Dagestan Increasingly Resembles Chechnya

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 163

Vladimir Putin meeting with Ramazan Abdulatipov, head of Dagestan (Source: Kremlin.ru)

Dagestan is the largest republic of the North Caucasus and, at the same time, the region’s most unstable because of the frequent attacks by the armed Islamic opposition movement. The majority of armed militants in the republic currently operate under the flag of the radical Islamist movement, the Islamic State. After Ramazan Abdulatipov was appointed Dagestan’s governor, Moscow did everything in its power to make sure that relations between the leaders of Chechnya and Dagestan were friendly, unlike relations between the governors of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Dagestani politicians realize perfectly well that Chechnya is tightly controlled by its authoritarian ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov. Having gained the full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov managed to create the image of a stable and prosperous Chechen society. Residents of neighboring republics cannot fail to sense the difference between the governing styles of their own republican leaders and Kadyrov. The flow of funds from the Kremlin allows Chechnya to rebuild roads, bridges, schools, mosques and parks. Most importantly, Dagestanis see that militant attacks are much less frequent in Chechnya than in their republic (Kavpolit.com, February 20). Thus, residents of the republics neighboring Chechnya can see the advantages of the Chechen model of conflict management that is offered by Moscow.

Of course, each republic in the North Caucasus has its own special features. Chechnya did not have a strong clan system like that of Dagestan, hence Moscow easily managed to unite all pro-Moscow forces under Kadyrov’s rule. In Dagestan, Moscow has had to deal with multiple clans that had divergent interests and enjoyed support from large parts of the population. In order to do away with the existing ethnic-based clans in Dagestan, Moscow decided to create a single pro-Moscow clan. Russian authorities removed the Dargin clan from the political scene by sentencing the most influential person in Dagestan in the past two decades, Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, to life in prison (Mk.ru, August 10).

Amirov’s fate should have served as a lesson to the other politicians in the republic. When they failed to grasp what Moscow wanted from them, Russian authorities decided to move on to other figures who opposed Moscow’s current protégé, Ramzan Kadyrov (Kommersant, July 29). The arrest of former mayor Amirov, the prosecution of Olympic wrestling champion and former head of the Dagestani Branch of the Pension Fund of Russia Sagid Murtazaliev, and a police raid on the home of the speaker of Dagestan’s parliament, Khizri Shihsaidov (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 2), indicate that Moscow is not simply signaling its preferences, but forcing all local officials to submit to the current leader of the republic, Abdulatipov.

In exchange for suppressing the influence of the Dagestani clans, Moscow is prepared to allocate substantial funds to support the republican economy. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree providing Dagestan with about $2 billion in additional funding (Kp.ru, September 5). Dagestan will receive the extra funds over the period from 2016 to 2025. Moscow is prepared to pump large amounts of resources into the republic to pacify it and lessen the impact of rebel activities.

Initially, Dagestani authorities replicated the Chechen experience, setting up local armed units that would gradually replace federal units in combatting the armed Islamic opposition (Ansar.ru, November 22, 2010). This, however, did not work in Dagestan. The republican armed groups did not replace the Russian government’s militarized units and never participated to any significant extent in fighting the rebels. Abdulatipov supported Kadyrov by stating that the Russian authorities had to consult regional authorities when carrying out counterterrorist operations (Rbc.ru, April 28). Abdulatipov seemed to be trying to grab more power for himself, but in reality did not cross the boundaries of what is permitted by Moscow. The big difference between Ramazan Abdulatipov and Ramzan Kadyrov is that Vladimir Putin does not regard the current governor of Dagestan as his undisputed favorite protégé in the republic.

In an effort to emulate Chechnya, Dagestani authorities sometimes blindly replicate Chechen policies in order to catch up with their neighbor. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov’s policy of putting pressure on the relatives of rebels did not go unnoticed in Dagestan. In Untsukul district alone, Dagestani authorities have dismissed dozens of employees who were residents of the villages of Gimry and Balakhani simply because they were distantly related to active rebels. It should be noted that the jamaats in these villages have endured numerous counterterrorist operations (Novayagazeta.livejournal.com, August 8). The people who were sacked from their positions are regarded as outcasts by the authorities. This method of neutralizing the influence of the rebels is unlikely to help the government in pursuing its polices. Instead, it could be counterproductive by creating an incentive for the dismissed individuals to go and join rebel groups.

Dagestani authorities are also battling the supporters of radical Islam on the Internet. In Chechnya, Kadyrov normally found out about such individuals and then featured them on Chechen TV. In Dagestan, the authorities are monitoring the Internet to find people who are hostile to Russia (Newsru.com, August 22).

Thus, it increasingly appears that Moscow is trying to replicate the methods used in Chechnya elsewhere in the North Caucasus. However, there is no such figure like Ramzan Kadyrov in Dagestan. Ramzan Abdulatipov is known only for his loyalty and the absence of his own clan support and thus cannot give Moscow anything else. Consequently, this casts doubt on the viability of Moscow’s plans for pursuing a Chechen-like scenario in Dagestan. The success of Moscow’s strategy in Dagestan will depend on how strong the militants of the republic become, rather than anything else.