By Igor Rotar
The arrest of Magomed Khachilaev–a deputy in the Dagestan National Assembly, leader of the “Kazi-Kumukh” Lak national movement (the Laks are one of the nationalities in Dagestan). and deputy minister of agriculture–and the withdrawal of parliamentary privilege (immunity from prosecution). from his brother Nadyr Khachilaev–the chairman of the Russian Union of Moslems and a deputy of the Russian Duma–is undoubtedly a dramatic event. Essentially it can only mean one thing: Makhachkala, with the support of the Kremlin, has openly declared war on the local “mafia” clans. The timing is very unfortunate. Even during a period of relative stability in the republic, the Khachilaev brothers had enough influence in Dagestan to organize a popular rebellion. In the current economic crisis, only grave circumstances could have provoked the Dagestani authorities and the Kremlin to embark on such risky actions.
Officially, the authorities are accusing the Khachilaev brothers of organizing the mass unrest in May of this year, when the Makhachkala police had tried to stop a car carrying some of Nadyr Khachilaev’s people, but the occupants had refused to comply. After a brief clash, Khachilaev’s men managed to barricade themselves in Nadyr’s house. The Khachilaev brothers took the actions of the police as a personal insult. With the help of armed followers, they seized control of the parliament building for several hours. The parliament was only liberated after negotiations with the republic’s leaders and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Stepashin. A significant concessions: The authorities promised not to prosecute the ringleaders of the disturbances.
It is doubtful, however, that, given the throes of the current crisis, Russian and Dagestani authorities would have decided to settle accounts with the Khachilaevs for events four months old. The version of events suggested by Nezavisimaya gazeta is more plausible. Citing their source in the Dagestani government, the newspaper asserts that, in fact, the Khachilaev brothers are suspected of involvement in a series of major terrorist attacks which took place in August and September of this year–in particular in the murder of the mufti [the head of the republic’s Muslims] and a bomb in downtown Makhachkala which killed 18 people (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 11).. If this is the case, then the Dagestani authorities have nothing to lose. Makhachkala is only attempting a preemptive strike.
It is interesting to note that immediately after the arrest of Magomed Khachilaev, the republic’s law enforcement bodies began a widespread operation to apprehend a number of influential officials accused of corruption. Nezavisimaya gazeta asserts that Dagestan’s public prosecutor’s office issued thirty-seven warrants for the arrest of important officials and businessmen (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 11)..
“The republic’s leaders are guilty of failing to stop criminal elements from penetrating all official structures. The mafia is now ready to seize power, and in order to achieve this it is prepared to enter into an alliance with those who would like Dagestan to secede from Russia. So we are simply forced to take decisive action,” the chairman of the Dagestani parliament Mukhu Aliev explained to Prism.
Dagestan is the largest republic in the North Caucasus, both by population (roughly two million). and by area. The region is strategically vital to Russia. In the east, the Caspian Sea laps at the republic’s shores. Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, is thus–since the breakup of the Soviet Union–Russia’s most southerly port. In the west, the republic borders a de facto independent Chechnya. Consequently, if the situation in Dagestan were to destabilize, Moscow would lose control of the entire eastern part of the North Caucasus. After that, keeping the western part of the region under Russian jurisdiction would undoubtedly be extremely difficult.
The Khachilaev brothers represent the evolutionary war between Dagestan’s politicians. People here are fond of telling the following story: There were once three brothers–Magomed, Nadyr and Adam Khachilaev. One day a group of armed Chechens ambushed Adam’s car on a mountain road. Adam was killed. Magomed and Nadyr vowed to take revenge on the miscreants. The brothers’ armed brigade thus descended, unexpectedly, on the village where Adam’s murderers lived. One version has it that the Chechens were killed on the spot. Another holds that they were taken to Makhachkala and executed after a one-sided interrogation.
At the beginning of perestroika, the Dagestani intelligentsia were planning to throw themselves into politics, but were quickly pushed aside by a more enterprising rival. “In order to become a deputy you have to be a champion wrestler, or at least a boxer,” they joke in the republic today. Many of the sportsmen-politicians have also turned out to be major leaders of criminal factions. Nearly every official national movement has a well-armed brigade of guerrilla–who are, it should be noted, officially registered as bodyguards.
The might of local mafia groups is clearly demonstrated: In its number of political terrorist acts, Dagestan not only outstrips other Russian regions but also can comfortably compete with such recognized centers of terrorism as Israel and Northern Ireland. In just the last few years twenty-four acts of terrorism–which include ten resulting in fatalities–have been committed against Dagestani politicians. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is that not one of these crimes has been solved.
The mafia has no recruitment problems among young people. Dagestan is one of the poorest of the Russian republics–subsidies from Moscow make up 85 percent of the local budget. The average salary in Dagestan is 33 percent of that in other regions of Russia. Approximately 25 percent of the republic’s population is out of work, and in the remote mountain areas this figure reaches 80 percent.
Of the new wave of politicians in Dagestan, the Khachilaev brothers are perhaps the most powerful financially. Ex-sportsman Magomed Khachilaev heads the Dagestani fisheries committee at the ministry of agriculture. Sturgeon fishing in the coastal waters of the Caspian is the basis of the fisheries ministry’s being traditionally considered one of the most lucrative in the republic’s economy. Stories approximating legend abound in the republic about Magomed Khachilaev’s fabulous wealth: It is said, for example, that he owns forty houses in Makhachkala alone. “Some people wonder where my money comes from,” Magomed Khachilaev himself has said. “But in the first place, I am a businessmen, and, second, I have many friends throughout Russia. They help me. They give me some things for free, others at very low prices.”
No less colorful a figure is the chairman of the Russian Union of Moslems, Nadyr Khachilaev–the only Russian politician to express his sympathy for the Taliban and Moamar Gaddafi. Until very recently, Nadyr Khachilaev was totally unknown in the religious world (incidentally, many Moslem theologians are still very skeptical about his theological knowledge).. Nadyr Khachilaev was mainly known as a great sportsman–the republic’s karate champion–and as one of the richest people in Dagestan. Khachilaev’s three-story house in downtown Makhachkala was designed by his personal architect, and boasts both a guard on duty in the entrance hall round the clock and surveillance cameras. The owner’s pride and joy is a special prayer room on the third floor, which can hold 300 people. Nadyr travels around the republic in a luxury armored car. It is said that he even used to have his own helicopter, but the Russians shot it down by mistake during the Chechen war.
Nadyr Khachilaev, however, did not enter politics straight away. The former sportsman evidently realized that in this walk of life physical fitness alone might not be enough, and thus began diligently building himself a new image. About three years ago, a literary work by him appeared in “Druzhba Narodov” magazine. The book tells of a teenager from a remote mountain village who ends up in Makhachkala and becomes one of the leaders of the local criminal gangs. Khachilaev wrote his story in Lak, but managed to persuade an eminent prose writer, Igor Volgin, to translate it into Russian. In this authorized translation the book certainly reads like a great work of literature.
In 1996 Khachilaev founded the Russian Union of Moslems, which soon became the most influential political organization for Russian adherents of this faith. The same year Nadyr Khachilaev was elected as a deputy to the State Duma, taking the seat in the lower house of the Russian parliament vacated by the minister of finance of the republic, Gamid Gamidov, who was killed in a terrorist attack.
Nadyr Khachilaev’s election as a deputy to the State Duma for Dagestan, however, did not make him a well-known figure on the Russian political scene. It is interesting to note that most of Khachilaev’s colleagues in the State Duma only got to know of him after the events in May. As Alexander Shokhin, leader of the “Our Home is Russia” party–of which Khachilaev was a member until recently–stated at the time, not only had Khachilaev never attended a party meeting, he very rarely attended the sessions of the State Duma.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
It is quite clear that the Dagestani authorities and the Kremlin are fully resolved to neutralize the mafia groups in the republic. It is noteworthy that almost immediately after the Duma deputies had stripped Nadyr Khachilaev of his parliamentary privilege, the chairman of the State Council, Magomedali Magomedov, flew to Moscow where he was received by Russia’s new prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov. During their meeting, Magomedov reported on the measures being taken by the Dagestani authorities in their fight against crime. Primakov endorsed Makhachkala’s actions (NTV, Russian agencies, September 24)..
The decision by Makhachkala to attempt to get rid of the mafia groups, with the help of Moscow, however, is extremely risky. The Khachilaev brothers have over a thousand well-armed and well-trained guerrillas. The influence of the Khachilaevs is particularly strong among their fellow Lak tribesmen. It is notable that Nadyr Khachilaev himself is not in hiding, but living openly in his native village. He even suggested that the Russian deputy minister of the interior, Vladimir Kolesnikov, who has long wanted to question him, come to the mountains himself for a meeting. It cannot be ruled out that if Magomed Khachilaev is not released, Makhachkala will lose control of those parts of Dagestan populated by Laks.
Thus far, Nadyr Khachilaev himself is stressing that he is trying to find a peaceful solution to the issue of his brother’s release, and that he is also trying to restrain his followers from resorting to violence. However, it is unlikely that his patience will hold for long.
The Khachilaev faction is particularly dangerous, because the well-known Chechen field commanders Shamil Basaev and Salman Raduev have announced that they are prepared to offer it armed support.
It is also highly likely that there will be a union between the Khachilaev brothers and the “Wahhabites” (Dagestani fundamentalist groups)., which have already declared that their villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi “abide by the law of the Shariah,” and have set up armed checkpoints on their “borders.” Before this current conflict between the Khachilaev brothers and Makhachkala, the fundamentalists were the only armed force opposing Makhachkala. They might now find themselves with a powerful ally.
It is doubtful that the Dagestani authorities will manage to repel these forces on their own. But if Makhachkala calls in the Russian military and police, then the situation in the republic could begin to develop along the lines of the Chechen crisis.
Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.