Dagestan Tries to Win Popular Support for Its Struggle with Insurgents

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 204

On November 2, Dagestan’s President, Magomedsalam Magomedov, signed a decree to set up a commission for the social rehabilitation of former militants. The commission is designed to help militants who wish to return to peaceful life re-integrate into society. Only three of the commission’s 14 members –the head of the republican lawyers’ chamber and two Muslim clergymen– are not part of Dagestani officialdom (www.riadagestan.ru, November 2).

The commission appears to have been assembled in a hurried and unsystematic manner. The head of the Muslim movement Ahlu-s-sunna, Abbas Kebedov, said he learned about his inclusion in the commission from the media and was cautious about its prospects. The well-known Dagestani poet and writer Adallo opined that the commission was created at the behest of Moscow, which makes its usefulness questionable. Lawyer Ziyavdin Uvaisov dismissed the idea that “the people in the forests,” as the Islamic militants are commonly referred to, would return to a peaceful life. Instead, Uvaisov suggested the government should provide equal opportunities for youth, crack down on corruption and clan structures and by doing so remove the causes forcing young people to turn to violent protest. Rights activist Gulnara Rustamova stated that only two members of the commission, the head of a Muslim organization Abbas Kebedov and Dagestani ombudswoman Ummupazil Omarova, were prepared to fight for citizens’ rights and that they would be outnumbered by the hardliners who have driven part of the republic’s youth into the ranks of the militants (www.kavkaz-uzelru, November 6).

The biggest and most ethnically diverse republic of the North Caucasus, Dagestan, has arguably been the most volatile region in the past several years. Since early October, seven officials and 13 militant suspects were killed in the republic, according to a count by the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website. In August-September these numbers were several times higher.

The creation of such a commission might be designed to pave the way for an amnesty for the insurgents. However, the growth of the militants’ ranks derives at least in part from abuses by the law enforcement bodies, so unless these are reformed and restrained, there is little chance the amnestied militants will reintegrate back into Dagestani society. If the commission for social adaptation and rehabilitation of the former militants is turned into a body authorized to conduct negotiations and reconciliation in the republic, then there might be a chance for its success. However, given that Moscow has indicated no inclination for talks with the armed resistance in the North Caucasus, the commission is likely to meet with considerable distrust on the rebels’ side.

Besides setting up a social adaptation body, the Dagestani government has reverted to yet another tool, one that was especially widely used in the 1990’s. On December 15, an assembly of the Dagestani peoples is expected to take place in Makhachkala. The aim of the assembly is the “consolidation of the society for the struggle with extremism and terrorism, solidifying the unity of the peoples of Dagestan.” According to the newspaper Chernovik, the problem with such gatherings is that the participants either indulge in wishful thinking and inconsequential ritual condemnations or focus on particular cases. “Extremism/terrorism is not actually the cause [of destabilization], but rather the consequence of the deep crisis of social relations [in Dagestan],” Chernovik stated. The paper concluded with its own set of ideas that should be put on the assembly’s agenda, mostly focusing on fighting endemic corruption and improving the governance (www.chernovik.net, November 4).

So far the Dagestani government seems to have preferred to fight corruption with populist statements. On October 14, the Dagestani branch of the government-sponsored Russian organization for fighting corruption appealed to the people of Dagestan, stating that corruption should not only be outlawed, but that it should become “shameless.” Earlier, on August 11, President Dmitry Medvedev famously upbraided Dagestani President Magomedov, stating: “There should be a real fight against corruption and not trade in [government] positions” (RIA Novosti, August 11). On November 8, in a reference to the leaders of Dagestan and the other republics of the North Caucasus, President Medvedev said he would dismiss any official that does not do his job well. Medvedev asked his envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Aleksandr Khloponin, to make the necessary presentations if there is the need to dismiss a regional governor (Kommersant, November 9).

Yet another traditional approach by the Russian government in fighting the rising tide of insurgency in Dagestan has been to increase the military presence there and carry out wide scale counter-insurgency operations in the republic. In October, the Russian interior minister unveiled plans for the creation of three combat battalions in Dagestan made up exclusively of local Dagestani contractors, numbering up to 750 people. These units will formally be subordinated to the interior ministry in Moscow, but in practice will be under the command of the Dagestani interior minister (www.apn.ru, October 20).

Locally manned military units worked well in Chechnya within the framework of Moscow’s so-called “Chechenization” policy. It may have helped scale down the fighting in Chechnya. However, in Dagestan, the same move might actually escalate the violence: if these troops start actively engaging in counter-insurgency operations across Dagestan, they will produce a correspondingly larger response.

Civil unrest in Dagestan is not limited to the Islamic insurgency. On November 1, an estimated 1,000 people protested against the head of the republic’s Tabasaran district, Nurmagomed Shikhakhmedov, accusing him of embezzlement and bringing the district to the brink of social and economic collapse. Opposition leaders said the average per capita income in their district, which is located in the southern part of the republic, is $13 per month and that over 1,200 people leave the district every year to seek work in other parts of Russia (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 2).

The Dagestani leaders’ initiatives, some of which probably came as direct orders from Moscow, display little novelty and are unlikely to work. They also vividly show the shortcomings of the super-centralized Russian state that fails to adapt to a changing society, attempting instead to bend society to its own standards.