On February 10, rebels attacked a group of Russian soldiers in the city of Buinaksk. The problem is a long-standing one. For nearly a decade, the republic has been a battleground for the pro-Russian authorities and Islamic insurgents supported by rebels from neighboring Chechnya. “Unfortunately, there was no turning point in fighting terrorism,” local president Mukhu Aliev conceded to Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District. “This issue is still on the agenda” (regnum, February 9; also see Chechnya Weekly, February 15).
Dagestan needs a strong, effective police force to suppress the insurgency, but recent events have revealed a deep crisis in the local security agencies. Already this year the rebels have killed six policemen and twice tried to kill the republican interior minister and the police chief of Khasavyurt (Chechnya Weekly, February 8).
On February 15, 250 policemen from one regiment refused to obey orders from the Dagestan Interior Ministry and demanded the resignation of its head, Adilgirei Magomedtagirov. Abdurashid Bibulatov, the acting commander of the regiment, and Magomed Shamilov, the leader of the Dagestan police union, led the mutiny. The regiment stood on the parade ground inside the garrison located in Makhachkala, the republican capital. The policemen held signs with slogans such as: “The interior minister should resign!” and “Down with Corruption in the Interior Ministry!” The policemen explained their protest was prompted by the fact that they were not paid for overtime. Waiting for rebel attacks, the Dagestan police are on permanent alert and officers work 12-14 hours every day instead of the normal eight. Then their overtime pay disappears inside the Ministry headquarters (Kommersant, February 16).
However, the problem runs deeper than just pay stolen by corrupt officials. The Dagestan policemen are feeling more and more isolated from the general public. Bibulatov, the acting commander, complained to a Radio Liberty journalist that 80% of the population in Dagestan hate the police and that the police force is full of traitors who help the militants. According to Bibulatov, eight members of the local special forces (OMON) have joined the rebels and are now on the most-wanted list (Radio Liberty, February 16).
The same day as the mutiny, Magomedtagirov met with the leaders of the protest and promised to launch a special audit of the Ministry. But instead on February 16, one day later, Magomedtagirov fired Bibulatov. Apparently the minister has no desire to compromise with the mutineers. As for the missing overtime wages, the police officers likely will recover at least part of what they are owed, because the police are the only force the Dagestan authorities can still rely on.
Along with the police revolts, the upcoming elections to the local legislature have again sparked ethnic conflict. President Aliev, an Avar, heads the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. All of the best-known Avar politicians and officials appear on the United Russia party list. Since United Russia is likely to win the election, the new parliament would consist mostly of Avars. There is one Dargin, Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, on the list, but he is without any real influence. As for other ethnic groups, they were blocked from joining the list and had to join other parties with little chance to win seats in the parliament. Many Dargin and Lezgin political leaders joined the Patriots of Russia party, which is now the strongest opposition party in the republic (Vremya novostei, February 16). Patriots of Russia is unlikely to win the elections, as most observers expect fraud to occur, but it could win a few seats. Now the competition between different parties has turned into an ethnic conflict between the domineering Avars (who comprise 30% of the population of Dagestan) and Dargins, Lezgins, and other minorities.
On February 14 Eduard Khidirov, the chairman of the Dagestan branch of the Patriots of Russia, was gravely wounded when his car was riddled with bullets in the center of Makhachkala. This assassination attempt has seriously aggravated ethnic relations in the republic. Dagestan has not seen such ill will among ethnic clans since the late 1990s.
The Kumyk minority has also begun to stir. On February 19, the Kumyks organized a rally in Makhachkala protesting against the possible appointment of a non-Kumyk as head of the Dagestan Teacher Training University. According to the loose multiethnic formula used to distribute jobs among the ethnic groups in the region, the University should be headed by a Kumyk (Vremya novostei, February 16; gazeta.ru, February 19).
While ethnic clans step up the power struggle, ordinary citizens have united in protest against the corrupt authorities in the republic. So far this year anti-government protests have occurred in Kizilyurt District and in the city of Kaspiisk (Kavkaz-Center, February 8, gazeta.ru, February 19).
Already in 2007 Dagestan has experienced popular unrest, an emboldened insurgency, and police defiance. Now political leaders need to step in and defuse — no exacerbate — the situation.