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Who Is Targeting Abkhazia's Muslim Clergy?

Muslim cleric Emik Chakmach-ogly was shot dead on July 17 in the Abkhaz Black Sea town of Gagra, just one week after a failed attempt on the life of Salih Kvaratskhelia, imam of the Sukhumi mosque.

Police are reportedly at a loss to determine the motive or identity of the perpetrators in either case. Nor is it clear whether there is any connection between the recent incidents and similar killings in August 2007.

On July 10, demining experts from Britain's HALO Trust were summoned to defuse an explosive device found attached to the roof of Kvaratskhelia's car.

Chakmach-ogly, 49, was a member of Abkhazia's Muslim Spiritual Board (DUM) and a former parliament deputy, and had fought in the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz war. He was shot dead in the courtyard of his house. The DUM issued a statement attributing his killing to his religious activity, and excluding personal enmity as the motive.

That statement also affirmed that the activities of the DUM do not harm anyone, nor does the Muslim community actively seek to convert others to Islam. The DUM has condemned both the attempt on Kvaratskhelia and Chakmach-ogly's killing as acts of terror.

According to the independent "Nuzhnaya gazeta" on April 15, 2008, an estimated 30 percent of the population of the breakaway republic are Muslims. There are two mosques in Abkhazia, one in Gudauta and the second in Sukhumi. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has reportedly offered to finance construction of a third.

Assessments of relations between Muslims and members of the Abkhaz Orthodox church are contradictory. In August 2007, a member of the Muslim community in Sukhumi was gunned down on the street together with his wife. Two weeks later, Khamzat Gitsba, imam of the Gudauta mosque, was shot dead in broad daylight, together with a Russian citizen from Bashkortostan.

Gitsba was a controversial figure. Like Chakmach-ogly, he too had fought in the 1992-93 war, but as a member of the detachment of North Caucasus volunteers headed by renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev.

Gitsba subsequently participated in the hijacking in January 1996 of a ferry in the Turkish port of Trabzon in a bid to force the Russian authorities to allow Chechen field commander Salman Raduyev to retreat unharmed from the village of Pervomayskoye in Daghestan. Gitsba and his fellow hijackers were apprehended and put on trial in Turkey. He was released in 2000, returned to Abkhazia, and became a Muslim cleric. His murder remains unsolved.

In the wake of the 2007 killings, DUM head Timur Dzyba was quoted as saying he had alerted the security services several months earlier to harassment of some members of the congregation, but no effort had been made to protect them. In April 2008, Dzyba told "Nuzhnaya gazeta" that there is a "negative attitude" to Islam in Abkhazia.

The opposition Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA), however, issued a statement on July 19 in connection with Chakmach-ogly's killing affirming that Abkhazia "has never known tensions between Muslims and members of the Orthodox Church."

The Public Chamber established by President Sergei Bagapsh in 2007 issued a similar statement blaming the shooting on unnamed "forces out to destabilize the situation in the country and split society." That deliberately vague formulation is almost certainly an allusion to Georgia, which is currently intensively lobbying for international backing for its policy blueprint, titled "Engagement Through Cooperation," aimed at winning back control over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

There has been no speculation to date about the timing of Chakmach-ogly's killing, one month after Abkhazia suspended its participation in internationally mediated talks with Georgia and on the eve of a trip by President Bagapsh to Nicaragua and Venezuela. Both countries have formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent state.

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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