Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 18

By Nabi Abdullaev

The criminal saga of the Khachilaev brothers, the Dagestan political family, continues: On October 7 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the arrest of Nadir Khachilaev, a deputy in the Russian State Duma and the leader of the Russian Union of Moslems.

The story of the Khachilaev brothers is not simply a typical example of the emergence of the new regional political elite in Russia. It is an instructive example taken to its logical extreme. It is an example of a combination of sincere religious and nationalist rhetoric and a paranoid thirst for power. It is a story of people from the lower reaches of society who came to power by criminal means, who continued to use criminal methods to further their careers, and who came into conflict with the establishment, which in turn began to use the law rather selectively to suppress them and push them out of the political arena.

This is how things stand today. The eldest brother, Magomed Khachilaev, the leader of the Lak ethnic movement, is under investigation. Nadir has been arrested by the federal law enforcement bodies and is being held in Moscow in the trial center at Lefortovo. Dzhabrail has been arrested in Dagestan on suspicion of having links with the leaders of the religious extremists who organized the armed conflict in Dagestan in August-September 1999.

The Russian authorities have got hold of one of Dagestan’s former unofficial bosses, a highly prominent public and political leader who has had more influence than anyone else on the formation of Dagestan’s new statehood. The story of the Khachilaev clan is inextricably linked with Dagestan’s recent history, and an examination of the main events in this story makes it easier to understand how Dagestan, and indeed other Caucasian republics, became what they are today.

The four Khachilaev brothers were born into a shepherd’s family in the village of Kuma in the Lak region of the republic. Losing their mother at an early age, the brothers were brought up first in a children’s home, and then by relatives. During the 1980s they achieved some sporting success: Magomed and the youngest brother Adam won prizes at the European karate championships. In the mid-1980s they became involved in the criminal world by gaining the acquaintance of the influential Makhachkala crime lord Ramiz Saitiev. The second brother, Nadir Khachilaev, joined a Caucasian crime syndicate which controlled the sale of cars in Moscow. Their story was, on the whole, typical for crime bosses. At the end of the 1980s, with the opportunities for foreign travel which they enjoyed as sportsmen, the brothers imported computers into Russia and sold them. At the time this was extremely profitable: The dollar exchange rate in this business was many times greater even than the black market rate. The proceeds formed the basis of the Khachilaev wealth.

At the end of the 1980s in Dagestan, riding a wave of national self-determination, the intelligentsia formed national movements aimed at preserving and developing the traditional culture and language of this or that ethnic group. One of the first was the Lak movement Tsubarz (New Moon). In 1991, after the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation adopted a Law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples, the Aukhov Chechens staked a claim against the residents of the Novolak region of Dagestan, which until 1944 had been the Aukhov region of Checheno-Ingushetia. After the Chechens were deported in 1944, the Laks were forcibly resettled onto their lands. Over the years they created an agricultural infrastructure and built new houses and roads and so on. But the Aukhov Chechens, who had won legal backing for their territorial claims, demanded that the Laks be immediately ejected, and even backed up their demands with the threat of violence. The Dagestan leadership tried to find a political solution to the conflict, but the options they proposed were inadequate. This was where the Khachilaevs’ political career took off. Tsubarz invited them to join the movement and provide its protection. The Khachilaevs had soon bought and paid for a large number of weapons which were then distributed to the residents of Novolak, and to any Lak men who wanted to join in the defense of their people’s rights. Magomed and Nadir Khachilaev formed the armed units–equipped at their expense not just with weapons, but with transport and communications equipment–which were later to become associated with the Lak national movement. The armed confrontation lasted several weeks, after which a compromise was found at the suggestion of the Khachilaevs: The government of Dagestan was to provide the land and funding to move the Novolak region, and a decision on the reestablishment of the Aukhov region was to be postponed until the people of Novolak had been offered accommodation of equal value.

At a Lak congress the following year Magomed Khachilaev was elected leader of the national movement. The Lak movement, which was renamed Kazi-Kumukh, became the strongest movement in a republic where there were no political parties and where other movements had not had the experience of armed conflict. In 1993 Magomed Khachilaev became a deputy for the Lak region to the Dagestan National Assembly (parliament). His wealth grew: According to various sources, the brothers’ participation in major scams involving forged letters of advice earned them tens of millions of dollars. They also extended their political links, mainly in Arab countries, where they often traveled. In the best traditions of a mafia godfather, people turned to them in times of crisis, and were often rewarded with their assistance.

The appearance on the political scene of such figures as Magomed and Nadir Khachilaev–who kept up a constant demand that the rights of their people be protected, and called for proportional representation for the Laks in the official bodies of the republic–was in many ways influential in the fact that under the 1993 Constitution Dagestan became a republic structured along national lines with a system of national quotas in the official bodies, the national constituencies and so on. In 1995 Magomed Khachilaev was appointed head of the government of the republic’s fisheries committee, thus gaining control of one of the three most lucrative branches of the republic’s economy. He then became the head of the republic’s branches of the Committee for Peace and the Peace Fund.

Throughout this period Nadir Khachilaev was lying low. He earned a degree from the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, published a number of stories in Russian literary journals, and became involved in charity work and patronage of the arts. In 1993 he set up the Russian Union of Moslems, which at the time was not taken seriously by many Moslem political leaders, such as Geidar Dzhemal. However, shortly afterwards, Federal Minister for Nationalities Ramazan Abdulatipov took the Union under his wing. This immediately raised the profile both of the organization and of Nadir Khachilaev himself.

During and after the Chechen conflict of 1994-96, the Khachilaev brothers played an active part in the release of hostages. It was the brothers Magomed and Nadir who set up the negotiations between Aleksandr Lebed and Aslan Maskhadov which led to the signing of the Khasavyurt treaty in August 1996.

In 1996 Nadir, the leader of the Russian Union of Moslems, was elected to the State Duma, with the active support of the whole of the state apparatus in Dagestan. There he joined Our Home is Russia (NDR), but the bloc distanced itself from him immediately after the events of May 1998, when supporters of the Khachilaevs seized the government building in Makhachkala. According to Aleksandr Shokhin, the leader of NDR in the Duma at the time, Khachilaev only rarely put in an appearance at Duma sessions, and spent most of his time traveling around the Arab world. Indeed, Dagestan state television made a great show of broadcasting a film about Khachilaev’s visits to Libyan leader Mu’ammar Gaddafi and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. In public speeches Nadir began calling for the creation of an Islamic state in Dagestan, and defended the Wahhabites from the attacks of the traditionalist clergy; his speeches often contained anti-Semitic rhetoric about Zionists bent on dividing the Moslem world and provoking a large-scale religious conflict in Dagestan.

In 1996 Magomed Khachilaev became head of the Coordination Council for the national movements in Dagestan, and went into opposition to the ruling group under Magomedali Magomedov. To a great extent this was prompted by the constitutional crisis which gripped Dagestan in May and June of 1996. The term of office of the first chairman of the city council, Magomedali Magomedov, was coming to an end, and–according to the constitution–he was supposed to transfer power to the representative of a different nationality. Instead of doing so, Magomedov demanded an extension of his powers for another two years. The question of how the deputies were to vote for changes to a constitutional principle was put to the ballot three times in the National Assembly, and three times the proposal for an open ballot was defeated. Only on the fourth occasion, when a group of thirty deputies led by Magomed Khachilaev expressed their outrage at what was going on by storming out, was the decision to hold an open vote passed. Magomedov retained his powers.

From that point onwards, Magomed and Nadir Khachilaev began publicly criticizing the regime, speaking of a usurpation of power, of a puppet parliament and of the lack of understanding among the republic’s leaders of what they saw as essential state priorities. The frequent appearance of such attacks in the central press by Nadir Khachilaev, who was already a Duma deputy, provoked a sharp reaction from the republic’s leaders.

In 1997 Magomed Khachilaev became deputy minister for agriculture, and a year later, when the minister reached retirement age, Magomed was due to replace him. The Khachilaev brothers became the focus of attention in the federal press in May last year, when they and their supporters seized the parliament, State Council and National Assembly building in Makhachkala. The brothers and their supporters describe the events leading up to the seizure of the parliament building as direct provocation on the part of the republic’s leaders. The other side has offered no other intelligible version of the events. Two days before the disturbances in Makhachkala, the chairman of a local state farm in the Novolak region was abducted and taken to Chechnya. The local residents, who were Laks, gathered to organize a reprisal against Chechens living in the border regions. Dagestan’s prime minister, Khizri Shikhsaidov, asked the Khachilaev brothers to pacify their compatriots, guaranteeing that nobody would stop their armed cortege. Late in the evening of May 20, after they had managed to persuade the people of Novolak to return to their homes, the Khachilaevs returned to Makhachkala. In the downtown area a police unit stopped and searched Nadir Khachilaev’s jeep. An altercation broke out between his paramilitaries and the policemen and ended in gunfire: Four policemen were shot dead on the spot and a fifth died the next day in hospital. The paramilitaries took refuge in Nadir Khachilaev’s house. The police blockaded the house and told everyone to come out and give themselves up. According to Nadir Khachilaev, he then contacted the prime minister, who said that it was high time to deal with the Khachilaevs once and for all, and demanded that all those in the house give themselves up to the police.

Early the next morning, Magomed Khachilaev mobilized some fifty paramilitaries and passed through the police lines into his brother’s house. Here they withstood a police attack on the building, after which Magomed carried out a sortie, in the course of which his men, armed with machine guns and grenade throwers, occupied the government building in a matter of minutes, encountering minimal resistance. They left the building on the evening of the same day, having secured guarantees for their safety from Magomedali Magomedov and a promise not to prosecute those who took part in the disturbances. The following day the brothers received confirmation of these guarantees from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Stepashin.

On September 9, 1998 Magomed Khachilaev was arrested in downtown Makhachkala during a special operation involving the Moscow organized crime directorate. The warrant for his arrest was issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office in connection with the organization of the mass unrest in Makhachkala on May 21.

Khachilaev’s arrest provoked an immediate reaction both on the streets of the city and in the government building. The town center was cordoned off by police checkpoints, and some 400 supporters of Khachilaev gathered in the square. The chairman of the city council Magomedali Magomedov called an emergency meeting at which activists from the Lak national movement and members of the Coordination Council for the national movements demanded an explanation from the authorities. The head of the republic directed all questions to Russia’s first deputy foreign minister, Vladimir Kolesnikov, who was in Dagestan at the time. Kolesnikov was coordinating a joint investigation by Moscow and local detectives into the most serious crimes of recent months in Dagestan (the unrest and the death of five policemen on May 20-21, terrorist attacks on the mayor of Makhachkala, and the murder of the mufti).

Kolesnikov announced that Khachilaev’s arrest signaled the beginning of a ruthless fight against crime by the Foreign Ministry, in which the rank and standing of those under suspicion would be immaterial. As for Khachilaev, the deputy minister promised that he would be provided with lawyers and that the due legal process would be observed.

Magomed Khachilaev’s arrest and the announcement that Nadir was under federal investigation signaled the beginning of a wide-scale fight against crime in Dagestan’s official structures; only later did it become clear that the federal law enforcement bodies had been used by the ruling groups in Dagestan to settle scores with their political opponents. But then, at a special session of the National Assembly in September 1998, Dagestan’s parliamentarians became the first in Russia to relinquish their parliamentary immunity from prosecution. The Russian State Duma stripped one of their number of immunity for the first time when it supported a request from the Prosecutor General’s Office, which accused Nadir Khachilaev of organizing the unrest in May 1998.

Nadir Khachilaev tried to whip up public support–his envoys held a series of meetings and even organized a special trip to Makhachkala by residents from Novolak region which lasted several days. These attempts were unsuccessful, however, and Nadir was forced to take refuge in Chechnya. During the 1994-96 war in Chechnya he had provided material and political support for the separatists, and had even become friendly with many field commanders. In a de facto sovereign Chechnya, to which Russian law enforcement bodies had no access, he could therefore find a relatively secure refuge for himself and a few dozen of this closest supporters. While he was there, in an attempt to soften the attitude of the federal authorities towards him, he became actively involved in helping hostages, and according to one of his assistants he facilitated the release of more than forty people.

In August 1999 he refused to support the armed incursions into Dagestan organized by the field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, and he forfeited the goodwill of Basaev, the most influential of the Chechen field commanders. Then, in September 1999, according to reports from official Russian sources, Nadir Khachilaev and his men took part in the defense of the Wahhabite enclave of Karamakhi-Chabanmakhi, where he was wounded, after which he went into hiding in the Lak region of Dagestan. No explanation has yet been given of where and how he was arrested. Given that Nadir Khachilaev can very easily mobilize several hundred paramilitaries, making it practically impossible to arrest him, two possible versions of events are doing the rounds among observers. The first says that he was betrayed by those closest to him and handed over to the Russian authorities; the second, which is the more plausible, surmises that, finding himself in a hopeless position, pursued by both the Dagestani and the Russian authorities and unable to seek refuge safely in Chechnya, Nadir Khachilaev gave himself up, having secured himself guarantees for his safety.

And so, after a meteoric rise, and after enjoying huge popularity, the Khachilaevs have become marginal politicians. Magomed was released in March, having given a written undertaking not to leave the region. The case against him is deliberately being spun out, turning him into a puppet of the ruling group who have the power to reopen the investigation into him at any time. The brothers have lost almost all their public support in Dagestan–in recent years the Khachilaevs had openly turned the national movement into a tool for achieving their own mercenary ends, basically ignoring the Lak people. The impression nevertheless remains that Nadir Khachilaev has not entirely outlived his political usefulness. I was speaking to one of the Russian snipers who took part in the operation to destroy the bandit groups in Karamakhi. He says that he had several opportunities to kill Nadir Khachilaev, but was under strict orders not to. The inscrutable position of the Russian authorities with regard to the arrest prompts the thought that events may unfold not entirely in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law, but rather to suit political expediency. Nadir Khachilaev is technically still a State Duma deputy, nominally representing Russia’s 20 million Moslems. And in the very complex political situation in Russia today, where the Islamic factor has added itself to the usual array of political problems, manipulating an internationally recognized Islamic activist may be of great help in the power struggle in the country.

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.