South Ossetia's President Clamps Down

A purge in South Ossetia redraws the political landscape

South Ossetia's President Clamps Down

A purge in South Ossetia redraws the political landscape

The leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, has moved to stamp his authority on the breakaway republic after a dramatic and sudden clearout of almost all his security chiefs.

Kokoity made his move on the night of July 1, when a group of "spetznaz" special forces, backed up by the president's own guards, sealed off a complex of buildings in the centre of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinval, in which the entire security leadership is headquartered.

All armed personnel employed by the ministers for defence, security and justice were forced to give up their weapons. Only one injury was reported, caused when soldiers fired upon a car that refused to stop.

The next day the public was told about what had happened the night before and why. According to local media, Kokoity had signed a decree sacking the secretary of the Security Council and the ministers of defence, security and justice.

He had ordered the disbanding of the defence ministry's intelligence department and of the security department in charge of escorting road cargoes. The president also took charge of the customs department, which is South Ossetia's main source of revenue.

In a statement published in all the local newspapers, Kokoity explained that he wished to put an end to "the impunity of the rebellious leaders of some structures." He noted that the clearout had been triggered by "the insufficiently effective fight of the law enforcement agencies against crime and links between some of their officials and criminals."

"As head of state I have to do everything to strengthen constitutional order," Kokoity said.

The men dismissed had been some of the most powerful figures in South Ossetia since it broke away de facto from Georgia in 1992. "All of the people who were sacked were members of the Tedeyev group and they completely controlled all financial and political channels in their spheres," a local political analyst, who asked not to be named, told IWPR.

"President Kokoity has been forced to share power with the Tedeyevs for more than 18 months, but this situation was having a destructive effect on society and it couldn't go on like that."

The two main figures in the "Tedeyev group" were the former head of the Security Council and head of South Ossetia's human rights commission Albert Tedeyev, and his brother Jambulat, who was a world wrestling champion and trainer of Russia's wrestling team. It was Jambulat Tedeyev who financed and headed Kokoity's campaign for the presidency of South Ossetia in 2001.

South Ossetian politics has always relied heavily on family connections. After fighting ended with the Georgians in 1992, Ludwig Chibirov emerged as the first elected president of the unrecognised republic. In the eight years he spent in office, his own clan became very powerful, as did that of the Tedeyevs, who were related to Chibirov from his mother's side.

However, in 2001, the most powerful members of the Tedeyev family abruptly turned against Chibirov and gave their support to Kokoity. According to the political analyst, they had switched allegiances because it of new business interests they had developed with Kokoity in Moscow.

After Kokoity was elected president, members of the Tedeyev group took over responsibility for the republic's customs service and for freight traffic along the Transcaucasian highway. As well as being the main economic lifeline between South Ossetia and Russia, the highway is, many experts say, a major route for smuggling and for the drugs and arms trade.

In the past six months, both the security and political situation in South Ossetia have worsened. The first sign of a looming power struggle between the president and his security elite came with the arrest in January of the son of the former president, Alexei Chibirov.

Kokoity was away in Moscow at the time of the arrest. When he returned, he met Chibirov senior and the young man was released soon afterwards. No one commented any more on the incident.

On May 21, with Kokoity again out of town, the official television channel, Ir, broadcast a documentary, in which the former president Ludwig Chibirov was accused of corruption, making deals with Tbilisi for the return of South Ossetia to Georgia and ordering political killings. One of the central figures in the documentary, a man who had been charged with murdering opposition politician Vadim Tadtayev, claimed that he had carried out the killing on Chibirov's orders.

President Kokoity's entourage privately expressed alarm at the screening of this scandalous film in his absence, believing it damaged his interests. The attack on the former president by the Tedeyev group was interpreted as an attack on the policy of stabilizing Georgian-South Ossetian relations.

Most of the sacked former officials are now believed to be at home in Tskhinval, although at least one is thought to have fled to Russia. Kokoity told journalists that a series of searches had uncovered "material on the joint criminal activity of Georgians and Ossetians at various levels" and added that, "we have to work with the Georgian side on stolen cars in particular."

At the same time, Georgian interior minister Koba Narchemashvili said he had information about the involvement of "certain Georgian police officers in illegal deals with criminals in the security structures in South Ossetia" and said he was ready to cooperate closely with his South Ossetian counterparts.

None of the dismissed men have commented publicly on their removal from power or the charges against them.

The public has generally welcomed the crackdown and supported Kokoity. A businessman from across the mountains in North Ossetia - the Ossetian autonomous republic inside Russia - said he hoped the purge would change the business climate. "If they can create the conditions to develop normal businesses - I mean without us having to get protection high up - then we can expect quite a lot of investment," the businessman said.

On July 3 new appointments were made to the security posts. Tskhinval is calm. The only sign of anything amiss is that the policemen guarding the entrance to the government headquarters have their machine guns at the ready - rather than leaning against a table, as they usually do.

Kosta Dzugayev works for the NGO "Intellectual Resources" in Tskhinval

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