Russian Experts Claim Democratic Process is the Key to Solving the Crisis in Dagestan

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 13

On June 21, unusually fierce clashes between government forces and the insurgents took place in northern Dagestan’s Kizlyar district. The security services and the rebels fought each other throughout the day in a wooded area near the village of Kuznetsovka. The government forces suspended the operation only at dusk and resumed it in the morning. Two or three servicemen were killed and five were wounded. Five insurgents were reported to have been killed, but sources in the police did not confirm that. The number of rebels involved in the battle is estimated to be 10-15 persons, and they may include one of the Kizlyar insurgent leaders, Akhmed Idrisov. The government forces used artillery, military helicopters and armored vehicles (,, June 21). The security forces plan to use infrared devices to detect and destroy rebels in the forest (, June 21). On June 20, a suspected rebel was killed and a Russian interior ministry serviceman was injured in southern Dagestan’s Sergokalinsky district (, June 21). On June 21, Gadzhi Alibegov, an official with the Investigative Committee, was gunned down in Makhachkala (, June 21).

Given the ferocious ongoing armed battles in Dagestan, it should come as no surprise that even the deputy head of the government-sponsored Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims, Magomed Magomedov, described the republic as resembling a “frontline.” On June 17, a conference on instability in Dagestan – the largest and arguably most violent republic in the North Caucasus – occurred in the Russian Public Chamber in Moscow. Magomedov stated that killings of law enforcers, on the one hand, and police and military operations against Muslims, on the other hand, were driving the situation in this republic to unending volatility. Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the Russian State’s Duma committee on security, suggested that the Russian security services had become accustomed to fighting large-scale insurgent forces in Chechnya in the framework of essentially military operations and replicated the same fighting style in the other North Caucasian republics, which was not justified (, June 21).

The truth is perhaps even more unpleasant for the North Caucasian public than Vasiliev implied. Manifestly superfluous massive military operations against one or two rebel suspects in North Caucasian city centers can hardly be explained by tactical mistakes. Indeed, many Russian policemen and members of the military have Chechen war experience, but they never staged military style operations elsewhere in Russia, even though some Russian criminal gangs are also very well-armed and trained. In fact, even when a North Caucasian rebel suspect is detected somewhere in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia, he or she is invariably arrested in a quiet, civil manner. In explaining the Russian forces’ harsh approach to the North Caucasian insurgents, it is much more plausible to suggest that the commanders expect to shock and awe not only the rebels themselves, but also the region’s general population or a significant proportion of it. In addition, there is no checks-and-balances mechanism to rein in the security forces, so they are tempted to act in the easiest possible way without any concern over the lawfulness of their actions.

At the same conference on Dagestan in Moscow, Abdulgamid Bulatov, a member of the Caucasus department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, concluded that Moscow’s policy in the North Caucasus in the past had become identical to the Russian empire’s approach to the region in the nineteenth century (, June 21). Since Russia fought a long, bloody and uncivil war in the North Caucasus in the nineteenth century, the academic practically proclaimed that Russia had waged another colonial war in the region.

In May, the Dagestani government legalized a special public commission to reintegrate insurgents who stop fighting. However, one of the members of the commission, Abbas Kebedov, said that the Muslim youth of Dagestan were still mobilized against glaring abuses of power by the police and government officials. According to Kebedov, those who want to join the insurgency significantly outnumber the rebels who want to come back to civil life. Kebedov did not exclude a Middle East-style uprising in Dagestan if the government did not sign a public reconciliation treaty with its opponents (, June 21).

It is hard to imagine any Russian government dominated by Vladimir Putin allowing the signing of an agreement with its opponents, and there is no Russia without Putin yet in sight. So violence in Dagestan is likely to continue and probably even increase periodically. The re-Islamization of Dagestan is an important factor that seems to inhibit the republic’s assimilation by Russia, but it also contributes to the widening cultural gap between Dagestan and the rest of Russia outside the North Caucasus. On Moscow’s side, the virtual absence of a democratic process excludes the public from political life and removes peaceful paths for resolving conflicts. Already some in Dagestan, such as the president of the Lezgins’ cultural autonomy, Arif Kerimov, are raising questions about Moscow’s disregard for the opinion of Dagestanis on who should run the region (, June 21).

The participants in the Russian Public Chamber conference came up with a set of recommendations for the government, such as the withdrawal from Dagestan of ethnic Russian policemen, who exasperate the locals. They also urged the president of Russia to decree an amnesty for the rebels in Dagestan in order to facilitate the reconciliation process (, June 21). However, authorities in Moscow always interpret the “reconciliation process” to be an unconditional surrender and submission to the government. The problem with this approach is that self-reinvention and change is expected only from the armed insurgents who have become opponents of the government, but not from the government itself. Yet, the government, according to many witness and expert accounts, is also part of the problem.