On October 13, the investigative committee of the Russian prosecutor-general’s office announced that a criminal group had been uncovered, which had carried out a number of high-profile killings in North Ossetia in 2007-2008. The victims included both the acting and a former mayor of Vladikavkaz –the capital of North Ossetia– several top policemen, including the head of the police department for fighting organized crime, and other officials. According to the investigators, the criminal group had twelve members (www.sledcomproc.ru, October 13).
A striking detail about this killers’ squad is that almost all of its members have South Ossetian origins, and South Ossetians are a distinct sub-ethnic group among the Ossetians. In addition, at least three people among the twelve suspects were members of law enforcement agencies. One suspect worked for the prosecutor’s office, another one for the anti-organized crime department of the police and a third was the head of the South Ossetian security services.
On October 7 two suspects allegedly involved in the crimes in North Ossetia were arrested in Crimea, Ukraine and deported to Russia. According to media reports, the suspects were preparing to assassinate a political leader in Ukraine (www.gazeta.ru, October 8). It remained unexplained who they were targeting and why the Ukrainian police preferred to hand the suspects over to Russia rather than interrogating them in Ukraine. One of the two suspects, Robert Tabuev, is not an ordinary person charged with murder: he is the former head of the South Ossetian security services, still called the KGB after their Soviet predecessor. Tabuev was dismissed from his office in 2003 (www.osradio.ru, October 8). Bearing in mind the close relations between the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the South Ossetian KGB, it is justified to equate Robert Tabuev to an FSB officer. The statement by the investigative committee provides an oblique confirmation of that: despite numerous media reports, for some reason it failed to mention Tabuev’s name among the twelve suspects.
On November 6, 2008, two weeks before the murder of the Vladikavkaz mayor, the city experienced another shock when twelve civilians died in a blast on a local taxi minivan in what was claimed to be a suicide bombing. Subsequently, a group calling itself the Ossetian Jamaat – Kataib al-Khoul claimed responsibility for both the suicide attack and the assassination of the mayor. The same extremist group made threats against a powerful political figure in North Ossetia with a Muslim background –Arsen Fadzaev, a member of the Russian State Duma. Now it appears that a criminal gang with at least some connections to the Russian security services carried out the assassination of the mayor, and it may be justifiable to suggest that this group had links to the suicide bombing as well (“Was the FSB Behind the Murder of Vladikavkaz’s Mayors?” North Caucasus Weekly, March 27).
A number of analysts have reported cooperation between the Russian security services and organized crime. The case of the Ossetian killers’ squad appears to be one of those instances. None of the suspects whose names the investigators made public has any political standing in North Ossetia, so it makes very little sense for them to hunt North Ossetian political figures unless they were ordered and/or paid to do so. It is even more mysterious why they chose to blow up the minivan, if they indeed were connected to this crime as well. Whether this incident implicates corrupt members of the Russian security services or was an undercover operation that went wrong, one thing is clear: that under the current circumstances of the security services being completely out of civil control, they pose a grave danger to society.
Following the shocking killings of the two mayors of Vladikavkaz at the end of 2008, some observers suggested there was a strong feeling among some circles in Russia to go beyond simply recognizing South Ossetia –which happened in August 2008– and formally annex the breakaway Georgian region, citing the need for unifying the Ossetians inside Russian Federation. The high profile killings supposedly were meant to destabilize North Ossetia and make it easier to establish a new political order. As of now, there are few signs of imminent formal annexation of South Ossetia by Russia, but the internal politics in South Ossetia remain tumultuous as opposition to President Eduard Kokoity solidifies in Moscow. On October 9, a large gathering called the Russian-South Ossetian socio-political forum took place in the Russian capital. A Russian businessman of South Ossetian origin, Albert Dzhussoev, organized the event, which appears to be an effort to replace Eduard Kokoity as South Ossetia’s president before his second presidential term expires in 2011.
The forum’s participants condemned Kokoity’s regime as criminal and oppressive and appealed to the Russian government for Kokoity to go. Some of the desperate South Ossetians reportedly even said that Kokoity’s regime is performing so badly that people in the republic have started grumbling about Russia’s role as well: “If Russia does not help [us], our people will continue dragging on with their slavish lives, or else we will be forced to address the international community” (www.iron-times.ru, October 9).
The forum took place despite active propaganda efforts by the Kokoity administration to curb it. The South Ossetian government reportedly intimidated the participants from South Ossetia, accusing the organizers of being paid by “enemies of Russia from London” and even tried to prevent the participants physically from entering the conference’s premises (Kommersant, October 12). The fact that the South Ossetian opposition conference took place in Moscow shows that Kokoity is not supported by the Kremlin unconditionally; instead, the latter appears to be groping for strategies to replace him.
The logic of internal political warfare, as well as the fluidity of external circumstances, makes it likely that there will be at least moderate violence in South and North Ossetia, despite the current appearance of relative stability.