Dagestan: next Caucasian domino?

Is the Russian province of Dagestan going the way of neighboring Chechnya? This July 2 AFP account (online at Qatar’s The Peninsula) makes a disturbingly good case:

On Makhachkala’s streets a motorist can get away with speeding, running lights and driving half-ruined cars. In fact, there is only one iron rule, joke drivers: keep clear of police cars—they might explode. The capital of Dagestan, a province on the border of Chechnya dotted with tiny Muslim ethnic groups, has earned the nickname “explosion city” in some Russian media.

The bombing of special forces outside a public bath house on Friday, killing 10 soldiers and badly wounding 14 other people, put a bloody stamp on this reputation. According to official figures, 30 police officers have been killed this year and at least 40 injured in bombings and shootings around Dagestan, most of them in Makhachkala.

Just in the last week, another nine policemen have been wounded, a bomb derailed a train and another damaged a gas distribution depot. At the central Lenin Square, concrete barriers and police with Kalashnikovs keep cars away from government buildings. A patrol jeep cruises past, ordinary in all respects except for one detail: flak jackets draped over the side windows for basic protection.

The authorities, who blame Islamic extremists for the violence, say the situation is under control. “The streets are full of people. That shows they feel there is order, that they are being guarded,” Abdulmanap Musayev, spokesman for the local interior ministry, said.

Indeed, with its laid-back, southern feel and the Caspian Sea shimmering at the edge of the city, Makhachkala does not immediately look like a warzone. Residents are so used to bombs they pay almost no attention. “When my windows were blown out, my first thought was how to pay for the glass,” local journalist Laura Magomedova said.

But many here fear that Dagestan, with a population of about 2.5 million, is sliding toward chaos—and they blame the authorities as much as Islamic insurgents. One root of the violence is Chechnya, whose decade-old conflict is increasingly reverberating across other parts of the North Caucasus.

“Wanted” posters outside the interior ministry headquarters in Makhachkala feature Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who is said often to hide in Dagestan, as well as Rappani Khalilov, a Dagestani militant fighting in Chechnya.

But most of the attacks are committed by local Dagestanis with backing from foreign Islamic groups, police spokesman Musayev said. “Quite a few people abroad would like to destabilise Dagestan and through that the rest of the North Caucasus.”

Musayev said the “Wahabbis”—a catch-all phrase in Russia for Islamic fundamentalists— are difficult to fight and have no trouble recruiting among Dagestan�s impoverished people. “They are serious opponents,” he said. “The foreign agents are very deep undercover and well organised.”

Others say the fault lies with the corrupt, clannish government and a police force widely seen as answering only to the wealthy elite, a popular grudge reinforced by the sight of armed police guarding officials’ luxurious mansions in Makhachkala.

“Many ordinary people are not that upset about attacks on the police,” Isalmagomed Khabiyev, head of an independent union of small businesses, said. “Their reason is that police in Dagestan are not enforcing the law—they are serving certain clans.”

He believes that the authorities’ strategy of blaming Wahabbis for the seemingly endless bombings is designed to prevent the emergence of an Islamic-based opposition. “Strong religion here would threaten their monopoly, so dividing Muslims suits them.”

Unofficially, members of the security services admit being crippled by corruption and bribe-taking, something encouraged by monthly salaries of just 120 dollars for low-ranking policemen.

“It goes right through the interior ministry, from top to bottom,” a member of the OMON special forces said.

“For money, you can do anything,” another officer said.

The sense of growing anarchy, said Khassan-Hadji Gasanaliyev, an imam at one of the city’s many mosques, “is like a volcano.”

“The rich couldn�t care because they have all the power and wealth. The poor couldn’t care because they have lost trust in everything. That’s a terrible situation.”

The New York Times online reports today that a group called the Islamic Jamaat of Dagestan Shariat, or Shariah Jamaat, claimed responsibility for the July 1 blast, and vowed to conduct more attacks, saying “an invasion group” had been sent to Moscow to carry out sabotage operations under a code name it described as “stab pig’s heart.”

See our last post on the bloody politics of the Caucasus, and our last special report on Chechnya.