Moscow Faces a Sea of Troubles in the Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 32

It appears that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov still has not given up his ambition to crush his old rival Lieutenant Colonel Sulim Yamadaev, commander of the Vostok battalion (a Russian Defense Ministry special forces unit) and Hero of Russia. On August 6, all Russian information agencies reported the almost-sensational news that Sulim Yamadaev is wanted on a federal warrant for the murder of 32-year old Usman Batsaev near the village of Dzhalka in Chechnya’s Gudermes district in February 1998 (http://www.gazeta.ru/news/lenta/2008/08/07/n_1253320.shtml, see also North Caucasus Weekly, August 7). The Chechen government quickly jumped into the fray by charging Yamadaev with a number of other prominent crimes of the last few years that until recently were considered unsolved (http://www.interfax.ru/politics/txt.asp?id=25639, see also North Caucasus Weekly, August 7). It is still mind-boggling that the charge selected for the warrant was a ten-year old episode, besides which, while it is known that Batsaev was kidnapped, the prosecution will still need to prove Yamadaev’s personal involvement in his murder.

In the meantime, Yamadaev’s older brother Ruslan, formerly a State Duma Deputy with the ruling United Russia party, denied the allegations and pointed out that far from being a fugitive, Sulim Yamadaev continues to live in Moscow and attend classes at the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military Academy (http://echo.msk.ru/news/532344-echo.html).

The Yamadaev matter is a touchy one for the Russian government: in addition to his stature as Hero of Russia, which he received for his contribution to the battles against the separatists, Yamadaev hails from a family in which two other siblings have received the same award, and it is certainly a unique case for one family to have three recipients of that award. Moreover, both camps in this fray are likely to have supporters in Moscow, and while Kadyrov relies on his own backers, Yamadaev’s allies can be found within the highest ranks of Russia’s Defense Ministry, and they are unlikely to give him up without a fight. Therefore retaliatory strikes by the Yamadaev brothers against Ramzan Kadyrov should be expected.

Meanwhile, the North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia now has a new president (http://stavropol.aif.ru/issues/776/02_01). Despite long and humiliating confrontations with the local public, former President Mustafa Batdyev managed to hold on to his post until the official replacement came through. Batdyev was saved from the threat of forcible physical ejection by the angry public only by the interference of Dmitry Kozak, who was presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District at the time. Kozak made a personal entreaty to those laying siege to Batdyev’s office to leave and give him a chance to have a serious talk with Batdyev about all the challenges facing Karachaevo-Cherkessia (http://izvestia.com/news/news90313). Even former president Putin was forced to admit that the republic was dealing with a “governmental crisis due to criminal acts related to the redistribution of assets” (http://interfax.ru/politics/txt.asp?id=25211). All the while, Karachaevo-Cherkessia has been home to the Karachai Jamaat, one of the more prominent resistance groups that nevertheless has been on the decline over the last two years.

Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s new president is Boris Ebzeyev, an ethnic Karachai who was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1950 after the deportation of the Karachai people in 1943 (http://lenta.ru/news/2008/08/05/prez/). Ebzeyev is an attorney by training and has built a name for himself during the formative years of the Russian Constitutional Court, which was established in 1991, and which he was a member of until recently (http://www.rian.ru/spravka/20080730/115284302.html). Moscow hopes that Ebzeyev’s appointment will eliminate many of the problems his predecessor left behind. It should be noted that this choice for Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s president is a very prudent one, and Ebzeyev may be able to rise to prominence as a leader of the North Caucasus region as a whole on the strength of his independence, support for the rule of law and lack of involvement in the internal conflicts tearing apart at his home republic.

In the meantime, Moscow is trying to expand the scope of the armed conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia and transform it into a regional factor by recruiting putative “volunteers” in the North Caucasus to help the Ossetians. However, the mood in the region is far from supportive for the latter; according to Kavkazsky Uzel, surveys of residents on the streets of Grozny showed unanimous support for Georgia and widespread sympathy for its people. South Ossetia’s moves are seen as attempts to curry favor with Russia, which is still stung by Georgia’s move out of its sphere of influence (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1226748.html). Naturally, the Chechen government is sticking to the official line set by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which has condemned Georgia’s actions and expresses support for any steps undertaken by the government of South Ossetia.

Finally, a key recent development is the spread of bombings to the last place Moscow would like to see them—Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. On the morning of August 7, a bomb went off at the municipal beach in the greater Sochi area, killing two vacationers and wounding several, including a child (http://www.radiorus.ru/news.html?id=289404). The incident was only the latest bomb explosion in Sochi this year (http://newsru.com/russia/08aug2008/teracts.html). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has personally instructed the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, Vladimir Ustinov, to deal with the problem and do everything in his power to prevent further explosions in the Olympic village.

It is worth noting that only a few days before the latest explosion in Sochi, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned the public about possible terrorist acts, stating that “the threat of terror in Russia presently is very high” (http://top.rbc.ru/politics/04/08/2008/214153.shtml). If the investigation confirms that these attacks are even remotely connected to rebel fighters from the North Caucasus, it would mean another painful blow for the reputation of the government, which claims that it long ago resolved the issue of armed opposition in the North Caucasus.

The developments in the small enclave of Ingushetia continue to be a concern for Moscow. Anti-government opposition leaders have circulated a petition calling for the return of the former president, Ruslan Aushev, who left his post early under pressure from the Kremlin, which considered Aushev too independent when it came to making decisions concerning Ingushetia. The petition committee has gathered 80,000 signatures demanding that Ingushetia’s current president, Murat Zyazikov, step down and Ruslan Aushev be appointed in his place (http://ingushetiya.ru/news/15067.html). While during Putin’s term no one dared to bring up the possibility of dismissing Zyazikov, a Federal Security Service (FSB) major general, this now appears more likely in the wake of Medvedev’s accession as president and may end the long-standing confrontation between the public and Zyazikov. This is further confirmed by a recent interview with Ruslan Aushev, who for years has refused to criticize the current Ingush president, but is now making it clear that he will stand with his people (Novaya Gazeta, August 7; see also North Caucasus Weekly, August 7).

Meanwhile, the anti-terrorist operation conducted by the Interior and FSB near the village of Gimry in Dagestan’s Untsukulsky district from December 2007 through August 1, 2008 has been completed with little to show in the way of results (http://www.riadagestan.ru/news/2008/08/01/69965/). In the end, the village residents refused to give up those who took up arms and joined the underground. There was nothing left for Dagestani President Mukhu Aliev to do other than to exhort the locals, again, to try and influence their relatives who left to join the armed jamaats.