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Dagestan: Russia’s Most Overlooked Hot Spot

Why the coming weeks will only get more dangerous for the troubled North Caucasus Republic.


On Feb. 8, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev selected a new president for the troubled North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. The lead-up to the selection was marked by an uptick in violence, and the political controversy surrounding the choice is likely to lead to even further instability.

When the international media reports on the instability in Russia’s North Caucasus at all, reporters tend to focus on the violent chaos in Ingushetia and the repressive governance in Chechnya. But it is recent trends in Dagestan — Russia’s most ethnically diverse province — that most threaten to further inflame this volatile region. Medvedev’s selection of Magomedsalam M. Magomedov, a vocal critic of Dagestan’s current government, is seen by many as an admission that the region’s problems are spiraling out of control. And this month’s events might finally put this volatile flashpoint on the world’s agenda.

Historically, violence in Dagestan has stemmed from ongoing conflicts between its major ethnic groups — the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, and Laks — over political power, resources, and jobs. More recently, Islamist militant groups, such as Shariat Jamaat, have forged close ties with Chechen separatists to launch terrorist attacks against the government in an effort to unite Muslims across the North Caucasus. Islamist militants have also taken advantage of Dagestan’s high unemployment rate and staggering corruption (even by Russian standards) to actively recruit youth in the republic.

In late 2009, Islamist militants and criminal gangs, often described in the media as neizvestniye, or "unknown [assailants]," frequently attacked government officials, religious leaders, and police, as well as the republic’s energy and transportation infrastructure. Electricity blackouts sparked protests in the capital city of Makhachkala, and residents in the town of Derbent witnessed mayoral elections so corrupt that officials overturned the results (a rarity in Putin-era Russia).

Due to changes in the provincial electoral process, Dagestan’s People’s Assembly must now rubber-stamp the choice made by Medvedev and officials from his United Russia party. Despite the lack of direct elections, the political process in Dagestan has been overtly contentious and punctuated by political violence, a lack of confidence in Moscow, and a transparently corrupt electoral process at the local level, as evidenced by a judge’s decision to nullify October’s mayoral election results in Derbent.

The murder of Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov last year exemplifies how political figures have recently become targets of violence. Observers viewed Magomedtagirov as a potential challenger to the rule of incumbent President Mukhu Aliyev, who has governed Dagestan since 2006. On June 5, snipers shot and killed him as he stepped outside during a wedding in Makhachkala, and authorities still have not apprehended any suspects. In the run-up to the presidential selection, attacks and threats against political figures and institutions continued. On Jan. 13 and 14, authorities shut down central Makhachkala due to a threat of a terrorist attack against several prominent locations, including the presidential administration building and Dagestan’s Supreme Court. Two weeks later, unknown assailants shot at the motorcade of Nikolai Alchiyev, deputy chairman of Dagestan’s People’s Assembly.

Adding to the threat of political violence, there is also an unusually low level of confidence in Russian leaders, and particularly United Russia’s selection of election candidates. On Nov. 26, Dagestan‘s legislature passed a motion asking Medvedev to hold further "consultations" about the most suitable candidate. The motion was an unusual public riposte against United Russia’s regional governance. Some politicians’ open dissatisfaction with the process led to a rumor that Dagestan’s branch of United Russia planned a mass exodus from the party, but regional representatives have since denied all rumors of a potential split.

Meanwhile, Dagestan is experiencing a spate of attacks targeted at police officials, local administrators, and religious leaders. "Gangs" or unidentified individuals attacked police, security force members, or government officials 18 times — leaving 11 dead and 11 wounded — from mid-October through mid-December 2009, based on data compiled through the Emerging Threats Project at Georgetown University’s Imaging Science and Information Systems Center.

While Ingushetia and Chechnya have also had their share of political violence, attacks against religious leaders are unique to Dagestan. For instance, on Nov. 2 unknown assailants shot and killed an imam based at a mosque in Bavtugai. A few weeks later, unidentified attackers shot and wounded a village imam in Staroye Miatli.

Worrisome as these attacks are, the disruption of transportation and energy networks may be the greater threat to stability. During the same two-month span, "gangs" and unknown assailants detonated bombs along rail lines on four occasions, and police disrupted two attempts to bury roadside bombs. Russia’s rail network, as shown by the more deadly and well-known bombing of the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway line in November, is particularly vulnerable, and on each occasion the attacks disrupt rail service through the region.

Russia’s vital natural gas pipelines are equally vulnerable. On Nov. 11, police accused "gangs" of detonating a bomb along the Mozdok-Gazimagomed natural gas pipeline. The explosion disrupted service along the pipeline for 560 kilometers and cut service to Makhachkala. The service disruption is particularly troubling in the capital because of ongoing problems with electricity. Even before the bombing, there were multiple blackouts in the capital during the past six months due to poor infrastructure and a lack of financing, prompting street protests. Although political violence and corrupt elections may not outrage Dagestan’s jaded populace, poor infrastructure and public services appear to be enough to upset and galvanize citizens.

By all accounts, 2010 will be a difficult year for Dagestan, and its upcoming presidential "selection" is poised to exacerbate already simmering tensions caused by opaque political procedures, corrupt election practices, rampant violence, and vulnerable infrastructure. Since the beginning of the year, there have already been several high-profile attacks. On Jan. 6, Islamist militants used a car bomb to attack a highway police post in Makhachkala that killed six officers; seven days later, unidentified assailants detonated a bomb along the Mozdok-Gazimagomed pipeline once again.

Russian officials can take a first step toward improving Dagestan’s pervasive violence by approaching and describing violence in more exact and realistic terms. Russia does not face a threat from terrorists trained by Georgian special forces, as Russias Federal Security Service recently claimed, or by members of nondescript "gangs" or "illegally armed formations." Contemporary scapegoats and vague descriptions disguise the full extent of Islamist militant activities occurring in Dagestan and the rest of Russia’s North Caucasus.

Russian officials and, by extension, the Russian media do themselves no favors by relying on contemporary scapegoats or vague classifications to describe attackers. In Russia’s most ethnically diverse region, the conflicts are deep, complex, and increasingly connected to Islamist militants, and it would be beneficial if Russian authorities and the press recognized it as such.

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