The Locus of Instability in the North Caucasus Shifts to Dagestan

President Dmitry Medvedev visited Dagestan on April 1, in an attempt to show his own country and the world that he views militant attacks in Moscow and in the remote province as equally serious (, April 1). Following the heavy blows delivered by suicide bombers in the very heart of Moscow on March 29, the twin bombings against police in Kizlyar on March 31, which took the lives of 12 police officers, did not seem to be any different from a plethora of other attacks that had been perpetrated by militants in Dagestan. Nonetheless, never before had a Russian president or prime minister flown to the North Caucasus after such a rebel attack. This time, though, the Russian government decided to demonstrate that it considers these two incidents as interrelated and part of a single chain –the suicide bombers behind the attacks in Moscow and Kizlyar were ethnic Dagestanis– and thus that the roots of Russia’s terrorism problem are in that region.
The Russian authorities are partly right. Everything that is happening related to militant activities obviously stems from the armed resistance of the North Caucasus (, April 6). But, there is also another point here. Russian government officials are themselves starting to realize that these activities are being carried out not by single individuals or scattered groups, as they always tried to present such developments to the international community and to their own citizens, but by a centralized force represented by Doku Umarov’s rebels and a structure called the Caucasus Emirate.
The strikes perpetrated by non-Chechen suicide bombers made the Russians both feel happy and distressed at the same time. The pleasant part was that the attacks did not spoil the image of Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Russian leader of Chechnya, who appears to continue to pretend that there are no problems with rebels in his republic even though operations against them have been going on without a break since the spring of 2009. The unpleasant part was the “internationalization” of the suicide bombings, which means that the time has perhaps arrived to take seriously the term “black widows” invented by journalists and the Riyadus Salikhin martyrs’ battalion (Novaya Gazeta, March 29), as well as the rebels’ new ideology of armed resistance based on the views of radical Islam.
Meanwhile, little, if anything changed in Dagestan following the Russian leader’s visit. Explosions were heard the day he arrived and after he left. The press service of the local interior ministry reported that explosions in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district on March 31 and April 1 killed two people. Tellingly, while Dmitry Medvedev was listening to the reports by Dagestani officials in the republican capital of Makhachkala on April 1, unidentified gunmen fired on the car of the police chief in the village of Aksai in the Khasavyurt district some 90 kilometers north of Makhachkala (, April 2).
On April 3, a group unidentified people opened fire on police officers who were trying to arrest them. A Dagestani law enforcement source later reported that one police officer was killed in the shootout.
A railroad line was blown up early on April 4 in the vicinity of the Dagestani village of Pervomayskaya. According to a source in the republic’s interior ministry, a freight train was derailed but there were no casualties. Due to this terrorist act, though, freight and passenger rail traffic, including international routes, (from Azerbaijan to Russia’s regions) were paralyzed for almost a whole day. In this explosion, the rebels presumably were attempting to use the same tactics as in Kizlyar, meaning that a second blast would be timed for police officers arriving at the scene of the first blast. However, after the first device was detonated, the other explosive, equal to one kilogram of TNT, went off shortly afterwards a few meters away. All in all, there were four explosions and several attacks on police officers committed by armed rebels in Dagestan during the first week of April.
Since April 11, Russian security forces have stepped up their efforts against North Caucasus militants south of the village of Gubden in the Karabudakhkentsky district of Dagestan. This part of the troubled republic is marked by intense rebel activities involving the jamaat led by Emir Magomedali Vagabov. This Islamist organization is the largest among the jamaats operating in Dagestan, including the Buinaksk, Makhachkala, Gimry and Khasavyurt jamaats. According to a source, one group of rebels was discovered and subjected to helicopter and artillery attacks on the morning of April 11. Later, a Special Forces regiment engaged in a battle with the militants. As a result, three officers were killed and seven wounded. On April 12, two rebels were reportedly liquidated in the operation. The group reportedly included 15 rebels and the authorities hoped that the jamaat leader, Magomedali Vagabov, was among them. Many Russian media outlets reported that the siloviki believe that Anvar Sharipov, the brother of one of the female suicide bombers in Moscow attacks, Maryam Sharipova, is also among the militants targeted near Gubden (RIA Novosti, April 11). The elimination of these two men seems to be a matter of honor for the siloviki, since this would enable them to report to the Russian president on the successful liquidation of those who “ordered” the terrorist acts in Moscow. Therefore, it is not surprising that many units of the Russian army, interior ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) have moved into the region.
It would be appropriate here to address the attitude of Dagestanis toward the Russian army. A fight that reportedly took place on April 10 between the soldiers from Dagestan and their Russian officers and comrades in Leningradskaya Oblast has revealed some very serious problems ( And, this is not an isolated incident. Similar incidents have occurred in the past, and every time they happen, the authorities try to settle them not according to Russian law, but through the involvement of members of the Dagestani diaspora (, April 12).
Dagestani soldiers, who are organized along ethnic lines, are requesting a special status in Russian army structures. They do not recognize army regulations in the form that they exist today and are demanding that they be allowed certain exemptions, such as praying, not to be fed pork, etc. Apparently, the Dagestan problem is broader than it is seen by the Russian government. Ethnic conflicts are tearing the country apart while the “tailors” like Medvedev and Putin are adamantly trying to patch the holes.