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Caucasus Report: December 15, 2006

December 15, 2006, Volume 9, Number 41

ABKHAZ PREMIER RESPONDS TO CRITICISM. At an emergency congress in Sukhum(i) on November 29, the opposition Forum of National Unity established early last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 11, 2005) harshly criticized the Abkhaz government headed by Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab for its "destructive political role" and inability to draft and implement an effective program of action. The congress, which was attended by Vice President Raul Khadjimba, former Deputy Prime Minister Anri Djergenia, and several parliament deputies, asked President Sergei Bagapsh to form a new government capable of addressing the problems Abkhazia faces, while commending Bagapsh's efforts to secure international recognition for the unrecognized republic and to establish associate membership of the Russian Federation. In a statement on November 30, Bagapsh rejected the forum's call to dismiss the government, arguing that while the opposition is entitled to call attention to the government's mistakes, it should not gratuitously insult those in power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006).

Ankvab for his part admitted on December 7 to Apsnypress that "grounds exist to criticize us." But at the same time, he affirmed that "there is no crisis, either economic or political," and he branded the forum's demand to sack the entire cabinet as "a clumsy attempt to rehabilitate themselves" by political forces defeated in the 2004-2005 presidential election. Ankvab further accused the opposition of refusing to acknowledge any "positive changes" resulting from Bagapsh's advent to power in January 2005 and of trying to offload on to the new leadership responsibility for the problems it bequeathed to them. The political party Aytayra too lambasted the republic's previous leadership, accusing it in a statement carried by on December 12 of seeking not to form a constructive opposition but to split the present leadership with the express objective of returning to power.

Ankvab presented a run-down of those problems in March 2005, just weeks after Bagapsh named him to head the government. They include Abkhazia's chronic economic dependence on Russia; the extent to which "criminal elements" have secured control over large sectors of the economy; and a growing problem with crime and drug addition (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," April 8, 2005). This year, those problems were compounded by the Georgian government's dispatch of troops in late July to the Kodori Gorge in an unsuccessful attempt to apprehend the region's former governor, Emzar Kvitsiani. Ankvab was quoted by Apsnypress on November 9 as admitting that the Georgian incursion necessitated increased defense spending and also negatively impacted on the number of Russian tourists who visited Abkhazia this summer. Nonetheless, possibly in a reflection that Russia still considers it expedient to subsidize Abkhazia, the balanced draft budget that the government endorsed in early November and sent to Bagapsh for his approval sets both revenues and expenditures at 1.236 billion rubles ($47.2 million), which is 345 million rubles more than in 2006, according to Apsnypress on December 1. That increase will be partly used to raise the salaries of government officials by 30 percent on January 1, 2007.

It is not clear whether the Forum's demand that Bagapsh dismiss the entire government heralds the beginning of the campaign for next year's local and parliamentary elections, scheduled for February 11 and March 4 respectively, or whether in fact it is directed against just one minister. The Forum's leaders include Vice President Khadjimba, whom Moscow unequivocally backed in the 2004-2005 election marathon that Bagapsh eventually won (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 14, November 18 and December 10, 2004). And as noted above, the Forum's criticism of the government was offset by an expression of approval and support for Bagapsh's efforts to secure recognition of Abkhazia's independence and associate relations with the Russian Federation. The Forum issued an analogous statement of support for Bagapsh in the wake of the Georgian incursion into the Kodori Gorge in late July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2006).

If one assumes that the Forum is directed from Moscow as a means of exerting pressure on Bagapsh, then its leaders, and their Moscow contacts, may be wary of Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba. Western scholars who have visited Abkhazia in recent years speak with admiration and respect of Shamba's intelligence, moderate political position, and his encyclopedic grasp of the range of models available for resolving the conflict. Moreover, Shamba succeeded in establishing a good working relationship first with Tbilisi's pointman for the Abkhaz conflict, Irakli Alasania, and then with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza. Bryza has traveled to Sukhum(i) twice this year, in June and November, for talks with Bagapsh and Shamba, whom he referred to during the second visit as "my friend" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20 and November 20, 2006). The Forum may thus have a vested interest in excluding from the conflict settlement process a figure who is regarded by both Washington and moderates in Tbilisi as an acceptable negotiating partner. (Liz Fuller)

WHO SPEAKS FOR THE BALKARS? In the 15 years since the Russian parliament adopted in April 1991 a law on the rehabilitation of those ethnic groups deported to Central Asia by then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1943-44, one of those groups, the Turcophone Balkars, has discussed on three separate occasions -- in November 1991, November 1996, and last year -- the possibility of launching a formal campaign to demand the division of the present Kabardino-Balkar Republic into two separate entities to give the Balkars an autonomous formation of their own (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 6, 2005). The Balkars enjoyed the status of an autonomous okrug (district) only very briefly, from 1918 until the creation in January 1922 of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast, which was upgraded to an ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) in 1936.

The Kabardians, however, who in 2002 accounted for some 55 percent of the total KBR population of 901,000 and who dominate its leadership, rejected both the 1991 and 1996 appeals by the informal Balkar National Congress for a separate autonomous region for the Balkars, who constitute just over 11 percent of the population. Retired General Sufyan Beppayev resigned in 1996 as leader of the Balkar National Congress. The Balkar national party Tere was banned, and a number of prominent Balkar activists were arrested.

At some point between 1996 and 2001, however, a new organization, the so-called State Council of Balkaria, headed by Rasul Djappuyev, emerged to promote the Balkar cause, but it was liquidated earlier this year on the basis of a ruling by the KBR Supreme Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006). Djappuyev remains politically active, however, as the leader of the inter-regional organization Balkariya that likewise claims to represent the Balkar people.

On November 25, Balkariya and a Russian human rights movement convened a demonstration in Moscow to protest the KBR laws on redistricting and private ownership of land, having been refused permission to stage such a demonstration in the KBR capital, Nalchik. Addressing the Moscow demonstration, Djappuyev deplored the failure of the Russian Constitutional Court to designate unconstitutional the law on private land ownership. He further took issue with KBR President Arsen Kanokov's stated intention to sell to private investors pasture land adjoining Mount Elbrus that was hitherto under the jurisdiction of Balkar-populated villages, "including the cemetery of our ancestors," according to a transcript of Djappuyev's speech posted on November 27 on the Ingush website Djappuyev argued that the Balkars have been too peaceable and too tolerant for too long, and that if they are to survive, "we must learn how to be a people [narod]."

But the Balkars' collective grievances are not confined to the anticipated loss of their land, according to an open letter addressed by another leading Balkariya member, R.S. Boziyev, to senior Russian officials and Moscow Helsinki Group chair Lyudmila Alekseyeva on December 5 and reposted by Boziyev pointed out that up to 94 percent of the Balkar able-bodied population is unemployed, and he warned that the (unofficial) Council of Elders of the Balkar People may soon find that it can no longer prevent Balkars from resorting to more radical protests than simple hunger strikes and meetings. Boziyev appealed to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and other senior officials to campaign for the annulment of the "anti-constitutional" redistricting laws and for implementation of the 1991 law on the repressed peoples, arguing that "without the direct intervention of the federal center the situation in the KBR may pass the point of no return."

Only some 80 people, most of them young, attended the Moscow demonstration, but Alan, a rival organization headed by Beppayev and that similarly claims to represent Balkars' interests, released a statement on November 30 denouncing as "pseudo-defenders of the interests of the [Balkar] people" both Balkariya and the Council of Elders of the Balkar People, reported on December 1. Alan's Central Council affirmed its unequivocal support for the KBR leadership's policies, which it described as "aimed at achieving a just solution to all the problems that have accumulated."

Then on December 12, Beppayev and other prominent pro-regime Balkars convened a press conference in Nalchik at which Beppayev demanded that unnamed "destructive forces encouraged by enemies of Russia, both internal and abroad" desist from their imputed attempts to destabilize the KBR by claiming that the Balkars' rights are being violated. Academician Mukhtar Gazayev, argued for his part that "only a madman" would propose dividing such a small republic as the KBR into Kabardian, Balkar and Russian-populated districts." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Those countries that maintain friendly relations with Russia need four hands, two of them to defend themselves against being hit below the belt." -- Center for Political Technology and Innovations Director Mubariz Ahmedoglu (quoted on December 7 by

"You said in a recent interview on state television that 'no one should doubt freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.' Unfortunately, the crackdown on independent journalists and media which began in October and which has taken a dramatic turn since 24 November forces us to question what you said." -- From an open letter addressed to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on December 4 by Reporters without Borders (RSF).

"Our people know from bitter experience that Georgia is a country that poses a threat to Abkhazia and its sovereignty." -- Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, speaking in Sukhum(i) on December 6 (quoted by Apsnypress).