Kremlin Effort to Subdue Clans in Dagestan Likely to Backfire

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 119

Ramazan Abulatipov and Vladimir Putin

Dagestan’s head Ramazan Abulatipov said in an interview with Kommersant-FM Radio on June 20, while attending the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, that the new leadership of the republic regarded its economic development as the necessary condition for resolving its problems. In the interview, Abdulatipov said that the previous leaders of Dagestan had tried to adjust to the republican realities and eventually failed because of that. “We have a completely different approach,” he said. “We do not intend to adapt, we want to transform the socio-economic, political, legal and cultural environment of Dagestan to mark a new stage of development of the republic.” Abdulatipov admitted that “many people left for the forests precisely because they were alienated from political power, from property, from society.” The term “leaving for the forest” is a euphemism widely used in the North Caucasus for describing the process of people joining the insurgency. According to the head of Dagestan, an uncorrupt government and the trust of the population are the key components to successfully transforming and stabilizing the republic. The outward migration in the republic, according to Abdulatipov, was 22,000 people in 2012 (http://kommersant.ru/doc/2216004). 

Despite Abdulatipov’s optimism, the security situation in Dagestan remains precarious almost five months after his appointment as the acting head of Dagestan. In May, 129 of the reported 147 victims of insurgency-related warfare in the North Caucasus were in Dagestan. Out of 45 people killed in this period, 38 were killed in Dagestan (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/225671/). Recent attacks in Dagestan suggest that militant assaults have become more targeted. On June 17, three masked suspects killed a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, Rajab Kazambiev, in the village of Babayurt (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/225857/). On June 15, authorities found the body of 24-year-old police officer, Magomed Magomedov, near a highway in Dagestan’s Tsumada district (http://www.interfax.ru/russia/news.asp?id=312630). Earlier, on June 11, three servicemen and two militants died in a clash in the village of Novochurtakh in Dagestan’s Novolak district (http://ria.ru/incidents/20130611/942763114.html). 

Meanwhile, government forces also are continuing their campaign against the militants. On June 12, police killed three suspected rebels in the village of Michurino in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district. Mysterious kidnappings and killings also continue in Dagestan (http://ria.ru/incidents/20130614/943404671.html). This probably indicates that the government forces have not changed their tactics much in dealing with suspected insurgents. 

Abulatipov’s image of renewal in Dagestan recently suffered another setback.  The Emergency Panel of the Union of European Football Associations ruled on June 18 that “due to the security situation in Dagestan and the North Caucasus, no UEFA competition match is allowed to be played in this region during the 2013/14 season.” The popular Dagestani soccer club Anji was asked to propose another venue for its home matches with European soccer clubs (http://www.uefa.com/uefa/aboutuefa/news/newsid=1965823.html). 

Meanwhile, Dagestan continues to grapple with the consequences of the surprise arrest and dismissal of the powerful mayor of Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. While other arrests of figures close to Said Amirov followed, it is entirely unclear what substantive changes these arrests will bring, apart from the replacement of some political figures. While many observers agree about the shortcomings of the political system in Dagestan, no clear and realistic ways for overcoming the old system and moving forward have been offered so far. Having removed Amirov, Moscow has proven it can remove even the most influential people from leadership positions in Dagestan, but it appears Moscow is completely unprepared for any meaningful changes in the republic. The true modernization of Dagestan is highly unlikely without bringing the population of the republic onboard. In the meantime, depriving the people of Dagestan of a say in the politics of the republic is one of the pillars of the Kremlin’s policies in Dagestan and across the North Caucasus. The reforms are thought of as purely top-down enterprise that uncorrupt and intelligent managers sent in by Moscow will implement in an otherwise hopelessly backward republic. 

Even some independent experts, such as the head of the International Crisis Group in Russia, Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, have been swayed by the Kremlin media machine, which announced a large-scale purge in Dagestan. Sokiryanskaya hailed Amirov’s arrest and said she expected that further cleansing of the clans of the republic would deliver improvements in the violence-ridden territory (http://rusplt.ru/policy/dagestan_prognoz.html). 

The larger question though is what is the alternative to the much vilified Dagestani clans? Is corrupt Putin-led Russia capable of offering Dagestan an alternative to its clan-based system of governance? The authoritarian Russian regime is most likely simply unable to offer any substantive changes to the political system in Dagestan. In addition, many Russian observers forget that Dagestan’s political system was partly constructed by Moscow itself, which propped up such strongmen as Said Amirov, Magomedali Magomedov and others. 

Moscow’s goal in Dagestan appears to be replacing the stronger political figures in Dagestan with weaker ones who would be more dependent on the Kremlin. While the bureaucratic logic of such a move seems to be impeccable, the practical consequences may be quite dire. Moscow has practically moved on to establish a more direct rule in Dagestan, something that Russian analysts on the North Caucasus like Sergei Markedonov have long called for. However, by removing middlemen like Amirov and attempting to govern Dagestan directly, Moscow risks creating social chaos in the republic. The people Moscow installs in the unstable region will be well-integrated vertically into the Russian system of power and thus easily governable by the Russian government, but they are also likely to have increasingly less influence on the ground. This is a direct path to greater volatility, lower predictability and the rise of Islam as an alternative to the failure of secular politics in the republic. 

At the same time, it is an empirical question whether Moscow would like to have a viable Dagestani government that would stabilize the republic and have full support and legitimacy among the population. A high level of economic viability and stability in the republic would raise fears of Dagestani separatism in Moscow. Consequently, the Russian government appears to be trying to achieve inherently contradictory goals in Dagestan.