Putin's Secret War

The bloody Islamic insurgency in Russia's backyard.

Click here to see photos from the war zone in Russia's backyard. 

MAKHACHKALA, Russia – The officers nervously cocked their rifles as the crowd began to swell. The Kirovsky police station in the capital city of Russia's Dagestan region was now under siege. But the angry cohort outside the station walls on May 19 wasn't composed of the bearded, gun-toting militants one might expect in this insurgency-racked region, but a crowd of enraged women in hijabs and ankle-length dresses. It wasn't the first angry mob the officers had faced down, but a crowd of only women was unprecedented. Their dry faces wrinkled by sleepless nights, the women stormed the courtyard looking for their husbands and sons, locked in the basement cells, where they were thought to be beaten or, worse, tortured with electricity.

Yelling at the top of their lungs, the women, mostly Salafi Muslims, demanded that police let in their lawyers. Desperate to make sure that one of the women's sons, a 19-year-old named Abdurakhman Magomedov, detained a few hours earlier, was not hidden in a trunk of a police car, the women blocked the driveway. They yelled that they would blow themselves up if the authorities didn't answer their demands. After a few phone calls and text messages went out, hundreds of the women's infuriated male relatives and friends drove up to the police checkpoint. With iPads and cell phones held aloft, they began taking photos of the men in uniform.

The Dagestan insurgency began with the spillover of militant activity following Russia's harsh crackdown on neighboring Chechnya in the late 1990s. Although the region is traditionally Sufi, militant Salafi imams have been making inroads in the North Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, the region has been the scene of a vicious cycle of violence and repression: police and special forces have arrested thousands of young Salafists throughout the North Caucasus republics, which in turn has driven more young men -- and increasingly women -- to various jihadi groups that aim to establish an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. With thousands of active fighters, the insurgency in Dagestan is now reportedly the largest in the Caucasus.

In Makhachkala, frustration and rage have been growing over the 17 people abducted, presumably by authorities, since the beginning of this year. Dagestan, always one spark away from fire, is heating up -- a bad sign in this region, where 254 Russian police officers died in insurgency-related incidents last year, far more than the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan.

"Women should be sitting at home cooking soup for men, under sharia law," the police officers sarcastically shouted at the angry crowd. The comment was the last straw for Zhanna Ismailova. Two of her five sons had been abducted from their workplaces that month, she said. Men in black uniforms, who introduced themselves as members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) took them in on suspicion of militant activity. One of her sons, Arslan, 34, had been released after two days and has gone into hiding. Taking out her cell phone, Ismailova showed me pictures of her son's wounds, including pictures of his feet, burned by what she said were electric shocks. The FSB men questioned Arslan about twin suicide attacks on May 3 that killed 13 and injured more than 100 people in Makhachkala. Ismailova's youngest son, Rashid, is still missing. "This brutality and Moscow's idiotic politics is the reason for the war," Ismailova said.

At one point, she slipped past guards and ran into the building, yelling: "Show me immediately the cells where you beat our children!" Outside, hundreds of her supporters, now face to face with a unit of special-forces troops in black balaclavas, were raising their hands in the air and chanting: "God is Great! God is Great!"

To most Russians, the scene would probably look more like Syria or Libya than their own country. State television rarely broadcasts images or even official comments about the increasing human rights abuses by the FSB or police in Dagestan. It's a part of Russia that newly returned President Vladimir Putin does not want to talk about now. Meanwhile, Dagestan is quietly turning from police action to the kind of shooting war against Islamic insurgents that Putin waged with brutal efficiency in Chechnya at the beginning of his first presidential term.

"Instead of reforming the court system, so independent courts could prosecute those who abduct and execute people in this part of Russia, Moscow assigns thugs, men known for their criminal background, to leading positions at security agencies, who pay million-dollar kickbacks to the insurgency in order to save their lives," said Gagzhimurad Omarov, a former member of parliament from Dagestan who stepped down last fall and has now joined the opposition. It's a paradox that Moscow refuses to address. At the same time Putin has declared a zero-tolerance policy for militant activity in Dagestan, the officials he has appointed are paying protection money to the insurgency, which has often targeted Russian officials.

"Silence and secrecy is Putin's style. We never heard any proper commentary clarifying why he canceled the trip to G-8 summit. It does not surprise us that we hear nothing of his strategy to put an end to violence in Dagestan," senior human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina said.

Gannushkina has been focusing on the North Caucuses for years, calling and Skyping associates in the region day and night. A member of ex-President Dmitry Medvedev's human rights council, she reported to the Kremlin for the past three years about conditions in the Caucuses. She got little reaction to her increasingly dire warnings while Medvedev was in charge, but with Putin back in his presidential seat, Gannushkina quit the council along with other highly respected human rights defenders.

The night before the angry gathering outside the Kirovsky police station, Gannushkina, members of the human rights NGO Memorial, and a parliamentary committee on constitutional law and civil society stayed up all night in Moscow, trying to save the lives of two young men, three women, and two babies in a house in Makhachkala surrounded by federal forces. The inhabitants of the house were suspected of participating in the Islamist underground. Gannushkina and her team tried for hours to convince the commander of the operation to let the women and children out and allow the men to surrender. But in the end, federal forces raided the house, killing one of the men, who was indeed armed; keeping the three women in custody for a day; and arresting and beating the other man at Kirovsky station. It was this arrest that precipitated the demonstration at the station the next day.

The situation at the station quickly spiraled out of control. Soon enough, blood was on the pavement. Several Salafi men grabbed this reporter's notebook and camera, but returned them. A reporter for a web news portal went down in a scrum of fists, was pulled out and rescued by police, and later flew to Moscow to receive treatment for shock and bruises. The police started making arrests. The crowd threw chunks of pavement, hitting one policeman in the forehead, leaving a bloody gash. Before the crowd dispersed, 11 more people were in cells in Kirovsky station.

It was just another day in the violent conflict that most Russians aren't even aware is taking place within their own country.

An earlier version of this piece reported that protesting women gathered outside the Dagestan police station on May 27, 2012. This incident took place on May 19, 2012.

Diana Markosian


The Cup Runneth Over

As Europe’s biggest sporting tournament kicks off in Ukraine, will political controversy and racism mar the country’s moment in the sun?

KIEV, Ukraine – The "fan zone" is open for business and the party has already begun.

In the heart of the capital's downtown, stretching from Independence Square and down Khreshchatik street -- Kiev's Fifth Avenue -- a sprawling area has been cordoned off by high steel fences. Music blasts from giant speakers while a soccer highlight film plays on a gigantic screen at the far end. Fans in multi-colored jerseys stroll about, and a feeling of extended celebration, like a college spring break, hangs in the air. But for Ukrainians, much of the joy is mixed with relief. 

Beginning today, Ukraine and its neighbor, Poland, are hosting the European soccer championships -- the first time that the event is taking place in two former Eastern Bloc nations. Five years ago, when European soccer's governing body, UEFA, bequeathed its flagship event to Ukraine and Poland, many regarded it as a risky move.  The European Cup is the continent's largest sporting event -- and for the soccer world, the biggest happening after the World Cup.

UEFA's plan is to expand its brand into Eastern Europe's soccer-mad but still commercially untapped lands. Ukraine, however, was thought to be a particularly dubious bet: with its crumbling Soviet-era architecture, pot-holed roads, musty hotel rooms, and cobwebbed airport terminals -- not to mention pervasive corruption and ossified bureaucracy. Two years ago, as construction lagged months behind schedule, there was talk of stripping the games from Ukraine and rescheduling them in Hungary or Germany.

But now, at a cost of nearly $14 billion, the sports complexes, roads, and airport terminals are finished. Two of the stadiums -- the Donbass Arena in the eastern city of Donetsk and Olympic Stadium in Kiev, where the final will be played on July 1 -- are now considered among the best venues in Europe.  Ukrainian television is broadcasting chirpy spots, proclaiming "We are waiting for Euro." Up to 800,000 foreign visitors are expected to flood into the country -- an economic windfall for Ukraine's moribund economy.

Ukrainian officials for their part are hoping the championship will provide them with something more -- something intangible, but oh-so-dear: Respect. Ukraine, a nation of 45 million -- and Europe's second largest country by territory, after Russia -- has toiled since independence under its reputation as a political, economic, and cultural backwater. Long seen as a land of bureaucrats in box-like suits and men with shaved heads in track outfits, Ukraine hopes to prove to the world that it's a modern European country to be reckoned with. President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions are also facing difficult parliamentary elections in the fall and are banking that a successful tournament will boost the government's flagging popularity.

But what was intended to be the country's crowning international sports moment is now looking distinctly wobbly. Accusations of human rights abuses, a looming boycott by European leaders, and concerns over racism are threatening to transform the games into a giant diplomatic and public relations embarrassment. Or worse.

As concern increases over the treatment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, European leaders, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the entire French cabinet, have announced that they will not travel to tournament games in Ukraine. Others, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, say they are weighing whether to attend.

In October, last year, a Kiev court sentenced Tymoshenko, the golden-braided heroine of the Orange Revolution, to seven years in jail for abuse of power. The charges stemmed from an agreement she signed while in office, three years ago, ending a so-called gas war with Russia. Tymoshenko personally negotiated with Russia's prime minister at the time, Vladimir Putin. Later, government officials claimed the contract was highly detrimental to Kiev, allegedly costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars. Poor contract or not, however, Western governments have denounced her imprisonment as politically motivated -- possibly the result of her outspoken (and venomous) opposition to her longtime political rival, President Yanukovych.

And the temperature continues to rise. The jailed former prime minister is suffering from a herniated spinal disc and is said to be in intense pain. Foreign doctors have examined her and recommended she be sent to Germany for care. Ukrainian officials insist however that she stay in country and receive treatment at a clinic near her prison in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.

Last month, authorities tried to transport Tymoshenko to the local hospital but she resisted: She did not trust her Ukrainian doctors, she said. Afterwards, photos were released and quickly went viral online, showing Tymoshenko with bruises on her abdomen. She claimed that guards had beaten her and declared a hunger strike in protest. The international reaction was swift and punishing.

"It is clear that as things stand now, the president has no intention of going to Ukraine," a spokesperson for Barroso announced.

"I love football, but what's happening in Ukraine is a problem," French President Francois Hollande said. The French president is not attending the tournament either.  

In retaliation, Ukrainian officials warned the EU leaders of "reactivating Cold War methods," by making sports "hostage to politics."

"You can have other formats to express your concern, to express your discontent, to express your criticism," said Oleg Voloshyn, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in an interview later.  "Lots of them. But let us leave the championship alone."

Tymoshenko has since abandoned her hunger strike, and German doctors are now treating her at the Kharkiv hospital. But the political tension continues to escalate. Ukraine could witness major demonstrations by the opposition during the tournament, as court cases resume for Tymoshenko this month. One, which is set to take place in Kharkiv on June 25, charges Tymoshenko with tax evasion and embezzlement and could add 10 years to her sentence. The other is an appeal for her original abuse of power conviction and is scheduled to take place in Kiev on June 26.

Protests may not be the most serious security threat authorities have to worry about. Last month, as the controversy surrounding Tymoshenko was reaching a high point, four bombs exploded in different locations in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk. More than 30 people were injured. Four suspects have been arrested, and authorities insist that the bombings were in no way connected with the championship. Still, the possibility of such violence occurring while the world's attention is focused on the country can't be a comforting one for Ukrainian authorities.

And then, there are fears that non-white fans risk physical attack if they attend Euro 2012. Two weeks ago, the BBC's flagship investigative program Panorama aired a report called "Stadiums of Hate," in which Polish and Ukrainian soccer crowds were portrayed as awash with neo-Nazis and other racist gangs. In one scene, hooligans at a local Kharkiv game, without any provocation, attacked and savagely beat a group of fellow supporters from India, while police and other fans looked on passively. Sol Campbell, the former captain of England's national squad -- who is himself black -- advised people of color not to travel to Ukraine and Poland, lest they want to "come home in a coffin."

The official Ukrainian reaction was equally swift as to the announcement of the Tymoshenko boycott. The BBC report was a distortion, they said. Fans of color were under no threat whatsoever, and in any case, racism was present everywhere -- and probably much worse elsewhere in Europe, where there was a larger minority population. Tellingly, though, no Ukrainian official reached out to the Indian fans who had been attacked.

(Ukraine's co-host may not be much better on this front. Black players on the Dutch team have already endured fans making monkey noises during a practice in Krakow, Poland.) 

The negative press has begun to take its toll, and some officials have begun to sound a note of concern. Though they maintain that the country is simply the victim of a concerted anti-Ukrainian campaign in the Western press -- which began two years ago when animal rights campaigners called for a boycott to protest reports that Ukrainian police were slaughtering thousands of stray dogs in preparation for Euro 2012 -- they do worry that the tournament will only be remembered for the controversies.

"If this championship is a failure, it's not just a failure for Ukraine. It will be a failure of the idea of expanding the boundaries of football," said the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry's Voloshyn in the same interview.

"The Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics are mostly remembered for the boycotts," he said, adding that nothing was gained from these actions.

But optimists in Kiev would rather look to other recent major sporting events. Fans were warned about rampant crime before the World Cup in South Africa, but the tournament ended a rousing success. Ditto for the Beijing Olympics, which suffered from widespread worries about boycotts, pollution, and human rights violations in the lead-up to the games -- but all was forgotten once the torch was lit and the competition began. Will Ukraine be so lucky?