On June 4, Russian federal troops conducted a mopping-up operation in the Chechen village of Borozdinovskaya, located in the north of the republic near the Dagestan border. This security sweep was a response to the rebel attacks that intensified in northern Chechnya this year (Chechnya Weekly, June 22). The brutal raid has led to a serious political standoff in both Chechnya and Dagestan, the most unstable regions of the volatile North Caucasus.
Most of the residents of Borozdinovskaya are Avars, the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. When troops from the Vostok special battalion, a unit that consists mostly of Chechens, arrested 11 local men and burned four homes to the ground, 1,200 frightened Avars fled to Dagestan. They established a refugee camp in the town of Kizlyar on June 16 and declared that they did not want to go back to Chechnya (grani.ru, June 16). They demanded that authorities of Dagestan give them land on Dagestani territory to build a new settlement. However, the authorities refused to negotiate on this issue and dispatched a Dagestani OMON special police unit to force the refugees to return to Borozdinovskaya. This mission failed because the Borozdinovskaya refugees offered stiff resistance.
The Avar opposition and its leaders backed the refugees, including Khasvyurt Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov and Gadzhi Makhachev, a deputy to the republican parliament. Last year the opposition tried to organize the Avars for a march to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, to demand the resignation of Magomed Magomedov, the leader of the republic, who is also the leader of a clan of Dargins, another ethnic group prominent in Dagestan. This attempt failed due to interference by the Russian authorities. The Avar leaders kept quiet, waiting for another opportunity to challenge Magomedov.
Umakhanov and his political partners saw the Borozdinovskaya crisis as a good chance to unite the Avars and topple the Dagestani leader. Makhachev and Umakhanov went to the refugee camp, accompanied by more than 1,000 of their supporters and a group of bearded men dressed in uniform and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles (NTV, June 21).
During the protest rally held in the camp on June 21, Umakhanov accused the Dagestani authorities of not wanting to help their countrymen and told the crowd that protests should be staged in Makhachkala’s central square, not the refugee camp (regnum.ru, June 21). With these words Umakhanov and Makhachev began to prepare the crowd for another attempt to rally at the capital.
The rally in the camp prodded the Kremlin into action. First, the Russian authorities took note of how the residents of Borozdinovskaya would protest the illegal detentions. When local residents started to relocate to Dagestan, Moscow did not take it seriously. People in Chechnya protest and leave the republic quite often, but usually it has little effect on the political situation in the Caucasus. This time it is different. It became clear to the authorities that the refugees should return to Chechnya as soon as possible, otherwise Dagestan could explode.
Dmitry Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, rushed in to calm the situation. He first declared that a special commission to investigate the incident in Borozdinovskaya would be formed (RIA-Novosti, June 22). He met with the refugees, and later he held a meeting at a military base near Grozny, the Chechen capital. Chechnya’s President Alu Alkhanov, First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, and Lt.-Gen. Arkady Edelev, head of the regional operation headquarters for control of the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus, took part in the meeting (RIA-Novosti, June 22). Kozak called the mopping-up operation in Borozdinovskaya “an act of sabotage against Russia.” He vowed to start an objective investigation and punish those responsible for the cruel raid.
However the authorities are unable to fulfill the key demand of the refugees: to hand over the prisoners, dead or alive. Locals believe the prisoners were shot dead and their bodies burned with flame-throwers in the destroyed houses (Caucasus Times, June 22). On June 26, Alkhanov, Edelev, and Kadyrov visited the camp near Kizlyar to persuade the refugees to go home, but to no avail (Kommersant, June 27).
At the same time, the crisis intensified the power struggle inside the pro-Russia camp in Chechnya. Kadyrov, who dislikes Sulim Yamadaev, the Chechen commander of the Vostok battalion, proposed dismantling the unit (lenta.ru, June 20). Yamadaev’s reaction was immediate: Ruslan Yamadaev, Sulim’s elder brother and a deputy in the Russian State Duma, told Kommersant that all Chechen security forces [which are under Kadyrov’s control] are full of traitors who work for the insurgents. Yamadaev believes that one of the units of the Chechen pro-Russia militants organized the provocation in Borozdinovskaya to discredit Vostok and the Yamadaev brothers (Kommersant, June 24).
The crisis remains unresolved. The Chechen and Russian authorities are making grand promises to the refugees if they return. Meanwhile the Dagestani authorities are also unhappy about the camp in Kizlyar because it attracts the local opposition, even if it is still too weak to organize a strong protest campaign in the region. The opposition is too weak to help the people from Borozdinovskaya to stay in Dagestan, and the refugees cannot resist the pressure for long. They likely will have to return to Chechnya soon. Nevertheless, the debacle in Borozdinovskaya has already revealed the political problems inside Dagestan, and how poor relations are between the main two pro-Russia clans of Chechnya: Kadyrov and the Yamadaev brothers.
The Borozdinovskaya operation was intended to “pacify” Northern Chechnya, instead it may be undermining regional stability in the eastern Caucasus.