Democracy Lab

Dagestan's Desperate Search for Peace

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."

Anna Nemtsova

Democracy Lab

Obama Is No Longer a Friend

Why Russia's dissidents have soured on the U.S. president.

On the morning of Sept. 4, Russian activists welcomed the G-20 Summit with a protest action that nearly blocked St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospect highway. Scores of protestors linked with the artistic collective Voina ("War") marched out of the Museum of Authority, a private gallery that has since been officially closed by the authorities, and unrolled long, colorful paintings of G-20 leaders. Police were quick to arrest two Voina members, Igor Chepkasov and Marina Kuznetsova, and along the way seized a number of paintings, including one featuring two naked, alpha-male figures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama comparing their, shall we say, male attributes.

Earlier that morning, hours before his arrest, Chepkasov, a bald man in black-framed glasses, introduced portraits of the G-20 participants to visitors at the gallery. All of the personalities in the pictures were designated by the word "ass." Chepkasov told me that he shared President Putin's fervent distaste for the "bloodthirsty" and "cynical" President Obama and his declared intention to bomb Syrian cities. For Chepkasov, there is no ideal leader or a particular side worth supporting today. "Obama changes his views on political repression in Russia like a windmill," the Voina activist told me.  "The only true slogan for us now is 'freedom or death.'"

As we spoke, the atmosphere outside heated up, and one of the visitors half-whispered, "Police cars just pulled in, and now they're blocking the exit!" Visitors looked distressed, as another young painter with long, black Gothic hair presented a portrait of Putin painted in excrement. "Dark times in Russia and in Syria," he commented. Minutes later, the opposition artists walked outside the gallery, which was now surrounded by police vehicles, and started toward the middle of the street. They almost managed to unroll their anti-Summit painting before a few policemen quickly tore it out of their hands.

As the protest continued, about 10 protestors came out to the streets with signs declaring "Obama -- Terrorist #1!" I couldn't help recalling the "F*** off Bush!" billboards I saw in Kiev in April, 2008, surrounding the U.S. president's motorcade.

"For me all the recent moves by President Obama seem shocking, as if he has decided to commit political suicide, just as Bush discredited himself in the past," Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin expert, said.

Russian oppositionists are torn between their own competing instincts. The dissidents once celebrated the Magnitsky Act, which banned the Russian officials responsible for the death of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky from entering the United States, and many of them cheered Obama's decision not to meet with Putin in Moscow this month. Some were looking forward to his visit in St. Petersburg as a chance to vocalize their support for him, the world's biggest promoter of the ideas of freedom and competition. But lately they've been finding themselve at odds with the man in the White House. Obama, for example, has made it clear that he considers National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to be a criminal -- in stark contrast to many Russian activists, who think of him as a dissident. For some this was already enough to make them question the extent to which their views overlapped with the president's. But then Obama announced his decision to bomb Syria without waiting for United Nations approval. That was a turning point. Earlier this week, a Radio Echo of Moscow telephone survey showed that 63.3 percent of the radio's listeners wanted to strip Obama of his Nobel Peace Prize.

On Sept. 6, several Russian civil activists managed to meet with the U.S. president in St. Petersburg.  Former Soviet dissident and prominent human rights defender Boris Pustyntsev planned to ask Obama to publicly clarify that the U.S. version of the Foreign Agents Registration Act concerns only commercial organizations and lobbyists, unlike Russia's counterpart of the law, which also applies to non-commercial organizations. (Putin has cited the U.S. law to justify his own crackdown on Russian non-profit civil society groups, which sometimes receive funding from foreign sources; by highlighting the differences between the two laws, Pustyntsev aimed to undercut Putin's effor to legitimize his actions by referring to the U.S. precedent.) At the same time, though, Pustyntsev rejects Obama's politics in the Middle East.

"The consequence of military involvement in Syria will be dreadful," Pustyntsev told me. "I would urge President Obama to wait for the results of the UN investigation and real proof that Asad had used chemical weapons."

Given these recent events, most Russian opposition leaders have given up hoping that Obama will be able to change much inside Russia. Opposition activist Boris Nemtsov met with Obama in Moscow back in 2009, but this time around he didn't see any point to a meeting with the U.S. president.

"Obama is a Hollywood actor, a weak man with no balls," Nemtsov said, cutting to the point. "Nobody should ever expect him to help Russians seeking civil freedom."

Later on Sept. 4, I spoke to people at a bus station on Nevsky Prospect, the site of that morning's artistic protest. Several women stood there, astonishment on their faces, as long streams of police vehicle and official motorcades carrying summit officials passed by. Two middle-aged ladies admitted to me that they were worried about the tensions caused by the "personal conflict" between Putin and Obama. One of them, a heavyset woman in a pearl necklace, offered her view: "Once again, I'm afraid of nuclear war," she told me. Such worries may be exaggerated, but they say a lot about the changing Russian views of Obama and his country.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images