Democracy Lab

The Kremlin and the Octopus

The arrest of a leading politician has shaken up Russia's most turbulent republic. But will anything really change?

MOSCOW —  On a recent afternoon in the city of Makhachkala, the capital of Russia's Dagestan region, I sat with two senior police officers, discussing the latest news over a cup of green tea. Something absolutely unprecedented had just happened. The Kremlin had sent a contingent of police officers into the city by helicopter. They arrested mayor Said Amirov and flew him off to Moscow, where they put him behind bars. Prosecutors have said that they're charging him with ordering the murder of a state investigator.

This is an extraordinary departure for President Vladimir Putin, who's famous for giving regional officials free reign as long as they're loyal. Amirov, however, may well be a special case. Known informally as "Said the Immortal" (he's survived 12 assassination attempts) and "the Octopus" (his influence reaches into all corners of the republic), Amirov ruled Dagestan for 15 years, controlling criminal gangs that are frequently intertwined with local Islamist insurgencies (and even law enforcement agencies as well). Given the length of Amirov's reign, it could be argued that Putin actually bided his time when it came to dismissing the mayor. Many in the republic have greeted Amirov's arrest with relief. My hosts from the police force told me that the mayor's departure offers Dagestan new hope for a peaceful life. 

Interrupting each other to correct details and facts, the two men recalled terror attacks that have taken dozens of lives on their force over the past three years, leaving heartbroken widows and orphans behind. Lieutenant Colonel Magomed Isayev handed me a list of men who once served in his police unit: "These are just the names that I can remember off the top of my head," Isayev said, a shadow passing over his face. 

The guerillas who are fighting in Dagestan to establish an independent Islamic state see the men in uniform as servants of the Kremlin and violators of sharia law. Over the past few years the ultraconservative salafi community in Dagestan has mushroomed, expanding from one mosque in Makhachkala in 2006 to over a dozen in 2013. No one knows the precise numbers, but conservative Islam is growing more and more popular among young people. For the moment, the majority of Dagestanis are still sticking to their traditional Sufi beliefs, but it may not stay that way for long. 

Law enforcement officials fall victim to the underground militia's attacks almost every week. Kavkazky Uzel, an independent online publication, reports that 14 law enforcement officials were killed in Dagestan during the first three months of 2013. Yet there are also some members of officialdom who seem to sympathize with the insurgents, sometimes thanks to family ties. As so often in this part of the world, it's almost impossible to unravel the intricate connections between the police and the people they're supposed to be combating. In the eyes of many, Amirov himself exemplifies this melding of criminality and government. There have even been reports [in Russian] that the mayor hired members of the insurgency to kill his enemies.

There are some moments, the two police officers told me, that they simply can't forget. "There are a lot of times when we're cordoning off a site after an explosion," Lieutenant Colonel Magomed Guseinov explained. "Then, once there's a bunch of us there, another bomb goes off. They're trying to kill as many police as they can." In 2011, Guseinov himself was wounded by one of these follow-up bombs, hit by shrapnel in his leg, cheek, and shoulder.

One night a plastic bag left on a Makhachkala street exploded, luring dozens of policemen to the scene. The cops were asking passersby to move away from a suspicious-looking car that Guseinov suspected might be loaded with explosives. Sure enough, the car blew up, throwing Guseinov high in the air, killing a young police officer, and wounding several others.

"Mayor Amirov was behind some of the attacks," Guseinov assured me. "Now that he's in jail, the situation will calm down and no one military operations will be needed." So why would a mayor order terrorist attacks or the murder of state officials? Guseinov and Isayev believe in a theory, widespread in Dagestan, that claims that Amirov aimed to deliberately destabilize the situation in order to prove the incompetence of other regional leaders. His hope was that the Kremlin would appoint him as the republic's president in order to get the situation back under control. 

But the Russian military forces based in Dagestan don't have any plans to leave yet. On the contrary, troops, ammunition, and armored vehicles have been streaming into the republic since last June. Yet despite growing military bases, constant special operations, and the detention of anyone suspected of links with the insurgency, the attacks on officials still haven't stopped.

The day after my conversation with Isayev and Guseinov, a bomb planted under a police car went off, blowing off a police officer's leg. That's the fourth casualty this week, following the deaths of three other official in another attack a few days ago. Whether you're sitting on the veranda of the Russian Theater in downtown Makhachkala, strolling along the sandy beach by the Caspian Sea, or driving a gypsy cab through one of Dagestan's myriad police checkpoints, the threat of sudden violence lingers in the warm air.

It took a few days, but those who initially celebrated the mayor's arrest soon came to understand that explosions will not disappear in the post-Amirov era. Nothing has fundamentally changed. Suicide bombers continue to blow themselves up, killing civilians and officials. The police and federal security have not changed their tactics of abducting and torturing suspects.

A few years ago the former President Dmitry Medvedev identified "monstrous scales of corruption" as one of the main causes of troubles in Russian North Caucuses. A few weeks before Mayor Amirov's arrest, I asked him if the corruption that Medvedev pointed to was in fact motivating the insurgency in Dagestan. "Indeed, corruption and terror go together here," the mayor told me. "They're synonyms." He was trying to claim, of course, that it's only the other people who are corrupt, but I doubt that many Dagestanis would believe that. It's widely known around the republic that choice government jobs are for sale. You can order just about anyone's murder or abduction for the right price, and you can find plenty of people to do the job in the private security companies or among the guerillas.

A remarkable movement of both retired and active police officers in Dagestan is risking their careers and lives by courageously warning about the dangers of rampant corruption. A group of them arrived in Moscow last February and gave a remarkable press conference on the role of the police in the conflict zone. They demanded that they authorities launch a large scale war against corruption in the troubled republic.

I met with a few of the activists for lunch last weekend to see what they thought about the Kremlin's arrest of the man who symbolized Dagestan's sleaze. They were unimpressed. The arrest didn't mean that the government had decided to respect the laws, they told me; on the contrary, now an even more corrupt criminal clan was set to take power. "The entire system is rotten," the group's leader told me. "You can buy and sell jobs and lives on all levels in our republic. Just start following the constitution and the laws, and the war will be over." Then he sighed. "After so many years they finally arrested one Amirov. But 10 other Amirovs will go on applying his methods: stealing money, firing critics, or executing anyone who gets in the way of the path to gaining more power."

The Russian authorities should pay more attention to voices like these. There are real Russian patriots trying to help the Kremlin make peace in the North Caucasus.


Democracy Lab

A Russian Artist's Snapshot of the National Psyche

Why Russia's entry at the world's toniest art fair speaks volumes about the country's predicament.

Last weekend, Russia presented its own unique contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale: an installation by conceptual artist Vadim Zakaharov. At the entrance of the Russian pavilion, a man in a blue suit sat in a saddle suspended beneath the ceiling, where he passed his time spitting peanut shells at the visitors. Golden coins engraved with the words "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" trickled down from the top of the two-story building and into a cave built in the basement. Only women were allowed to enter the cave (though they were banned from talking). There, they were offered transparent umbrellas that they could use to shield their heads from the rain of coins.

Some knelt on a red velvet pillow on the floor and looked up at the shower of gold, others poured coins into a bucket that was periodically raised to the second floor, where its contents replenished the flow. Another man, his hands buried in the pockets of an identical blue suit, stood guard at a hole in the floor where the buckets emerged, two stories above. His job was to make sure that no one tried to steal any of the loot. His pale face expressionless, he explained to visitors: "I am an official. I control the circulation of money."

Zakharov was using the Danae myth, a story that evokes the complicated relationship between money and desire, to reflect upon the strange realities of present-day Russia. To prepare the installation, Zakharov spent three months in Venice under conditions of strict secrecy, creating underground spaces in the pavilion building designed in 1914 by the Russian architect Aleksei Shchusev. When I met Zakharov in Venice, he offered several of his own interpretations of the work: "You can read multiple ideas here: A Plato's cave created by men, who control power, money, and the flow of corruption. ... The women locked in the cave are silent for now, but there is a sense in the air that it's time to listen to women's voices."

But reality has its ways of overcoming art. As if to demonstrate Zakharov's point about Russian men's control of wealth, billionaire Roman Abramovich arrived in Venice on his gigantic Luna yacht, which he anchored ostentatiously in the lagoon. That prompted complaints from locals and tourists, who objected to the way the ship blocked the view. But Abramovich is a major patron of the Biennale, so nobody dared to ask him to move his yacht away. The only critical statement was a painting by William Morris, which depicted the artist casting Abramovich's yacht into the lagoon in fury and disgust.

Zakharov's pavilion triggered a heated discussion among visitors gathered outside during the opening. Russian curator and art critic Valeri Kabov saw it as "a sad poetic allegory about Russians' helplessness and despair." The poet Lev Rubinstein said that he liked the installation. "Vadim's interpretation of the Danae myth illuminated the issue of control over the circulation of gold in nature," Rubinstein said with a smile.

Rubinstein, it should be noted, has spent much of the past two years organizing anti-Putin protests among writers and artists -- yet it made perfect sense for him to show up at the Biennale. For Russia, where protest art has taken to the streets across the country over the past two years, the Venice Biennale offers yet another chance to address the country's political and social problems.

There's a bit of paradox, though, in the fact that the Russian entry is actually sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, so Zakharov's rain of "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" was actually controlled by men in suits. (To touch upon one of many attendant ironies, the current culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, is a controversial historian who is notorious for urging Russians to consider the "positive side" of Stalin's rule.) Russia in the age of Putin is also not exactly known for promoting political expression. Maria Shubina, a writer and frequent Biennale observer, expressed her skeptical view of Russia's presentation in Venice: "I believe that the biggest contemporary art statement in Russia this year was Pussy Riot -- but they're in jail." In jail or a cave?

"Some of the men in the elite have already bought up all the luxurious property they wanted," real estate developer and art investor Dmitry Aksenov told me. "Now they want to invest in art." John Mann, a spokesman for Abramovich, told me proudly that many government officials turned up at last year's opening of the Garage, the Abramovich-sponsored museum of contemporary art in Moscow's Gorky Park. George Puzenkoff, a Russian painter now living in Berlin, took issue with Mann's suggestion that the bureaucrats have a genuine appreciation of culture: "There's no sincere interest in the Kremlin, absolute zero understanding of what art is about."

The Venice event is all about stimulating productive discussions. The organizers of the Biennale were eager to stress its importance at last week's opening: 88 countries, including some that are in conflict with each other in the world outside, seized the opportunity to engage in cultural dialogue. For the first time in Biennale history, even the Vatican joined the discussion this year, offering a work entitled "Creation, Un-creation, Re-Creation."

Russian art and voices could be seen and heard all over Venice this year. Leonardo DiCaprio showed up at the opening of "Difficulties In Translation," an installation by a group of talented Russian artists from Venice's Ca' Foscari University. On an unusually cold night for this time in Italy, a performance artist, Oleg Kulik, stripped layers of newspapers off his naked body to lie on a cross and enjoy a Russian steam bath and traditional massage with a bunch of leaves on the bank of the Grand Canal. Photographs chronicling the life of Katia, an artist specializing in body modification, who escaped from an Orthodox monastery to the Moscow artistic underground, broke some visitors' hearts with images of her scarred body. A floating installation of a wooden log with a double-headed eagle on top was entitled: "Russia. Try to overthrow."

But in spite of all the effort, the jury of the 55th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia did not give any awards to Russian artists -- not even a special mention. Perhaps it had something to do with questions about the sincerity of politically themed art that's cynically paid for by the government. In this respect, Zakharov's piece ironically captured a crucial truth: Money doesn't necessarily buy you love or respect.