Sword or Samovar

Dangerous Graft

As the journey nears its end, a look at how samovar politics, mixed with rampant corruption, have helped turn Dagestan into the most deadly of Russia's North Caucasus republics.

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — When I passed through the mountainous south of Dagestan on a 2008 walking trip across the Caucasus, I was treated with incredible kindness. The hills of this Russian republic are full of hundreds of stone villages, clinging to the slopes, where life is eked out from shepherding or the odd patch of crops. Every night, for three weeks, a stranger would give me food and a place to sleep in their home. No one ever asked anything in return.

But there is another side to Dagestan's generosity, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a blunt speech here two years ago. Speaking about what drives terrorism in this republic and across the rest of the North Caucasus, Medvedev identified "monstrous scales of corruption" as one of the chief causes. Dagestan is not just the most welcoming of the North Caucasus's troubled republics; it is also the most deadly. And the corruption that Medvedev pointed to is at the very heart of the violence that is destroying this self-contained, traditional society.

Dagestan's isolation has preserved customs of hospitality and honor that are common to all its 32 indigenous ethnic groups. Yet Dagestan has also been shielded from moderating outside influence, something that has made it vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. The republic has the deepest Islamic tradition in the region (Arab invaders were here in the seventh century A.D.), and when religious emissaries from the Middle East began to pour in after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they found a fertile breeding ground for new recruits.

Conservative Salafis entering Dagestan came into confrontation with the Sufi "tariqats" (orders) that had dominated religious life here before the Bolsheviks. In the following two decades, a growing number of locals became Salafis -- known derogatively as Vakhkhabity (Wahhabis) in Russian -- and some joined the Islamist insurgency spreading out of Chechnya.

Dagestan has paid heavily for its involvement. The Caucasian Knot website recorded 378 insurgency-related deaths and 307 people wounded in the republic in 2010 (compared with Ingushetia with 134 deaths and 192 wounded, and Chechnya with 127 and 123). In Makhachkala, the militants -- operating from safe houses and mountain bases -- shoot and bomb the cars of police and officials. People calmly follow the plumes of smoke to take a look and film the scorched remains on their cell phones.

This terrorist war against Russian rule has been intensified by clumsy religious policy, persecution by Russian security services of suspected rebels and their families, ham-fisted economic plans that have kept many out of work, and -- as Medvedev said -- suffocating corruption.

The effect of graft is twofold. First, it feeds social discontent, as the gap widens between rich and poor. And secondly, it nurtures deeply criminalized Islamist guerrillas who rely on extortion and racketeering to keep their fight alive.

These causes of conflict are not unique to Dagestan. Over the last month, as I've traveled across five Russian republics in the North Caucasus, I have been constantly assailed by accounts of sleaze. "It is totally ingrained," said Mukhadin, a shop assistant in his 40s in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, who asked not to use his surname. "Someone gets a position in a ministry and he drags his whole clan into office with him, even the half-wits. There's no meritocracy, no recourse to justice. An educated guy who could work 10 times better is just left bitter, without a job."

Corruption is a soft, imprecise word. Most often, it means simply theft of funds. State officials steal public money that could help families climb out of squalid poverty or build schools or save lives in hospitals.

Yet corruption is also theft of rights, and theft of justice. 

Last week, in a cafe in Makhachkala, I met Zalina Ayubova, her mother, Madina, and their lawyer, Sapiyat Magomedova.

Zalina is a 13-year-old schoolgirl. She and her mother live in Khasavyurt, a town about an hour's drive west of the capital that is best known for being the place where Chechen rebels and generals of the Russian army signed a peace agreement at the end of the first Chechen war in 1996.

One morning in September last year, Zalina was walking home from a visit to a doctor's clinic when she was stopped in the street by a former classmate called Shamil. Threatening to hurt her if she resisted, Shamil, 14, and two older friends allegedly took Zalina to an abandoned hut near the local prison. There, later in a hotel, and then in a house that was under construction, a series of young men paid Shamil for the privilege of raping Zalina. On one occasion Shamil is said to have accepted a payment of 200 rubles ($7) and on another, 150 rubles.

After three days, one of the rapists -- Shamil's older brother, Khasim -- called Zalina's mother, Madina, and agreed to tell her where Zalina was if she came to meet him and didn't tell anyone else.

After some agonizing, Madina -- who had been desperately searching for her daughter -- decided to call police. She and an officer went to the agreed spot, and Khasim was immediately arrested. He admitted to raping Zalina, whom Madina found lying unconscious on a sheet of cardboard in the half-built house. She had not had anything to eat or drink since she was abducted.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Zalina had spent several days with her tormentors. She knew Shamil well, and the four young men who had raped her made no attempts to hide their identities. One had confessed. A doctor confirmed that Zalina had been repeatedly assaulted.

Three of the alleged rapists were arrested and charged, and Shamil was released on bail because he is a minor. Yet the investigation quickly stalled. Relatives of the accused men came to Madina, offering her 600,000 rubles ($21,000) or an apartment in Makhachkala in exchange for withdrawing the case. "When I refused," she told me, "they said, 'Don't worry, we know where to take our money.'"

Soon, strange things began to happen. The fourth rapist was not detained, and it was unclear whether an arrest warrant had been issued in his name. Madina heard that he was walking freely around his home village near Khasavyurt.

Meanwhile, a medical test of fluids left on Zalina's clothes mysteriously found no match with the DNA of the alleged attackers. At the same time, the men's relatives began to dispute that Zalina had ever visited the doctor's clinic on the morning she was kidnapped (apparently in an attempt to suggest she had joined the men voluntarily). Medical records proving she was there went missing from the clinic and turned up at the house of Shamil and Khasim's father, a traffic policeman. 

"It's clear there has been a determined effort to derail the investigation, either using money or connections in the law-enforcement agencies," Sapiyat, Madina's lawyer, told me at our meeting in the cafe.

(Sapiyat herself is personally acquainted with Dagestani justice. Last June she was hospitalized after being beaten by special forces officers at a police station in Khasavyurt. A probe into the attack has achieved no result. In fact, a parallel investigation was launched after several of the officers alleged that Sapiyat, who is 5 feet tall and weighs 92 pounds, had been the aggressor. At the time, Sapiyat was representing a woman who had allegedly suffered years of blackmail at the hands of a local policeman.)

As for the men who persecuted and raped Zalina Ayubova, they might well be already free if it weren't for the efforts of two journalists in Makhachkala: Zaur Gaziyev, the editor in chief of the newspaper Svobodnaya Respublika (Free Republic), and Nariman Gadzhiyev, a radio host and former local TV personality.

Zaur, who was once a human rights activist, heard about Zalina's story via his contacts and wrote a long column about it on Feb. 11. "There are so many such cases in Dagestan, where a victim is frightened off, bought off; when a person is simply killed and buried, and all traces concealed," he wrote. Nariman then reposted his friend's article on his popular blog.

"The response was unbelievable," said Nariman, a jolly, thickset man with a pneumatic pistol tucked in his waistband, when I visited his office. The article got 53,000 hits that day, making it one of the most discussed topics on the Russian Internet. "It struck a nerve because everyone can imagine it happening to their sister or daughter."

The fact that unscrupulous officials appeared complicit in an attempt to impede the investigation was also resonant, Nariman added. "It's exactly this kind of case, this kind of contemptuous treatment of a human life, which can drive young men to take up arms and join the boyeviki [militant fighters]," he said.

A week later, the furor prompted Dagestan's president, Magomedsalam Magomedov, to announce he was taking personal control of the investigation. "As a Dagestani, a Muslim, and the father of three children, I am deeply revolted by what has happened," he said. "Attempts to make sure the people guilty of this monstrous crime avoid responsibility will be harshly suppressed."

Madina hopes the president's attention will make it harder for her daughter's attackers to quash the prosecution. "The bastards must get what they deserve," she said.

But the broader problem seems destined to persist. In numerous conversations, residents of Makhachkala described to me a paralyzing level of daily bribe-taking.

"You pay to get into university, you pay to stay there; everyone pays to get a job unless they have family connections," said Rasul, a man in his early 30s who trained at a police academy in St. Petersburg for five years but couldn't afford to buy himself a position in the local force when he came home. "Some people are just totally powerless and excluded. And in the end they can't take it anymore; they pick up a gun and head for the hills."

Elsewhere, a businessman who provided state-funded adult education classes explained how he was pressured to invent hundreds of ghost students so officials could cream off the extra tuition payments. And in a shabby office of the Dagestani branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a worker gestured to a building in front of a pond outside, which he said had once been the academy's property. "But a chinovnik [state bureaucrat] sold it for construction," he told me. "Just like that, money went straight in his pocket."

Such practices are rife all across Russia, of course. Last year the Kremlin itself estimated that it loses at least $35 billion a year to rigged state tenders. In one high-profile case in May last year, a Russian construction entrepreneur revealed that he had paid $4 million in kickbacks to a senior state official in order to secure a contract to build a luxury residential complex for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Yet, analysts say, the clannish nature of society in the North Caucasus republics means corruption here runs even deeper. And even when lawbreaking is not involved, leaders and officials do little to dispel an image of shameless extravagance.

Two years ago, Medvedev asked regional leaders to detail their income and belongings. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, who owns a gold-plated pistol, several racehorses, and a collection of expensive sports cars (he acquired a Ferrari Testarossa in 2006), declared two assets: a 36-square-meter apartment and a Lada Zhiguli, the Soviet-era workhorse sedan.

This month, Abdusamad Gamidov, Dagestan's finance minister, announced a tender for an Audi A8L worth $290,000. (Many Dagestanis I met earn about 6,000 rubles, or $200, per month, making that equivalent to 120 years' pay.) The minister swiftly withdrew the tender when Russia's anti-corruption campaigner, Aleksei Navalny, posted it on his blog, saying that "world presidents" had more modest vehicles.

And that is suggestive of the root of the problem: Dagestan, like most of the North Caucasus, is heavily subsidized, receiving at least 65 percent of its budget from Moscow.

One evening toward the end of my stay in Makhachkala, I went to see Zaur Gaziyev. "For years now the Kremlin has been sending us huge tranches of federal money," he said. "And in exchange for the loyalty of local elites, a lot of the cash is allowed to go missing."

That, said, Zaur, has proved a bankrupt mode of governance. "And it's not just the fault of Dagestanis," he said. "Many of the suitcases [of money] stay in Moscow.

"As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head."


Sword or Samovar

The Islamic Republic of Chechnya

Why is the Kremlin-imposed leader of this republic sounding so much like the militants he's meant to be cracking down on?

GROZNY, Russia — When I first came to the capital of Chechnya seven years ago, large stretches of it lay in rubble.

Prospekt Pobedy (Victory Avenue), the central boulevard, was lined with tottering ruins. By the Minutka roundabout stood rows of five-story apartment blocks half-destroyed by bombing and artillery strikes a few years earlier. No one could possibly live there, you thought -- until you noticed a light bulb burning dimly through a shell hole, or a splash of color where clothes hung to dry on a balcony.

Seen today, the city is almost unrecognizable. Putin Avenue -- as Prospekt Pobedy is now called -- is a pleasant street lined with cafes, shops, and beauty salons. At its southern end rises the biggest mosque in Europe, its fluted minarets gracefully puncturing the sky. Beyond that, a cluster of high-rise office buildings are under rapid construction: At a squint, it could be a corner of Dubai. And all around are huge billboards with the grinning, bearded face of the man deemed responsible for Grozny's remarkable turnaround: Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

"Our city is transformed," a shopkeeper told me the day I arrived last week. But the key question in Kadyrov's Chechnya is this: At what cost came the transformation, and was it worth the price?

In the mid-1990s, Boris Yeltsin sent tanks and jets into Grozny to stop separatists from breaking away from Russia and establishing a sovereign Chechen state. Tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of people died in the resulting mayhem, most of them civilians. But in 1996, the Russian army was repelled, shockingly, by a motley but impassioned band of Chechen irregulars.

Then in late 1999, after a chaotic three years of de facto Chechen independence, Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, sent troops back into Chechnya. Once again, airstrikes were used to annihilate resistance, with brazen disregard for the suffering of noncombatants. This time, the Kremlin won, and the resistance fighters retreated to the hills, where they have kept up a guerrilla campaign against pro-Moscow forces ever since.

In that struggle, both sides have behaved abominably. State security services kidnap, torture, and kill suspected fighters, often on flimsy evidence. Meanwhile, the increasingly radical Islamist militants -- now embedded in other Muslim republics throughout the Russian North Caucasus -- assassinate officials and send suicide bombers to kill and maim civilians in Moscow and other cities.

Nonetheless, today Chechnya is the Kremlin's success story. Billions of dollars have been poured into reconstruction. And in comparison with the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, Chechnya is relatively calm. There are isolated incidents of terrible violence, but Grozny has an air of normality. It's safe to go out after dark. There are shopping centers, restaurants, and cinemas, things that are virtually nonexistent 50 miles away in Nazran, the largest town in Ingushetia.*

In exchange for this peace, the Chechens have been obliged to accept as their leader the man whom the Kremlin credits with providing it: the 34-year-old Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who switched sides and was appointed head of the Moscow-backed administration.

Modern-day Chechnya is, in fact, one long love poem to Kadyrov. His face, and that of his father, who was president of the republic until he was assassinated in 2004, is everywhere you look. "A nation that produces such sons cannot but demand respect!" cry the slogans. "Thank you, Ramzan, for caring about our future!" Meanwhile, stalls at Grozny airport sell hagiographies in Kadyrov's honor ("the rebirth and further development of the Chechen Republic became [for him] a sacred duty," they explain), and local people call bulletins on the Grozny channel "Ramzan News" because they are dominated by his latest triumphs: Ramzan handing out apartments to homeless families, Ramzan dancing the lezginka, Ramzan leaping from his bed in the middle of the night to check on a construction site.

Any meeting with a state official involves a five-minute paean of praise to Kadyrov. An essay competition launched last month in Chechen universities -- titled "The Hero of Our Time. The Leader and Patriot" -- offers the following parameters: "The authors should write about the outstanding personality of the Chechen people and the person who has made a huge contribution to the republic's revival and stability, about the leader of the Chechen youth, the Hero of Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov."

Judging Kadyrov's true popularity amid this sycophancy is difficult because independent polls are scarce and elections in Chechnya are fixed even more extravagantly than in the rest of Russia. (In 2007, the republic reported an improbable 99 percent of the vote for United Russia, the Putin-led party that supports Kadyrov.)

It's fair to say he does have some fervent supporters. On March 7, a team of Chechen ministers and retired Russian professionals led by Kadyrov played a friendly soccer match in Grozny against Brazilian stars who won the 1994 and 2002 World Cups.

I sat in the stands next to Khamzat Dzhabrailov, 54, a former Soviet middleweight boxing champion who coached Kadyrov -- once a keen amateur boxer. "He is my boy, my beautiful boy," Khamzat told me. "He is brave, strong, wise, energetic, good, handsome." On the far side of the pitch, members of the Ramzan Patriot Club were chanting their hero's name.

Other Chechens, it seems, find the blooming personality cult around Kadyrov distasteful, but not enough to discount him outright.

"It may be hard for you to imagine just what it was like here a decade ago," a small-business owner in his early 40s told me. "There were bombs raining down. There were bandits kidnapping and beheading people. It was a terrifying time. Our leaders promised much but delivered nothing.

"Now we have Ramzan, and we have to put up with this constant show, this circus. He is poorly educated and can hardly speak Russian. But he rebuilt the city in record time. Universities are working; people see some prospects for the future. You can walk safely in the streets, you can book a package tour for a few hundred bucks and fly to Egypt, you can go to the skating rink. This means a lot for a nation that suffered so many years of war."

Then there are Kadyrov's staunch opponents, unready for such a Faustian pact. They allude to the more sinister elements of Kadyrov's regime. Their voices are quiet for now, yet they may be more numerous than it appears. Chechnya is traditionally an egalitarian society where it is not appropriate to idolize a leader. A Chechen NGO-worker in his 20s told me, "I can't bear all the adulation and sucking up to Kadyrov. But it is extremely risky to stand up to him publicly."

Others point to ongoing (if diminished) kidnappings and torture allegedly committed by the kadyrovtsy, former militiamen who were absorbed into official security units. "Those continue just as they have for years," one experienced human rights activist told me. In the most recent case, a 22-year-old university student in Grozny, Said Sigauri, was detained on March 2, the same day his brother, a suspected militant, was killed in a special operation in Grozny. Said managed to call his parents to say he was at a police station in Chechnya's Sunzhensky district, but he hasn't been heard from since. "Each day we lose a little more hope that he is OK," said the activist.

There is no direct evidence to implicate Kadyrov himself, but the killings of a string of his opponents -- including journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, and award-winning human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 -- have provoked anger all over the world. A verdict is expected soon in the murder trial of the killers of Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard to Kadyrov who became his critic and was gunned down in Vienna, Austria, two years ago. Telephone records show the assassins made a series of phone calls to an associate of Kadyrov shortly after the shooting. (Kadyrov denied any involvement in Israilov's death at a press briefing I attended last week, saying, "Why should I be bothered with what happens in Australia [sic]? If I'd wanted him dead, I could have had him killed in Chechnya and no one would have known.")

Perhaps most ironically, while Kadyrov has been the Kremlin's ally in stamping out religious extremists, his rule in Chechnya has seen a creeping Islamization, unknown elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

Polygyny (illegal under Russian law) is now approved in unofficial ceremonies by mullahs, sale of alcohol has been restricted to a two-hour time window each day, and the muftiat has issued strict advisories on women's attire that have been enforced, it appears, by informal militia.

Last June, Kheda (not her real name), a 30-year-old Chechen woman, was walking down Putin Avenue with two female friends. None had tied on the headscarves that most but not all women favor here, and all wore skirts that grazed the knee. Suddenly two cars with tinted windows jolted to a halt beside the pavement.

The windows were rolled down, Kheda told me when we met last week, and she had time to notice a man in a camouflage uniform in the second car. As someone shouted, "Cover your hair, harlots!" the man in camo aimed a weapon at her, and Kheda felt something hit her stomach and her thigh. She looked down to see her skirt splattered with pink paint. Her friends had been shot, too, with a blue substance. The men -- who had shot the women with paintball guns -- laughed and sped away.

"I was shocked and humiliated," said Kheda, who rushed with her friends to a pharmacy, where they tried to clean off the paint before calling a taxi and going home.

One former student of Chechen State University described to me how security guards at the entrance often forced female students to open their coats to demonstrate their skirts were long enough. An ethnic Russian woman told me she was prevented from entering a ministry building in central Grozny without a headscarf.

These were not isolated incidents. Human Rights Watch published a report on March 10 titled "You Dress According to Their Rules," which records statements from more than 30 victims and witnesses of harassment over women's clothing last summer.

After the paintball incidents, Kadyrov reportedly told a TV interviewer he had not ordered the attacks but would "express appreciation" to the shooters if he found out who they were. A woman who had provoked such an attack "should have disappeared from Earth, closed herself in her house, and never come out, because she had behaved in such an inappropriate way," he added.

At the press briefing last week, the Chechen leader was more cautious. He summoned a female advisor who said meekly, "I wear a headscarf, first of all, because I am a Muslim woman and I am obliged to wear it before the Almighty. No one forces me to do this; I do it with pleasure."

Yet the moral conservatism seems to be growing. Kadyrov himself, who was fond of crocodile skin jackets and baseball caps only a few years ago, is now most often seen in tunics stamped with the crescent moon and star of Islam.

Lena Afonina, 25, who worked in an advertising and design studio in Grozny until last year, told me the agency was recently approached by business-owners who had been informed that their placards of women were unsuitable. "Before it was OK for them to use pictures where a girl's hair sticks out from under the headscarf, but now they've been told by some sort of commission that the hair has to be completely concealed," she said. "It was hard for us to find them such images because Chechen women weren't dressing like that before."

Toward the end of my stay in Grozny, I visited the Center for Spiritual-Moral Upbringing and Development, an organization set up by Kadyrov to give young people guidance on pure living.

Vakha Khashkhanov, the director, greeted me cordially wearing the velvet skullcap favored by Chechen Sufis. He denied there was any link between state or religious authorities and the paintball attackers. The perpetrators were "hooligans" who should be caught and punished, he said.

Khashkhanov said it was not true that guards at educational establishments and state buildings had instructions to monitor women's dress. 

However, he added: "It can happen that, let's say, a security guard might address a woman politely, in our traditional Chechen way, which expresses respect to her and her whole family, her parents, her brothers, saying, 'Sister, please put on a headscarf; be more beautiful and put it on.' But only to the ones who are really vulgarly dressed."

*This sentence has been updated; due to an editing error, it originally named Nazran as the Ingush capital.

Musa Sadulayev