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In April 2016, Ramazan Dzhalaldinov (right) incurred the anger of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov by addressing an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing the authorities in his village of corruption.

The Chechen Republic's Supreme Court last week cleared the way for a libel suit brought by the Chechen Interior Ministry against the Moscow-based human rights organization Civic Assistance, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, a resident of the southern village of Kenkhi.

In April 2016, Dzhalaldinov incurred the anger of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov by addressing an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kenkhi authorities of corruption.

The Chechen Interior Ministry's suit, which according to Novaya Gazeta lawyer Pyotr Zankin contains gross legal errors, was prompted by public statements by Novaya Gazeta and Civic Assistance founder and head Svetlana Gannushkina about alleged reprisals subsequently inflicted on Dzhalaldinov and his family, possibly by Chechen law enforcement agencies, between May and early November 2016. Specifically, the ministry accused the three defendants of damaging its professional reputation through statements they made in November 2016.

The Chechen authorities appear to have orchestrated a purportedly spontaneous demonstration in front of the Supreme Court building last week by some 100 people who made sarcastic and derogatory comments about human rights activists and journalists who, they alleged, routinely distort the situation in Chechnya, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on November 10. Some of the participants subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service they were paid 1,000 rubles ($16.90) for attending the protest.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Kadyrov had responded to Dzhalaldinov's appeal to Putin by branding him a liar, whereupon Dzhalaldinov lodged a formal complaint with Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika requesting that he take legal action against Kadyrov for having publicly insulted him.

On May 6, 2016, Kadyrov traveled to Kenkhi, where he assured the predominantly Avar population that local officials accused of pocketing the compensation due to residents for damage inflicted on their property during the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000 would be punished. Kadyrov also promised to repair local highways and connect the village to the mains gas supply. For good measure, he also fired the district head and local police chief.

Just days later, however, Dzhalaldinov's home was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances, with his family accusing Chechen law enforcement personnel of torching the place and threatening to kill his wife and three daughters.

TV 'Apology'

Possibly in light of the widespread negative publicity, unconfirmed reports suggested an agreement had been reached that Dzhalaldinov would publicly apologize to Kadyrov in return for a promise that Dzhalaldinov and his family would not be subjected to any further reprisals. On May 30, the Chechen state TV company broadcast footage in which Dzhalaldinov apologized to Kadyrov. Caucasian Knot, however, quoted Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina as saying Dzhalaldinov told her the apology footage was selectively edited.

Chechen Whistle-Blower Apologizes To Kadyrov
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Despite the indications that no further action would be taken against Dzhalaldinov, in August 2016 a district court found him guilty of circulating false information and sentenced him to 160 hours of community service.

Then, in early November, Dzhalaldinov disappeared but contacted Gannushkina a few days later to explain to her that he had fled Chechnya after being summoned to Grozny on November 2 by Chechen First Deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov. In a post on her Facebook page, Gannushkina quoted Dzhalaldinov as saying Alaudinov threatened to kill him if he continued to publicize the apparently still difficult situation in Kenkhi.

Several weeks later, on December 9, Novaya Gazeta convened a press conference in Moscow at which both Milashina and Gannushkina provided detailed accounts of the pressure and harassment to which Dzhalaldinov had allegedly been subjected.

The Interior Ministry's suit reportedly did not quote verbatim from either Gannushkina's Facebook post or the allegedly defamatory statements she and Milashina made at that press conference, or provide concrete evidence that those statements were untrue or damaging. That is said to be among reasons cited by both Novaya Gazeta and Gannushkina in disputing its legality.

They also argue that, because both organizations are registered in Moscow, the libel suit should have been filed there, not in Chechnya. They suggest Dzhalaldinov was listed as a co-defendant to provide a legal foundation for taking them to court in a remote corner of Chechnya rather than in Moscow, where journalists for national and international media outlets would seek to report on the hearing.

Russian journalists Yelena Milashina (left) and Svetlana Gannushkina (composite file photo)
Russian journalists Yelena Milashina (left) and Svetlana Gannushkina (composite file photo)

Oleg Orlov of the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial told Caucasian Knot that Dzhalaldinov does not legally qualify as a defendant because although he was the primary source of the information made public by Milashina and Gannushkina at the December 2016 press conference, he did not disseminate it personally.

In addition, Gannushkina has argued, first, that Civic Assistance should not be held legally responsible for a post she made in a private capacity, rather than as its leader; and, second, that nowhere in her Facebook post did she refer to the Chechen Interior Ministry as such (although she did mention First Deputy Interior Minister Alaudinov).

She also argued that, in light of widespread speculation at the time of Dzhalaldinov's disappearance following his confrontation with Alaudinov that the Chechen Interior Ministry had either apprehended or killed him, the revelations at the press conference that Dzhalaldinov was alive and well and no longer in Chechnya served to uphold the ministry's professional reputation by exonerating it of the suspicion of foul play, rather than damage it.

Possible Alternative Motive

Even though the Interior Ministry's collective libel suit and the seemingly orchestrated demonstration outside the Supreme Court building against perceived distortions of reality by Moscow-based journalists and human rights organizations suggest a new campaign of intimidation by Chechen authorities, the timing suggests a possible alternative motive.

The press conference at which Milashina and Gannushkina discussed Dzhalaldinov's case took place on December 6, 2016. Later that month, according to Caucasian Knot, the ministry launched an investigation and concluded in early April 2017 that there were no grounds for a criminal case.

Also in April, however, Milashina went public with allegations that gays in Chechnya were being subjected to harassment, detention, and torture. She later published what she said was a death list drawn up by the Chechen Interior Ministry of young men suspected of involvement in the December 2016 attacks on police in Grozny at least 14 of whom were apprehended and summarily executed.

The question thus arises: Did those revelations so enrage the Interior Ministry and/or Kadyrov personally that it was decided to bring a libel suit against Novaya Gazeta, and were Civic Assistance and Dzhalaldinov named as co-defendants simply to confuse the issue?

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Murat Kumpilov acting head of the Republic of Adygea despite calls for a direct vote. (file photo)

Over the past two years, voters in several of Russia's North Caucasus republics have launched campaigns to demand that their republican head should be elected by popular ballot, rather than selected by President Vladimir Putin from among three candidates proposed by the region's legislature and then formally "elected" by that same legislature.

The initiatives have generated interest and expressions of support from across the region, but most observers appear convinced they stand little or no chance of success.

The procedure for electing the heads of Russia's 83 federation subjects has changed several times over the past 13 years. Until 2004, the Russian Constitution guaranteed the right of voters to elect their regional leader. That right was revoked, on Putin's initiative, in the wake of the Beslan hostage taking in which 334 people, over half of them schoolchildren, were killed.

Then, following widespread protests in late 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev initiated new legislation bringing back direct elections. Less than a year later, however, in December 2012, Republic of North Ossetia parliament speaker Aleksei Machnev advocated allowing individual regions to decide how to elect their heads. And in March 2013, the law was amended to grant the regions the right to decide whether or not to hold direct elections. The rationale Putin cited for that revision was to preclude "national and interethnic religious conflicts" such as the tensions in Karachayevo-Cherkessia in 1999 in the run-up to a presidential runoff between a Karachai and a Circassian.

Over the next few months, all but one of the North Caucasus republics passed legislation empowering the regional parliament to select the most fitting candidate for the post of republican head.

The exception was Chechnya, where incumbent Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov was reelected for a third consecutive term in October 2016 with 97.94 percent of the vote.

'Failed Experiment'

Numerous journalists and commentators, however, either questioned or rejected out of hand the assumption that the North Caucasus republics are inherently so unstable that direct elections could trigger violent clashes between supporters of rival candidates.

Journalist and Kremlin insider Maksim Shevchenko, a member of President Putin's Human Rights Council with an extensive knowledge of the North Caucasus, recently argued that there are no objective reasons for not allowing direct elections, given that the threat of terrorism has receded and the overall situation is stable.

Several experts have made the point that depriving voters in specific regions of the constitutionally guaranteed right to elect their leader only strengthens the perception that the inhabitants of the North Caucasus are regarded by the Kremlin as second-class citizens.

Other arguments against indirect elections are more pragmatic. Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, affirmed that "the transition to indirect elections of governors in the [Russian Federation] turned out to be a failed experiment.... If we look at the general effectiveness of those [regional leaders] who were appointed, it is lower than that of those who were elected."

The first North Caucasus region to raise the question of bringing back direct elections was the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR). In January 2016, the local chapter of the Communists of Russia party appealed unsuccessfully to the republic's Central Election Commission to schedule a referendum on the issue. In October, the commission likewise rejected a request by the KChR chapter of the Party for Russia's Rebirth to register an initiative group that planned to organize such a referendum.

A third such request was made by the Congress of Elders of the Karachai People, which in March adopted a formal demand that the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head be popularly elected. The 200-plus elders argued that without direct elections at all levels, building a genuine civil society is impossible.

Several months later, in late October, the Congress of Elders of the Karachai People appealed to the KChR parliament to bring back direct elections, the website Kavpolit reported.

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Adygeya, the only region of the South Russia Federal District whose leader is not popularly elected, an initiative group launched a petition one year ago on change.org calling for direct elections that attracted some 4,657 signatures within three weeks (of a total population of approximately 450,000).

'Blatant Violation'

A separate public organization headed by Asker Sokht, deputy head of the Krasnodar Krai Circassian Council, was established in early November 2016, just months before republic head Aslan Tkhakushinov's second term expired, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported. Its members stated explicitly that they were not against republican then-Prime Minister Murat Kumpilov, a close relative of Tkhakushinov whom the latter wanted to succeed him, running in direct elections, but simply wanted a choice of candidates. Putin ignored that demand and named Kumpilov acting republic head in January.

In mid-October, the opposition Council of Teyps of the Ingush People publicly endorsed the campaign by the Congress of Elders of the Karachai People to bring back direct elections, declaring that "depriving citizens and entire ethnic groups of the right to elect and be elected...constitutes a blatant violation of the constitution of [the Russian Federation], which in a law-based state presupposes criminal responsibility," Caucasian Knot reported

Individual regional politicians, too, have added their voice to the demand for the restoration of direct elections. Gadzhimurad Omarov, who heads the Daghestan chapter of the opposition A Just Russia party and represents Bashkortostan in the Russian State Duma, has appealed publicly to acting Republic of Daghestan head Vladimir Vasliyev to "restore constitutional order and gives Daghestanis back the right to elect [their leader]," the news portal Regnum reported on October 20.

Even Republic of North Ossetia head Vyacheslav Bitarov, who in the event of an open ballot would be at risk of losing to popular opposition leader Arsen Fadzayev, has expressed his approval.

Despite the growing demand, most observers nonetheless remain pessimistic. Shevchenko and others are convinced that the Kremlin prefers to entrust regions perceived as problematic to politicians who can be trusted 100-percent to implement its orders. Shevchenko is on record as saying that the choice of republican head is determined by concerted lobbying and the price individual politicians are prepared to pay for the privilege. "Everyone knows who paid how much to whom," the website Kavpolit quoted him as saying. In early 2010, it was rumored that Magomedsalam Magomedov had offered a five-figure sum in U.S. dollars in the hope of being selected as president of Daghestan.

Some observers, however, do not exclude the possibility that Moscow might make an exception. Lawyer Vitaly Averin told Caucasian Knot that faced with pressure in a specific North Caucasus republic where direct elections have been abolished, the Kremlin might agree to reverse that ruling, but is unlikely to do so for all of them.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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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