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Dagestan: No Place for a Picnic


It all started with a picnic in the countryside held in honor of the visiting Geidar Dzhemal, head of the Islamic Committee of Russia and author of the controversial book Osvobozhdeniye Islama, or the Liberation of Islam. Dzhemal had traveled to Dagestan to talk about his book and to meet with regional Muslim leaders. He had met the day before with Akhmad-Khadzhi Abdulayev, the mufti of Dagestan, and was now looking forward to speaking informally with the local intelligentsia.

The conversation promised to be interesting. Some 15 people had gathered at the seaside, including journalists, government officials and political scientists. A number of academics were also present, such as Khanzhan Kurbanov of the Center for Strategic Studies and Political Technologies and Ruslan Kurbanov of the Regional Center for Ethnic and Political Studies and the Dagestani Scientific Center, which is affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The picnic was not a success, however. It was interrupted by a gang of armed men who fired into the air and shouted threats at the participants. The gunmen forced everyone to lie in the sand, took their documents and mobile phones, and began to handcuff them. The gunmen weren’t local thugs, though; they were law enforcement officers.

The detainees were taken to the Dagestani Anti-Terrorist Center, but before long all of them were released with the exception of businessman Abbas Kebedov. Official apologies were made to the “honored guest,” Geidar Dzhemal, who was told that he had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dzhemal was even provided an escort for the drive to his hotel in Khasavyurt. His mobile phone was ostensibly lost in the shuffle. Apparently, someone wanted to have a look at the names and numbers in his address book.

Kebedov’s rented apartment was searched, and three grenades were found. As usual, the police neglected to bring in witnesses as required by law, until after the grenades had already been discovered. And Kebedov wasn’t present during the search. Technicalities like these may mean something in Moscow, but they don’t count for much in the North Caucasus.

When he returned to Moscow, Dzhemal held a news conference. Maybe the cops had intended to frighten him and the others, he suggested. But why did they detain Kebedov? And why did they have to do so during the picnic, when they could have picked him up any day of the week without violating the law? Kebedov lived openly and spent much of his time at home. Or was he held because his brother, Bagautdin, was a well-known Wahhabi? The fact that Abbas Kebedov has no contact with his brother obviously didn’t count for much.

Dzhemal’s news conference was widely covered by the media, but public attention was focused on the far more entertaining news about Mikhail Kasyanov’s dacha. The former prime minister’s real estate holdings and Kremlin intrigues hold far more interest for us than the fate of the latest person to disappear without a trace in the North Caucasus.

Let’s be serious. If Dagestan explodes Chechnya may seem like a nice joke. Dagestan is a much bigger place inhabited by many ethnic groups usually not very friendly to each other. It was Dagestan not Chechnya where Russian troops faced most difficulties and suffered worst casualties during the Caucasus War in the nineteenth century. It was in Dagestan where the Second Chechen war started. By then Dagestan inhabitants backed Russian troops and defeated Chechen invaders. But now the problem isn’t with Chechens. Local authorities are increasingly hated by everyone. So far Dagestan seems under control, but each time it is less stable.

The authorities couldn’t ignore the alarming news coming out of Dagestan. The incident involving Dzhemal was just a minor episode in an endless series of violent confrontations. Regional leaders admit that law enforcement can’t cope with the terrorist threat, and human rights activists claim that the regional security services and law enforcement are harboring murderers and rapists in their ranks. The Dagestani opposition is certain that the authorities are to blame for most of the political murders in the republic. A report now circulating, and attributed to Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, paints an equally gloomy picture.

President Vladimir Putin was finally forced to tackle the region’s problems himself. His recent trip to Dagestan was far more successful than Dzhemal’s. During his visit, he inspected a border post, examined the footwear worn by military alpine units, munched on a cracker from soldiers’ rations, promised to beef up border security and reiterated his strong support for Dagestani leader Magomedali Magomedov, who is widely considered to be behind all the trouble in the region.

After Putin and his enormous entourage had left the mountainous republic, life returned to normal: shootouts, murders and abductions.

The status quo in Dagestan suits the Kremlin. The more unpopular and ineffective the regional authorities become, and the more the public doubts their integrity, the more these leaders depend on the Kremlin for their survival. And loyalty is the main quality the Kremlin looks for in any administrator.

The price for this loyalty may be another war.

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