The Chechen Model

Why are Caucasian leaders trying to emulate Chechnya's brutal strongman?

Wojtek Laski/Laski Diffusion /Getty Images
Wojtek Laski/Laski Diffusion /Getty Images

Rizvan Kurbanov, Dagestan’s first deputy prime minister, is a busy man. He is wrapped up in a campaign to shut down the republic’s ubiquitous slot machines. In the mornings, he Skypes with a friend in Los Angeles. He spends hours chain-smoking and greeting journalists in his office. Through it all, he must find time to focus on the hardest job of all — overseeing the security services tasked with cracking down on the Caucasian republic’s growing Islamist insurgency.

Dagestan has been plagued by violence since the Soviet Union’s fall — Kurbanov likes to remind visitors that the very office in which he now sits was stormed by armed rebels in May 1998. But the past year has seen a marked spike in the number of attacks. Their nature is focused. Whereas earlier violence tended to pit political or ethnic opponents against each other, today’s favored method sees snipers take out Dagestani police officers on an almost daily basis.

Kurbanov’s office décor may be one hint of how his government plans to address the problem. He keeps two photos above his desk — not, as one might expect, of his own president, but of Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the neighboring republic of Chechnya, and his father and predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov.

"We want it to be here as it is in Chechnya. We want it to be so that the bandits go somewhere else, to another country," Kurbanov says.

To outsiders, Chechnya might seem an unlikely role model for governance. Maniacal and self-obsessed, Kadyrov has plastered the republic with his image in the process of building one of the world’s most highly developed personality cults. Nearly every stretch of road features slogans bearing praise (Ramzan, thank you for Grozny! Ramzan, we are proud of you!). He recently opened a museum whose sole purpose is showing off the belongings of his father, who died in a massive bomb attack in May 2004 after leading the republic for four years. The nightly news features little more than Kadyrov’s mumbled speeches. Kadyrov insists the cult of personality sprung up naturally from a grateful populace. "It’s a beautiful girl who should be praised — for her beauty and her figure. As for fear — if you’re a leader, people should fear you," he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2007.

Beyond that, he rules over a security apparatus that inspires fear and hatred. Memorial, Russia’s leading NGO, says that members of the Chechen republic’s security services kidnapped 93 people and killed 21 civilians last year. Punitive house-burnings and ostracizing of those suspected of sheltering rebels are widespread. Kadyrov has repeatedly denied involvement in the assassination of his enemies, but many of those who work against him, from human rights activist Natalya Estemirova to former bodyguard Umar Israilov, do have a funny way of turning up dead. Kadyrov has also been implicated in the 2006 killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a charge he brushed off, saying simply, "I don’t kill women."

Despite the criticism, Kadyrov has managed to keep down a separatist-turned-Islamist rebellion that engulfed Chechnya in two wars after the Soviet Union’s fall. There are no jobs and no opportunities, residents say, but at least there is peace.

"After the situation in Chechnya was stabilized, the security services won respect," Kurbanov notes approvingly. "Terrorists don’t feel comfortable there."

Yet there are plenty of other places where they do feel comfortable, including Dagestan and the half-dozen smaller regions that surround it. As Kadyrov has clamped down, the instability has often just seeped across the border.

The Kremlin was free to ignore the problem until March 29, when two women blew themselves up on the Moscow metro, killing nearly 40 people. Doku Umarov, the Chechen who leads the "Caucasus Emirate," a terrorist group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region, took responsibility for the Moscow metro bombings. Yet experts believe it was organized by Said Buryatsky, a charismatic Siberian-born convert who was killed in Ingushetia in early March. For the first time in Russia’s plentiful post-Soviet history with terror, the attackers came from Dagestan. Two days later, two suicide bombers struck inside the republic, in the village of Kizlyar, killing 12.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev argues that creating homes and jobs and cracking down on corruption are the keys to ending the region’s cycle of terror, and he has appointed a new federal envoy, Alexander Khloponin, to tackle the task. But Kurbanov’s admiration for Chechen methods is a sign that local leaders are taking a supplementary approach. Local human rights activists are already seeing the effects. Memorial notes that 18 people were kidnapped by security forces last year — eight were killed and 10 have disappeared. Its Dagestan expert, Katya Sokiryanskaya, notes a case in which 16 people, including a pregnant woman, were detained and held outside for more than the legal three days following the Kizlyar attack. "The pressure, the mass detentions, increase after terrorist attacks," she says.

"We are having a civil war. When one people kills another, that’s what you call it," said Gulnara Rustamova, one of the founders of Mothers of Dagestan, a local NGO. An adherent to the strict Wahhabi sect that originated in Saudi Arabia, Rustamova has seen her brother killed and sister imprisoned in what she calls staged anti-terror operations. One week after the Moscow metro bombings, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most popular daily, ran Rustamova’s photo on its front page, alongside five other hijab-clad Dagestanis, warning that they were Russia’s next potential suicide bombers.

Rustamova took me to see the family of Maryam Sharipova, one of the women who blew themselves up in Moscow. There we met Sharipova’s cousin, Fatimat, a quiet teenager whose pretty face peeked out from her hijab. She carried a note she found hung outside a local police station — a photocopy of her ID with the word shahid (martyr in Arabic) scrawled on top, a crude wanted poster. "If they start to follow you, then they don’t leave you alone," said Patimat Magomedova, Sharipova’s mother.

It’s a disturbing trend, and one that Kurbanov vacillates on. On the one hand, he readily admits that the police and military make mistakes, and he keeps in frequent contact with the republic’s embattled human rights community, promising to follow up on reports of illegal detentions and kidnappings.

He has won some admirers among the human rights community, but many note cases in which even Kurbanov, with a direct line to the republic’s president, has been unable to bring the security services under control.

"We also find that the security system allows for mistakes. And we don’t exclude that these mistakes can raise the feeling of protest among the people and put them on the incorrect path," Kurbanov says.

Chechnya might also provide an instructive model here. That republic’s rebels, with whom the ex-rebel Kadyrov fought during the wars of independence in the 1990s, seem to have been further radicalized by the new atmosphere of repression.

"Chechnya was a war for independence. Then it was transformed completely, and now it’s transformed into an Islamic struggle," says Nadira Isaeva, editor in chief of Chernovik, a respected Dagestani weekly. Isaeva partly explains this through the amnesty offered to Chechen fighters after the war’s end — politicized fighters, unwilling to die, turned themselves in. The jihadists stayed.

Caucasus expert Alexei Malashenko agreed in a recent Moscow Times op-ed, writing, "Today’s extremists are not pursuing specific goals with their attacks. Now they are simply demonstrating their power and are pursuing terror for terror’s sake."

That will worry the organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which lies dangerously close to the region, just 250 miles west of Grozny. Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov said June 3 that the security service had intelligence of planned rebel attacks at the Olympics. He also said militants continued to seek nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons from Russia’s aging stockpiles.

Combine that with hints of al Qaeda involvement, and it’s a scary situation indeed. Kurbanov told me that Dagestani security services have killed rebels with passports from a host of countries, including Britain, Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Ukraine.

Kurbanov says it "would be a mistake" to look for the organizers in Dagestan itself. "They might not be Dagestanis; they might be found abroad. Someone is standing behind this, and he can be of any nationality, of any faith." That’s one more thing that binds Chechnya and Dagestan — an unwillingness to admit that so many of the problems lie at home.

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