WikiLeaks Exposes US Embassy in Moscow Perspective on North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 10

The sensational release of US diplomatic cables has touched upon the situation in the North Caucasus. The WikiLeaks website published what appeared to be a US Embassy employee’s account of his visit to an influential Dagestani politician’s wedding in August 2006. The report is undersigned as “Burns,” which appears to refer to William J. Burns, who was the US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Ambassador Burns or a US Embassy officer in Moscow presumably attended the wedding of Gadzhi Makhachev son’s in Kaspiisk, the satellite city of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital (, accessed on November 30). Gadzhi Makhachev is one of Dagestan’s most outspoken businessmen and currently holds the official position of Dagestan’s representative to the president of Russia. The report, which many observers regard as authentic, provides a rare opportunity to take an inside look at the lavish lifestyle and behavior of the Dagestani elites.

According to the author of the message, Gadzhi Makhachev “cashed in the social capital he made from nationalism, translating it into financial and political capital.” Makhachev reportedly acquired substantial material wealth: “His dealings in the oil business –including close cooperation with US firms– have left him well off enough to afford luxurious houses in Makhachkala, Kaspiisk, Moscow, Paris and San Diego; including also a large collection of luxury automobiles,” the same source wrote. Makhachev frantically has denied information about owning homes in the cities outside Dagestan and his lavish lifestyle. Also, according to Makhachev, his son’s wedding took place in 2007, not in 2006 (, November 30).

An unnamed source, whose name was apparently redacted from the text, but who must have been a non-Chechen from Moscow, complained to the author of the report about the Chechen leadership, which “lacking experts to develop programs for economic recovery, is simply demanding and disposing of cash from the central government.” The source also alleged that “the fighters who remain [in Chechnya] are not a serious military force and many would surrender under the proper terms and immunities.” Since 2006 so many attacks have taken place in the North Caucasus and beyond, and so many people died, that the last observation of the US embassy source appears to be a careless miscalculation about the regional security situation, at the very least.

“At 8:00 pm the compound was invaded by dozens of heavily armed mujahedin for the grand entrance of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, looking shorter and less muscular than in his photos,” the report vividly described the arrival of Chechnya’s ruler. The author alleged that according to Makhachev, Kadyrov left a 5-kilogram piece of gold as his wedding gift.

The author of the report whimsically observed the nature of the wedding: “the alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous” –providing examples of guests, including FSB officers, getting heavily drunk at the reception.

Gadzhi Makhachev is an Avar from the northern Dagestani city of Khasavyurt, claiming among his ancestors on his mother’s side Gairbek, one of Imam Shamil’s deputies (, November 30). Avars are the most numerous ethnic group in Dagestan, although it is also very fragmented into various factions. Makhachev’s career skyrocketed after he became the popular leader of his Avar brethren at the end of 1980’s, when he founded The People’s Front after Imam Shamil. He then played a prominent role in the separatist North Caucasian organization the Confederation of the Caucasian Peoples and supported Dzhokhar Dudaev’s government.  However, according to several sources, Makhachev was successfully co-opted by the government in 1993 when he was offered a top position in the Dagestani state oil company (, February 17, 2000). Since then, Makhachev has continually progressed to various positions in the government, remaining one of the most influential men in Dagestan.

Even in the few years since 2006, many things seem to have changed in Dagestan. It is especially striking with the generational change that is taking place among the republican politicians. While the republic’s leaders, whose formation dates back to the Soviet era, are plausibly easier to manage by Moscow, the latest generation of Dagestani leaders is made up of increasingly devout Muslims who, along with the evident drift of the society toward Islam, present a new, much less familiar challenge for the Kremlin. For example, on November 11, the president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, traveled to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj (, November 11).

Counterterrorist operations are being carried out in Dagestan practically on a daily basis. On November 30, the village of Balakhani in the republic’s mountainous Untsukul region was sealed off by security personnel. That same day, another counterterrorist operation was completed in the Kizlyar region in northern Dagestan following the killing of two suspected militants (, November 30). As both the leadership and the population of Dagestan become more Islamic and therefore less congenial, incomprehensible and untrustworthy for Moscow, only a few instruments are left at Russia’s disposal to contain the threat of total loss of control over the North Caucasus republic.