On May 3, a double suicide attack shattered a large police checkpoint on the outskirts of Makhachkala, the principal city of Dagestan. According to government sources, 13 persons died in the attack and another 100 were injured (http://ria.ru/incidents/20120504/640710463.html, May 4). The first bomb contained an estimated 30 kilograms of TNT and the second one contained approximately 50 kilograms of TNT. Both improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were loaded onto cars, but it is unclear whether there was one suicide bomber or two, since the second car with the IED had apparently been parked near the police checkpoint in advance (http://ria.ru/incidents/20120504/640702261.html, May 4). According to the rebels’ website, Kavkazcenter, 30 servicemen were killed in the attack and two civilians died accidentally, while 100-120 people received injuries and at least 40 vehicles were destroyed (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2012/05/05/90397.shtml. As of May 6, however, no insurgency group claimed responsibility for the attack.
At a government meeting in Moscow on May 5, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the relatives of the victims of the attack would receive up to $30,000 in assistance from the Russian government (http://ria.ru/incidents/20120505/641992255.html, May 5). On May 4, at an extraordinary meeting of the Dagestani government, May 5 was announced as a day of mourning in the republic. Such a day of observance is quite unusual for Dagestan where insurgents’ attacks occur nearly every week, if not daily. The Dagestani government also corrected the overall number of victims by saying that in addition to the 13 victims of the attack, two suicide bombers also died in the attack (http://www.riadagestan.ru/news/2012/5/4/135936/, May 4). According to preliminary information, a brother and sister, 23-year-old Rizvan and 19-year-old Muslimat Alievs may have carried out the attack (http://izvestia.ru/news/523712, May 4). On May 5, the police in Dagestan imposed a counterterrorist operation regime in one of the districts of Makhachkala and the adjacent Kumtorkalinsky district of Dagestan (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/206122/, May 5).
Russian security services announced that an insurgency group led by Gussein Mamaev was responsible for the attack in Makhachkala. Also Rasul Mejidov, Ruslan Kaznabiev and Kurban Omarov were reportedly involved in staging this attack. The security services further alleged that the same group, which includes 12 members, was preparing terror attacks in Moscow as well. Security in Moscow was stepped up as a result of the attack, while police buildings and transportation routes received additional police protection (http://www.lifenews.ru/news/90769, May 5).
The attack in Makhachkala came at a sensitive moment in Russian politics, evoking several conspiracy theories about the timing of the attacks. On May 7, Vladimir Putin was scheduled for inauguration in Moscow as the next President of Russia. The Russian opposition promised to stage massive protests in the city against what it regards as Putin’s “illegitimate presidency.” A large-scale attack in Makhachkala and actively spread information about the infiltration of suicide bombers into the city makes it easier for the authorities to thwart massive public protests against Putin. Although, the intensity of the public protests against Putin has declined significantly since December 2011, the government is still mindful about public rallies. Thus, Moscow police announced that one of the central squares in the vicinity of Red Square, Manezhka, would be closed to the public on May 6 (http://petrovka38.ru/news/38875/, May 5). However, as early as February 2012, the rebel leader Doku Umarov announced a halt to the attacks against civilians in Russia as a sign of support of anti-Putin protests in the country (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2012/02/03/88591.shtml, February 3).
Grigory Shvedov, Caucasian Knot’s editor-in-chief told Radio France Internationale that the link between protest actions in Moscow and the terror attack in Makhachkala was plausible. Shvedov also pointed out how quickly the authorities identified the suspects, although DNA tests and other analysis should have taken longer to conduct before officials could reach any credible conclusions. Shvedov noted that “in Dagestan fairly often we see people who were kidnapped and people who testified under torture or other illegal means being subsequently proclaimed guilty of especially egregious terror attacks” (http://www.russian.rfi.fr/rossiya/20120504-grigorii-shevdov-inauguratsiya-putina-i-terakt-v-dagestane, May 4). This means that the security services maintain a “pool” of suspects that they draw upon to quickly cover up the police’s needs whenever there is a requirement to solve a crime. Little risk is involved on the police side since the rebel suspects are rarely brought to open trials as they often end up being killed during special operations.
A quick survey conducted of Russian politicians and experts by the Russian newspaper Izvestia revealed a solid reaction among most of the respondents for taking a tougher stance on the North Caucasus. For example, the head of the veterans of the Russian security services’ special unit Alfa, Sergei Goncharov, unveiled an increasingly popular view of the conflict in the North Caucasus. “Permanent explosions in the [North] Caucasus are not terror attacks, it is a true war of the local population against the law enforcement, against the existing authorities as such,” said Goncharov. The security services’ veteran alleged that the clan structure of the North Caucasus excludes many young people from social life and they end up joining the insurgency. To change the situation, Goncharov proposed to go back to the Tsarist times’ system where the entire administrative apparatus for the region was made up of ethnic Russians. The head of the military forecasting center at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, Anatoly Tsyganok, suggested that authorities launch a large-scale military operation to “brush up everyone” in Dagestan. Security expert and member of the Russian parliament, Gennady Gudkov, said there were no easy ways forward in the North Caucasus and a comprehensive overhaul of the political system in the region was the only way to move forward (http://izvestia.ru/news/523686, May 4). With Dagestan’s stability further in question, Grigory Shvedov suggested that a crucial indicator of Moscow’s future strategy in the North Caucasus will be whether the Kremlin’s envoy to the region, Alexander Khloponin, steps down from his position (http://www.russian.rfi.fr/rossiya/20120504-grigorii-shevdov-inauguratsiya-putina-i-terakt-v-dagestane, May 4). Khloponin’s appointment was associated with a “softer” approach of Moscow to the North Caucasus that envisaged economic development and the building of ski resorts as the best path to improving regional security.
Moscow’s greatest limitation in the North Caucasus is that it cannot afford to enact comprehensive political reforms in the region because this would mean essentially introducing participatory politics and democratization. This is impossible for two reasons, the first being that it would require that Moscow do the same in Russia’s inner regions as well, which would undermine Vladimir Putin’s hold on power. The second reason is that Moscow under any presidency will be afraid to lose the North Caucasus as soon as people there are allowed to choose their own government.