Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 34

The situation in Dagestan continues to deteriorate. Despite the deployment of additional troops and police units from other Russian regions and a personal visit from President Putin, explosions and rebel attacks have only intensified in the province.

The majority of observers in Russia, as well as many in the West, usually explain the violence in Dagestan by citing the multi-ethnic structure of the population, power struggles between disparate clans, and the high level of corruption and unemployment.

This conventional view has become even more prevalent after a report by Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, was leaked to the press. As Moskovsky komsomolets reported in June, the report sharply criticized the authorities in the North Caucasian republics, especially the authorities of Dagestan, saying that “the North Caucasian leaders have separated themselves from the society and turned to a close cast which serves only its private interests. The corporative societies formed in organs of power in the Caucasus have monopolized political and economic resources. The system of balance is ruined and the result is the spread of corruption.” The implication is clear: local governing elites are responsible for instability in the region. Russian commentators have wholeheartedly agreed with Kozak’s conclusions, as well as the inevitable recommendations that any lasting solution to the province’s problems lies in addressing economic depravity. If the local elite cared more about the wealth of ordinary people in Dagestan, the argument proceeds, then conflict in the region would be resolved.

Yet the economic and corruption issues mentioned in Kozak’s report are not the only reasons for violence in Dagestan. The report absolutely ignored human rights violations committed by the police and Federal Security Service (FSB), such as torture and illegal detention. Similarly, the report fails to mentions the increasing popularity of radical Islam among young Dagestanis. If the problem was solely one of economic deprivation, what then explains the motives of very rich members of the Dagestani elite—”separated from society” as the report says—to join the rebels in the mountains? Dagestani rebel leaders include names from privileged elites, such as the son of the head of the administration of Gymry village (see EDM, November 03, 2004), a son of a cousin of the mayor of the city of Khasavyurt, and a brother of the head of the Khasavyurt branch of the state-owned natural gas company. Rebel leaders do not contain any Lezgin or Azerbaijani men, despite the lower socioeconomic status of such ethnic groups.

Nor does the report address the relations between Dagestan and Chechnya. The Chechen conflict has a major impact on the Dagestani conflict. On August 7, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the leader of the Chechen separatist forces, met in the republic with commanders of rebel groups from different regions of the North Caucasus. As Chechenpress reported on August 9, “Sadulaev heard the reports from the commanders about how to provide all squads with everything needed for effective military and sabotage operations.” There is no doubt that the increasing number of the rebel attacks in the eastern part of the North Caucasus (Ingushetia and Dagestan) followed Sadulaev’s meeting. The deterioration of the entire regional situation results from of a coordinated strategy of both Chechen and Dagestani rebels.

In August 1999, Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev sought to establish a foothold in Russia and invaded two districts of Dagestan. Learning from those attacks, Basaev changed his policy toward Dagestan in favor of slow penetration rather than high profile invasion. The increasing dissatisfaction of the Dagestani populace with the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Magomedali Magomedov, the leader of the republic, and the illegal methods of the security officials, like torture and illegal detention, helped Chechen and Dagestani rebels gain social support throughout the region.

Starting in 2000, Basaev sought to build on this popular resentment and develop a comprehensive strategy of resistance. First, the rebels began to target local security structures to weaken the government. This campaign lasted four years and eliminated dozens of policemen and FSB officers who dealt with organized crime and religious extremism. As a result, Dagestani authorities were weakened, and the federal government could no longer rely on the local police to effectively confront the rebels. Meanwhile, the rebels spared the lives of terrified officers in exchange for help, building new support within the police ranks.

The rebels continued their campaign and captured main towns after attacking and bombing police patrols. This had so decimated and demoralized local police units that this summer the Kremlin sent more police and troops from Russia to stem the violence. These new units, however, just became additional targets for the rebels, and their presence in the republic could not improve the situation. The army started patrolling streets in Dagestan, but, by this time, the insurgency had become so well-armed and trained that it could directly fight the regular troops as well. Recently, there have been several bombings of military trucks, APCs, and attacks on army patrols throughout the republic. The rebels can easily move around the region, attacking checkpoints and patrols. The current situation in Dagestan—large-scale guerilla warfare—has escalated to the same level of violence that has existed in Chechnya for years.

Kozak’s report ignored these developments, and for good reason: if it accurately analyzed and described the situation, the Kremlin would be to blame, not the leaders of the North Caucasian republics. This war in Dagestan, coordinated by Chechen militants, reflects the bankruptcy of Putin’s Caucasian policy. Despite Kozak’s report, Russian authorities are clearly aware of the real situation in Dagestan and also of the role of Chechen separatists. In fact, a source in Moscow told the Jamestown Foundation that a classified version of the report accurately predicted the recent increase in rebel activity (see EDM, February 9, 2005).