Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Mopping Up Gimry: "Zachistkas" Reach Dagestan

Published in Analytical Articles

by Emil Souleimanov (04/17/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In the early hours of April 11, a group of spetsnaz, Russian elite forces, came under fire in the vicinity of Gimry, a large village located in the Untsukul ditrict of Central Dagestan. During the skirmish that followed, Russian forces took fire from the village of Gimry. This along with the concerns that part of the insurgents might have been based in Gimry prompted law enforcement units to launch a massive crackdown on the village next day.


BACKGROUND: For many Dagestanis, Gimry bears a huge symbolic meaning. It is the birthplace of two legendary imams, Gazi Mahomed and Shamil, who led the long successful resistance of Dagestani (and also Chechen in the case of Shamil) peoples against the Russian colonization of the Northeast Caucasus in the 19th century. In the post-Soviet history of the republic, Gimry has been known as a stronghold of resistance, a highly conservative area inhabited by many adherents of Salafi Islam. Importantly, secular (that is federal) laws have nearly ceased to apply in the village and its surroundings, with local police units being practically absent. In the past, several attempts were made by both local and federal authorities to bring Gimry back under Makhachkala's control, yet due to a variety of reasons they all failed. In all instances, villagers of Gimry, many of whom are bound by family ties, have shown themselves as committed to defending their de facto autonomy, and solidarity whenever natives of the village allegedly involved in the insurgency movement were put in danger by republican authorities.

The village has a strategic location as well. Situated in the foothills of mountainous Dagestan, it is at the crossroads of Makhachkala to the east and highland areas to the west and south. In fact, Gimry controls an extensive automotive tunnel linking nine hardly accessible mountainous provinces of Dagestan with Buynaksk and then down to the east to Makhachkala; the tunnel is the only effective way to get to the mountainous areas at all times of the year regardless of weather conditions, which has also raised Gimry's importance given the authorities' recent commitment to isolate rural areas in the mountains from urban areas, an important precondition for crushing the local insurgency. Yet in the recent past, the villagers of Gimry have often sealed off the tunnel, raising political demands.

Having started on April 12, the operation was still underway at the time of writing in and around Gimry, and according to official reports claimed the lives of three insurgents, natives of the village. Since then, Gimry has been blocked by spetsnaz, who have obtained solid reinforcement in personnel, as well as armored fighting vehicles and other equipment. According to some Dagestani officials, the group that has engaged the spetsnaz in the Gimry area is led by Ibrahim Hajidadayev, an infamous Dagestani gunman and native of the village, who according to official reports was recently killed in a Makhachkala suburb. According to some villagers, the spetsnaz have launched a massive crackdown on the village, aimed at identifying insurgents and their supporters. This has been accompanied by plundering, beatings, the killing of cattle and destruction of gardens. Some local reports allege that episodic exchanges of fire have taken place during the ongoing “zachistka” in a village whose inhabitants were partially evacuated.

IMPLICATIONS: According to some Dagestani sources, the assault on the Russian forces was most likely provoked by the permanent stationing of the spetsnaz in the vicinity of the village. Russian and Dagestani law enforcement units must have known that insurgents have long set foothold in the area of Gimry, both in the village itself and the surrounding mountains. Due to the recent crackdown on the Hajidadayev group which, among other things, claimed the lives of Ibrahim or his brother, the insurgents would have been eager to make a use of a chance to attack the spetsnaz in an act of vengeance.  This, in turn, would give the siloviki a carte blanche for launching a massive assault on the village that has long been pain in the neck for both republican and federal authorities. Yet given the symbolic meaning of the village and efforts to avoid bloody confrontation with the locals, Makhachkala authorities have rather hesitated to carry out zachistkas. A decision to launch a massive attack on Gimry that would most likely leave some locals dead and injured should have grounded on a solid pretext. Yet as the Dagestani insurgency gains momentum and the Sochi Olympics near,  Moscow authorities seem to lose their patience with the preservation of “islands of Jihadism“ of the kind that Gimry constitutes. In recent operations of strategic importance, Moscow has relied upon use of federal units, both police and particularly army, that were redeployed in Dagestan in the course of 2012. (See 14 November 2012 issue of the CACI Analyst).

According to Dagestani sources, there is an additional important element concerning the situation in and around Gimry: the recent change of leadership in Dagestan. In contrast to the previous leadership of the republic and notwithstanding all talks about reforms and peace, Ramazan Abdulatipov and his closest circle have considerably less motivation to engage in negotiations with Salafis. Abdulatipov should be considered “Moscow’s man,” and has long lived outside Dagestan and thus has little knowledge of the problems the republic has been facing; his intentions are bound and predetermined by the wishes of Russian siloviki (power ministries) and the Kremlin, who appointed him, thus Abdulatipov's main mission is to pave the ground for a breakthrough in the war against insurgents in Dagestan.

Importantly, the developments in and around Gimry have evolved against the backdrop of “death lists” in another part of the republic. In recent months, a list of adherents of local Salafi Islam was put together, allegedly by the “traditionalist” inhabitants of the village of Hajalmakhi, located in Central Dagestan's Levashi province. In an attempt to get rid of those who recruit into insurgent units or provide support for them, Salafis of the village were urged to leave the village or face death. Soon thereafter, three adherents of Salafism, though not of its militant (Jihadist) form, were shot dead, which gave the threats credence. Unlike many other other places, the village has been known for the absence of serious tension between traditionalists and Salafis, who have managed to live in peace and harmony for years. Yet members of local law enforcement have routinely taken part in the meetings of fellow countrymen organized to put an end to the Salafi presence in the village. According to Dagestani sources, this sheds light on the real masters of the endeavor: it was local siloviki branches that carried out the killings. This illustrates the ongoing shift toward a “Chechenization” of the Dagestani counterinsurgency, likely inspired by Moscow, since stirring up internal conflict between locals in a clan-based society where the prevailing custom of blood feud ensures swift mobilization would break Dagestanis into two warring groups, which Moscow presumably thinks would ease the task of effectively combating the insurgency.

CONCLUSIONS: The ongoing “zachistka” in the village of Gimry is the first instance of such an operation carried out in Dagestan entirely by the Russian forces – with the specific exception of the August 1999 fighting in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi. As of today, the eyes of many Dagestanis are fixed upon the Untsukul district. Depending on how the crackdown on Gimry and its surroundings works out, whether it is conducted in an indiscriminate and violent manner or the other way around, will have a significant impact on the way many politically neutral Dagestanis, who still prevail in the republic, will evaluate the ongoing counterinsurgency. Should the mop-up operations proceed in a correct, sensitive and highly personalized way avoiding numerous casualties, a solid share of Dagestanis would most likely tolerate them as a lesser evil given many secularists' aversion to Gimry. By contrast, should the use of Russian forces lead to disastrous consequences, this would strengthen the already prevalent anxiety of many Dagestanis towards both the involvement of federal troops in the republic and further reduce  their negative stance toward the republican leadership. Given the overall record of Russian spetsnaz both in the North Caucasus and outside, it is highly doubtful that these elite units, as well as police and army forces, would act in a sensitive way that would ensure local sympathies, which in itself is a difficult task in any counterinsurgency campaign. Yet since many Dagestanis are not used to brutal zachistkas that have been common in neighboring Chechnya, it is likely that the Gimry-style efforts by federal authorities to put an effective end to local insurgency in the rural areas will lead to a renewed circle of violence that would be further reinforced by the increasing application of “Chechenization” policies throughout the republic.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).


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