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A motion to elect Davit Bakradze the party's new chairman has failed.

A motion to elect Davit Bakradze the party's new chairman has failed.

Georgia's main opposition party, the United National Movement (ENM), again appears to be heading for a split into two wings, one of which unequivocally supports its founder, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, while the other considers him a liability. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Georgia's main opposition party, the United National Movement (ENM), again appears to be heading for a split into two wings, one of which unequivocally supports its founder, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, while the other considers him a liability.

At a three-hour meeting of the party's Political Council on November 30, the pro-Saakashvili faction succeeded by the narrowest of margins in averting a motion by the rival faction to convene a congress of some 2,000 delegates next month that would elect as the party's new chairman Davit Bakradze, who headed the ENM faction in the last parliament.

Instead, the Political Council voted behind closed doors by 25 votes to 24 with one abstention to hold a congress of some 7,000 delegates at which no new chairman will be elected, and Saakashvili will be confirmed in the post of honorary leader. Saakashvili was formally removed as chairman in December 2015 after he acquired Ukrainian citizenship and was therefore stripped of Georgian citizenship. At that juncture the ENM declared it would not elect a new chairman, and that Saakashvili would remain its "unchallenged leader."

Veteran party member and former ENM parliament deputy Nodar Tsiklauri, who is one of the leaders of the pro-Saakashvili wing, told journalists it was imperative that the party should not elect a new chairman precisely because Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party that defeated the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot, has been trying to minimize Saakashvili's role in Georgian politics for the past four years.

Tsiklauri also said over 80 percent of members of the party's district organizations were in favor of Saakashvili remaining party leader, and it would be "electoral suicide" for the party to distance itself from him.

ENM lawmaker and erstwhile Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, who is seen as heading the more moderate faction that considers the unpredictable Saakashvili a liability, told journalists after the Political Council vote that the vote was at odds with his position, but "part of the democratic process."

Bokeria pointed out, as he has done before, that Saakashvili, who resigned last month as governor of Ukraine's Odesa Oblast, is barred by virtue of no longer being a Georgian citizen from participating in Georgian politics. The ENM needs a leader under whom it can develop and adapt to new political circumstances, Bokeria continued, and Bakradze is the best candidate for that post.

Independent commentator Zaal Anjaparidze, however, told the news portal Caucasus Knot that Bakradze "has never been an independent political figure." He suggested that Bokeria, who is not popular, aspires to the role of eminence grise, who will direct the party through Bakradze as nominal leader.

Both factions are clearly anxious to downplay the possibility of a split within the party ranks, especially given that it controls only 27 of the 150 parliament mandates. (In the wake of the parliamentary elections in October, the moderate wing of the Political Council prevailed over the Saakashvili supporters who had advocated boycotting runoffs in 50 constituencies and not participating in the work of the new legislature.)

Tsiklauri told journalists prior to the November 30 Political Council meeting that he did not think "the situation is so dramatic that anyone will quit the party," while lawmaker Giorgi Gabashvili, speaking for those party members who advocate electing a new chairman, stressed that they are not out to distance the ENM from Saakashvili. "This is not a political conflict or burning bridges with anyone," Gabashvili said.

Saakashvili for his part has thanked all those who demonstrated their trust in him by "making the correct choice" and opting for holding a congress worthy of "a democratic, European-style party," thereby thwarting what he termed "a bid to distance me from the party."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
What Ramzan Kadyrov actually said during his meeting on November 26 with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman ibn Abdulaziz is not known.

What Ramzan Kadyrov actually said during his meeting on November 26 with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman ibn Abdulaziz is not known.

Chechnya's leading Islamic cleric has formally rejected suggestions that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov was made to travel recently to Saudi Arabia to apologize for a religious edict that was seen as a snub of Salafism.

Chechnya's leading Islamic cleric has formally rejected suggestions that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov was made to travel recently to Saudi Arabia to apologize for a religious edict that was seen as a snub of Salafism.

Mufti Salakh-hadzhi Mezhiyev called "untrue and an outright lie" reports that the Kremlin-backed leader went to Jiddah to present his apologies for the fatwa, adopted at a conference in Grozny three months ago, that designated Salafism -- an ultraconservative strain of Islam widely professed in Saudi Arabia -- as "an aberrant sect."

Several media outlets in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had reported that Kadyrov did indeed offer apologies. Whether the anodyne remarks attributed to him constituted a genuine apology is a matter of interpretation, however.

The August conference of Islamic scholars in Grozny was pegged to the 65th birthday of Kadyrov's late father, Akhmed-hadzhi Kadyrov. Its stated purpose was to discuss the alleged abuse of Islamic ideas to propagate "extremism," and to establish the criteria for determining who qualifies as a true follower of the Sunna (the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad).

The conference ended with the adoption of a fatwa stipulating that the sole true adherents of traditional Islam are those who abide by Kalam scholastic theology, belong to one of the four "madhhabs" (legal schools), and follow the path of moral self-perfection espoused by the great teachers, primarily the Sufi sheikhs. It identifies the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam as a "dangerous and erroneous contemporary sect," along with the extremist militant group Islamic State (IS), Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Habashis.

Predictably, that controversial and categorical definition triggered widespread protests, both in Russia and abroad. The International Association of Islamic Scholars reportedly criticized the Grozny conference as "a shameful attempt to sow dissent within the Muslim community." Respected theologian Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Islamic University, who had attended the opening session of the conference, publicly distanced himself from the fatwa.

In late September, the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) issued a resolution saying the text of the fatwa should be fundamentally revised because it risks "causing a split within the country, and between the Muslim community in Russia and that abroad." It has become clear from a detailed analysis, the statement continued, that the fatwa "reflects primarily the situation in one of [Russia's] regions," meaning Chechnya, and does not constitute reliable guidance for Russia's Muslims with regard to those intrinsic hallmarks of true Islam that differentiate it from fallacies. Specifically, the resolution rejected the importance attached to "one single current of Islam -- Sufism" as the hallmark of true belief.

That resolution occasioned a bitter polemic between the Russian Council of Muftis chairman, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, and Chechen mufti Mezhiyev.

Mezhiyev, together with Kadyrov's adviser on religious affairs, Adam Shakhidov, both accompanied Kadyrov on his tour of Persian Gulf states. On November 21, the day before Kadyrov and his entourage were reported to have arrived in the United Arab Emirates, a Daghestani blogger quoted the Arabic-language news portal Al-Sabaq as saying that Kadyrov had already extended apologies to the Saudi authorities, and that the purpose of his upcoming official visit to Saudi Arabia was to do so in person. Kadyrov was quoted as stressing the "strong, friendly ties between his country and Saudi Arabia" and as affirming that "the conference, which gave rise to numerous disputes, was directed against those who falsely pose as Salafis and use the slogans of those who follow the true path."

"We are not against the true Salafis who stand firmly on the path of their righteous predecessors," he reportedly added.

On November 27, the Emirates News Agency similarly quoted Kadyrov as saying in an interview that "there were attempts to split the ranks of Muslims by interpreting the Grozny conference incorrectly...as aimed at singling out one particular group or state," according to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.

What Kadyrov actually said during his meeting on November 26 with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman ibn Abdulaziz is not known. Kadyrov reportedly wrote on his Instagram account that "particular attention was focused on questions of countering extremist ideology and the fight against terrorism. We agreed that neither terrorism nor extremism has anything in common with true Islam."

According to Mezhiyev, in the course of that meeting, "we presented a true picture of the Chechen conference," the essence of which, Mezhiyev said, was distorted by "envious and extremist" groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Mezhiyev said the true aim of the conference was not to inflict damage on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or to sow dissent among Muslims, but to counter the "extremist ideology" that sought to usurp the title of true believers and brand other Muslims unbelievers. Mezhiyev said the crown prince was "pleased" by this explanation.

Similarly unclear is whether Kadyrov might have been ordered to apologize to the Saudis by Russian President Vladimir Putin so as not to damage Moscow's relations with the Gulf states, or perhaps decided of his own volition to do so in order not to jeopardize hopes of extensive investment. According to the Russian news agency Regnum, among the topics Kadyrov discussed with Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz were the possible participation of Saudi oil companies in unspecified Chechen energy projects and enabling Chechen students to study at Saudi universities.

A third possibility is that Kadyrov was annoyed by the visit one month ago to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman ibn Abdulaziz by Republic of Ingushetia head Yunusbek Yevkurov. Kadyrov and Yevkurov have been at daggers drawn for years, most recently over Yevkurov's efforts to sideline Ingushetia's mufti, Isa-hadzhi Khamkhoyev, who shares Kadyrov's antipathy toward actual or suspected Salafis.

Yevkurov had met in April with the Saudi ambassador to Moscow to discuss the prospects for trade and economic cooperation. During his talks in early November with Saudi officials, agreement was reached on setting up a working group to focus on imports of agricultural products, and on the possibility of Saudi businessmen or charitable funds providing financial assistance for construction of a large mosque in Magas.

Regardless of the motives for Kadyrov's reported apology or the terms in which it was possibly couched, two separate Russian scholars of Islam commentators have already concluded that he has irrevocably sabotaged any chances he may have had to secure for himself recognition in the Arab world as the leader of Russia's Muslims.

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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.

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