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South Ossetia: Furore Over Chibirov Arrest

The detention of the son of the former president of the unrecognised republic of South Ossetia has intensified a political feud.
By Kosta Dzugayev

Security service agents last week stopped Alexei Chibirov, the son of former elected leader of South Ossetia, as he was walking down a street in the capital Tskhinval and asked him to accompany them to their office for an interview.

When Chibirov refused, the servicemen forced him into their car and drove him to the KGB remand prison where he is still being held and declared a hunger strike on January 14.

The arrest has sparked probably the biggest political scandal in the unrecognised republic since it broke away from Georgia more than ten years ago. The detained man's father Ludwig Chibirov ruled South Ossetia from that time until December 2001, when he was ousted in a presidential poll by the current leader, Eduard Kokoity (who is also known by the Russianized surname Kokoyev).

According to investigator Nikolai Pukhayev, Alexei Chibirov faces several criminal charges, the most important of which relates to his former job. Until late 2001, Chibirov junior was deputy head of the republican KGB, the same agency that is now holding him in custody.

"During the 2001 election campaign, Chibirov sent security service officers to terrorize parliament chairman Stanislav Kochiev into withdrawing from the race," the investigator told journalists last week. "Threats of murder were also made to parliamentary deputy Georgy Cheldiev."

Officials have not explained why they waited a year before bringing the charges, and former president Ludwig Chibirov told Prime News agency that his son was "being framed with ludicrous charges that can get him up to 20 years in prison." He went on, "They've been after him since the 2001 presidential election when Alexei openly challenged the current South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity."

In response, the South Ossetian leader told journalists, "There is nothing political about this and the situation that has arisen appears mainly to be a misunderstanding. The KGB just wanted to ask Alexei a couple of questions, but he misinterpreted their intentions."

Neutral observers regard the arrest as the latest chapter in a long-running political feud. It began mid-way through 2001, when an opposition first made its voice heard in South Ossetia, which hitherto had been fully united against the outside enemy, Georgia.

Two new opposition leaders both challenged Chibirov for the presidency. One was local Communist Party leader Stanislav Kochiev, the other was Eduard Kokoity, a youthful former wrestling champion, who had no party allegiances and had just returned to Tskhinval from Moscow.

Few doubted the all-powerful Chibirov would emerge victorious from the fight, but in the event he received only 20 per cent of the vote and was knocked out of the first round of the contest altogether by Kokoity and Kochiev.

Ludwig Chibirov was clearly taken aback. The next day his son's armed supporters stormed into the parliament building to try and coerce Kochiev into withdrawing from the race and thus effectively invalidating the poll results.

"The standoff between Chibirov's and Kokoity's factions is now over," a Tskhinval-based political analyst, who asked not to be named, told IWPR. "Neither the older or the younger Chibirov have any influence anymore in South Ossetia." Other independent analysts, as well as South Ossetian officials, declined to comment.

Having lost the election, Ludwig Chibirov immediately left politics. He now lives in Vladikavkaz, south of Russia, working as a senior researcher in Caucasus history and ethnography at the local humanities institute and writing his memoirs.

Nonetheless, the analyst quoted earlier suggests that the arrest of Chibirov may be an attempt to wipe out the last traces of his father's political influence in the republic.

According to another theory, the KGB is trying to eliminate Chibirov junior's remaining connections inside the agency.

This theory is supported by the fact that several other arrests were made concurrently with Chibirov's, including the former head of the republic's riot police (or OMON) Merab Pukhaev. "Apparently, the new leadership has set out to purge its security forces and strengthen internal political control," the analyst told IWPR.

There has been speculation in the Georgian media that the detentions are a symptom of an all-out power struggle for control of South Ossetia's security services. Local officials deny this.

"There is nothing going on, the situation is perfectly calm and under control," OMON chief Murat Tedeev told IWPR. "We are working as normal."

However, South Ossetian government officials did announce last month that they are in possession of a video containing what they said was "major incriminating evidence against the former regime" and would be willing to air it on local television.

The video has never been shown and it's anyone's guess what it contains. Rumours are rife in Tskhinval about the former government's financial mismanagement and criminal activity.

The authorities have apparently decided not to air the mysterious tape. At the moment it seems they believe that their predecessors are finished and that communist leader Kochiev is the only credible opposition force.

Kosta Dzugayev is director of the NGO, the Centre for Information Technology in Tskhinval, South Ossetia.

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