Dagestan in Crisis

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 28

Mukhu Aliev’s recent statements run sharply contrary to what the federal authorities of the Russian Federation would like to hear about the North Caucasus. During his speech in Rostov, the leader of Dagestan mentioned that “terrorism has come to Russia to stay, actually we led them here. Certain unwise political decisions played a role” (www.rosbalt.ru, June 28). These types of statements undermine the Kremlin’s monumental exertions in trying to show the world that terrorism in the region has been brought under control.

The Political Factor

The departure of Magomedali Magomedov from the political stage was seen as the end of an era since all across the former Soviet Union, it was joked that in Dagestan the Soviet past still lived on, since the Communist party was (and still is) much more popular in the republic than anywhere else in the Russian Federation [1]. Following Magomedov’s exit from the scene, everyone in the republic expected that certain changes would take place. A year and a half later, however, it is clear that Mukhu Aliev is unable to introduce meaningful change into the inheritance left to him by his predecessor. Unfortunately, anyone who took over the reins of power in the republic would be forced to play according to “the rules of the game” set by Magomedov: to maneuver among the various ethnic, criminal and religious conflicts, as well as face the confrontation with the armed opposition forces of the “Sharia” jamaat.

Given these factors, Mukhu Aliev was forced to adopt his predecessor’s tactics since it has become clear to him that it will be impossible to resolve the numerous crises found in the republic. The honeymoon is over and the reality of the situation is the one built by Mogomedov’s rule. This reality means a clan-based distribution of life-giving resources according to a system of quotas established in the chaotic days of the 1990’s.

The Pro-Moscow Minister

The first few months of Aliev’s administration showed that the new leader of Dagestan wanted to replace the pro-Moscow core of the republic’s officials with men from his own team. Having consented to the replacement of the republic’s attorney general, Moscow immediately indicated that it was unwilling to fire a man trusted by President Putin himself. The Kremlin sent a message of personal appreciation to the republic’s minister of internal affairs, Adil-girei Magomedtagirov. This was a marker indicating that the man should not be touched. It would seem like the wave of crime that has engulfed the entirety of the republic would make Moscow regard this minister differently. Yet, in June 2006, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation Rashid Nurgaliev personally arrived in Makhachkala and described Magomedtagirov as close to being the best minister of any of the Caucasus republics. This action was seen by observers as a guarantee that the minister’s job would remain secure while Putin is in office (www.chechen.org, July 29).

The Economic Factor

Dagestan is one of the most economically backward regions of the Russian Federation (with only Chechnya and Ingushetia falling further behind) and according to the official data, has an unemployment rate of close to 25 percent [2]. Given these circumstances, the migration of Dagestanis to other regions of the country has become a mass phenomenon. The leadership of Stavropolsky Krai has long declared that its southern districts are being flooded by Dagestani migrants. In order to prevent this mass relocation, the Stavropol leadership has introduced unconstitutional measures that limit the number of people from the ethnic republics that can be registered to reside in the Krai.

The Criminal Factor

Many of the young men that move to the central areas of the Russian Federation come under the influence of criminals, who use these youths as soldiers in their war with Slavic criminal leaders. The criminal situation in Dagestan is also becoming increasingly worrisome. The entirety of the republic’s infrastructures has long since been divided into groupings based on ethnic divisions. Because of this, “criminal” conflicts are really ethnic conflicts, such as the ones among the Laks (what is left of them after Khachilaev) who control fishing and the railroads, the Avars and their “Dagneft-Rosneft” oil company and the ports, Kumyks and the gas company “Daggaz,” the Lezgins and their real estate businesses and oil interests in Russia proper, and the Dargins, led informally by the mayor of Makhachkala, who control sales in the capital, and so forth.

The Ethnic Element

This brings us to the important issue of interethnic relations in the republic. The many ethnic groups of modern Dagestan have seen far better days. The mountain Jews (the Tat), who once formed a sizable colony around Derbent, the oldest city of the Caucasus, have mostly left the republic, with the ethnic Russians not far behind. Even though the authorities claim to control the migratory processes, the movements of the Russians are becoming an exodus.

Today, hostilities are present between the Avars and the Dargins, the Chechens and the Laks, the Dargins and the Kumyks, the Laks and the Kumyks, the Avars and the Chechens, the Dargins and the Lezgins, and so on. One major source of these conflicts is the endless process of redistributing land. The movement of Avars and Dargins (and even earlier, the Laks) from the highlands has led to their conflicts with the groups residing in the lowlands, such as the Kumyks, the Chechens, and others. Massive, ethnically motivated fights have become a norm for Dagestan. Over ten such incidents have occurred so far this year, with the smallest involving several hundred people.

The Religious Element

Beginning in the 1980s, a clearly defined rift appeared among the Muslims of Dagestan. The appearance of a new form of Salafi Islam caught the religious authorities unprepared, with no one knowing just what to do with the adherents of the new movement. Magomed Kebedov, a young theologian, became the leader of this new grouping, better known as Bagauddin Kililyurtovskii in later years.

This was, however, only one aspect of the problems within the religious sphere. Struggles over the control of the clergy ensued, and while the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the proliferation of different clergy groupings created on ethnic grounds, the later 1990s saw the creation of one religious structure.

Another important issue is the conflict between the various Sufi leaders within the republic. Unlike Chechnya or Ingushetia, Dagestan has preserved the succession of the sheiks and many different virds are represented. The numerous followers of the sheiks often struggle over influence and power. Currently the most influential (due to the support given him by the republic’s leadership) sheikh is Said-efendi Chirkeiskii (from the village of Chirkei in the Buinaksk district). He controls the very large website www.islam.ru, runs the Alim council of Dagestan through a puppet organization, runs the Islamic Institute in Makhachkala as well as maintains other assets. He introduced the Shazalia tarikat, unknown earlier in the Caucasus, to the republic while still declaring himself a follower of the Nakshbandiya tarikat, which has been known for over two centuries in Dagestan. The other sheiks do not approve of Said-effendi’s hunger for power, but are unable to resist his influence in any meaningful way.

In light of all of these intra-Muslim conflicts, there is also the tension between the Muslims and the small Christian community, a tension predominantly based on ethnic, rather than religious differences.

The Role of the Jamaat

Given the unstable situation in the republic, it is hard to underestimate the influence of the Dagestan jamaat. This opposition group has conducted hundreds of operations against security personnel from the ministry of internal affairs and the highest ranks of the republic’s officials. Thousands have been wounded and hundreds have been killed, including parliamentarians, ministers and high-ranking officers from the republic’s ministry of internal affairs. These acts are often linked with the names of Rasul Maksharipov and emir Rappani Khalilov, who was killed on July 6, 2005. Today’s “Sharia” grouping is one of the most important parts of the entire resistance movement of the North Caucasus. In terms of military potential, it is only equal to the Ingush jamaat. In an attempt to somehow reduce this threat, the Dagestani security forces conducted widespread raids in the suburbs of Makhachkala starting in 2006, killing many members of the jamaat. These preventative strikes have had an effect, and the jamaat has become much more cautious in its actions. The police have also directed their efforts against those people who are seen as overly religious, with busloads of believers being detained for questioning following Friday prayer.

The Future

No matter how strange it may sound, the current situation is exactly what Moscow wants to see in Dagestan. The Kremlin seeks to preserve this intractable condition of the republic without actually exacerbating any of the problems. This gives it time to prepare and deal with other hotspots in the region. It is well known that new military bases are being built (e.g., the mountain brigade near Botlikh), and a new FSB training center near Makhachkala, along with the latest police efforts, should bring a fair level of security to Dagestan.

The “Sharia” jamaat, however, does have numerous branches throughout the republic, with followers who are both numerous and capable. This fact has even been acknowledged by Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Rashid Nurgaliev (RIA Novosti, June 6). In the future, the efforts of the jamaat will probably be directed at government officials and security personnel within Dagestan. Today, with the “Sharia” able to coordinate its efforts across the whole of the North Caucasus, the blows against strategic targets will not only continue, but probably intensify.

Russia simply cannot afford to continue its policy of militarily suppressing the North Caucasus resistance movement while also trying to arbitrate the endless inter-clan rivalries of the regional elites in the region.


1. Communist victories in the Duma elections of 2003 were the highest across the county. Communist influence noticeably fell in 2007, but the actions of the local officials played a significant role in this.

2. See www.kavkaz.memo.ru, June 29, 2007. Official unemployment data from Rostrud is 22 percent.