In March, the security services in Dagestan revived an environmentally dangerous tactical tool for fighting the regional insurgency—arson attacks on forests. Multiple media outlets and Internet social media confirmed reports of forest fires in several districts in the republic. Deforestation of the already arid republic creates risks for the livelihoods of the entire communities residing there (see EDM, March 28).
The fires took place in the Gumbet, Akhtyn, Shamil and Untsukul districts with the first one starting in Gumbet district on March 17 and lasting at least a week. On March 17, law enforcement agencies launched a special operation and introduced a counter-terrorist operation regime in the district. Two suspected militants were killed in the operation, including Valimagomed Sheikhov, a member of the Gimry group of militants. The counter-terrorist operation regime was lifted on March 19. “When local residents attempted to extinguish the fire, representatives of the forestry and law enforcement personnel prevented them from doing so,” one of the locals, Shamil Omarov told the Kavkazsky Uzel website. “As a result over ten hectares of forests were burned down. In recent days, the district is thick with smog and in many villages it is hard to breathe because of the smog and the smell of burning” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/240026).
In an interview with the website, the deputy head of Gumbetovsky district, Ahmed Karimov, denied the allegations. “The law enforcers found a dugout in the forest near the villages of Igali, Inkho and Aradirikh that belonged to the suspected members of the illegal bandit organizations,” he said. “Two of the militants were killed in the special operation in the village of Igali on March 17, but there was information that several others managed to hide in the forest and so the law enforcers carried out special procedures to arrest them. They laid various traps to catch them, so for safety purposes, ordinary people were not allowed into the forest, even to extinguish fires.” The Emergency Situations Ministry, which is responsible for responding to such disasters, told Kavkazsky Uzel that they could not do anything before the counter-terrorist operation was over and that the forest fire ended and only sporadic fires in hard-to-reach areas were still occurring (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/240026/). Meanwhile, locals provided photographs and verbal testimony that refuted the officials’ statements (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/photo_albums/1380).
Local residents even appealed to the head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, via Internet social networks for help: “Ramazan Gajimuradovich, please do something! Gumbetovsky district is burning; they burned the forest so that the terrorists run out, there is no more counter-terrorism operation regime, but no one comes to put out the fire, only us, the local residents, we try to put the fire out, but cannot cope, helicopters and firefighters are needed” (https://chernovik.net/content/lenta-novostey/zhiteli-gumbetovskogo-rayona-dagestana-prosyat-glavu-respubliki-obratit). Some even alleged that locals managed to put out the fire on the night of March 25, but that the law enforcement agents set the forests on fire again the following day.
Referring to local sources, the Kavpolit.com website counted at least five arson attacks on forests in Dagestan. The officials interviewed by the agency either denied there were significant forest fires or aggressively responded that journalists were “exaggerating” things for sensationalist motives. Arson attacks in forests as a means of fighting the insurgency were first reported back in 2012, when as many as 175 hectares of forests may have been affected by the arson attacks of the government forces. The editor-in-chief of the Dagestani weekly newspaper Chernovik, Mairbek Agaev, noted that the tactics used by the law enforcement agencies in 2012 to “smoke out” the insurgents from the forests were identical to the ones being used now. And some historians noted there were similar episodes during the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus in 19th century. “Yermolov [the Russian general known for his cruelty in the North Caucasus] also used the tactics of fires,” Dagestani historian, Bulat Magomedov said. “Back then, however, they only increased the aggression of their adversary and nothing good came out of it” (https://kavpolit.com/articles/protiv_kogo_gorjat_lesa_dagestana-2305/).
Forest fires in the mountains are especially devastating since they can cause soil erosion and lead to major changes in the patterns of life of the local population, which lives primarily upon agriculture for its standard of living. These arson attacks are essentially a government attempt to deprive Dagestanis in the least friendly areas of their livelihoods and encourage them to move to other parts of the republic. Unlike in the 19th century, the government today does not admit that burning forests is among its tactics to punish the locals by eliminating their livelihoods. Even though officials suggest they target only the insurgents who hide in inaccessible terrain, all the local residents eventually suffer and the government does not seem to be in a hurry to alleviate the consequences of its actions. As the authorities revert to the mechanisms of collective punishment, the backlash may also come as a collective response from Dagestanis, further deteriorating the already precarious situation in the republic.