Sunday, August 28, 2016

Is Kabardino-Balkaria The Caucasus Emirate’s Last Bastion?

Caucasus Emirate militant Zalim Shebzukhov was killed in a security services raid in St. Petersburg last week.

Liz Fuller

Over the past two years, the Caucasus Emirate (IK) proclaimed in late 2007 by then Chechen insurgency commander Doku Umarov has lost much of its manpower. In addition to the 410 militants reported killed in 2014-15, many sector commanders and rank-and-file fighters alike are said to have pledged loyalty to the rival extremist group Islamic State (IS), and hundreds of them have left Russia for Syria.

A video clip uploaded in June 2015 claimed that all IK fighters in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria had pledged allegiance to IS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But at least in the case of Kabardino-Balkaria, that proved not to be the case. In that republic, Zalim Shebzukhov, who had apparently succeeded Astemir Berkhamov as commander of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai IK wing in 2014 and was formally identified as such in a video clip early in 2015, remained loyal to the IK cause, while Robert Zankishiyev, the leader of a rival group of fighters, formally pledged allegiance to IS in a video clip uploaded in August 2015. Zankishiyev was killed in a shoot-out in Nalchik in November.

In a video clip uploaded in late December, Shebzukhov deplored the split in the insurgency ranks and appealed to those fighters who had aligned with IS to rejoin IK. Kabardino-Balkaria Republic head Yury Kokov, himself a former head of the federal Interior Ministry’s Main Administration for Countering Extremism, said last month that 125-150 militants from Kabardino-Balkaria are currently fighting in Syria. (The republic’s total population is approximately 857,000.)

Shebzukhov, 30, was one of four fighters from Kabardino-Balkaria killed last week when security personnel stormed an apartment in a high-rise block in St. Petersburg. Several analysts raised the question whether his presence so far from the North Caucasus indicated plans for a new series of terrorist attacks. Under Umarov’s leadership, the IK perpetrated suicide attacks in the Moscow subway in March 2010 and Domodedovo airport in January 2011, and also claimed responsibility for a blast that inflicted serious damage on the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station in Siberia seven years ago.

Republic head Kokov said on August 24 that “an entire arsenal” was found at the St. Petersburg apartment where the four men were killed. He said they had planned to stage terrorist attacks in Russia and then flee the country.

It is not clear who is best placed to succeed Shebzukhov as leader of the IK’s Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing. As of August 2015, there were still three fighters on the federal wanted list whose military careers date back as far as the October 2005 multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, in which 140 people died, including 35 security officers and more than 90 mostly inexperienced militants. A handful of other veteran fighters in their late 30s were reportedly in Syria.

The insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria lost 45 men in 2015, of whom eight were identified as sector commanders. How many were loyal to the IK and IS respectively is difficult to say: An IK website rejected as untrue the National Antiterrorism Committee’s assertion that 11 men killed in counterterror operations in Nalchik in late November were adherents of IS.

Similarly unclear is whether there was any direct connection between Shebzukhov and other fighters still loyal to the IK, and a group of nine men about to go on trial at the North Caucasus Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don on charges of planning to attack and seize a government building and then proclaim an Islamic caliphate. That case dates back to 2013, before the exodus of North Caucasus fighters to Syria got under way.

Ruslan Miskhozhev is said to have recruited eight other men, all residents of Nalchik identified only by their surnames and all allegedly IK adherents, at the behest of a 10th man, Zalimkhan Tkhamokov, who died during the pretrial investigation. All nine reportedly pled not guilty at a preliminary hearing to the charges against them of plotting to seize power, membership of an illegal armed group, and illegal possession of arms. They have also reportedly retracted their initial testimony.

Azerbaijan's Central Bank Downplays Rumors Of Fresh Devaluation Of Manat

With the manat seemingly in free fall, Azerbaijan has experienced a surge in demand for foreign currency. (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Just five weeks after Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev established a Financial Stability Council, the country's banks are experiencing an unprecedented demand for foreign currency. Yet even though Azerbaijan's currency, the manat, has lost 9 percent in value since late May, the Central Bank insisted on August 22 that a further devaluation -- which would be the third since February 2015 -- is not in the cards.

The news portal Caucasus Knot quoted the Central Bank as saying the State Oil Fund (SOCAR) is currently selling $50 million per day to local banks, while demand is 12 times as high at $600 million. Consequently, some banks have suspended sales of foreign currency, while others have imposed limits ranging from $100 to $500 per customer.

The Central Bank devalued the manat in mid-February 2015 by 33.5 percent vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar. The manat lost a further 47 percent in value in December 2015. As of that month, the exchange rate was 1.56 manats to the dollar, compared to 0.78 manats to the dollar 10 months earlier.

Bloomberg reported in mid-March, quoting RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, that the manat could lose a further 10 percent in value. A new slide in value got under way in June, and the exchange rate had reached nearly 1.64 manats to the dollar by closing on August 24, from 1.48 in late May.

The pressure on Azerbaijan's economy comes largely from the steep fall in oil prices over the past two years, given that oil sales account for the lion's share of the country's revenues. In February, the Azerbaijani parliament was constrained to revise the planned budget for 2016, which was originally predicated on oil prices of $50 per barrel of Azeri Light, because the oil price had plummeted to $25 per barrel.

In a bid to minimize the impact on the economy of the decline in oil revenues, Aliyev set up the Financial Stability Council, which is chaired by longtime Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, and tasked it with drafting within one month proposals to underpin macroeconomic stability and "avert any further negative developments in the financial sphere." But analysts questioned whether and how a body that essentially duplicates the cabinet will be able to provide a plan that will balance the diverging priorities of the Finance Ministry, the Economy Ministry, and the Central Bank.

Last year's double devaluation has already taken its toll on the country's banks. The government was constrained to bail out the International Bank of Azerbaijan, the country's largest, while six smaller banks were forced to close, according to

‘New Wave of Reprisals’ Against Azerbaijani Opposition Party 

Ali Kerimli, the head of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, has been under pressure from the authorities.

Liz Fuller

Having failed to persuade key defendants in the so-called “Nardaran trial” to implicate Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) Chairman Ali Kerimli in an alleged plot by Islamic extremists to incite mass disturbances with a view to seizing power, the Azerbaijani authorities have now changed tack. Over the past several days, four AHCP activists have been apprehended on a variety of charges; one of them is accused of being a follower of exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims was behind the botched coup attempt last month. 

According to Azerbaijani presidential administration deputy head Novruz Mamedov, several Azerbaijani opposition parties have links to Gulen’s Hizmet movement. He warned that all its supporters in Azerbaijan will be identified. 

The AHCP, together with the Musavat Party, is one of Azerbaijan’s longest-established opposition parties -- it is the successor organization of the Azerbaijani Popular Front established in 1989 -- and one of very few ever to have won parliamentary representation. Kerimli, 50, who has served as party chairman since 2000, was elected to parliament in 1995 and 2000.

Kerimli has for years been denied a passport for travel abroad, and the Justice Ministry declined late last year to recognize as legal his reelection as AHCP chairman. 

Of the four AHCP activists detained, Qadim Bekirov was arrested on August 18 and remanded for 25 days for resisting police. Vasif Niftiyev, detained the following day, has not yet been formally charged. Neither has Faiq Amirov, Kerimli’s aide and financial director of the AHCP newspaper Azadlyq, which is struggling to pay its outstanding debts to the state printing house. (UPDATE: A court in Baku ruled on August 22 to place Amirov under arrest for three months on charges of inciting religious hatred.)

The fourth is Fuad Ahmedli, head of the AHCP’s youth organization in Baku’s Khatay district. He had previously been detained in May and December 2015, reportedly for as retribution for criticizing the Azerbaijani authorities.

Police claim that during a search of Ahmedli’s home on August 18, they confiscated banned religious literature and CDs, copies of Gulen’s sermons, and documents originating with his Hizmet movement.Ahmedli’s father denies this, however: he is quoted by the news site Caucasus Knot as saying that the police took only works of literature and some leaflets published in the late 1980s by the emerging nationalist-democratic movement. Asked why they were confiscating those writings, an officer reportedly replied “We’ve got to take something.”

Kerimli denied any connection between the AHCP and Gulen, noting that when the July 15 coup took placed he immediately affirmed his full support for the Turkish leadership. He branded the detentions of the four AHCP supporters politically motivated.

Ahmedli, who worked for the mobile phone company Azerfon, has been charged with illegally circulating personnel data of mobile phone subscribers.On August 19, the State Security Service and the Prosecutor-General’s Office released a statement accusing Ahmedli, together with Shahin Israilov of Bakcell Ltd and Etibar Musayev of Azercell Telecom, of supplying a fourth man, identified as Vuqar Qasymov, with details of the mobile phone accounts of “numerous” subscribers. Israilov, Musayev, and Qasymov have also been arrested. 

The AHCP has released a statement branding the arrest of Ahmedli the start of “a new wave of reprisals” in retaliation for the party’s uncompromising criticism of the planned referendum on constitutional amendments intended, in the view of many opposition activists, to ensure the rule in perpetuum of the family of President Ilham Aliyev.

Kerimli formally asked to be allowed to attend the session at which Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court was to rule on whether the proposals to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, abolish the minimum age limit of 35 for presidential candidates, and introduce the posts of first vice president and vice president, both to be appointed by the incumbent, are constitutional, but was refused. He subsequently denounced that refusal as evidence that “the country’s entire judicial system, including the Constitutional Court, is controlled by one person -- Ilham Aliyev.” 

Kerimli has condemned the planned amendments as destroying the principle of the division of powers, and suggested that Aliyev’s motive for proposing them was mistrust of unnamed “oligarchs” among his immediate entourage and within parliament.

The AHCP is not the only political force to be targeted for its negative stance with regard to the referendum, which is scheduled for September 26. Three members of the civic movement Republican Alternative -- Elshan Gasymov, Togrul Ismail, and ReAl executive secretary Natiq Cafarli -- have likewise been apprehended. Gasymov and Ismail were charged with resisting the police, while Cafarli has been charged with obtaining grants illegally and remanded in custody for four months. 

ReAlis trying to collect the requisite 45,000 signatures to register a group that will formally campaign against the proposed constitutional amendments, which it described in a statement as “intended to preserve the existing authoritarian system” and contrary to “the traditions of democratic statehood.”  

Will Daghestan's 'Watergate' Affect Parliamentary Election Outcome?

Daghestan leader Ramazan Abdulatipov said candidates should refrain from trying to reap political dividends by leveling unfounded accusations at the authorities, and he made clear his disapproval of those political forces that, even though they purportedly lack popular support, seek "to undermine the legitimacy of the election campaign by criticizing the authorities' undemocratic approach."

Liz Fuller

On August 17, 10 of the 11 political parties registered to participate in the September 18 elections for a new Daghestani parliament signed a formal pledge to ensure an honest vote.

Whether that commitment is more than a pure formality is questionable, however, in light of an audio file recently uploaded to the Internet in which speakers tentatively identified as senior Daghestani officials instruct local mayors to bar opposition parties, including Motherland (Rodina), from the ballot in order to guarantee a resounding victory for the ruling United Russia party.

Rodina announced on August 3 the withdrawal of its prospective Daghestani candidates for both the Daghestani parliamentary ballot and the nationwide elections to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, citing alleged pressure, threats, and blackmail by the authorities. A second opposition party, People against Corruption (NPK), had pulled out two weeks earlier citing similar pressure.

The memorandum on abjuring so-called "black PR" and illegal manipulation of the vote was the initiative of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. It was under discussion even before the clandestine audio file surfaced and was thus not an exercise in damage containment in response to that leak.

On the surface, the signing of the memorandum conforms to Russian President Vladimir Putin's injunction that the State Duma elections should be free and fair, in accordance with the law. But according to Gadzhimurad Sagitov, chief editor of the independent Russian-language weekly Novoye Delo, whereas the federal authorities genuinely want the elections to be fair, the republican leadership in its efforts to sideline the opposition has already crossed the boundaries of what is permitted.

In his opening comments to the various party representatives who subsequently signed the memorandum, Abdulatipov said candidates should refrain from trying to reap political dividends by leveling unfounded accusations at the authorities, and he made clear his disapproval of those political forces that, even though they purportedly lack popular support, seek "to undermine the legitimacy of the election campaign by criticizing the authorities' undemocratic approach." He argued that for all those who truly care about their country, "the interests of the motherland should take precedence over narrow party interests."

The speakers in the audio clip, who commentators believe include parliament speaker Khizri Shikhsaidov and former Makhachkala Mayor Magomed Suleymanov, are more explicit, while showing a total disregard for legal procedure. The official chairing the meeting, who has been tentatively identified as first deputy presidential administration head Aleksei Gasanov (others present address him as "Aleksei Petrovich"), impresses on local mayors the need to do everything in their power to ensure that Rodina's candidates withdraw by August 2 but to do so in such a way that they do not lodge a formal complaint about official pressure. At the same time, "Aleksei Petrovich" evinces a total disregard for the consequences of such actions. ("Let the papers write whatever they like....")

That audio file was discussed in detail at a roundtable in Makhachkala on August 18 attended by journalists and representatives of opposition parties and NGOs. Participants subsequently addressed an appeal to top Russian officials, including President Putin and Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova, to take action to rectify the illegal actions of Daghestani leaders, specifically the refusal to register Rodina and the NPK to participate in the parliamentary elections, and journalist and human rights campaigner Maksim Shevchenko as an independent candidate for the Russian State Duma elections.

Commentator Rasul Kadiyev has observed that in Russian politics, as in Russian sport, you only get punished for cheating if you're found out. He predicts that Gasanov will be made a scapegoat for the leaked audio file, which is not entirely fair given that Deputy Prime Minister Rayudin Yusufov has been quoted as making very similar remarks ("Don't worry about the law, just do what I tell you.") when addressing local officials in the town of Dagestanskiye Ogni late last month.

On the other hand, if the Daghestani authorities' machinations result in the desired handsome majority for United Russia, the Kremlin may turn a blind eye to how those results were achieved.

Insofar as the scandalous audio file only serves to corroborate malpractice that many voters have long taken for granted, it is difficult to predict how it will impact on voter behavior, except perhaps by reinforcing the perception that there is no point in casting a ballot if all the parties/candidates you might have voted for have been excluded, which would result in a very low turnout. Whether popular anger and frustration will translate into mass protests, as commentator Suleyman Uladiyev has predicted, is questionable, however.


Three Independent North Caucasus Candidates Barred From Duma Elections

Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights and editor in chief of the website, sought to register as a candidate in Daghestan.

Liz Fuller

Three prominent political figures from diverging backgrounds who hoped to run as independent candidates from North Caucasus constituencies have been refused registration to participate in the September 18 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament.

They are Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights and editor in chief of the website, who sought to register as a candidate in Daghestan's Southern Electoral District; Aly Totorkulov, a Karachai businessman who heads the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus and who applied to register in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic's sole electoral district; and Murat Aguzarov, a lawyer and former Republic of North Ossetia parliament deputy whose twin brother, Tamerlan, served briefly as Republic of North Ossetia head until his sudden death earlier this year.

In all three cases, the reason cited for denying registration was the purported invalidity of signatures the prospective candidates had submitted in their support. In fact, however, they appear to have incurred the displeasure of senior republican officials who intervened to prevent their participation in the ballot for fear that due to widespread popular dissatisfaction they would garner far more votes than the candidate representing the ruling United Russia party.

All three men intend to appeal to Russia's Central Election Commission the rulings by its republic-level counterparts.

No Friend Of Police

Shevchenko announced his intention of running for the Duma just one month ago, declaring that social degradation in the North Caucasus in general and Daghestan in particular had reached rock-bottom, and "things can't go on like this." The only way to restore violated civic rights, he said, was through political engagement.

Shevchenko has written extensively on human rights violations in Daghestan, in particular the seemingly arbitrary and at times brutal harassment -- allegedly by the republican Interior Ministry -- of individuals suspected of adhering to the Salafi strain of Islam, rather than the "official" Sunni Islam represented by the Shafii legal school, and which is heavily influenced by the local form of Sufism. Specifically, he has criticized the inclusion of peaceful and law-abiding citizens in the "prophylactic register" of suspected Salafi sympathizers created in 2010 on the basis of an edict, which has never been made public, by Daghestani Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov.

Daghestan's Salafi community is estimated at 40,000-50,000. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov says there are 9,000 names on the prophylactic register, while Magomedov says there are 16,000.

Shevchenko wrote on August 11 to Russian Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova asking her to monitor the signature-verification procedure in light of the Daghestani Interior Ministry's negative perception of him. The ministry responded with a statement defending its targeting of suspected Islamic extremists on the grounds that "our police colleagues died or were crippled in the fight against those whom Shevchenko seeks so selflessly to defend. Every Daghestani knows the external attributes of extremists: wearing a beard, attending the 'wrong' mosque, calling for the overthrow of the legitimate authorities, hatred for the law enforcement agencies."

In the event, the Daghestani Interior Ministry did not dispute that the signatures Shevchenko submitted were genuine, but claimed that in 7 percent of the total number the date was written in the same handwriting, which differed from that of the signatory. Shevchenko publicly accused Magomedov of having co-opted to assess the signatures in his support a relative of a rival prospective candidate. Shevchenko claimed Magomedov warned the woman in question she would be dismissed unless she had him removed from the list of candidates. Shevchenko argued that it was unacceptable for an agency that routinely engages in blatant human rights violations to determine whether or not he should be allowed to participate in the election.

Ethnic Calculus

As for Totorkulov, he initially sought to participate in the Duma election as a representative of United Russia. The selection of United Russia's parliamentary candidates in Karachayevo-Cherkessia is dictated less by ability than ethnicity. The Karachais are by far the largest ethnic group, followed by the Russians and the Circassians. It is accepted practice that the republic head is a Karachai, the prime minister a Circassian, and the parliament speaker a Russian.

(click to enlarge)(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Given that the Karachais are unlikely to vote for a Russian, the Duma candidate elected from the republic's only single-mandate constituency is invariably a Karachai, while the two candidates elected on the basis of party lists are Karachai and Russian. (Of the 450 State Duma deputies, 225 are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 225 under the proportional system.)

In March, Totorkulov duly applied to register for the "primaries" to select United Russia's candidate in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia single-mandate constituency, but his application was rejected on the grounds, according to republican parliament speaker Aleksandr Ivanov, that "he could discredit the good name of the party."

Instead, acting Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head Rashid Temrezov engineered the selection of a young, little-known republican parliament deputy, Rasul Botashev, despite a smear campaign arguing that Botashev was not a suitable candidate because he once studied Islamic law in Saudi Arabia. Botashev and Totorkuov are distantly related by marriage, their wives being cousins.

Totorkulov then declared his intention of participating in the election as an independent candidate but was refused registration. That decision was made in the absence of one of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Election Commission's 14 members by a vote of six in favor and seven against, and despite a statement by commission Chairman Mekhti Baytokov to the effect that the federal Central Election Commission had recommended including Totorkulov on the ballot.

Totorkulov reportedly countered obstruction and official pressure ever since he announced his intention of running as an independent candidate. In early August, 90 NGO heads and human rights activists from across Russia (including Shevchenko) signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin deploring the pressure brought to bear on Totorkulov in direct violation of Putin's injunction that the election campaign should be "open and honest, in a spirit of mutual respect."

Hope For Change Denied

Although a member United Russia, Aguzarov applied in late June to register as an independent candidate for the Duma ballot from North Ossetia's sole single-mandate constituency. He said he decided to do so, after lengthy reflection, "to justify the hopes of those people who believe in me." That Aguzarov succeeded in garnering more than 100,000 signatures in support of his candidacy in a region with a total population of just over 700,000 testifies to the extent of that trust, which is partly due to his brother's reputation: After a decade of economic stagnation and corruption, Tamerlan Aguzarov became a symbol of a new beginning that his successor, Vyacheslav Bitarov, is struggling to build on. The North Ossetian parliament is expected to confirm Bitarov, currently acting republic head, in that post on September 18.

Aguzarov deplored the refusal to register him as "spitting in voters' faces."

Assuming that the federal Central Election Commission does not intervene to reinstate them, none of the three candidates has any hope of redress in the immediate future. Totorkulov, however, is already thinking ahead to 2021, when Temrezov's second term in office will expire. In an extensive online question-and –answer session in June, he declared that "if the republican authorities continue in future to try to keep me out of politics, I shall have to start fighting for the post of republic head."

Tags:Daghestan, North Ossetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia

Party Stripped Of Registration For Georgian Parliamentary Elections Amid 'Pro-Russia' Outcry

One of the party's leaders, Lado Bedukadze, Bedukadze, appears unrepentant, warning the Republican party and other political forces that criticized the Centrists that "you are playing with fire," and declared that it was they, not the Centrists, who were "traitors" and "enemies of Georgia."

Liz Fuller

The Centrist party, one of three dozen registered so far to participate in the Georgian parliamentary elections on October 8, has been stripped of that registration following widespread protests over an election campaign clip broadcast on August 13 by Georgia's Public Broadcaster that was widely perceived as pro-Russian.

In the 10-second clip, the party's leaders, Lado Bedukadze and Temur Khachishvili, promised to raise pensions to 400 laris ($172, the equivalent of the Russian state pension, and more than double the current 180 laris), to introduce dual Russian-Georgian citizenship, and to legalize the presence of Russian military bases on Georgian soil.

Those campaign promises -- aired just days after the anniversary of the start of the August 2008 war that paved the way for Russia's formal recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, sovereign states, and the deployment there on a permanent basis of some 4,000 Russian troops -- triggered a storm of outrage across the political spectrum.

The ruling Georgian Dream -- Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party, its former coalition partner the Republican party, and the former ruling, now opposition United National Movement (ENM), all declared their intention of formally asking the Constitutional Court to declare the Centrist party in violation of the Georgian Constitution (which upholds the country's formal territorial integrity.)

The NGO Fair Elections lodged a formal complaint with the Central Election Commission, arguing that the Centrists violated the article of the election law banning election propaganda directed against the country's territorial integrity.

In a statement late on August 14, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili criticized the Centrists' "antistate propaganda" and expressed approval of the Public Broadcaster's decision to suspend broadcasting the clip in question.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili's spokesman, Kakha Kozhoridze, noted that the public response demonstrated, on the one hand, an awareness of the importance of free speech, and on the other, the realization that in specific situations that right may have to be curtailed. He described the Centrists' message as "directed against the state and its independence."

Yet despite those negative reactions, the rationale cited by the Central Election Commission for withdrawing the Centrists' election registration made no reference to the disputed campaign slogans. Instead, the commission cited a technicality, noting that the party did not legally have a leader, given that Khachishvili's application for registration as party chairman was rejected by the Public Register on August 1. (The Central Election Commission was apparently not immediately informed of that rejection.)

Party In Turmoil

Khachishvili is a controversial figure whose political engagement dates back to the early 1990s, when he was a leading member of the paramilitary-group-turned-political-party Mkhedrioni (Horseman) headed by novelist and former crime boss Jaba Ioseliani. Following erstwhile Communist Party of Georgia First Secretary and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's return in March 1992 to take control in his native Georgia, Khachishvili served for a couple years as interior minister. In August 1995, however, he was arrested, and subsequently tried and jailed for 11 years, for his imputed role in a botched attempt to assassinate Shevardnadze, who was elected president in November of that year.

Khachishvili was amnestied in 2002, and founded a political party named Datvi (Bear) that advocated "good-neighborly" relations with Russia. But in early 2004, just months after Shevardnadze's ouster in the so-called Rose Revolution, he was detained on charges of illegal possession of weapons, and left Georgia to live in Moscow.

Centrist party leaders Khachishvili and Bedukadze are ill-matched political bedfellows. Bedukadze is a former prison officer implicated in the scandal over the recourse to torture in Georgia's prisons that erupted shortly before the 2012 parliamentary elections. (It was Bedukadze who clandestinely filmed and then made public the sensational video footage of a prisoner being sodomized with a broom handle.) Thanks to the intervention of prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili, Bedukadze concluded a plea bargain and was not held criminally responsible for his role in that institutionalized abuse.

Khachishvili has not yet commented publicly on the events of the past few days. Bedukadze, by contrast, appears unrepentant: in a statement on August 14, he warned the Republican party and other political forces that criticized the Centrists that "you are playing with fire," and declared that it was they, not the Centrists, who were "traitors" and "enemies of Georgia." He further declared that the only figures he respected were former Prime Minister and GDDG founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the ENM claims continues to dictate the party's policy from behind the scenes, and Georgian Patriarch Ilia II.

The ENM gleefully seized on Bedukadze's expression of approval for Ivanishvili to discredit the ruling GDDG. ENM parliamentary candidate Elene Khoshtaria was quoted as saying that "the government and personally Bidzina Ivanishvili bear the responsibility for this. As a result of their full support, people who reject Georgia's sovereignty have turned into political leaders." A second leading ENM member, Sergo Kapanadze, suggested that the present Georgian government was funding Bedukadze and his party.

While it is unlikely that the Centrists' pro-Russian rhetoric would have found traction among the Georgian electorate at large, the ENM's attempt to use the scandal to blacken GDDG may well negatively affect support for that party. With less than two months to go before polling day, the outcome of the ballot remains impossible to predict: the most recent opinion poll by the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute showed the GDDG with 17 percent support, followed by the ENM with 14 percent, and The State for the People, founded earlier this year by opera singer Paata Burchuladze, with 4 percent; 38 percent of those questioned said they had not yet decided which party to vote for.

Suspected Shi'ite Insurgent Group On Trial In Azerbaijan

Taleh Bagirzade was apprehended in late November 2015 together with 13 other men during a raid by police on a house in the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku. where they were attending prayers.

Liz Fuller

Eighteen men said to be members of an extremist religious group that sought to provoke mass unrest in order to seize power went on trial beginning on August 4 in Baku's Court for Serious Crimes.

They face charges including murder, terrorism, inciting religious hatred, organizing mass unrest, and illegal possession of weapons. All of them without exception reject those charges as fabricated; several say they have been subjected to torture in an attempt to induce them to incriminate themselves, fellow defendants, and respected opposition leaders.

The two most prominent defendants are Taleh Bagirzade (also known as Bagirov), a young Shi'ite cleric who heads the unregistered Movement for Muslim Unity, and Fuad Qahramanli, deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP).

Bagirzade, who studied theology in Iran, has campaigned to uphold believers' rights and openly criticized Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. He was apprehended in late November 2015 together with 13 other men during a raid by police on a house in the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku. where they were attending prayers.

Nardaran has for decades been a bastion of conservative Shi'ite Islam. Its estimated 8,000 residents regard as their supreme religious authority not Muslim Spiritual Board of Azerbaijan Chairman Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakh-Shukur Pashazade, but Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Seven people, including at least two police officers, were killed and several others wounded during the police raid, the precise details of which remain unclear. According to a joint statement by Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office, the men opened fire and hurled Molotov cocktails at the police. The accused, however, insist they were unarmed. One of them, Bahruz Asadov, was quoted as saying in court on August 11 that he heard police warning each other to aim carefully so as not to risk injuring their colleagues.

That joint statement also says that Bagirzade created the Movement for Muslim Unity with the aim of overthrowing the constitutional order and establishing "a religious state under Shari'a law." He and his associates are said to have recruited supporters in Baku and other parts of the country and provided them with various types of weaponry, and to have conducted "illegal meetings" in Nardaran to discuss mobilizing the population in a violent uprising against the authorities.

According to the statement, the November raid was undertaken to neutralize "an armed criminal group that acted under the cover of religion and was seeking to destabilize the social-political situation and organize mass unrest and acts of terrorism." 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (third from right) visited Nardaran in June, bringing gifts.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (third from right) visited Nardaran in June, bringing gifts.

Oqtay Gyulaliyev of the public group Azerbaijan Without Political Prisoners says there is no evidence to support the allegations of terrorism. Why, he asks, if Bagirzade and his associates were indeed terrorists, were rank-and-file local police deployed to detain them, rather than a specialized counterterrorism force? Why were civilian lives endangered, and why did the police open fire immediately rather than call on the group of men to surrender?

Bagirzade's lawyer Elcin Sadiqov said after the preliminary court hearings last month that many points in the indictment remain unclear. He too claimed there was no evidence that it was the accused who fired on the police, or even that the two dead men identified as police officers were indeed such.

Bagirzade himself stresses that he has never advocated violence. He suggested that the police action to detain him was "carefully planned" in retaliation for the criticism voiced by the Movement for Muslim Unity of blatant falsification during the parliamentary elections on November 1.

Fuad QahramanliFuad Qahramanli
Fuad Qahramanli
Fuad Qahramanli

Qahramanli, who was nowhere near Nardaran at the time of the raid, was detained at his home two weeks after it took place for comments about it that he posted on Facebook. He was initially charged with antistate propaganda and inciting racial or religious hatred and remanded in pretrial detention. Six months later, a further charge was brought against him of calling for civil disobedience and mass unrest.

Testifying on August 11, Qahramanli said he was being tried solely for having expressed a critical opinion of the Azerbaijani authorities. "The authorities want to frighten those people who come out against corruption [and] arbitrary [reprisals], which is why they fabricate political cases [against such critics]," he affirmed.

Gozyal Bayramli, who like Qahramanli is an AHCP deputy chairman, is on record as saying he is convinced that despite the total lack of any supporting evidence, the Azerbaijani authorities are determined to prove a connection between the party and the purported Shi'ite insurgent group in order to discredit the AHCP in the eyes of the international community.

Bagirzade says investigators tortured him to induce him to incriminate AHCP Chairman Ali Kerimli and Camil Hasanli, the head of the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces, but that he refused to do so.

Up to 50 other persons were apprehended in Nardaran on the day of the police raid. Some were subsequently released; others have been tried individually or in small groups on less serious charges such as illegal possession of weapons.

Since the events of last November, the Azerbaijani authorities have made a concerted effort to placate, if not win the hearts and minds of, Nardaran's population, broadening streets and repairing schools, a clinic, and other infrastructure. Attending the formal inauguration of that infrastructure two months ago, President Aliyev announced that villagers' collective unpaid debts for electricity over the past decade, amounting to 42.2 million manats ($27.7 million), had been written off.

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.