Monday, December 24, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Political Protests Spreading Across the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 24 -- Even as the Kremlin continues to celebrate its military and electoral triumphs in the North Caucasus, ever more people in that region are engaging in protest actions of various kinds against the policies and practices of both the central government and its designated representatives there.
Over the last week, Ingush activists collected signatures to prove that the authorities had falsified the results of the December 2 parliamentary elections, members of the Voice of Beslan began a hunger strike to seek the reversal of a ban on their group, and Daghestanis protested against torture in prisons there and Moscow’s ban of a Turkish Muslim theologian.
The first and most interesting of these actions is taking place in Ingushetia, where the Kremlin-installed leadership reported that more than 98 percent of registered voters had taken part in the December 2 parliamentary elections and that almost as great a share had voted for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Few people there or elsewhere believed that these figures were accurate, and Ingush opposition groups a week ago began circulating petitions in which registered voters could declare that they had not taken part in the recent poll. As of Sunday night, 36 percent of them had said they had not (
That figure makes it clear that the numbers the republic leadership had reported and that Putin and his regime have accepted were completely fraudulent at least for that region. And petition organizers say that more people are coming forward to declare that they did not vote, making it likely that the extent of the government’s fraud is even greater.
The second action last week also is continuing. Following a court decision to close the “Voices of Beslan” organization, which represents the interests of those who lost relatives in the September 2004 violence there, activists launched a hunger strike in an effort to force the authorities to reconsider ( text/news/id/1204066.html).
Even if the courts and the administration in North Osetia do not do so, this level of commitment suggests that few of those who suffered such terrible losses are going to stop their activities whatever happens. And if the authorities ignore this commitment as currently seems likely, they will generate more opposition to themselves and to Moscow.
And finally, the third locale of political protest in the North Caucasus last week was in Daghestan. There activists were involved with two different cases. In the first, they were collecting signatures seeking the reversal of Moscow’s decision to ban the works of Turkish Muslim writer Said Nursi ( text/news/id/1204128.html).
A lawyer for the group said Moscow was wrong on the facts about Nursi and discriminating against Muslims as such -- 27 of the 32 works Moscow banned in this round were from “the pen of Muslim writers” -- and that unless the Russian government reversed course, the Dahgestanis were prepared to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights.
When the pro-Nursi activists will be able to make such an appeal or be successful in winning support for their position if they do, they can be certain that such a case, along with all the other human rights cases from the Russian Federation, will prove an embarrassment for Moscow as it tries to solidify its ties with European Union leaders.
In the second Daghestani case, the “Mothers of Daghestan” group not only delivered a protest to the republic’s prosecutors about the use of torture in the republic’s penal institutions but also began a hunger strike to force the authorities to respond to their complaints and end torture.
Specifically, the group is pressing for information about the case of Il’yas Dibirov, who was horribly beaten by masked men who the activists believe were Interior Ministry spetsnaz men or even GRU officers. That puts Makhachala in an impossible position: If it blames Moscow, it has one set of problems; it doesn’t, it has another one.
Because all of these actions were non-violent and “within system,” some in the Russian capital and elsewhere may be inclined to view them as a step forward or even a victory for the Russian authorities because they suggest the non-Russian peoples in the North Caucasus have accepted the new rules of the political game there.
But such conclusions are almost certainly overly optimistic. On the one hand, these protests focus not on relatively small issues like the mistreatment of a mullah (as in Ufa last week; see, but on the nature of the political system itself -- its elections, its courts, and its police powers.
And on the other, Putin’s decision to assume complete control over the selection of local leaders means that he and the central government he heads are no longer insulated from popular anger against local officials as Moscow to a certain extent was when these people were directly elected.
As a result, if the local officials continue on as they have, more and more people in the region will increasingly blame Moscow for shortcomings that it may be only indirectly responsible for and thus be increasingly willing to listen to those who say the only solution to their problems comes from a frontal attack on the political system Moscow has created.

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