Since the beginning of April, Ramzan Kadyrov’s units have sharply increased the number of military actions in neighboring Daghestan, particularly on the territory of the Hasavyurt district – populated predominantly by Chechens and Avars. These actions followed public statements by Kadyrov that Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev and a bulk of his fighters had been hiding in Dagestan.
In the second week of April, a large unit of Kadyrov’s men marched into Daghestan’s Hasavyurt district, purportedly to destroy a Chechen guerrilla unit led, in Kadyrov’s words, by a close associate of “the emir of the mujahideen of Daghestan” Rappani Khalilov. The media never mentioned the name of the commander.
This was not the first sortie of Kadyrov’s units into the district. Though the units had previously not encountered any local resistance, this time residents of the Hasavyurt district, both Chechens and Avars, repulsed the Chechen police, killing one of Kadyrov’s sidekicks. After the incident, Kadyrov made a statement on April 20 accusing Dagestani police of not only inaction, but also of aiding Chechen and Dagestani terrorists.
Residents of the Hasavyurt district explain the incident differently. By accident, NTV showed footage of conversations between Russian journalists and residents of the village which was attacked by Kadyrov’s unit. The locals claimed they were forced to take arms to protect themselves from being looted. According to the residents, Kadyrov’s invaders behaved impudently, even provocatively, saying that they were given a free hand to act as they please since “they hold President Putin himself by the hands.”
The Kremlin could not have reacted positively to such news. Each day the Kremlin is more and more disturbed by the arrogance of Kadyrov and his 3,000-man army. The April “mission” was the second such sortie in six months, and most probably it was not authorized by Moscow. The Kremlin knows perfectly well that the reputation of the federal center has been on the decline in Dagestan, and that incursions by Kadyrov’s band damage it even more; especially if the “head” of Chechnya hides behind the name of President Putin. Dagestanis are annoyed not by the fact that the raids are accompanied by looting – it is the raids themselves that insult their national pride.
But Putins’ patronage and the free hand Kadyrov is given by the Kremlin do not account for his behavior. Kadyrov views himself more and more as a new head of not only Chechnya, but also of neighboring North Caucasian Republics.
There is some speculation as to the reasons behind the increase in activity of the Kadyrov’s units in the Hasavyurt district. It is often explained as a reaction to the spring offensive by Chechen guerillas. With the start of spring, when the woods in mountains gain foliage, the Russian Army and Kadyrov’s units typically begin suffering defeats at the hands of Chechen guerrillas. At this time of the year, forces loyal to Moscow feel an urge to ascribe their setbacks to the fact that Chechen guerillas are sheltered abroad. A year or two ago, they ascribed their defeats to the Pankissi gorge in Georgia, whose residents had been purportedly sheltering Chechen guerillas. Nowadays, residents and the authorities of Dagestan are accused of the same. When, in the beginning of March 2005, Ahmed Avdorkhanov’s unit broke out of an encirclement by 1,500 of Kadyrov’s men and retreated into the mountains, the statements were made that the militants slipped into Dagestan.
Nor do local analysts exclude the possibility that Kadyrov’s activity in Dagestan is somehow linked with their attempt to control a Dagestani (Hasavyurt) market where Chechen oil is sold. It is known that Kadyrov controls a large part of the illegal oil sales in Chechnya. It is also known that stolen oil which formally belongs to the Russian state company Rosneft is most often sold in Dagestan.
Another reason Kadyrov has ordered his units into Dagestan may have to do with Dagestani politics and the so-called “Northern Alliance”. Comprised of a group of Dagestani politicians, the “alliance” emerged two years ago in Kizlyar and Hasavyurt and aims to unseat the current head of the Republic, ethnic Darghin, Magomedali Magomedov. One of the leaders of the alliance is Hasavyurt mayor Saigad-Pasha Umakhanov, a close friend of Kadyrov.
Most probably, Kadyrov’s behavior is the outcome of a combination of factors. Whatever the case may be, this author believes that Dagestan is becoming the second (or perhaps third, after Ingushetia) battlefield of different North Caucasian insurgents against the federal government. “Emir of the mujahideen of Dagestan” Rappani Halilov and “emir of the Djamaa Sharia” Rasul Maksheripov – as well as a number of other commanders – lead the Dagestani jihad. Their groups, which amount to 500 people each, have been waging a subversive terrorist war against local and federal law enforcement agencies. Sometimes they act in cahoots with the Chechen armed resistance.
The vast border between Chechnya and Dagestan has always been open to Chechen guerillas. They crossed back and forth throughout the first Chechen campaign (1994-96), as well as in the second war, when the number of Russian troops stationed in both republics was 150-160,000. Currently, that number has decreased by almost half, enhancing the ability of Chechen fighters to use Dagestan to rest and plan new military actions. Add to this the fact that support among the Dagestani people for Magomedali Magomedov, who has been the head of the republic since Soviet times, has completely eroded. Magomedov is increasingly relying on Moscow to stay in power.
The head of the administration of the Hasavyurt district Saighid-Pasha Umakhanov was first to challenge his rule. Waves of massive demonstrations flowed through this district which borders Chechnya. Dagestan might rival Chechnya in the number of terrorist and subversive actions perpetrated. Analysts estimate that between 70 and 90 such actions are carried out every year. Usually, it is difficult to distinguish between political violence, criminal violence, and acts of vendetta. For example, in the last 10 years, there have been 14 attempts on the life of the mayor of Mahachkala, the capital of Dagestan, Said Amirov; organizers or perpetrators of any of the attempts have not yet been identified. Still, the most noticeable forms of resistance to local and federal authority are protest meetings under the auspices of a non-traditional Islam, which the authorities and media call Wahhabism.
Dagestan has always been the center of Islamic life in the Northern Caucasus, though its role waned during the Soviet era, at a time when religion was persecuted. However, the easing of state policy on religion in post-Soviet times has brought about a huge surge of religiousness in the local population. At times of military conflict, the post-Soviet leadership of Dagestan tried to use traditional Islam to unify the ethnically divided population of the republic. However, because of ethnic rivalries, the Muslim clergy failed to serve as a unifying force. On the contrary, the clergy split along the ethnic lines. National spiritual directorates (muftis) were created which rendered full support to ethnic leaders: Avar, Lezghin, Chechen, Kumik and others. New Wahhabi organizations, however, have had greater success in unifying Muslims of different ethnicities, aided by the fact that people trusted the local clergy even less as they depended evermore heavily on local and federal authorities.
Researchers point out three phases of the proliferation of Wahhabism in Dagestan: The initial phase between 1980-90 which involved educational and charitable activity; the organizational phase between 1991-97 during which time existing Wahhabi groups were expanded and solidified while new members were actively recruited; and finally the political phase, underway since 1999, which marks a period of open political confrontation between Wahhabis and the political leadership. This final period has been marked by sporadic violence under the banner of jihad in order to seize political power in the republic and form an Islamic state.
Lately, the actions of Wahhabi insurgents in Dagestan have become more and more dangerous for local and federal authorities. Mobile groups of Dagestani mujahideen often escape their pursuers. In February 2005, a military operation conducted by Russian Interior Ministry units and Dagestani police to block fighters belonging to the group “Djennet” in the vicinity of the mountain Tarky-Tau failed to yield any positive result. The Russian Prosecutors Office blames the group for killing approximately 40 local policemen and members of Federal Service of Security of Russia.
This author doubts that there exists today any joint front of Chechen and Dagestani mujahideen against the federal leadership of Russia. But while it is unlikely that Chechen and Dagestani militants are coordinating their actions, there is no doubt that they are fighting the same enemy and employing the same Islamic slogans. The formation of three fronts of resistance in the years 2003-05 against the federal government (Chechen, Ingush and Dagestani), as well as other sporadic acts of violent opposition to the federal government, creates a situation very different from when Chechnya was the only source of resistance in the region. Perhaps Ramzan Kadyrov realizes the gravity of the situation unfolding in the region better than the Kremlin; yet his raids into Dagestan cannot reverse the situation it in Russia’s favor. On the contrary, each of his sorties serves to only reinforce the alienation of the population from the federal government and its local representatives.
Emil Pain is Director of the Center of Ethnopolitical Studies in Moscow.