A new breed of godfathers

Anna Matveeva describes the strongmen of the former Soviet provinces in the Caucasus: ruthless warri

When Vazgen Sarkisyan, the prime minister, was shot dead in the Armenian parliament - the shooting was transmitted live on a radio broadcast of the session - some observers speculated that the killing was intended to destabilise the agreement to build the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. For others, the motive did not lie in pipeline politics but in a disaffection best expressed as "enough sucking of our people's blood".

Sarkisyan was a spectacular figure. A product of the 1990s, he owed little to the Soviet system. In Armenia, as in other places in the Caucasus transformed by the ethnic conflict, the new situation called for new leaders who could deliver victory in the battles for a national cause. And they were quick to appear: Sarkisyan was 40 and Valery Khubulov, the vice-premier of South Ossetia who was murdered while driving his luxury Mercedes, only 28.

Success in sports was the first launch pad. Caucasian national sports stress brute force and, encouraged by the Soviet system of breeding champions, produced a number of outstanding wrestlers who later served as bodyguards of important people. Many turned into politicians, as Sarkisyan, a former instructor in physical education, did. The standard joke in Dagestan, a Caucasian republic bordering Chechnya, is that "if you are bad at karate, do not even think of standing for the local parliament". It is fashionable for the new leaders to set up boys' sport schools bearing their family names. In Dagestan, the Khachilaev brothers - local strongmen who seized the government headquarters in 1998 - opened a school named after their brother, Adam, who was killed in the dispute with the Chechens.

Assertive and tough, the new politicians easily become physical with their opponents. A friend described a beating he witnessed Sarkisyan give to two young journalists in the governmental courtyard. The men were brought in a car and, after a bit of shouting, Sarkisyan smacked each in the face. Both men fell, hit by a former professional, while Sarkisyan, defence minister at the time, proceeded to kick and scream at them. The only thing my friend was not sure of was whether Nairi Hunanian, the man who shot the prime minister, was one of the journalists being disciplined.

There is, however, a soft side to the strongmen. It is a love of literature. Being action men, the new Caucasian leaders are not readers, they are writers. Each believes that beneath his warrior's exterior is a great writer trying to get out. Writers occupied a special place in the Russian and Soviet consciousness. Nadir Khachilaev earned a degree from the Literary Institute in Moscow and his short stories appeared in Russian journals, translated from his native Lak. Jaba Ioseliani, Georgian macho, criminal and king-maker, who fell out of grace with Shevardnadze, was especially proud of his literary credentials.

Rural and underprivileged backgrounds fostered the drive of the new Caucasian leaders to get to the top quickly. The self-made men owed their success to their own assertiveness - and the skilful exploitation of the Soviet economic deficiencies. The Khachilaevs from Dagestan acquired their wealth by buying computers in the west and reselling them at home; as Soviet sportsmen they enjoyed rare access to trips abroad.

Nationalism catapulted the present leaders to the forefront of politics, as they capitalised on the agitation for ethnic agendas and historic homelands. Sarkisyan was a founding father of the Karabakh Committee calling for unification of Karabakh with Armenia. Basaev fought for the North Caucasian agenda in Abkhazia against Georgia, and in Chechnya against Russia. The new leaders organised self-defence units, mobilised volunteers for the front and built up national armed forces. They also formed small, but tough, private armies which united their kinsmen and loyalists, and with whose backing they acquired the most senior positions in the government. This in turn gave them control over the most valuable national assets.

Today, the Caucasian robber barons want to enjoy prestige and lifestyle according to their real power. Ostentatious consumption is evident everywhere: Magomed Khachilaev was known to have his Cadillac flown by helicopter from the capital of Dagestan to a small town in the mountains where he wanted to impress the locals. He undertook his own journey in a Jeep.

The polarisation of wealth between the leaders and ordinary people is enormous. Marble lions preside over the entrances of the palaces patrolled by bodyguards armed with Kalashnikovs. At the same time, in the best tradition of Mafia godfathers, people turn to the leaders in times of crisis and are often rewarded with dramatic gestures of help. One old woman had her roof repaired overnight, the building materials delivered by helicopter.

Unlike oligarchs in Russia, who stay in the shade, the Caucasian top men are real leaders. They combine influence derived from wealth with charisma acquired through national struggle and military backing. Their ability to control and influence decisions in their own societies is enormous, since they know how to operate in the situation that they helped to create. The strongmen can oust presidents, as happened with Ter-Petrosyan, the Armenian ex-president, who was deemed too soft on Karabakh. He was forced to step down by Sarkisyan and a couple of other tycoons.

The new leaders can turn formal power into shambles, as they did in Dagestan, where the old Soviet leadership became de facto hostage of the new ethnic barons. They surreptitiously sponsor deputies of the national parliaments and so turn them into puppets, and democracy into a farce; every important decision is made outside political institutions and remains impenetrable to the majority of citizens.

In the Caucasus, where everything is "fixed", there is no way to change the rule of an entrenched group of powerful individuals: all conflicts are managed within this elite group. As a result, and given the turbulent political culture of the region, protest actions take the most radical, violent form. Assassination has emerged as a favourite way of dealing with any problem. A number of senior officials were killed in Armenia throughout the 1990s, some of them in their offices. Presidents Shevardnadze of Georgia and Maskhadov of Chechnya survived two attempts each, but the real champion is Said Amirov, mayor of the capital of Dagestan. He has survived 14 attempts on his life - though one has confined him to a wheelchair for life.

The other protest option is radical Islam, with its quest for social justice and God-given legitimacy. As recent events in Dagestan and Chechnya have shown, the Muslim message can claim staunch supporters, especially among the uneducated rural population.

The new wave of Caucasian leaders has not swept into power in Georgia and Azerbaijan, where party bosses remain in power. They are, however, old and sick, and changes are expected after they go. Speculation over their succession is rampant, especially in Azerbaijan.

The west has invested considerable spending into "young leadership" programmes in the former Soviet Union. However, the English-speaking graduates of these courses remain on the margins of power in their societies. The new Caucasian leader is a different animal. He is crude, powerful and dramatic. The west should take time to study him.

The author is a research fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House