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Daghestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov

Daghestan's parliament voted last week to abolish the free medical care to which the families of the republic's former leaders are entitled after those leaders leave office. That provision was one of the privileges enumerated in what has become known as the "law on golden parachutes" passed in late 2013, shortly after Ramazan Abdulatipov was formally confirmed as republic head.

The timing of the amendment is likely to fuel ongoing speculation that Abdulatipov, who turned 70 last year, will be dismissed before his formal term in office ends next year, possibly to be replaced by a Russian Interior Ministry general.

The "law on golden parachutes" entitles former republic heads to personal bodyguards for the duration of their lifetime; the use of official transport and communications; medical care; life insurance paid for from the republic's budget; and a monthly pension equivalent to 75 percent of their final salary. Those benefits will remain in effect but will apply only to former republic heads who have reached pension age. Abdulatipov's predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov, 52, who is currently a member of the Russian presidential administration, is therefore not yet entitled to claim them, unlike his father, Magomedali Magomedov, who headed the republic from 1994-2006, and Mukhu Aliyev, who held that post from 2006-10.

In June 2015, Daghestani lawyer Marat Ismayilov wrote to Daghestan's Prosecutor-General Ramazan Shakhnavazov arguing that the law violated federal legislation on budget spending that bars regional parliaments from enacting legislation that entails expenditure that cannot be paid for out of the region's revenues. Some 74 percent of Daghestan's budget comprises subsidies from the federal government.

Six months later, Shakhnavazov formally demanded the annulment of the law, but legislators rejected that demand at a session from which representatives of the prosecutor's office were excluded.

Shakhnavazov appealed the parliament's decision to Daghestan's Supreme Court, which after obtaining from the republic's Finance Ministry details of the costs involved conceded that the provision of free medical care for former leaders' family members is illegal, but upheld the privileges to which former republic heads are entitled.

Shakhnavazov then took his complaint to Russia's Supreme Court, which likewise upheld those privileges.

What impelled Daghestani parliamentarians to amend the law last week is not clear. (They reportedly calculated that doing so will save 2 million rubles [$33,285] a year.) But the move is likely to reignite speculation that Abdulatipov's days as republic head are numbered. A document released in December by a St. Petersburg think tank listed him, together with Adygeya head Aslan Tkhakushinov and Volgograd Oblast Governor Andrei Bocharev, among federation subject heads whose rating had fallen over the past year. Tkhakushinov, 69, stepped down in January at the end of his second term.

Just days later, journalist and Kremlin insider Maksim Shevchenko quoted unnamed "extremely reliable sources" as predicting that Abdulatipov would shortly step down, and that retired Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, who formerly headed the Interior Ministry directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District, would be named acting republic head in his place.

But Gadjimet Safaraliyev, who represents Daghestan in the Russian State Duma, immediately discounted that possibility, affirming that Abdulatipov will serve out his full term (which ends in September 2018).

Commentator Aleksandr Polansky, for his part, made the point that if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to replace Abdulatipov now, doing so would constitute a tacit admission that he had made a major strategic error in dismissing Magomedsalam Magomedov in early 2013 after just three years and naming Abdulatipov to succeed him.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Despite capmaigns by the Cuncil of Europe and others to secure his release, ReAl chairman Ilqar Mamedov is still serving a seven-year prison term for his alleged participation in mass unrest in January 2013 (file photo)

Just days after Baku's Court for Serious Crimes handed down lengthy prison terms to 18 men charged with plotting a coup d'etat at the behest of Iran, the unequivocally pro-Western political movement ReAl (Republican Alternative) has been accused of agreeing to collaborate with, and accepting funding from, Iranian diplomats.

Those allegations, which ReAl has dismissed as "utter rubbish," were made in a 1,080 word article, said to be based on information from an unidentified "reliable source," that was posted on January 27 on the website Haqqin.az, which has a track record of criticizing opposition parties. The author claimed that, at a recent meeting with staffers from the Iranian Embassy in Baku, ReAl leaders agreed to act as intermediaries between embassy personnel and representatives of other Azerbaijani opposition groups. Also discussed, according to Haqqin.az, was the possibility of ReAl receiving funding from Tehran.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office immediately launched an investigation, summoning ReAl board member Azer Gasymly for questioning on January 28 and founder member and ReAl executive secretary Natiq Cafarli two days later. They were interrogated for five and 2 1/2 hours, respectively.

In separate comments to the news portal Caucasian Knot, the two men said they were questioned about a visit on January 19 to ReAl's Baku office by the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy to discuss the political and economic situation in Azerbaijan and the state of bilateral relations, and also asked whether they had accepted Iranian funding.

Legal Consultations

Gasymly made the point that such meetings are not illegal, and that staff members from numerous Western embassies, including those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands, had previously held such consultations with ReAl. He recalled that the Prosecutor-General's Office had similarly summoned him for questioning after a meeting with U.S. Embassy personnel in September 2016.

Cafarli denied that ReAl had accepted money from the Iranian diplomats, and recalled that the movement was previously accused of accepting Western funding. He personally is still under investigation on charges brought in August 2016 of exceeding his authority and misusing a grant.

ReAl was established in December 2008 to campaign against proposed sweeping constitutional amendments, in particular the abolition of any limit on the number of presidential terms one person may serve. Those changes were nonetheless approved in a nationwide referendum in March 2009. ReAl's stated objectives are the transformation of Azerbaijan from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, building a democratic society, and integration into NATO and the European Union.

In the November 2015 parliamentary elections, according to Cafarli, ReAl's candidates in the 10 electoral districts where they succeeded in registering garnered between 55 and 60 percent of the vote. The movement demanded the annulment of the official returns showing far lower figures, which it said were falsified.

'Illogical' Accusations

Independent commentator Azer Rashidoglu construed the probe into ReAl's purported collaboration with the Iranian Embassy as intended to blacken the movement in the eyes of Western public opinion and undermine the campaign by the Council of Europe and other organizations to secure the release of its Chairman Ilqar Mamedov, who is serving a seven-year prison term for his alleged participation in mass unrest in January 2013 in the provincial town of Ismayilli, 200 kilometers west of Baku.

On January 23, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe head Pedro Agramunt formally urged the Azerbaijani authorities to release Mamedov, whom he described as "a colleague and friend."

Even Haqqin.az admitted that it is "illogical" for ReAl to have made common cause with Iran, given its pro-Western orientation. That does not mean, however, that the prosecutor's office will not proceed to cobble together a case against those ReAl leaders who met with the Iranian diplomats, or that a court might not find them guilty despite the lack of any hard evidence.

That is what happened to the 18 defendants at the so-called Nardaran trial, who were arrested in November 2015 and went on trial in August 2016 on charges of forming an armed group with the aim of seizing power on orders from Tehran. All pleaded not guilty.

Theologian and Movement for Muslim Unity head Taleh Bagirzade and his deputy Abbas Huseynov were jailed for 20 years, and 15 other residents of the village of Nardaran, whose devoutly Shi'ite population look for spiritual guidance to Iran rather than to Azerbaijan's Muslim Spiritual Board, for between 10 and 19 years.

Fuad Gakhramanly, deputy head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was likewise sentenced to 10 years merely for a Facebook post branding "unjust" the arrest of Bagirzade and other Nardaran residents.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views 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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