The people who live in Russia's troubled North Caucasus republic hope that their new president will make a difference. But the chaos and bloodshed are deepening with every day.
MOSCOW — Dusty military trucks are rolling up and down Dagestan's streets these days. Special units patrol public places. Police offers armed with machine guns and clothed in camouflage and black balaclavas conduct counter-terrorist operations, searching homes and arresting people suspected of involvement in the continuing Islamist insurgency (as well as the occasional corrupt bureaucrat). With just a few months left before the start of the Winter Olympics in February, President Putin has been urging Russian security agencies to act "more harshly" in neutralizing terrorist and criminal threats in the northern Caucasus.
The Kremlin is relying on a veteran politician by the name of Ramazan Abdulatipov, who was elected as president of the republic earlier this month, to end the smoldering insurgency and shake up the old and notoriously corrupt clans. (That "election" was actually more akin to a coronation, since Putin had already made his own preference for Abdulatipov manifest by appointing him as acting head of the republic in January following the resignation of the previous governmnent.) Dagestan's new president clearly has his work cut out for him. Russian law enforcement officials are now saying that certain criminal activities, including some terrorist acts, can be traced back to officials -- a situation strikingly reminiscent of Latin America's gangster wars.
Putin is now betting that Abdulatipov, a loyal servant of the Kremlin who originally hails from the northern Caucasus, can regain control over the situation. Abdulatipov, a former academic and diplomat, helped draft the Russian constitution in the 1990s and worked for many years to shape Moscow's policies toward the country's myriad of ethnic minority groups. Most of the Dagestanis I've asked say that, while they welcome Abdulatipov's professed interest in reviving their national culture, they're all too aware that folk songs cannot bring peace to a republic that is already on the verge of a virtual civil war between the families of police officers killed in the insurgency and the families of those who have seen family members arrested or "disappeared" as suspected guerillas.
Few are inclined to believe that the crackdown will bring positive results. They can't help but recall how the last three Dagestani leaders all failed to establish stability in the republic.
Abdulatipov says that this time things are going to be different. He's been stressing that his orders come from the very top, from Vladimir Putin himself. "The president has given me carte blanche to establish order and clean Dagestan up," Abdulatipov said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, local media have been breaking some significant news. On a recent morning, the citizens of the republic's capital of Makhachkala woke up to find out that their former mayor, Said Amirov, the most powerful man in the republic for over a decade, was a terrorist. Local reporters revealed that Amirov, working together with his son and a state prosecutor, had plotted a terror attack "on an official of the state" -- including the extraordinary detail that the conspirators had planned to use a portable, shoulder-launched missile for the job. The local television channel broadcast footage of police searching Amirov's houses.
As appalling as all of this was, none of it came as a complete surprise. The Russian authorities had arrested Amirov (dubbed "the Godfather" by the Moscow media) back in June, even going to the trouble of sending in a helicopter from outside the republic to pick him up. He was subsequently charged with ordering a contract murder. (There was no immediate explanation for the lapse between his arrests and the recent raids.) Some of his opponents have since suggested erecting a monument to a helicopter that rescued Makhakchala from its bloodthirsty mayor.
Amirov, of course, didn't come from nowhere, as local experts explained to me. For years, corrupt officials in the republic have been delivering black caviar, fish, cognac, and billions of rubles to Moscow along with loads of cash. "Regional leaders, corrupt police, prosecutors, judges -- the entire system survived on kickbacks to Moscow," a retired police colonel told me. "They paid billions of rubles at all levels of the state, at every layer of the bureaucratic system." Where did officials get all the loot? By stealing, apparently.
On Sept. 19, Dagestan heard more news: the head of the remote Kumtorkalinsk region, Ruslan Tuturbiyev, was arrested on suspicion of stealing over 100 million rubles, or more than $3 million dollars. This followed the arrests of the deputy minister of education and the deputy minister of industry earlier this week.
Not everybody admires the anti-corruption campaign. On one recent afternoon, a crew from one of the Moscow state TV channels set up their cameras to take videos of the spectacular villas that belong to senior officials of interior ministry units responsible for fighting corruption. Within minutes, local officials arrived on the scene and detained the journalists, holding them in custody for four hours. The Moscow journalists insisted that the federal authorities had told them they had every right to be there; the local officials clearly didn't care about that one bit. Small wonder that genuine anti-corruption activists in Dagestan refuse to believe that the "purification campaign" will really tackle corrupt officials on all levels.
Magomed Shamilov, the leader of Dagestan's police union, says that real reform will come only by allowing transparency. He says this, in part, as a way of explaining why the president of Russia did not fire the criminal mayor and dozens of other crooks in the government long ago. "The Ministry of Interior Affairs [which is responsible for the police] fired many experienced professionals who were unwilling to put up with the existing corrupt system," Shamilov told me. "As a result, we have very few professional investigators left."
For several years now I've been hearing Dagestani human rights activists, journalists, defense lawyers, and residents complaining about threats to their lives and violations of their rights. Since the spring of 2012, police have detained a large number of Muslims on suspicion of supporting the insurgency (also known as "the forest," since that's where the guerillas tend to hide). Law enforcement officers often grab suspects on the street without a warrant and without informing families about the whereabouts of the detainee.
In case after case, officials deny lawyers access to their clients for days on end. Defense lawyers told me that authorities treated them as enemies for taking on the cases of conservative Muslims. "Two of our lawyers have been assassinated in the last year," the head of the firm, Costa Mudunov, told me. "Our friends and families fear for our lives." Mudunov points to a deep, permanent scar on the back of his head -- a memento from a bullet fired at him in a 2007 assassination attempt.
Justice and the rule of law are in short supply in the region these days, says pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov. "The North Caucasus presents in concentrated form all the problems that plague Russia," Markov told me. "Yes, innocent people sometimes experience violations of their rights, sometimes even leading to death. But there is no time to reform the courts. The main goal of our struggle is to destroy the enemy."