BACKGROUND: On May 25, a female suicide bomber exploded in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala, killing one person and injuring at least 15 others, about half of which were police officers. The acting president of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, cut short his visit to Moscow and returned to the region to hold emergency meetings. Even though violent attacks in this republic are very common, suicide bombings still remain rare events that attract special public attention. The suicide bomber was identified as 25-year-old Madina Aliyeva. According to the Russian National Antiterrorist Committee, Alieva’s two husbands had been members of the insurgency and were killed in previous clashes with government forces. On May 20, a double bomb attack with an interval of 15 minutes killed four and injured over forty in Makhachkala. The attack took place by the office building of the Russian state bailiff service.
The security situation in Dagestan has been tense in the past several years. Moscow replaced the republican leadership three times since 2006, but cadre experiments have not yielded the desired results. The last change took place in February 2013, when Abdulatipov, a Moscow-based politician of Dagestani origin, replaced Magomedsalam Magomedov as head of Dagestan. Hopes were high that Abdulatipov would reverse the violent trend in the republic. According to some polling organizations, a vast majority of Dagestanis still express a high level of trust in Abdulatipov. The recent attacks, however, suggest that Abdulatipov’s leadership may not be destined for much greater success than his predecessors.
Blaming the continuing instability on unnamed forces, Abdulatipov stated after the latest suicide attack that the process of “renewal and redemption of Dagestan was objective and no one could disrupt it.” He vowed to fight terrorism, banditry and corruption unswervingly. In the realities of the North Caucasus, official vows “to fight terrorism” even more uncompromisingly than before normally mean more human rights abuses, less regard for public opinion, and more propaganda efforts on the government side. Abdulatipov’s predecessors also tried many devices to suppress the insurgency, but the republic did not stabilize.
On June 1, the Kremlin took another drastic step in governing restive Dagestan. The Dagestani veteran politician and mayor of Makhachkala Said Amirov was arrested by the Russian security services and taken to Moscow for trial. Amirov is accused of involvement in the murder of an investigator, but many observers have opined that the charges are just a formality and that the primary goal of Amirov’s arrest was to make him step down from the position he has occupied for 15 years. Amirov was considered to be one of the most powerful politicians in Dagestan, but apparently lost in an invisible struggle against Abdulatipov. The removal of a strongman from the mayor’s office does not warrant peace, but is likely to prompt internal fighting among Dagestani elites.
IMPLICATIONS: One of the possible innovations under Abdulatipov, apart from an administrative reshuffle, appeared in the Dagestani city of Buinaksk in April. Leaflets spread throughout the city, announcing the establishment of a jamaat, a Muslim community, specifically to target the relatives of the militants. A photocopy of the leaflet, published by the Caucasian Knot website on May 20 said: “If anyone ever kills another resident of the Buinaksk zone, relatives and close friends of the devils will be killed in the first place.” Another excerpt said: “We do not pay attention to age, we kill one close relative of a devil from the forest [insurgent] for one killed normal Muslim.” The anonymous authors of the leaflets threatened to kill not only people close to the insurgents, but also businessmen funding the militancy. The leaflet provided a list of dozens of nicknames that would be targeted “in the first place,” among which was 27-year-old Magomed Mukhumaev who was found dead on April 18 in his car. According to human rights activists, three households in Buinaksk belonging to relatives of persons mentioned in the leaflet were blown up by the security services on May 6. The law enforcement agents claimed that explosive devices found in the houses could not be removed, so they had to explode them.
The emergence of anonymous groups that vow to take “revenge” on militants is not new for Dagestan. Such groups have previously appeared in places such as the Kizilyurt and Levashi districts. The novelty is that the authors of the message want to communicate that a Muslim jamaat was established to fight other Muslims. The insurgency’s members often belong to Salafi teaching in Islam, while Sufism is the officially approved version of Islam that enjoys many privileges from the government. Hence, the new group declaring war on the relatives of insurgents is likely associated with Sufis, while their opponents are evidently Salafis. In previous cases of such “vengeance groups,” the security services were implicated in crafting and protecting them. Locals in Buinaksk also allege that the security services stand behind the jamaat of avengers, according to Caucasian Knot’s report from the town.
The government’s inability to install social order in Dagestan pushes it to adopt “divide and rule” tactics. A conflict between Sufis and the Salafis in the republic could turn violence in Dagestan into a full-fledged civil war with Dagestanis on both sides fighting each other for years to come. The authorities apparently hope that this situation would help them root out the insurgents. This seeming tactic is unlikely to work, however, because the conflict in Dagestan is not primarily over ideological differences between Salafis and the Sufis but between social groups. Some Sufis work for the government and enjoy certain privileges, while the Salafis are opposed to and disfavored by the government. The dividing line is therefore between those in power and those who are excluded from power and not between Sufis and Salafis per se. Unless the political system in Dagestan becomes more participatory, the government is unlikely to succeed in winning over people of the republic or even in gaining the support of a majority of the population to fight violent groups.
Abulatipov puts a special emphasis on fighting corruption in Dagestan, which he claims is the driving force of instability in the republic. Presumably, corruption makes the prospects of young people so bleak that they become receptive to the recruitment calls of violent entrepreneurs. In the end of April, Abulatipov announced the preliminary results of his anti-corruption campaign, saying that a special commission of the Russian Interior Ministry from Moscow was in the process of purging the Dagestani Interior Ministry along with some other administrative structures in the republic. Embezzlement cases involving millions of dollars were uncovered; while police gangs engaged in drug dealing, killings and kidnappings were exposed, according to Abdulatipov. He replaced several heads of districts and the prosecutor general of the republic. Further, Abdulatipov stated that more women should be appointed to government positions.
CONCLUSIONS: Abdulatipov hence appears to be a progressive, modern leader who should have high chances of succeeding. Yet, the top-down approach that Moscow has adopted to resolve multiple issues in Dagestan is almost bound to fail, because the public is largely excluded from the decision-making process and there are no signs of changes to this rigid political construct. Many Russian experts examine in detail causes of instability in Dagestan and in the wider region of the North Caucasus, such as high unemployment, corruption, clan structure and so on. There is almost no discussion, however, of the fact that power does not belong to the public in any of the North Caucasian republics, which is in itself a major destabilizing factor in the region.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.