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Residents flee their homes after shelling by government forces at Houla, near Homs, in early December.
In addition to Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, and Ossetian minorities, Syria is also home to an estimated 7,000-9,000 people whose ancestors settled there after leaving Daghestan following the Caucasus wars of the mid-19th century. Members of that Daghestani community, most of whom live in Homs or the village of Derfoul, have sought for the past two years to avoid taking sides in the ongoing fighting between opposition forces and government troops loyal to President Bashar Assad. But since government forces bombarded Derfoul in a bid to destroy a nearby military base seized by the opposition, some 200 Syrian Daghestanis have drafted an appeal to the Russian authorities for help in leaving Syria, acquiring the recognized status of refugees, and settling in Daghestan.

The independent Russian-language weekly "Chernovik" convened a press conference in Makhachkala last week to discuss the plight of the would-be resettlers and how to help them. Republic of Daghestan parliament deputy Magomed Magomedov, who chairs the parliament committee for interethnic relations, advised that they should apply at the nearest Russian embassy or consulate for inclusion in the state program for helping compatriots resident abroad to settle in the Russian Federation. Magomedov advised that any formal intercession on their behalf with the president or parliament of Daghestan should be clear and specific, and the list of people applying to settle in Daghestan should be final and definitive.

Opthalmologist Mukhammad Nur Nidal, who studied in Daghestan and now lives in Saudi Arabia, has assumed the role of spokesman and adviser to Syria's Daghestani community. He told the press conference that most of those who want to leave Syria are doctors, teachers, or engineers -- professions that are in demand in Daghestan. He said they are not asking for financial help, only for logistical and diplomatic assistance in leaving Syria.

Nidal said none of those anxious to leave Syria have taken part in the fighting, and they are prepared to undergo stringent screening to prove it. The reason the number of Daghestanis who want to leave Syria for Russia is so low, Nidal explained, is that Russian media coverage of the ongoing low-level insurgency in Daghestan has convinced them that the security situation there is as bad as in Syria, or even worse.

Although none of the participants at last week's press conference were quoted as saying so, the chances that either the Russian federal government or the Daghestani authorities will provide the desired help are low. In an earlier interview with "Chernovik," Nidal cited the experience of an unnamed colleague who sought to raise the issue with Daghestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Religious Affairs, and Foreign Ties. The official his colleague spoke to produced a list of 300 people who wanted to resettle in Daghestan from Kyrgyzstan and confessed he had no idea how to cope with the problem.

Nidal said he sees no evidence that Daghestan's government is prepared to raise the plight of the Syrian Daghestanis with the Federal Migration Service, or even to secure a quota for people entitled to temporary residence in Daghestan for the duration of the fighting in Syria.

The apparent indifference of the Daghestani leadership is in stark contrast to the more proactive approach adopted by other North Caucasus republics. Republic of Adygheya head Aslanchery Tkhakushinov reacted in late 2011 to an appeal for help by a group of Syrian Circassians by interceding on their behalf with the Russian Foreign Ministry. His counterpart in North Ossetia, Taymuraz Mamsurov, and Chechnya's human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, have likewise solicited Moscow's help.

Over the past 12 months, 98 families (a total of 452 people) from Syria have arrived in Adygheya, most of whom have been provided with housing there. The others have settled in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

Those refugees represent only a fraction of the combined Circassian/Chechen/Daghestani community in Syria, which numbers up to 100,000 people, of whom 55,000-60,000 are Circassians. Nidal explained that the Syrians tend to apply the ethnonym Circassian to all North Caucasus ethnic groups. A further obstacle to determining with any accuracy the relative size of the various ethnic communities is that many people of Chechen descent bear the family name Daghistani.

The quotas set by the federal government for the number of foreign citizens who may be granted temporary residence in the North Caucasus in 2013 are 450 (Adygheya), 1,000 (Kabardino-Balkaria), and 300 (Karachayevo-Cherkessia). Figures for Chechnya, North Ossetia, and Daghestan are not available.

Apart from establishing those quotas, the federal authorities have shown little willingness to help. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet responded to an appeal earlier this month by Circassian NGOs to expedite the evacuation of their co-ethnics from Syria.

Even more alarming, five Circassians, including a woman of 80, who arrived at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport with valid Russian visas on December 18 were refused entry and put on a plane back to Jordan. No explanation was forthcoming.
The uneasy cohabitation of Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (right) continues.
The Georgian Dream (KO) coalition put forward on December 28 a proposed amendment to the Georgian Constitution drafted by its chairman, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili , that would render less likely the dismissal of the government and the dissolution of parliament.

At the same time, it has abandoned plans for more sweeping changes that would have transferred key powers from the president to the prime minister.

The ongoing standoff between Ivanishvili and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has given rise to fears among some that the latter may seek to provoke a political crisis by dismissing the prime minister and then deliberately nominating a new cabinet that is unacceptable to the parliamentary majority.

In the event that the legislature rejects three successive proposed new cabinets, the constitution currently empowers the president to dissolve parliament and impose a new cabinet without parliament's approval. But since the president may not dissolve parliament until six months after it is elected, he may appoint a new government without parliamentary approval; when the six-month period elapses, the parliament is dissolved and new parliamentary elections scheduled which the president's hand-picked cabinet organizes.

The proposed amendment would preserve the president's right to dissolve parliament in the event that it rejected his proposed ministerial candidates. The amendment also abolishes the "grace period" of six months from the date of the elections during which the president may not dissolve parliament.

But the president would lose the right to impose a new government without parliament's approval: he would be empowered to dissolve parliament after it rejected his proposed new cabinet, but the outgoing government would then remain in office until new parliamentary elections were held.

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili explained that the amendment was intended to provide institutional guarantees to prevent a political crisis. If passed, he said, the amendment would remove the "constant threat" that Saakashvili would dismiss the government, a threat that Usupashvili said was fueling political instability. And in light of last month's opinion poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute that showed a steep fall in the popularity of Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM), there is no guarantee that it could defeat KO if new elections were held in the next few months.

A total of 108 deputies (including some from the ENM) voted on December 28 in favor of setting up a special group that will oversee a one-month public discussion of the proposed change, the second KO has proposed to the constitution since it came to power. The first, which President Saakashvili opposes, would relocate the parliament from the new building specially constructed for it in Kutaisi back to the capital.

Usupashvili also said KO has dropped earlier plans to change the constitution to slash the powers of the president. The party had toyed with the idea of making effective immediately constitutional amendments passed last year that transfer certain key powers from the president to the prime minister. Those changes are scheduled to go into effect after the presidential election due in October 2013.

Parliament Overrides Amnesty Veto

Meanwhile, the KO-dominated parliament has voted down by 91 votes to 24 Saakashvili's veto of an amnesty bill authorizing the release of some 3,000 prisoners, including 190 whom the parliament designated political prisoners, and reductions in the prison terms of thousands more. Saakashvili's stated rationale for the veto was that the beneficiaries would include several persons sentenced on charges of espionage for Russia, and others convicted in connection with a purported mutiny in May 2009 at the Mukhrovani military base.

Saakashvili also rejected the very term "political prisoner," arguing that it created the impression that Georgia combined the worst aspects of dictatorships in North Korea, Burma, and Belarus. He pointed out that "not a single serious international organization has ever said that there are political prisoners in Georgia."

In a televised address to the nation, Saakashvili slammed the parliament veto as "shameful," "dangerous," and "a disgraceful page in the history of Georgian parliamentarianism," and predicted that the release of such a large number of prisoners would result in a significant rise in the crime rate.

At the same time, one further dispute between Saakashvili and the government has been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. The KO and ENM parliament factions have agreed that the Special State Protection Service will be subordinated to the government as KO proposed, but a separate unit will be established to provide security for the incumbent president and will be under his personal control. Saakashvili had publicly construed the removal of the service from his subordination as an attempt to strip him of any personal protection whatsoever.

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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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