Authorities in the North Caucasus Try to Nip Signs of Popular Uprisings in the Bud

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 3

South Ossetian presidential candidate, Alla Jioeva, speak to a crowd of supporters (Source: RIA Novosti)

On January 2, a court in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia penalized two people who had participated in a public protest, sentencing them to five and ten days of detention. On January 1, the well-known North Ossetian journalist Elina Marzoeva and the rights activist Ruslan Magkaev were sentenced to the maximum penalty of 15 days of detention for organizing and participating in the same banned protest march, which took place in Vladikavkaz on December 30, and was directed against the detention of six people who backed the candidacy of the South Ossetian opposition leader Alla Jioeva in the November 2011 elections. Twenty-seven participants in the march were arrested initially, but most of them were subsequently released (http://north-osetia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198718/, January 2).

Jioeva’s victory in the second round of the South Ossetian presidential elections on November 27 was a major embarrassment for Moscow, which had openly favored her rival, Anatoly Bibilov. President Dmitry Medvedev even shook hands with Bibilov in person in Vladikavkaz a week before the election’s second round.

Modest Kolerov, who was previously the Kremlin official in charge of relations with CIS countries and other former Soviet states and is currently editor-in-chief of the Regnum news agency, alleged that the Russian presidential administration official responsible for Moscow’s humiliating defeats in South Ossetia and later in Transdniester, Sergei Vinokurov, was about to be fired (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24440380.html, January 2). When the South Ossetian government, encouraged by Moscow, refused to hand over power to Alla Jioeva, the police and security services in neighboring North Ossetia reverted to the open persecution of Jioeva’s supporters.

The prolific South Ossetian journalist Maria Plieva was arrested on charges of verbal attacks against the police in Vladikavkaz on December 3. The charges against her were subsequently dropped and she was exculpated by a court, but prosecutors returned Plieva’s case to the court for another hearing (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198122/, December 22, 2011). The well-known North Ossetian rights activist Vissarion Aseyev was subjected to pressure by the police, who threatened his relatives after he merely requested permission to stage a demonstration to defend the choice of the people of South Ossetia (http://north-osetia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/197348/, December 10, 2011).

It is worth noting that Jioeva’s supporters were either arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) or eventually ended up in FSB custody even if they were initially arrested by the police (http://civil-forum.org/menu_id/11/id/170/lang/3). Two of those arrested people, Soslan Kokoev and Genri Kachmazov, used their website (http://uasamonga.ru) to inform the public about the opposition’s actions. Some observers alleged they were arrested after Soslan Kokoev gave an interview to the Liberty News radio on December 1 in which he stated that because of Moscow’s unwillingness to recognize the free choice of South Ossetians, the Ossetian people, who were once very loyal to Russia, were starting “to hate Russia and turn toward the West” (http://rln.fm/2011/12/yuzhnaya-osetiya-nachinaet-smotret-v-storonu-zapada/). Statements like this certainly have a strong effect in the North Caucasus, where the political system is close to a dictatorship with an elaborate propaganda machine that includes TV, radio, government-controlled print media and state-approved historians. For example, the official version of Ossetian history is that Ossetians voluntarily joined the Russian empire in the eighteenth century, even though historical records show that in the nineteenth century Ossetian guerrillas fought the Russian army on numerous occasions and Ossetians of Muslim origin were expelled from their homeland to Turkey.

Yet, the government’s ostentatious crackdown on the South Ossetian opposition in North Ossetia probably has much more to do with the current political situation in Russia than battles over the past. Moscow’s failure in the South Ossetian elections showed North Ossetians – and to certain extent to all Russians – that voters are capable of voting out a government they dislike if they turn out to vote and stand up for the results. It is easy to extrapolate to the situation in Russia and see that this scenario is a nightmare for Putin’s regime in Moscow. So all efforts are being made to convince people in Russia that they cannot in principle change their government without the explicit approval of the top Russian official. Explaining the Russian people’s unexpected awakening after the December 4 parliamentary elections, Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote: “The question ‘Why should we be worse than Ossetians?’ certainly soared above [the Russian elections]” (http://www.ng.ru/ng_politics/2011-12-06/12_opros.html#.TvQI-DuAv6I.livejournal, December 6, 2011).

Besides having an effect on Russia, the situation in South Ossetia is bound to have an impact on North Ossetia and the North Caucasus as a whole. People in the North Caucasus will inevitably ask why neighboring South Ossetia, a territory with 30,000-40,000 inhabitants, has the right to elect its leadership when they cannot do the same in their significantly larger republics. Since Vladimir Putin abolished popular elections for governors in 2004 primarily because of the North Caucasus, this grudge will be held against him and his regime.

The illustrious Russian wrestler and coach of the Russian national wrestling team, Jambolat Tedeyev, was Alla Jioeva’s main backer. Tedeyev was reportedly summoned to the FSB’s headquarters on Lubyanka Square in Moscow and warned to drop his support for Jioeva. After a heated discussion with several FSB generals, Tedeyev left Russia, reportedly to avoid complications with the Russian authorities (http://uasdan.com/chochiev/1173-logika-kremlya-ili-otdelno-lubyanki-ubit-tedeeva-smyat-dzhioevu-razdavit-narod-ryuo.html, December 1, 2011).

The close but somewhat ineffective involvement of the FSB in South Ossetian affairs was demonstrated by another peculiar case. Among the six supporters of Alla Jioeva who were detained in North Ossetia was Robert Tabuev, formerly head of the South Ossetian KGB, which by default means he was a Russian FSB serviceman. Tabuev was implicated in the assassination of two successive mayors of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia in 2008, after which he fled to Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities deported him to Russia and alerted the Russian authorities. However, despite the accusations of involvement in assassinations of high profile officials in North Ossetia, Tabuev moved around freely. When the government decided to arrest Tabuev for political involvement, the police accused him of possession of illegal drugs and drug trafficking and he, among others, ended up in FSB custody (http://www.newsru.com/russia/06dec2011/tabuev.html, December 6, 2011).

As the authorities try to prevent political protests from spreading in North Ossetia, the rising protest wave in Russia may have repercussions for the North Caucasus, making public uprisings more likely throughout the region in 2012.