Police Operation Sheds Light on Moscow’s Tactics in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 11

On May 24, an estimated 600 protesters gathered in Makhachkala to demand an investigation into the March 18 murder of four brothers, including Kizlyar city council member Magomed Gamzatov, and their nephew, who were killed after they had a dispute with Kizlyar district head Andrei Vinogradov. Despite what appeared to be an intra-elite conflict, the protest illuminated glaring problems that are contributing to endemic violence in Dagestan. According to the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website, the number of protesters was matched by the number of security forces deployed with armored personnel carriers. The principal speaker at the rally called on the servicemen “to leave the law enforcement forces immediately” and “stay home with the people.” Another speaker stated: “There is no law here [in Dagestan]. We need to deal with the killers on our own, to declare a guerrilla war” (https://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207105/, May 24).
Mass public protests have become common in Dagestan as people come to understand that only mass protests can pressure the government into acting on their grievances. All other legal mechanisms and institutions of resolving disputes, such as elections and courts, appear to be struggling to stay relevant.
On May 26, a crowd of 300 people blocked the federal highway linking Makhachkala to Astrakhan. The protesters demanded to know the whereabouts of Gaji Mustafaev, who was kidnapped by unidentified servicemen on May 26 in Makhachkala. Mustafaev’s relatives alerted the police after a female witness told them she had seen Mustafaev being beaten up and taken away by masked men in uniform. Initially the police denied any connection to the incident, but after the people blocked the highway for two hours, officials admitted Mustafaev was in police custody (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207192/, May 26).
The alertness of a detained suspect’s relatives is crucial for ensuring that a detainee has a chance to survive police custody in Dagestan. On May 20, the body of Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov was found in a burned out car in the republic’s Untsukul district. The police announced that Magomedkhanov, a resident of Makhachkala, was transporting an IED in his car that had accidentally detonated. Earlier, on May 15, Magomedkhanov’s relatives alerted the police that they were not able to reach him by telephone. According to his relatives, Magomedkhanov was most likely kidnapped by government forces in Makhachkala in the wake of the suicide bombing attack in Makhachkala on May 3 that claimed the lives of 13 people (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/206903/, May 21).
Every time the peace process in Dagestan progresses, both the government and the insurgents start to undermine it, according to a report released in Moscow on May 25 by the human rights organization, Memorial. Memorial activists stated that the militants did not like the accord signed on April 29 by the Salafis, who are often referred to as the rebels, and the Sufis, who are considered to be pro-government (for details on this accord see EDM, May 18). Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a North Caucasus expert with Memorial and the International Crisis Group, said that the government also contributes to the continuation of violence because it does not respect promises it makes to the suspected insurgents who surrender. “Any clash could erupt into something full-scale,” the rights activist warned. According to Memorial, since the start of the year, 88 people were killed in the conflict in Dagestan, including 32 servicemen and 56 suspected rebels; and in May alone, 10 people were kidnapped in the republic (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207178/, May 26).
Memorial also shed light on the drama that unfolded in Makhachkala on May 18-19. The police announced that it had surrounded a private home where suspects involved in the suicide bombing in the city on May 3 were hiding. It quickly came to light that six people were trapped in the house, including two men, three women and two children. Human rights activists and relatives of those in the blockaded house became involved in negotiations between the government and the people inside. According to Memorial’s representative in Makhachkala, Yelena Denisenko, the people trapped in the house were saying over the phone and Skype that they were willing to come out, but the police did not allow them to. The well-known Russian rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina spoke to people inside the house and confirmed their firm willingness to surrender. Gannushkina further contacted Rizvan Kurbanov, a member of the Russian parliament from Dagestan, who also provided guarantees for the safety of the people in the house if they surrendered.
For their part, those inside said a “Russian man from the FSB” (Federal Security Service) had warned them by telephone that if they attempted to step outside the building, the government forces would shoot them. Relatives of the trapped people also gathered outside the site of the police operation and demanded that the police allow those in the house to leave. Eventually, one of the men, three women and both children were allowed to come out of the house, while the remaining man, identified as Mansur Midal, was killed by the police, allegedly after he threw a grenade at them. Earlier, Midal via telephone had denied his involvement in the terrorist attack on May 3 and said he was willing to surrender to the police. The rights activists said that had they not gotten involved, there would have been more victims of the police operation (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207178/, May 26).
The police operation in Makhachkala indicates that the Russian government is increasingly reverting to “scorched earth” military tactics in the North Caucasus, preferring that all suspected rebels be killed on the spot rather than tried in Russian courts. This desire apparently derives from the Russian government’s conviction that only the threat of imminent death can stop people from joining the insurgency. So this policy essentially targets the North Caucasus’ entire local population, which is regarded as potentially disloyal. Moscow’s distrust of the North Caucasians is matched by the local population’s distrust of the government forces in Dagestan. Dagestanis are increasingly willing to express solidarity with people who are targeted by the government. If both trends continue, it is only a matter of time before large-scale clashes erupt, as some experts have warned.