Dagestan Sees a Spike in Violence as the Government Promises Political Reforms

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 12

At the end of May and the beginning of June, a series of militant attacks shook Dagestan. On May 31, the former police chief of Dagestan’s Untsukul district, Magomed Abdulmalikov, was killed in Buinaksk. Abdulmalikov headed the Untsukul district police until 2006. The district is considered one of the strongholds of Dagestan’s insurgency and the government has largely failed to bring it under its effective control despite regular special operations and other forms of pressure. Also on May 31, a group of militants robbed a government employee of $20,000 in salaries for social services employees in the mountainous Tsuntinsky district. Several hours later, the same group of militants killed physical education schoolteacher, Zaurbek Gazimagomedov, in the village of Tsebari. The militants set the school and the school’s gym on fire. Gazimagomedov was reportedly known for his public stance against the rebels. The same rebel group attacked another school in the nearby village of Tsuntyk early in the morning on June 1. The schools are thought to have come under attack because they were designated as points where additional police and Interior Ministry forces would be deployed for the summer months to fight the insurgency in the mountains. A rebel group led by Gamzat Koiniev is thought to have been behind the attack. Koiniev comes from the village of Khutrakh (http://kommersant.ru/doc/1950364, June 2).

Incidentally, Khutrakh, which is situated high in the mountains near the border with Georgia in southern Dagestan, experienced a devastating fire on May 24 that destroyed almost half of its 142 homes. Earlier this year, at least two other fires were reported that destroyed homes in the mountainous villages of Dagestan (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207099/, May 24). It is unclear whether there is a connection between the fires, which massively destroyed highlanders’ villages in Dagestan, and the government’s fight against the insurgency. Historically, the Russian army often used the policy of collective punishment in the North Caucasus to pressure locals into submission. A connection between the fires and government policy cannot be ruled out. The rationale behind this tactic would be to force the highlander population to abandon the mountains and move to the plains, where they can be more easily controlled.

On May 30, a military convoy was attacked near Botlikh in southwestern Dagestan. The attackers wounded one of the officers and damaged the police cars that arrived to rescue the military servicemen (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207422/, May 31). The rebels in Dagestan apparently feel powerful enough to continue more extravagant attacks that are not necessitated by tactical considerations. On June 3, three suspected rebels attacked a café in the republic’s Kizilyurt district. The assailants demanded an end to the sale of alcohol in the café (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207583/, June 3).

On June 1, a road police officer was killed after stopping a car in Makhachkala. No gunshots were heard during the incident, so a handgun with silencer may have been used (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207524/, June 1). On May 31, a freight train was derailed near the town of Izberbash, which is situated in the southern part of the republic on the Caspian Sea coast. An estimated seven kilograms of TNT were used to carry out the attack (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207460/, May 31).

In the meantime, on May 31, the head of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, delivered his yearly address to the republic’s parliament. One of the most important socio-economic initiatives Magomedov cited was a tentative plan to go ahead with the privatization of agricultural land (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207482/, June 1). Previously, Russian experts had said that the privatization of arable land was important for the economic development of the North Caucasus and would preclude destabilization of the region.

While land privatization may sound like a good plan, it certainly has pitfalls. Agriculture plays an important part in the economy and way of life of the North Caucasus, especially since industries have been in decline during the past several decades and a large part of the population resides in rural areas. However, there are historic sensitivities concerning land ownership in the North Caucasus that will make reforms in this realm difficult. Land ownership is often perceived in ethnic terms, so that this issue might produce additional conflict in ethnically diverse regions like Dagestan. Perhaps, more importantly, corruption and a related pervasive distrust of the government are bound to exacerbate existing frictions. This shows once again that political reforms are needed in the region to increase general trust in the government, which cannot be achieved without permitting democratic participation.

On May 31, a Dagestani parliamentary committee approved amendments to the republic’s electoral laws. According to Moscow’s plan, Russian regions will be allowed to elect governors through direct elections after autumn 2012. Direct elections of governors were abolished in 2004. According to the new legislation, Dagestan will elect its first popularly elected leader in 2015, when the current republican leader’s term will end. However, only parties will be allowed to propose candidates, and the candidates will have to garner support of 10 percent of the municipalities. Opposition leaders said that the new law would still ensure that only the party in power would be able to meet these rigid conditions (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207498/, June 1).

While the authorities will make every effort to diminish forces in society that are not connected to the government, more political competition is likely to arise in Dagestan regardless of how rigid the rules are. This is due to the region’s ethnic diversity, its vibrant religious communities, and the widening gap between rich and poor. The future of the peace process in Dagestan depends largely on how well political reforms are implemented. President Putin hopes to make a show of political reforms, including regional governors’ elections, without making substantive changes that would threaten his rule. In the North Caucasus, more is at stake than elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Moscow’s failure to give the people a voice is likely to perpetuate violence in the region and make a resolution of the conflict even more difficult than it is now.