Monday, May 02, 2016

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

Georgian President, Prime Minister At Odds Over Election Campaign

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's initial pronouncement of the election date without apparently taking into account the legal implications and his subsequent attempts at rationalization threaten to encourage the perception of him as a stubborn, defiant, and dysfunctional dilettante.

Liz Fuller

With less than six months to go before parliamentary elections, a new dispute has surfaced within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition over the optimum length of the election campaign.

That dispute threatens to derail the efforts made over the past four months by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili to forge a harmonious working relationship with Georgia's president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, whose powers are largely ceremonial.

On April 14, Kvirikashvili told his cabinet he would not countersign an edict issued by Margvelashvili scheduling the vote for October 8 and the start of the election campaign for August 8. As the NGO Association of Young Jurists had already pointed out, the formal publication of the date of the election marks the start of the electoral campaign, so that Margvelashvili's assertion that his edict would take effect only on August 8 constituted a violation of the election law.

Noting that various political parties and NGOs had protested that a two-month election campaign is too short, Kvirikashvili asked the president to retract his edict and issue a new one in early July scheduling the ballot for October 8 following a three-month election campaign.

Margvelashvili, however, countered with the announcement that he will reissue the relevant edict in early May.

Margvelashvili explained the timing of his original edict in terms of the need to allow political parties to plan their election campaign. That statement is disingenuous, however, insofar as the Georgian Constitution specifies that parliamentary elections take place in October of the year in which the parliament's four-year term expires.

That means that the approximate time frame for electioneering can easily be calculated well in advance and adjusted once the precise date of the ballot is made known. Article 50.2 of the constitution also stipulates that the president must announce the election date no later than two months in advance.

Margvelashvili told journalists on April 14 that the wording of his edict had been coordinated with the government and was based on ministers' warnings that an election campaign of longer than two months would prove financially ruinous. He added that Kvirikashvili's statement that the election campaign should last three months shows that argument was spurious.

Margvelashvili also hinted that if necessary, he could cover part of the cost of the ballot from the presidential reserve fund.

Whether he is in fact empowered to do so is questionable, however: Georgian Dream parliament deputy Irakli Sesiashvili made the point that the reserve fund is intended to be drawn on only in exceptional circumstances, such as in the event of a natural catastrophe.

In short, Margvelashvili's initial pronouncement of the election date without apparently taking into account the legal implications and his subsequent attempts at rationalization threaten to encourage the perception of him as a stubborn, defiant, and dysfunctional dilettante.

Moreover, if he does indeed call Kvirikashvili's bluff by issuing in early May an analogous edict effectively announcing the start of a five-month election campaign, the prime minister will be under pressure to sign it against his better judgment, given that if he refuses to do so, Margvelashvili does not have the legal right to issue a third such edict for another six months, by which time the parliament's four-year term would be at an end.

At a meeting with journalists on April 15, Kvirikashvili said the election date will not be changed. At the same time, he sought to downplay the contretemps over the duration of the election campaign, stressing that relations between the government and the presidential office were "absolutely normal, [and] correspond to the principles of a democratic state."

Buynaksk Election Struggle Epitomizes Disregard For Legal Procedure In Daghestan

Guseyn Gamzatov's fears for his political future proved justified.

Liz Fuller

One of former Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov's stated priorities following his appointment in January 2013 as acting president of the Republic of Daghestan was winning back the trust of a population alienated by cronyism, endemic corruption, and blatant violations of the law on the part of government officials. But many of his actions since then appear to have compounded the frustration and alienation of the republic's 2.9 million people.

In late 2014, for example, representatives of the opposition A Just Russia party, backed by local NGOs, launched a hunger strike to demand Abdulatipov's resignation. They argued that the Daghestani public has been stripped of its constitutional and civil rights and been reduced to "a gray mass of slaves" who risk losing their identity if Abdulatipov remains in his post much longer. They further warned that "the authoritarian regime established in Daghestan is being smoothly transformed into a dictatorship, and this could lead to fascism."

The perceived erosion of civic and constitutional rights that A Just Russia deplored was twofold. In May 2013, Daghestan's parliament voted against holding direct elections for the post of republic head.

Then the following year it enacted a new law abolishing direct elections for the heads of municipalities, who instead are now elected from a short list of several candidates by the municipal council.

That law has been central to a six-month standoff between the republican leadership and the population of the mountain town of Buynaksk, southwest of Makhachkala, a standoff that was finally resolved on April 4 with the installation as mayor of Abdulatipov's hand-picked candidate in disregard of the seemingly legitimate claims to the post of two other claimants. One of those two, former Mayor Guseyn Gamzatov, has declared his intention of challenging the election in court. At least seven (some reports say nine) of the 21 members of the municipal council have reportedly resigned their mandates, protesting that the vote was illegal.

Gamzatov was first elected Buynaksk mayor in 2007; his second term in office was due to expire in late September 2015. Fearing he might not be confirmed for a further term by the new municipal council to be elected earlier that month, he engineered his reelection for a further term by outgoing council members loyal to him just days before the September 13 municipal elections.

Abdulatipov reportedly gave his approval for Gamzatov's reelection, despite Gamzatov's failure over the previous two years to turn around the town's stagnating economy or improve local infrastructure. Buynaksk residents subsequently told journalists that during his tenure as mayor, Gamzatov focused primarily on dubious business deals and "did nothing for the town."

Gamzatov's fears for his political future proved justified. In the early summer, Buynaksk residents had approached Osman Osmanov, a native of Buynaksk who had served as town mayor from 1997-2001, and urged him to participate in the municipal council elections with the aim of succeeding Gamzatov as mayor. Osmanov finally agreed to that proposal, even though he was in ill favor with Abdulatipov because of his earlier friendship and cordial working relationship with now-disgraced former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov. Amirov was removed just months after Abdulatipov's appointment as republic head in early 2013 and was sentenced last year to life imprisonment for his imputed role in two political contract killings.

Osmanov ran in the September municipal election on the ticket of the Party of Veterans of Russia (PVR), which garnered an unprecedented 68.8 percent of the vote, or 17 of the 21 municipal council seats. The remaining four mandates went to Russia's ruling Unified Russia party, which placed second with 18.6 percent of the vote.

Osmanov's supporters, understandably, demanded that Gamzatov resign so the new Party of Veterans-dominated council could elect Osmanov in his place.

Gamzatov, however, refused to step down, and the outgoing council members refused to vacate their offices to allow the newly elected officials to set about discharging their duties. When the Party of Veterans council members tried in mid-October to convene a public meeting with residents on the town square, they were forcibly dispersed by the police.

The Party of Veterans council members then sought a meeting with Abdulatipov, who had reportedly taken Unified Russia's resounding defeat in the Buynaksk ballot as a personal insult. Abdulatipov reportedly assured the Party of Veterans faction that Gamzatov would be removed, but he refused point-blank to condone Osmanov's election as mayor, proposing instead a choice of four candidates, including Zakarya Amirov (no relation to Said), a former senior Customs Service official who had once served as Buynaksk prosecutor. All four were Avars, as are Gamzatov, Osmanov, and Abdulatipov. This was not a dispute among the republic's 14 titular ethnic groups, but between rival Avar "clans" or interest groups.

Addressing Daghestan's National Assembly in early November, Abdulatipov reportedly described Osmanov's election campaign as "a bid by bandits to return to power."

Gamzatov was finally pressured into taking extended sick leave, and former Health Minister Ilyas Mamayev was swiftly named first deputy mayor and then acting mayor without the participation of the Party of Veterans council members, in violation of council statutes.

Magomed Magomedov, a commentator for the independent weekly Chernovik, predicted that Mamayev was intended simply as an interim figure, which indeed proved to be the case. On December 30, members of Abdulatipov's administration, reportedly including first deputy administration head Aleksei Gasanov, traveled to Buynaksk, and at the third attempt succeeded in convening a session of the municipal council attended by 12 Party of Veterans representatives who had withdrawn their support for Osmanov.

Those 12 deputies elected Zakarya Amirov as first deputy mayor, in violation of the council statues: only Gamzatov as mayor was empowered to nominate his first deputy. Mamayev then submitted his resignation and proposed Amirov as acting mayor.

The Party of Veterans councilors who backed Amirov subsequently convened a press conference in Makhachkala at which they characterized him as "intelligent, savvy, courageous.... He's not afraid and he's nobody's stooge."

Two Party of Veterans council members who refused to vote for Amirov subsequently said they were stripped of their mandates a few days later.

In mid-January, it was announced that Gamzatov had finally submitted his resignation and proposed Amirov as acting mayor.

The following day, however, first municipal council member Zairbek Valiyev and then Gamzatov himself both claimed that Gamzatov's purported letter of resignation and the signature appended to it were forged, and that Gamzatov had signed a different document announcing his resumption of his official duties. Daghestani media have published what appear to be scanned copies of those documents.

Valiyev asked Daghestan's prosecutor-general and the Daghestan Directorate of the Federal Investigative Committee to investigate the alleged forgery. Gamzatov, for his part, explicitly requested that the evaluation of the forged document with his apparent signature be entrusted to experts located outside Daghestan. A Stavropol-based specialist subsequently confirmed in late March that both the resignation letter and Gamzatov's signature on it were counterfeit.

Gamzatov also filed an appeal with the Buynaksk municipal court to designate invalid the decision by the municipal council to launch the procedure for formally electing Amirov mayor, to which the court acceded on February 18 pending a ruling on whether or not Gamzatov's letter of resignation was genuine.

Meanwhile, some 1,500 Osmanov supporters gathered in early February to call for Amirov's resignation and demand that those Party of Veterans council members who had switched their support from Osmanov to Amirov be stripped of their mandates.

They also adopted a one-line message to Republic head Abdulatipov: "Ramazan, you're in the wrong!"

One of the participants was quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot as saying, "We want to defend the rule of law and democracy that we've lost. They say we have democracy here, but we can't see it. If it does exist, then it's the people who should exercise power, and not selected representatives of the [republic's] leadership."

On March 31, Daghestan's Supreme Court overruled the Buynaksk court decision to suspend the preparations for formally electing Amirov mayor, which the municipal council duly did four days later behind closed doors, from a short list of three candidates. That fait accompli leaves Gamzatov with no option but to contest the legality of Amirov's election in court. He claims municipal council members were pressured and blackmailed into voting for Amirov.

Commenting on the denouement, Chernovik opined that the protracted maneuvering to install Amirov as mayor does not reflect well on Abdulatipov, who some observers believe has already forfeited Russian President Vladimir Putin's trust.

It also leaves unanswered questions about the role played by parliament speaker Khizri Shikhsaidov, whom former Daghestan Nationalities Minister Eduard Urazayev identified as one of just a handful of associates capable of influencing Abdulatipov's decisions. Shikhsaidov is said to have considerable financial interests in Buynaksk. His son Daniyal served as district head there until his dismissal last August on suspicion of large-scale embezzlement.

Urazayev in late February quoted unnamed bloggers and journalists as suspecting Shikhsaidov of having schemed to have elected as Buynaksk mayor a candidate who would do his bidding.

Shikhsaidov's office issued a statement denying he had played any role in the mayoral election.

De Facto South Ossetian President Proposes New Model For 'Union' With Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks during a meeting with Leonid Tibilov, the de facto leader of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia in Moscow late last month.

Liz Fuller

Leonid Tibilov, the leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, has backtracked on his proposal last fall to hold a referendum on the region's incorporation into the Russian Federation. 

Instead, Tibilov told journalists on April 4 that he reached agreement during talks last week in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the creation of "a single union organ" with Russia, to which South Ossetia would delegate its prerogatives. That approach, Tibilov explained, would avoid creating "political risks for our strategic partner," by which he presumably meant the widespread international condemnation and sanctions that followed Russia's unrecognized annexation of Crimea two years ago.

Tibilov said that it will be necessary to conduct a referendum on amending Article 10 of South Ossetia's de facto constitution to empower the president of the separatist entity to initiate the creation of a "single union organ." At present, Article 10 of the constitution specifies only that "the Republic of South Ossetia has the right to enter a union with other states and to delegate to the union organs the exercise of part of its prerogatives." 

He said the referendum will take place "not in one year or two, not even in half a year, but sooner."

Tibilov did not specify what he envisaged by a "union state" or what powers South Ossetia might cede to it. Neither did he explain how the creation of such a union state dovetails with the provisions of the bilateral Treaty on Union Relations and Integration signed in March 2015, Article 1 of which obliges Russia to do all in its power to expand the number of states that formally recognize South Ossetia as an independent polity.

It is worth noting, however, that at the same April 4 press conference Tibilov stressed that South Ossetia will retain its own armed forces, given that the provision of the bilateral treaty that envisaged subsuming some South Ossetian military units into the Russian Army violates Russian law. 

'Union State'

Lack of clarity concerning that anticipated downsizing or even abolition of the region's independent military capacity had given rise to an acrimonious dispute earlier this year between the de facto defense ministry and parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov.

Commentator Yury Vazagov was quoted by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus as suggesting that what Tibilov has in mind is something comparable to the Union State of Russia and Belarus that has existed for the past 20 years. 

At the same time, Vazagov noted that it is not clear how the referendum question will be phrased, meaning whether voters will be asked to approve or reject the creation of a "Union State" or South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation.

Tibilov did not say how soon after the planned referendum on amending the constitution he would formally raise with the Russian leadership the question of creating the "union state." But it is logical to assume that he hopes to do so before the end of this year. His term in office expires in April 2017, and assuming he seeks reelection, his main challenger will be Bibilov, who launched a campaign two years ago for a referendum on South Ossetia's incorporation into the Russian Federation. 

A second pundit, Roland Kelekhsayev, suggested to Echo of the Caucasus that Tibilov's "union state" initiative is intended both to "wrest the initiative" from Bibilov and "cut the ground from under his feet," and to demonstrate Tibilov's loyalty to Russia.

Moreover, in light of the international community's condemnation of Russia's seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin is more likely to look favorably on the author of an initiative that enables it to strengthen its influence over South Ossetia without laying it open to charges of illegally incorporating the territory of another state than on Bibilov's proposal that South Ossetia effectively provide Russia with a legal fig leaf for designating the territory as a Russian Federation subject.

That in turn raises the question: Given that as recently as late February Tibilov defended the idea of a referendum on South Ossetia becoming part of Russia and downplayed the possible negative repercussions for Russia's relations with the international community, might the "Union State" proposal not be his brainchild at all, but have originated with the Russian presidential administration, which duly instructed him to go public with it?

No End In Sight To Standoff Between Ingushetia's Republic Head, Mufti

Ingushetian leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (left) walks with the republic’s mufti, Issa-hadzhi Khamkhoyev, at the memorial to the 1944 deportation victims in Nazran in February 2015.

Liz Fuller

The tensions between Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the republic's mufti, Issa-hadzhi Khamkhoyev, have worsened over the past two months. Khamkhoyev has managed to thwart Yevkurov's plans to convene a congress of the Council of Alims (Muslim scholars) that would have removed Khamkhoyev from his post. Yevkurov countered by announcing that the muftiate will be dissolved and its duties transferred temporarily to the Council of Alims.

The antagonism between the two men has its roots in the uneasy coexistence in Ingushetia between various Sufi "tariqahs" (brotherhoods) and adherents of the more puritanical Salafism. Khamkhoyev, together with other members of the official clergy, belongs to the Qadiriya Sufi tariqah, which is at odds with both the Salafi community and the rival Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood, which does not recognize the authority of the Spiritual Center of Muslims (DTsM) that Khamkhoyev heads.

Khamkhoyev has accused the Salafis of seeking to split Ingushetia's Muslim community by encouraging believers to reject the authority of the DTsM. He also claims they consider it permissible to kill those who do not share their views.

Yevkurov, by contrast, seeks to downplay the differences between the Sufi and Salafi congregations and to promote dialogue between them. His rationale is presumably less theological than secular and pragmatic, dictated by the need to avoid antagonizing and alienating young Salafis to the point that they head for Syria to join the ranks of the militant group Islamic State (IS).

The mutual distrust between the official Muslim clergy headed by Khamkhoyev and the Salafi minority, in particular the hugely popular preacher Khamzat Chumakov and his followers, escalated last summer into a confrontation that nearly turned violent.

In late December, Yevkurov declared publicly that Khamkhoyev's behavior on that occasion "undermined the authority" of the official clergy, and he called on him to resign.

Khamkhoyev refused point-blank, arguing that only his fellow clerics are empowered to remove him from his post, to which he was reelected in 2014 for a third term. He then traveled to Grozny, where he secured the backing of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov is seemingly unwilling or unable to differentiate between peaceful, law-abiding adherents of Salafism and the Salafi militants who in recent years have joined the ranks of the North Caucasus insurgency or IS; he has branded them all as "terrorists."

Addressing a gathering of Sufis in Grozny in early February that Khamkhoyev attended, Kadyrov warned that "heads will roll" if Chumakov ever seeks to preach on Chechen territory.

That threat, and Khamkhoyev's overt alignment with the Chechen clergy and leadership, were widely condemned in Ingushetia. Whether spontaneously or at Yevkurov's prompting, the secular Council of Teyps (Clans) immediately issued its own demand for Khamkhoyev's resignation.

Insofar as religious bodies are not subordinate to the republican authorities, Yevkurov is not empowered personally to remove Khamkhoyev from his post. Therefore, in early March, Yevkurov convened a meeting of clerics from the various different Sufi brotherhoods. Participants reportedly condemned Khamkhoyev's refusal to resign as mufti and scheduled for March 29 a congress of alims that was to elect his successor.

Khamkhoyev, however, set out to subvert the Council of Alims, reportedly dismissing those of its 15 members who would have voted for his removal and replacing them with staunch loyalists, a move that Nationalities Minister Ulan Yevloyev claimed violated the statutes of the Council of Alims.

Khamkhoyev also convened a joint meeting on March 21 of DTsM personnel and most of the 70-odd village imams who support him. Participants voted overwhelmingly (63 against, one in favor, and one abstention) against holding the congress of alims on the grounds that it would only exacerbate the situation. They then adopted a statement, posted online the following day, containing derogatory remarks about the Ingushetian leadership and affirming that the congress of alims planned for March 29 was illegitimate and would not take place.

Nationalities Minister Yevloyev immediately dismissed that statement as untrue and affirmed that the planned congress would take place as planned.

Less than 24 hours later, however, Yevkurov released a statement saying that in response to requests from the Councils of Alims, of Clans, and of Elders, the planned congress of alims had been postponed, rather than risk "splitting society into two warring groups," meaning supporters of Khamkhoyev and of whomever the congress elected to succeed him.

Having failed in his bid to co-opt the Council of Alims to remove Khamkhoyev from office, Yevkurov went on to announce that the entire muftiate will be dissolved and its responsibilities transferred to the Council of Alims pending the election, for which no time frame was mentioned, of a new mufti. Khamkhoyev dismissed that proposed course of action as illegal, unworkable, and "a farce."

Meanwhile, Khamkhoyev and his subordinates have apparently come under increasing scrutiny from the secular authorities in what may prove to be a parallel attempt to incriminate them. The website MagasLife posted on March 23 and then took down within hours a report quoting an unnamed official close to the presidential administration as saying a criminal case had been opened against Khamkhoyev and one of his subordinates in connection to suspected smuggling of foreign currency. Two days later, the same website reported that the home of deputy mufti Adsalam Dolgiyev had been searched.

At the same time, Yevloyev alleged that Khamkhoyev is receiving massive funding from unknown sources to continue his "destructive activities on the territory of Ingushetia."

Russia's most senior Muslim cleric, chief mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, has spoken out in Khamkhoyev's support, saying that the secular authorities do not have the right to interfere in religious affairs.

But the Kremlin seems to be siding with Yevkurov against Khamkhoyev, who was reportedly not invited to a meeting in early March of North Caucasus muftis organized by the Russian presidential administration.

Instead, Ingushetia was represented at that gathering by Yakhya Khadziyev, who heads the Board for Religious Affairs that advises Yevkurov.


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.