The recent Russian-Georgian armed conflict revealed the role of Azerbaijan as a key player in projects to supply Europe with oil and natural gas via alternative routes to the pipelines that run across Russia. It is widely known that the Russian authorities completely reject delivering natural gas from Central Asia through Azerbaijan and Georgia bypassing Russian territory. So, the speed of the implementation of the Nabucco pipeline project to supply Europe with natural gas from Central Asia through Georgia and Azerbaijan depends heavily on Russian-Azeri relations. In addition to the problems of prices and the security of transportation routes, there is also the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of Azerbaijan controlled by a pro-Armenian separatist government. Russia and the West are trying now to demonstrate to the Azeri authorities their ability to solve the Karabakh issue in favor of Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, another problem has tightly linked Russia and Azerbaijan recently: the problem of the North Caucasian insurgency.
When Russian initiated the first military campaign in Chechnya, the Chechen separatists found shelter in Azerbaijan, where they were allowed to conduct their political activities. During the second Chechen military campaign, which coincided with Vladimir Putin’s accession as president of Russia, the government of Azerbaijan strengthened its control over Chechen refugees in the country. After a time, all political and information centers of the Chechen separatists were closed in Azerbaijan and rebel envoys started to disappear without a trace: it is most likely that they were detained by Azeri security services to be extradited to Russia. By 2007, the activities of Chechen separatists almost stopped in Azerbaijan or went deeply underground.
However, the Azeri authorities faced another problem as the Chechen rebels were replaced by rebels in Dagestan, which borders Azerbaijan. Many ethnic groups that live in Dagestan, including Lezgins, Avars, and Kumyks, also live in the northern provinces of Azerbaijan adjacent to Russia. Many Dagestanis from Azerbaijan have joined rebel groups in Dagestan. Nabi Nabiev, a Lezgin from Azerbaijan, was the right hand of Rappani Khalilov, who was the leader of the rebels in Dagestan. Nabiev was killed together with Khalilov in Dagestan in September 2007. Eldar Malachiev (aka Abdul Majid), an Avar from the Azeri city of Zakataly, became the leader of Dagestan insurgency after Khalilov’s death (Interfax, September 18). This year the authorities in Dagestan noted that the center of the local insurgency was moving toward the southern region to areas not far from the Azeri border.
This summer, Dagestan’s Interior Minister, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, said police had counted 150 Islamic fundamentalists in the southern areas of the republic. “Given the extent of terrorist activities, we can safely say that their real number is much larger,” he said (Kavkazky Uzel, July 24).
One could see the same trend in Azerbaijan this year. The number of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Azerbaijan has increased in recent months. They consist mostly of Dagestanis both from Dagestan and from northern Azerbaijan. In Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, the center for the Dagestan Salafi groups is the Abu Bekr Mosque. On August 17, somebody threw a hand grenade into a window of the mosque during Friday prayers. Two people were killed and 18 wounded. Immediately after that Azeri police started a massive campaign of arrests in the northern districts of the country. Dozens of Azeri Dagestanis were arrested in the Gusar, Zakataly, and Balakent districts adjacent to Dagestan (Day.az, August 19). At the same time, police in Baku started patrolling mosques where Sunni Dagestanis pray (Day.az, August 29). (Unlike Dagestanis who are Sunnis, the majority of Azeri Muslims are Shia.)
According to Azeri sources, in late August a group of Dagestani militants led by Eldar Malachiev moved from Dagestan to Azerbaijan’s Gusar district. The nature of the mission of the group remains unclear; perhaps they wanted to prevent further arrests and repression against Dagestani Salafists in northern Azerbaijan. On August 29, the militants had a shoot-out with Shakhin, an Azeri special forces unit. One Azeri soldier was killed in the clash and the insurgents escaped deep into a forest.
At the same time, the Russian security forces started a large-scale counterinsurgency operation in the districts of Dagestan adjacent to Azerbaijan. On September 2, a rebel was arrested in Magaramkent district of Dagestan. Russian officials declared that he had taken part in the rebel raid into Azerbaijan (Day.az, September 2).
On September 8, also in Dagestan’s Magaramkent district, Russian special forces blocked a car with four insurgents in it, including the top Dagestani rebel leader Malachiev. All four militants were killed. That same day Russian police forces surrounded several villages in the Tabasaran and Derbent districts in southern Dagestan about fifty miles from the border with Azerbaijan. According to official statements, about 40 Dagestani rebels were hiding there. On September 8, three Russian officers from a police special task unit were killed in an ambush near Syrtych, one of the surrounding villages (Interfax, September 8).
While Russian troops and police forces were combing the Russian side, the Azeri policemen tracked the rebels on their side of the border. On September 8, Azeri police declared that two rebels had been killed and one wounded in Gusar district. According to the official version, these militants had participated in the shootout with the Azeri Shakhin unit on August 29 (Day.az, September 8). Azeri officials also declared that an assault rifle belonging to a slain Azeri soldier, a member of the Shakhin unit, had been found among the dead rebels’ weaponry.
As one can see, the Russian-Azeri border has become an unstable buffer zone where Russians and Azerbaijanis have one enemy: local Dagestani insurgents. Most likely in the near future the government of Azerbaijan will need closer coordination with Russian security services to secure its volatile north. This will provide Russia with yet another opportunity to exert influence on Azeri foreign and domestic policy.