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Daghestan Faces Multiple Threats, But Not Civil War

Daghestan's President Magomedsalam Magomedov speaks to the media at a blast site in a military camp outside the town of Buynaksk on September 5.

Daghestan's President Magomedsalam Magomedov speaks to the media at a blast site in a military camp outside the town of Buynaksk on September 5.

No Russian Federation subject is currently riven by a greater number of political, economic, and religious conflicts than Daghestan. Yet there is no consensus as to which of those conflicts poses the most immediate and serious threat to the cohesion of that multiethnic and economically polarized society, let alone how to combat them either individually or collectively.

The most tangible, and most publicized threat is the Islamic insurgency. In his inaugural speech in February, and again after a suicide bomb attack in March, Daghestan's President Magomedsalam Magomedov offered dialogue with any fighters ready to lay down their arms. He has since publicly condemned as counterproductive the recourse by police to illegal methods in combating the insurgency. Yet the insurgents have intensified their military and ideological activities in Daghestan since the start of the year despite incurring serious losses.

Magomedov last month proposed convening a congress of representatives of the republic's various ethnic groups (Daghestan has 14 officially recognized titular nationalities plus numerous smaller ones) to mobilize society to fight religious extremism. Yet several commentators have questioned the point of such a gathering, citing other problems that in their view are equally serious, such as corruption and social and economic inequality. Those factors, together with indiscriminate police brutality against young believers, contribute to the steady stream of young men (and women) who "head for the forest" to join the insurgency.

Pointing to the "huge divide between the authorities and society at large," the authorities' apparent total indifference to peoples' grievances, and the fact that much of the population no longer has any trust in the republican government, although they continue to pin their hopes on Moscow, Ruslan Kurbanov, who heads the Federal Public Chamber's sub-group for the Caucasus, recently suggested that Daghestan is on the brink of civil war.

That metaphor is inappropriate, however, insofar as it implies two more or less clearly defined conflicting sides. In Daghestan, however, most of the population supports neither the insurgency nor the authorities, but simply struggles to survive. The situation, as Russian expert Sergei Markedonov pointed out in a recent editorial in "The Washington Post," is thus "murkier and more complicated."

Factions Warring Over Power

Daghestan has a multiplicity of rival political interest groups. Russian commentator Konstantin Kazyonin last year identified four distinct factions within the Daghestan parliament, each aligned with a specific political figure, and which do not correspond to the four parliamentary party factions.

Akhmed Azimov, chairman of the executive committee of the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus, estimates the number of "large" clan groups at five or six; he notes that they originated in the early 1990s on a purely ethnic basis, but have since transcended the boundary of a single ethnic group. Members of those clans tend to maintain large numbers of bodyguards who collectively constitute what are in effect private armies.

Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, one of Russia's most senior Muslim clerics, highlighted the pernicious influence of interclan rivalry in a statement issued last week on the eve of the October 11 municipal elections. Gainutdin openly condemned what he termed "the fierce and bloody political struggle" for senior government posts.

Such struggles on occasion pit one ethnic group against another, insofar as certain positions are traditionally if informally "reserved" for a specific nationality. Following the nomination as president of Magomedov (a Dargin), the Kumyks, Daghestan's third-largest ethnic group, took to the streets to protest the prospect of ceding the post of prime minister to the Avars, the republic's largest nationality; a Kumyk was subsequently named parliament speaker to compensate.

There are also rival economic interest groups, some, but not all, controlled by one or another of the republic's 14 titular nationalities. And finally, again according to Kazyonin, there are latent struggles for power and influence both within the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan (DUMD), and between clerics subordinate to it and those Salafis who are not. One of the most influential Sufi sheikhs on the DUMD, Sayid-Effendi, has thousands of "murids" (disciples), including many members of the police and security organs. Sayid-Effendi has described the DUMD and the police as "two wheels of the same cart"

Competition for political influence and financial gain is, however, restricted to a relatively small segment of the population. Social inequality, poverty, corruption and the resentment it breeds, and unemployment (currently in excess of 18 percent of the able-bodied population) are far more widespread. Yet both the federal and the republican leadership appear to expect the other to take the initiative in tackling those problems.

Aleksandr Khloponin, named in January by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to head the North Caucasus Federal District, has recently unveiled his blueprint for the socioeconomic development of the region over the next 15 years. That plan is, however, contingent largely on securing private investment, which the Russian government would underwrite, and the perceived threat posed by the North Caucasus insurgency has deterred investors from even expressing an interest in any of the high-profile projects for which Daghestan's leaders are trying to secure funding.

Visiting Daghestan in late September, Khloponin unceremoniously ordered Magomedov to stop complaining about the pernicious effects of "terrorism" and set about tackling those problems that do not require action from Moscow -- such as mobilizing the unemployed to keep the streets clean.

Ultimately, Daghestan today increasingly resembles a patient suffering simultaneously from several serious diseases, yet whose doctors continue to bicker about how to treat the symptoms, rather than address the underlying cause. As the patient's condition deteriorates, which illness will finally prove fatal is fast becoming irrelevant.

-- Liz Fuller and Murtuz Dugrichilov

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.