Sowing Rebellion in Dagestan?
Sowing Rebellion in Dagestan?
Slideshow: Sowing Rebellion in Dagestan?
Slideshow: Sowing Rebellion in Dagestan?
The blown-up house of the local imam in Gimry, Dagestan. He is the brother of a notorious insurgent leader, Ibragim Gadzhidadaev. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko
The blown-up house of the local imam in Gimry, Dagestan. He is the brother of a notorious insurgent leader, Ibragim Gadzhidadaev. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Sowing Rebellion in Dagestan?

A new leader’s hard-line tactics may backfire.

The Dagestan Republic’s acting president Ramazan Abdulatipov[fn]President Abdulatipov is one of three candidates approved by President Putin to run for election by Dagestan’s parliament. These indirect presidential elections will take place on 8 September. For more on Dagestan and the wider North Caucasus, see the major policy report Crisis Group will publish next month in its Challenges of Integration series on governance, elections, and rule of law.Hide Footnote  has made significant progress in improving governance but his hard line on security may be creating more problems than it solves.

Under his predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov, a “Dagestan model” was emerging, based on the assumptions that fundamentalist Islam is a fact of life in the North Caucasus region of Russia and that Salafis, rather than be prosecuted for attending “the wrong mosques”, should be integrated, and insurgents should be given ways to abandon armed rebellion. This Dagestan model competed with the Chechen model, which involves a heavy-handed approach to militants and their supporters with the goal of eradicating fundamentalism altogether (see our report The North Caucasus: The Challenges of Integration (II), Islam, the Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency, 19 Oct 2012).

Elements of the security forces have always opposed soft approaches in Dagestan. One faction of the republic’s senior officials promoted dialogue and the peace process, another fiercely opposed it. The same positions were replicated in federal institutions in the capital, Makhachkala, and in Moscow. The Kremlin’s influence is key. The federal centre provides some 70 percent of Dagestan’s government budget.  It was Vladimir Putin, as president of the Russian Federation, of which Dagestan is a member, who appointed Abdulatipov in January after Magomedov resigned. Putin gave Abdulatipov a number of directives at the time, including on security, and Abdulatipov acknowledges that these directives and Putin’s May 2012 executive orders – based on Putin’s own election platform from that year – have structured his approach to the Dagestani presidency.

With Abdulatipov’s arrival, the Dagestan model ceased to exist. Soft measures have been rolled back. Many in Dagestan link the adoption of Chechen methods to Abdulatipov’s visit to that republic last March, when he publicly praised its highly controversial leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and noted that Dagestan had much to learn from its neighbour.

Abdulatipov’s primary focus has not been on security per se but on governance. Upon taking office, he characterised Dagestan as having sunk into a “feudal” condition, whereby local elites run fiefdoms, while criminal businesses and the government depend upon one another to protect their interests. Abdulatipov’s crusading stance and tough policies have brought significant progress against corruption and criminality among the Dagestani elite. He crisscrosses the republic delivering harsh judgments on the state of affairs and scolding officials for ineffectiveness, even larceny. He has pushed forward review of the republic budget to reduce deficits and reliance on federal subsidies and to increase transparency. He has warned local governors to collect at least 10 per cent of the likely local tax revenues or face dismissal. A significant part of Dagestan’s economy is in the shadows: not just individual households but large companies (often owned by local officials or their relatives). Unresolved land issues paralyse entire municipalities, and vast numbers of taxpayers are not even registered.

Arrests and dismissals of senior officials, including interior ministry staff, have earned Abdulatipov real support. Eight heads of regions have been removed. When the most notorious strongman – Makhachkala’s mayor, Said Amirov – was arrested and accused of ordering a murder, it further boosted that support. Dagestanis are hoping he can rid the republic of its predatory criminal clans.

The Dagestan Model and Its Demise

But Abdulatipov’s success in pursuing a hard line against corruption and poor governance has not been replicated in the security field. Here, the new policy is being implemented by the security services, with Abdulatipov providing political support. Together they are reversing the soft policies favoured by Abdulatipov’s predecessor.

This is unfortunate for several reasons, not least that the soft policies were working. In 2010, President Magomedov significantly liberalised the official attitude towards moderate Salafis. Their leaders were allowed to participate in public life and proved to be important actors – prepared, albeit from their own religious position, to participate in resolving the deep crisis in Dagestan. The voices of those leaders are very important, mainly because they were taken seriously by radical youth.

The moderate Salafi leaders came together in the Akhlu-Sunnah [“people of Sunnah”] in Dagestan association and developed their own peace plan aimed at reducing tensions through education and other public initiatives and by offering religious youth the opportunity to practice their religion in mosques rather than “in the forests”. The positive results were acknowledged even by the security services, which admit off the record that while Makhachkala’s Salafi Kotrova Mosque formerly provided dozens of recruits to the insurgency, recruitment ended after Akhlu-Sunnah started working there.

In spring 2011, a dialogue between representatives of Sufis (the dominant, moderate strain of Islam in Dagestan) and Salafis was launched. This was a helpful start in alleviating the sectarian conflict that has divided Dagestan’s Muslims for more than a decade. A commission for rehabilitation of fighters was also created; while frequently criticised by experts and local activists, it functioned and could have been developed.

According to the Caucasus Knot, an independent news service, in 2012 the number of conflict victims in Dagestan fell 15 per cent from the previous year, and the youth outflow into insurgency also decreased. This was at least partly the result of the new approaches. “The conflict could be transformed into a civilised situation, a certain Turkish variant for Dagestan”, an Akhlu-Sunnah leader told Crisis Group.

The New Hard Line

Abdulatipov and hard-liners in the Dagestani security services have reversed all this.

First, the acting president abolished the commission for rehabilitation of fighters. A new body was created with a much broader mandate and unclear procedures. In five months, it has yet to start working.

Secondly, over the past few months most Salafi civic activity in Dagestan has been driven underground: programs offering courses in the Koran and Arabic, madrassas, kindergartens, charities, and mosques have been closed.

An intimidation campaign against Salafi religious leaders has pushed many to leave public life and even the republic itself. Some have been killed. A number interviewed by Crisis Group have visibly hardened their views in just a few months.

The dialogue between Sufis and Salafis was already seriously undermined by the murder of Sheikh Said Afandi Atsaev, the most influential Dagestan’s Sufi leader, by a Salafi suicide bomber in August 2012. That put an end to cooperative efforts in villages and urban mosques, and no attempts have been made to renew the dialogue.

The security services have also launched a campaign against female radicalism. Women married to insurgents have been forced to have DNA tests (enabling posthumous identification of suicide bombers). Four young women were arrested in Makhachkala  after suicide belts were reportedly discovered in their homes. Our  sources confirmed that they belonged to a very radical Salafi wing. Analysis of witness accounts and video evidence, however, indicate a high probability that the belts were planted during searches. One of the women was allegedly beaten by police in detention.

If these continue to be the on-the-ground results of new hard-line policies advanced by President Abdulatipov, Dagestan’s security services and the Kremlin, the possibilities for worse conflict in Dagestan will grow. With the approach of the Sochi Winter Olympics,  Moscow wants quick solutions for Dagestan. Soft measures and negotiations were working, but they take time; presumably Moscow was more comfortable returning to the traditional heavy-handed approach. (See our report Russia’s Dagestan: Conflict Causes, 3 June 2008.) But Dagestan is very different today than even a few years ago. The numbers of religious youth have grown significantly. It is impossible to suppress them all. Pushing them to insurgency, however, would be relatively easy.

Thirdly, there has been a wave of repression – including arrests and summary executions — against relatives, acquaintances, and suspected accomplices of militants, but also Salafi believers more broadly. It has affected a number of villages and larger towns (particularly Buynaksk, but also Makhachkala and Khasavyurt) that we visited this summer.

A major security operation in the village of Gimry on 11-21 April demonstrated how massive use of force angers and alienates citizens. Gimry won fame during the nineteenth century anti-colonial wars and is the birthplace of two legendary imams, Shamil (1797-1871) and Gazimagomed (1795-1832). It remains overwhelmingly fundamentalist and strongly identifies with its anti-colonial past.

Locals acknowledge that armed militants used to have free access to the village. The military operation, involving up to 4,000 law enforcement officers with tanks and armored personnel carriers, was directed against those militants. Most escaped (only three were reported killed) and around 4,600 residents were displaced for ten days. Police were then permanently stationed around the village and in the local hospital. A curfew and special entry regimes were introduced. Returning residents said they found that the security forces had looted most of the houses. Ten houses of militants’ relatives were blown up; others were badly damaged.

Two months after these events we found Gimry very tense: villagers reported mistreatment by police and complained of restrictions on movement that were affecting the harvest and lack of compensation for damages during the counter-terrorist operation. Few were turning to the police for redress: either they did not trust them or they refused on principle to recognise the authority of representatives of secular institutions. After strong press criticism, Abdulatipov met with representatives from Gimry on 7 August. He raised the issue of compensation for destroyed housing but said the decision to allocate funds could only be made after the end of the security operation. According to his website, he emphasised that unless the village resisted the insurgents and helped enforce order, “the government will not do anything”. An agreement between the village Jamaat (community) and the republic authorities will be drafted outlining the obligations of both sides.

Abdulatipov has encouraged people’s militias to combat extremists. We visited the village of Khadzhalmakhi, in the Levashi district, where such a militia had been organised to “combat Wahhabis”. Twenty-five groups, of twenty people each, take turns patrolling, accompanied by police. The militia also mans a checkpoint, in the village centre, along a highway leading to the mountains. We observed aggressive people armed with guns and sticks stop every car, order everyone out, check documents, and search the vehicles.

Since this militia began to function, more than twenty Salafi families have fled the village. Seven Salafis were reportedly killed, including a woman and a young man who, according to reports and our interviews, was fatally beaten by a crowd in the mosque on 25 June. Most of these victims were on an unofficial list circulated in April of “persons to be eliminated” that included 33 Salafis. On 30 June, the militia fired on a car carrying federal officials who refused to stop, killing a staff member of the RusHydro state company. On 17 July, two more people on the elimination list were abducted in different towns and killed the next morning. On 2 August, militiamen blew up a house and ransacked two other households, stealing equipment and food. As this was being written, we received a call from villagers saying that another three houses had been burnt down.

We also spent a day interviewing residents of Buynaksk, where arrests and repressive acts against Salafi families began in April after insurgents killed three senior policemen. More than 20 Salafis have been arrested, some directly from mosques. Several people have been abducted and three houses of insurgents’ relatives were blown up.

The security services have also launched a campaign against female radicalism. Women married to insurgents have been forced to have DNA tests (enabling posthumous identification of suicide bombers). Four young women were arrested in Makhachkala  after suicide belts were reportedly discovered in their homes. Our  sources confirmed that they belonged to a very radical Salafi wing. Analysis of witness accounts and video evidence, however, indicate a high probability that the belts were planted during searches. One of the women was allegedly beaten by police in detention.

If these continue to be the on-the-ground results of new hard-line policies advanced by President Abdulatipov, Dagestan’s security services and the Kremlin, the possibilities for worse conflict in Dagestan will grow. With the approach of the Sochi Winter Olympics,  Moscow wants quick solutions for Dagestan. Soft measures and negotiations were working, but they take time; presumably Moscow was more comfortable returning to the traditional heavy-handed approach. (See our report Russia’s Dagestan: Conflict Causes, 3 June 2008.) But Dagestan is very different today than even a few years ago. The numbers of religious youth have grown significantly. It is impossible to suppress them all. Pushing them to insurgency, however, would be relatively easy.