On July 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced visit to the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, the very place where he began his climb to the presidency in 1999. In August 1999, Islamic militants from neighboring Chechnya invaded two districts of Dagestan, and Putin, the freshly minted Russian prime minister, went to the republic to encourage the soldiers and security service officers fighting against the invaders. Putin not only reassured the servicemen whom he visited on the frontline, but his actions calmed the worries of most of the Russian public as well. The Russians saw Putin as a figure who could stop the chain of humiliating defeats in the Caucasus, who could restore control over Chechnya, and who could erect a barrier to separatism and Islamic extremism throughout the region. In 1999 Putin looked confident and determined to fulfill his mission.
The atmosphere surrounding his second visit to Dagestan was quite different. The reason for this journey was the recent upswing in attacks by local rebels. After six years of an extremely hard-line policy based on unlimited use of force in the North Caucasus, Putin still faces the same problem in the region: militant separatism.
Unlike his first visit, this time Putin looked disappointed and criticized security officials for their inability to suppress the insurgency. The Russian president went to the republic accompanied by his key advisors, including Sergei Ivanov, minister of defense, and Vladimir Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Under heavy security, Putin inspected the FSB training center near Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, and a frontier station in the mountains. He did not hide his dissatisfaction with how the siloviki had been doing their job. For example, after inspecting new winter footwear for Russian Special Forces operating in the mountains, Putin declared the boots unacceptable for flat land, let alone mountains. Putin noted that the Chief of Staff had told him that the mountain units existed in Russia, but sarcastically commented, “I do not know where they are,” as they appear to be ineffective. Addressing the servicemen, Putin said, “When there are problems with terrorism somewhere, ordinary military units are usually sent there, but they do not have any special training or equipment.” The Russian president wanted special mountain brigades to be formed as fast as possible and deployed in Dagestan and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, another restive republic in the western part of the North Caucasus. He expressed his hope that these brigades would also help the Russian Ministry of Interior Affairs better control Dagestan (SMI.ru, July 18).
Interestingly, Putin paid almost no attention to the locals. He had a brief, private meeting with Magomed Magomedov, the Dagestani leader, and met the head of Botlikh district, but only because the mountain brigade will be located in that area. Leaving the region, the president said, “One can’t say that we did everything [necessary] to feel calm” (SMI.ru, July 18). Some observers in Russia regarded this phrase as a sign that Moscow officials would strengthen their control over Dagestan. This interpretation very quickly proved correct.
Barely 24 hours later, Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, announced, “The influence of the federal security agencies will be increasing in Dagestan.” Kozak added, “Operative working groups of the Ministry of Interior Affairs and FSB have already been working in the republic” (Interfax, July 16). The discredited local police departments were denied any information about preparations for operations against the rebels. On July 13, a Russian Special Forces unit surrounded a group of gunmen in Makhachkala, but the city police department knew nothing about the ongoing operation (Kavkazsky uzel, July 13).
At the same time, the Kremlin initiated a process of transferring civilian administrative levers to officials from Moscow, in Dagestan and beyond.
On July 18, Kozak declared, “The level of sovereignty of the regions will depend on their subsidy.” Specifically, he said those regions that are at least 80% subsidized from the federal budget should cede part of their power to Moscow. The envoy gave six examples of such regions, four of them being Caucasian republics, including Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria (RIA-Novosti, July 18).
However, it is also quite possible that the Kremlin is making empty threats to goad the Caucasian leaders into taking more steps to develop their respective economies. On July 19, Murat Zyazikov, the president of Ingushetia, took part in the opening ceremony for a new television communications equipment factory. He promised in his speech that up to 50 other factories would be built in the republic in near future. “The main objective is to decrease subsidies. We want the republic to be self-sufficient,” Zyazikov declared (regnum.ru, July 19). Clearly, Zyazikov wants to demonstrate that there is no need for the federal authorities to control cash flows to his region. The Ingush president, whom the local opposition has long accused of corruption, believes he can do it himself.
The response of other Caucasian leaders to the latest Kozak statement is not known yet, but there is no doubt that all of them will try one way or another to persuade the Kremlin that they still can control the situation at least in the economic sector. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that they will be able to produce arguments strong enough to calm down Russian authorities. Moscow is ready for radical changes. If the situation in the Caucasus continues to deteriorate, even Moscow’s best-behaved puppet leaders will be totally removed from the decision-making process and will be replaced by groups of Russian officials executing orders coming directly from the center.