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Daghestan Deterioration Epitomizes Medvedev's North Caucasus Dilemma

Is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) having second thought about appointing Magomedsalam Magomedov president of Daghestan?
Is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) having second thought about appointing Magomedsalam Magomedov president of Daghestan?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week vented his exasperation with the two men he appointed at the beginning of this year to key positions in the North Caucasus for their failure to stabilize Daghestan, where attacks by Islamic militants now take place almost on a daily basis.

Whether either North Caucasus Federal District head Aleksandr Khloponin or Daghestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov is capable of bringing about the swift improvement in the situation that Medvedev wants is more than questionable, however. Indeed, one expert recently suggested that "we have already lost the ideological battle with the Islamists," implying that the republic is headed inexorably toward implosion.

Daghestan is the largest of the North Caucasus republics, with a population of some 2.6 million-3 million. It is also one of the most economically backward and most dependent on subsidies from the federal budget, and has a high level of unemployment exacerbated by the entry to the labor market every year of some 25,000 high-school graduates.

As elsewhere in the North Caucasus, politics and the most lucrative sectors of the economy are the exclusive preserve of rival interest groups, some, but not all of them formed on the basis of ethnicity. Daghestan has 14 titular ethnic groups, the largest of which, the Avars, accounts for approximately 30 percent of the total population.

Endemic corruption, social and economic inequality, and indiscriminate police reprisals against anyone suspected of belong to the allegedly radical Salafi strain of Islam combine to alienate large swathes of the population, many of whom opt in desperation to join the ranks of the Islamic insurgency. By no means all such recruits are young: in a recent group picture from Daghestan posted on insurgency websites, two of the 10 militants are, to judge by their grey beards, in their 50s or even 60s. The youngest appears to be about 17.

Daghestan's Prosecutor-General Andrei Nazarov said late last month that 158 people had been killed and 186 wounded in "terrorist attacks" since the beginning of the year. Most of those attacks have targeted police and security personnel, with the result that police officers are reportedly resigning in record numbers.

Meanwhile, the website of the Daghestan branch of the insurgency,, claims to receive between 20,000-30,000 visitors per day.

Bringing In Investment

This was the set of problems that figured on the agenda of Medvedev's August 11 meeting at his Sochi residence with Khloponin, Magomedov, key members of Medvedev's administration, and Suleiman Kerimov, a Moscow-based billionaire who represents his native Daghestan in the Russian State Duma.

Medvedev's choice in January of Khloponin, a former governor of Siberia's Krasnoyarsk Krai, to head the new North Caucasus Federal District was widely interpreted an attempt to find an alternative workable model for the North Caucasus. Many observers believe that the Kremlin is aware that former President Vladimir Putin's delegation to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov of virtually unlimited power in return for professions of loyalty and a ruthless but ultimately unsuccessful crackdown on the Islamic insurgency has proven counterproductive insofar as it has enabled Kadyrov to accumulate more power and influence than any other federation subject head.

In contrast to Putin's policy of intimidation by brute force coupled with virtually unlimited subsidies from the federal budget and minimal accountability for how those funds are spent, Khloponin's ambitious blueprint for stabilizing and transforming the North Caucasus is predicated on the assumption that a steady economic upswing can stabilize the situation. Therefore, Khloponin has given priority to encouraging private investment to create badly needed jobs and expedite economic growth. That approach has an added advantage: it minimizes the risk that federal subsidies will be systematically embezzled by corrupt local leaders.

As summarized in early July by "Vedomosti," Khloponin's plan focuses primarily on developing the region's tourism potential and on expanding capacity for processing local resources and agricultural produce by providing loans for small and medium-sized businesses.

Federal resources will be provided primarily for upgrading infrastructure, especially highways, with one major exception: construction, as yet another concession to Kadyrov, of an oil refinery in Chechnya with an annual capacity of 1 million tons. The estimated cost of that project is between 15 billion-16 billion rubles ($491.3 million-$524 million). That move can only compound the simmering resentment of the leaders of the other North Caucasus republics at the Kremlin's preferential treatment of Kadyrov.

Security Still The Priority

Attracting private investment for the North Caucasus in general, and Daghestan in particular is, however, as several Russian commentators have pointed out, contingent primarily on containing and then neutralizing the Islamic insurgency. But Khloponin appears to consider that threat exaggerated: interviewed by the weekly "Profil" in mid-July, he dismissed the insurgency as "bandits" and "criminals" and argued that twice as many people die each year of vodka and fires in Siberia as do from terrorist attacks in the Caucasus.

Potential investors are less gung-ho: challenged by Medvedev during the Sochi meeting, Khloponin was forced to admit that he had not yet secured investment for a single proposed project in Daghestan.

Magomedov for his part told Medvedev that the recent upsurge in militant activity in Daghestan was the primary deterrent to investment. He went on to solicit the green light for the creation of volunteer detachments totaling in all some 800 men, to be deployed in the mountain regions of the republic to combat the insurgency. Daghestan First Deputy Prime Minister Rizvan Kurbanov, who is responsible for police and security issues, told journalists on August 12 that Medvedev agreed to that proposal.

Apparently in response to Magomedov's complaints about the ineffectiveness of the republic's police, Medvedev dismissed Major General Ali Magomedov (no relation to Magomedsalam), whom he had named Daghestan's interior minister one year earlier , and named Deputy Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov (no relation to either Ali or Magomedsalam) to replace him.

Abdurashid Magomedov, like Kurbanov, is a Lak. Now 52, he joined the Interior Ministry in 1986 and worked his way up through the ranks. According to media expert Khadjimurad Kamalov, he is more decisive than his predecessor, and more intellectual than Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, who was shot dead by a sniper in Makhachkala in June 2009. In addition, according to Kamalov, Abdurashid Magomedov lives "more modestly than a church mouse," in contrast to most other senior government officials. Kamalov predicted that in addition to targeting the insurgency, Abdurashid Magomedov would crack down on corruption within the police force and on drug dealing, prostitution, and illegal gaming salons. Illegal casinos are one of Kurbanov's pet aversions.

Losing Hope?

More effective police action alone, however, is not the answer. Nor is Moscow prepared to take sole responsibility for turning the situation in Daghestan around, as Medvedev made clear when he told Magomedov peremptorily "You're president, it's up to you to continue what you've started."

That retort suggests that Medvedev may be having second thoughts about his choice of Magomedov, a former Daghestan parliament speaker who owes his job primarily to his father Magomedali, who headed the republic from 1994 to 2006.

The litany of complaints aired in Sochi last week substantiate the widely held perception that the Kremlin has no comprehensive strategy for tackling the problems that plague the North Caucasus as a whole, or the individual republics. Other analysts argued at the time of Khloponin's appointment six months ago that even if such a plan existed, the firmly entrenched regional elites would fight tooth and nail to thwart its implementation.

Medvedev may, in the final analysis, decide he has no choice than to revert to Putin's policy of brute force in a desperate bid to stabilize the region prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

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.


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