mass-scale toxic emissions from the Elektrotsink plant, which ecological activists say vastly exceed the permitted maximum.

Liz Fuller

For years, activists in Vladikavkaz, capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, have staged sporadic pickets to demand the closure of the Elektrotsink metallurgical plant, a major source of environmental pollution.

Until recently, both the republican and the federal authorities have ignored those demands and consistently downplayed the alleged threat posed to public health by mass-scale toxic emissions from the plant, which ecological activists say vastly exceed the permitted maximum.

Visiting the republic this week, however, federal envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Sergei Melikov announced that the authorities have reached agreement with Elektrotsink's owners, the Urals Mining-Metallurgical Group, on ending the production of zinc (of which Elektrotsink is reportedly the second-largest producer in the Russian Federation) this summer in light of the huge amount of toxic waste that has accumulated over the years. The production of sulfuric acid is to be totally modernized by the end of 2017.

That statement represents a clear volte face. Less than 18 months ago, Melikov claimed that regular monitoring of the levels of lead and zinc at schools and kindergartens in Vladikavkaz had failed to identify "any negative factors affecting [people's] health." He dismissed the ongoing protests calling for the closure of the plant as "a totally destructive policy."

Two possible factors may have influenced the federal authorities' belated decision to take action against Elektrotsink. The first is the changes in the North Ossetian leadership following the expiry last June of longtime republic head Taymuraz Mamsurov's second term in office. Mamsurov was on record as saying that it was more harmful to inhale the fumes from a barbecue than the toxic emissions from Elektrotsink.

Vyacheslav Bitarov, who served as prime minister under Mamsurov's successor, Tamerlan Aguzarov, and whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named acting republic head in late February following Aguzarov's untimely death, announced in late December that Aguzarov was insisting the plant be relocated beyond North Ossetia's borders. Experts calculated that doing so would take five years.


In early April, Bitarov again said he would raise with Elektrotsink's owners the possibility of relocating the plant, and also of it acquiring the necessary equipment to monitor constantly the level of toxic emissions.

It is conceivable that the Russian leadership recognized the potential benefits, in the run-up to the State Duma elections in September, of a concession to North Ossetia's electorate, especially one that would not entail spending from the federal budget. But there is also a second reason why Moscow should have decided to take a closer look at Elektrotsink's operations: Melikov disclosed that the taxes the plant paid did not find their way into the republic's budget. For that reason it will be required to pay at least 300 million rubles ($4.58 million) this year. (In 2014, the plant paid 142 million rubles into the municipal and republican budgets.)

At the same time, although Melikov did not say so outright, it seems unlikely that the federal authorities would back Bitarov's demand to relocate all Elektrotsink's operations outside North Ossetia. Melikov stressed the need to find a balance between two priorities: reducing the negative ecological impact of the plant's operations, while minimizing the number of staffers made redundant. He calculated that the termination of lead production would result in the loss of more than 200 jobs, of a total workforce of some 2,000. The most qualified personnel would be offered the chance of transferring to the Urals Mining-Metallurgical Group's main plant in the Urals, according to the enterprise's deputy general director, Yevgeny Bragin, but it is not clear how many would be prepared to relocate there.

Even the loss of 200 jobs from Elektrotsink would exacerbate North Ossetia's chronic unemployment problem. Of the republic's estimated total workforce of 340,000 people, 8.6 percent were unemployed as of July 2015. A further 300 people have already lost their jobs this year.

Tags:North Ossetia

Abkhaz Opposition Launches New Campaign To Unseat De Facto President

Calls for a referendum on holding an early presidential election in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia reflect growing disenchantment with the current incumbent Raul Khajimba (pictured). (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Representatives of several Abkhaz opposition parties on April 22 submitted to the breakaway republic's Central Election Commission 19,314 signatures in support of a proposed referendum on holding a preterm presidential election -- almost double the required minimum 10,000. 

That initiative reflects widespread disenchantment with incumbent Raul Khajimba, who was narrowly elected de facto president in August 2014, three months after engineering the ouster of Aleksandr Ankvab. 

The Abkhaz authorities have responded to the referendum initiative with a single-minded campaign to discredit and challenge its legality. They seek instead to convene on their own terms the dialogue with opposition political forces that the opposition has been demanding ever since Khajimba took office.The resulting talks on April 13 produced an acrimonious exchange that served only to exacerbate existing tensions.

Initially, the political force most critical of Khajimba was Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning), one of several groups uniting veterans of the 1992-1993 war that ended with the loss of Georgian control over the region. That criticism culminated in the demand, adopted at an Amtsakhara congress last October, for Khajimba's resignation. 

In July 2015, Amtsakhara aligned with three other groups in the so-called Bloc of Opposition Forces of Abkhazia that also included the APRA Fund for Socioeconomic and Political Research headed by Aslan Bzhania, who placed second to Khajimba in the August 2014 presidential ballot. 

Many of the criticisms leveled by the opposition against the current Abkhaz leadership are essentially the same as those directed at Ankvab by the Council of Opposition Forces established by Khajimba in the summer of 2013, and again in May 2014 and which were subsequently adduced as justifying his ouster.

They range from failure to promote democratization, rejection of dialogue with the opposition, and lack of opposition access to state media, to the absence of either a short- or medium-term strategy for attracting investment and kick-starting the republic's stagnating economy, which is heavily reliant on agriculture and tourism, and the squandering of financial aid from Russia, which accounts for the lion's share of the region's budget.

Polarized Society

In addition, both Amtsakhara and Bzhania personally have repeatedly reproached Khajimba for failing to deliver on his preelection promises, in particular those to reunite a polarized society and to amend the constitution to transfer some presidential powers to the parliament. 

Just days after Amtsakhara's October congress, Khajimba convened a meeting of representatives of various political parties and groups at which he rejected as "unfounded and unjust" Amtsakhara's demand he should step down, and declared his firm intention of remaining in office until his term ends in 2019. At the same time, he said that "we are not afraid of criticism, and we're ready to admit to [our] mistakes." He also reaffirmed his readiness to cooperate with "all social and political forces" and his commitment to promoting pluralism. 

Addressing that gathering, Khajimba suggested that the Public Chamber (which had sought in May 2014 to mediate between the Council of Opposition Forces and Ankvab) should serve as the medium for dialogue with his opponents. And in December, according to Bzhania, the Public Chamber did organize a meeting with himself and Amtsakhara Deputy Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia, but failed to invite Irina Agrba, head of the group Women in Politics which is likewise a member of the Bloc of Opposition Forces. 

Despite Khajimba's assurances that the opposition would have the opportunity to promulgate its views through the state media, Abkhaz state TV did not broadcast the addresses to that Public Chamber session of either Bzhania or Kvitsinia. Both APRA and Amtsakhara subsequently adduced the authorities' consistent side-lining of them as one of the reasons why they see no point in participating in a new Political Consultative Council that Khajimba set up in January with the stated intention of "heightening the effectiveness of cooperation between the organs of state power and political parties." 

Instead, at a meeting with youth representatives that the Bloc of Opposition Forces convened in early February, Bzhania floated the idea of a referendum of no confidence in Khajimba. 

'Constructive Dialogue'

Khajimba's initial reaction to that proposal was dismissive: Amtsakhara in early March quoted him as saying that "no referendums or other steps will change anything" he does.  At the same time, Khajimba reaffirmed yet again that "the doors are open" to any opposition representatives willing to engage in "constructive dialogue." 

Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) immediately dismissed the referendum initiative as unfounded, destructive and destabilizing, and enumerated various positive measures undertaken at Khajimba's behest, including judicial reform. 

Differences of agreement emerged later, however, within the Abkhaz leadership as to whether or not the referendum initiative is constitutional. The presidential press service described the initiative as "dubious" in that respect. Vice President Vitaly Gabnia, for his part, pointed out that the Republic of Abkhazia constitution makes provision for a preterm presidential ballot in only three cases -- if the incumbent dies, resigns, or is impeached -- but not on the basis of a referendum. 

Prosecutor-General Aleksei Lomia, however, has argued that the Initiative Group has the constitutional right to demand the holding of a referendum, provided its members act within the framework of the law. 

New Political Groupings

Meanwhile, the confrontation between the leadership and the Bloc of Opposition Forces has served as the catalyst for the emergence of new political groups and alignments. The new youth group Kyarazaa immediately came out in opposition to the current leadership, accusing it of violating the constitution and seizing power in 2014. Kyarazaa identifies as its primary objectives unifying society and strengthening law and order. 

Abkhazia is Our Home is described by its chairman, former Interior Minister Raul Lolua, as committed to strengthening statehood, improving socioeconomic conditions, and promoting civic unity. It is, in Lolua's words, independent, and neither pro-government nor pro-opposition.

The People's Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development, the founding congress of which took place in January, focuses primarily on economic production and supporting the emergence of a middle class. Its 65 founding members describe themselves as a "constructive opposition" that will not only criticize the current leadership but propose "alternatives paths of development." 

Arguably the most significant development, however, is the return to national politics after a five year hiatus of Sergei Shamba, who served for many years as de facto foreign minister before losing the 2011 presidential ballot to Ankvab.In late January, Shamba was elected chairman of the One Abkhazia party, which was established in 2004 to back the candidacy of then Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh in the presidential elections that fall. One Abkhazia then demonstratively pulled out of Khajimba's Coordinating Council, citing as its reason for doing so the fact that, with the exception of Khajimba's FNEA, all other Council members "may play only walk-on roles." 

One Abkhazia has since aligned with two other former Coordinating Council members, the People's Party of Abkhazia and the Economic Development Party of Abkhazia (PERA), and several other parties and groups in a new Council of National Unity of the Republic of Abkhazia (SNERA) intended, according to Shamba, to unite parties in the center of the political spectrum. He stressed that "we are not pro-government political forces, but not opposition either."

Also positioning itself in the role of a centrist party seeking to promote unity is A Just Abkhazia, which on April 15 invited all political forces to a meeting at which it proposed creating a coalition government. Shamba expressed qualified support for that proposal. 

PERA's founder and long-time chairman is wealthy businessman Beslan Butba, who resigned in March 2015 after serving for less than six months as prime minister under Khajimba, complaining that he had been consistently side-lined by the presidential administration. 

If the Initiative Group succeeds in forcing a referendum, and Abkhazia's electorate approves the idea of a preterm presidential ballot, both admittedly very large "ifs," the election could prove a fiercely fought three-way competition between Khajimba, Bzhania, and Shamba.


Georgia’s Hopes Of NATO Membership Recede

Georgian soldiers march at the military base of Vaziani outside Tbilisi during a farewell ceremony marking their departure to Afghanistan to take part in NATO's Resolute Support mission on March 24.

Liz Fuller

Any lingering hopes Georgia’s leaders may still have nurtured that the country would be formally offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at NATO’s Warsaw summit in July have been exposed as misplaced.

Addressing the Aspen Security Forum: Global In London on April 22, Douglas Lute, who is the U.S. ambassador to the alliance, said that in light of Russia’s perceived “internal weakness,” there is little “additional room” for the next few years, and possibly longer, for further NATO expansion. 

Lute explained that “I think Russia plays an important part in the strategic environment, and the strategic environment will put a brake on NATO expansion.”

“If you accept the premises that we’ve heard here [during the panel discussion] about Russia’s internal weakness, and perhaps steady decline and so forth, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize that decline. So in practical terms, I don’t think there is much additional room in the near term -- the next several years perhaps or even longer -- for additional NATO expansion,” he said.

Lute added that there is “no way” NATO’s 28 members will reach the necessary consensus “any time in the near future” on admitting Georgia or Ukraine. Just days earlier, in acknowledgement of what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg termed the need “to keep channels of communication open” despite “profound and persistent disagreements,” the NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels for the first time since before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014.

Lute’s statement implies that Georgia will remain for the foreseeable future in the ambiguous limbo with regard to NATO to which it was relegated in 2008.

True, at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April of that year, at which Albania and Croatia were formally invited to begin accession talks, the alliance declared that both Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” and that “MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership” once “questions still outstanding” are resolved.

But just a few months later, Georgia’s chances of accession were set back “years” according to U.S. expert Ronald Asmus, by the brief Russia-Georgia war.

At subsequent NATO summits, including that in Wales in 2014, the alliance has consistently reaffirmed its willingness in principle to admit Georgia. At the same time, it continues to stipulate that the next step toward doing so is a MAP comprising reforms and other criteria that any aspiring NATO member must meet to qualify. To date, neither Georgia or Ukraine has been formally offered such a MAP, whether because doing so would bring into clearer focus the time frame for admission, or because NATO’s existing members are divided over whether the military and strategic benefits of admitting them outweigh the damage to NATO-Russian relations that would inevitably result.

For Tbilisi, NATO’s continued reluctance to offer a formal MAP rankles, especially in light of what then-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania described two years ago as the country’s “great leap forward” in enhancing both its defense capability and its interoperability with NATO. Then-Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili argued in February 2014 that Georgia should be offered a MAP at the Wales NATO summit in acknowledgment of that progress.

Instead of a MAP, however, NATO offered a “Substantial NATO-Georgia Package” encompassing additional measures to enhance Georgia’s defense readiness, including joint exercises and a Joint Training and Evaluation Center inaugurated in August 2015. Moscow denounced that initiative as “provocative” and likely to impact negatively on regional security.

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili similarly told NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in May 2015 that Georgia is as ready to join the alliance as unnamed other prospective members were, and therefore NATO should either make a formal offer of a MAP at the 2016 Warsaw summit or state clearly that a MAP is no longer required as a precondition for NATO membership.

A statement adopted at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last December acknowledged that “Georgia’s relationship with the alliance contains all the practical tools to prepare for eventual membership,” but at the same time again designated MAP “an integral part” of that process. 

William Lahue, who heads the NATO Liaison Office in Georgia, was quoted as saying at a conference in Tbilisi last week that while a MAP is “a technical issue,” it has become “heavily politicized”

And in addition to the crucial precondition of a MAP, NATO is constrained, as Ambassador Lute admitted, by the need for consensus among its 28 members on the time frame for admitting new members. Some NATO member states, including Turkey, believe that technically Georgia could and should receive a formal invitation to join without first graduating from a MAP. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared as much in Strasbourg last week. France and Germany, by contrast, are believed to be unwaveringly opposed.

Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli admitted last week that while NATO membership remains the ultimate objective, she would consider the Warsaw NATO summit a success if it yielded unspecified “additional instruments” for improving Georgia’s defensive capabilities in the face of existing threats. A “detailed” plan listing such instruments was discussed during a NATO-Georgian ministerial meeting in February, she added.

Russian Civil-Aviation Authority Clips Kadyrov's Wings

The suspension of Grozny Avia's license for international flights fits neatly into a pattern of recent criticism of Ramzan Kadyrov's leadership style by Russian President Vladimir Putin, his erstwhile patron and protector, and the move to resubordinate Kadyrov's private army, estimated to number upward of 10,000 men, to the new National Guard.

Liz Fuller

In a further indication that the Kremlin is systematically curtailing the vast powers accumulated over the past decade by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, the Russian civil-aviation authority, Rosaviatsia, has suspended the right of Chechen carrier Grozny Avia to conduct international flights.

That decision, if not reversed, could spell financial ruin for the airline, which reportedly last turned a profit in 2010. It could also jeopardize Kadyrov's stated ambition of transforming Grozny's airport, which was designated an international one only after the lifting seven years ago of the permanent counterterror restrictions imposed during the 1999-2000 war, into a major transit hub for both north-south and east-west flights.

Grozny Avia was established in 2007, the year that Russian President Vladimir Putin first appointed Kadyrov Chechen leader, by the Regional Charitable Fund named after Kadyrov's late father, Akhmad-hadzhi Kadyrov -- the workings of which are shrouded in mystery.

The Chechen government currently owns a 99 percent stake in Grozny Avia.

Initially, Grozny Avia was the sole carrier operating flights between Grozny and Moscow, which were launched in June 2008. It gradually expanded its network to include other Russian cities (Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Rostov-on-Don) and also Kyiv, Astana, Almaty, Bishkek, and Baku, as well as destinations in Europe, Turkey, and the Near East. In August 2013, it launched a service between Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, and Moscow.

And following Russia's annexation of Crimea in early 2014, Grozny Avia acquired basing rights in Simferopol, from where it intended to fly to Yerevan. Those plans were apparently thwarted by the Armenian Directorate of Civil Aviation. The airline did, however, launch in the summer of 2014 a service between Simferopol and Istanbul.

Insofar as Grozny Avia had a coherent business plan, it appears to have been to charge the maximum price for tickets while investing the minimum in infrastructure. Plans to purchase eight Sukhoi Superjet-100 aircraft were announced in August 2013 but came to nothing: the company still operates only a fleet of eight Soviet-era YaK-42 aircraft.

Talks in April 2014, by which time Grozny Avia was reportedly in serious financial difficulties, on a possible merger with Turkey's Pegasus Air likewise went nowhere.

In October, Grozny Avia announced the temporary suspension of all services, after other Russian budget airlines such as Red Wings and YutAIR, using more modern aircraft and offering superior service, launched a price war on the Moscow-Grozny route, which reportedly accounted for 60 percent of Grozny Avia's business. More recently, however, Grozny Avia announced plans for flights to China, and between the Russian city of Bryansk and Yerevan, starting on May 1.

The suspension of Grozny Avia's license for international flights was reportedly made on the basis of a statement by the airline on April 14. But it fits neatly into a pattern of recent criticism of Kadyrov's leadership style by President Putin, his erstwhile patron and protector, and the move to resubordinate Kadyrov's private army, estimated by Russian oppositionist Ilya Yashin to number upward of 10,000 men to the new National Guard, which will answer directly to the federal Interior Ministry.

When Putin gave his tacit approval in late March for Kadyrov's reelection for a third term as republic head, he simultaneously warned that "as the future leader of the republic, you should do everything to ensure full compliance with Russian laws in all spheres of our life -- I want to stress this, in all spheres of our life."

Two weeks later, during his annual televised phone-in, Putin commented negatively on Kadyrov's recent verbal attacks on Russian opposition politicians, whom he collectively branded "enemies of the people." Putin admitted that he was remiss in not reining Kadyrov in earlier and warned federation subject heads not to undermine political stability.

Tags:Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya

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.