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Will Moscow Throw Away A Unique Opportunity In Daghestan?

Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov -- a symbol of Moscow's counterproductive security approach in the region.
Daghestan's Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov -- a symbol of Moscow's counterproductive security approach in the region.
For years, political observers and NGOs both in Russia and abroad have argued that the indiscriminate violence with which Daghestan's18,000-strong police force targets suspected Islamic militants has only served to drive increasing numbers of young men to join the resistance ranks.

The name of Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, who was named Daghestan's interior minister in 1998, has become synonymous with that arbitrary and heavy-handed approach to stamping out "religious extremism." Indeed, one could argue that Magomedtagirov did more than any other single individual to fuel that phenomenon.

Magomedtagirov was himself shot and fatally injured in Makhachkala on June 5. His death creates an opportunity for the Russian authorities to appoint a successor who will take a more nuanced approach to combating Islamic terrorism while conducting a purge of Daghestan's corrupt and inefficient Interior Ministry staff.

Both the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Russian human rights movement Memorial have expressed concern over the routine abduction of, and physical abuse meted out to, devout but peaceful young Muslims in Daghestan in the name of combating religious extremism. In a detailed report released in June 2008 entitled "Russia's Dagestan: Conflict Causes," the ICG concluded that a combination of factors, including clan-based corruption at a level that surpasses that in many other federation subjects, unemployment, and above all police brutality "feed the grievances" of young Daghestanis and "drive them into radical Islamic movements."

Memorial for its part has chronicled numerous instances of the arrest and torture of peaceful and law-abiding young believers, and of "gross violations of the law" in the course of "counterterror operations" against suspected militants. Specifically, Memorial claims that on some occasions, in an excess of zeal, Interior Ministry forces have ruthlessly killed people who are posthumously shown to have had no connection whatsoever with the Islamic resistance. Those operations often involve the use of artillery against residential buildings.

In a July 5 interview with the website, political commentator Gadjimurad Kamalov, who is the founder of the embattled independent Russian-language weekly "Chernovik," contrasted the arbitrary and brutal approach of the Interior Ministry with what he described as the targeted and effective counterterrorism operations conducted by the Daghestan directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) since the appointment in September 2007 of a Russian, Vyacheslav Shanshin, as its head.

Even Daghestan's president, Mukhu Aliyev, lambasted the Interior Ministry just 10 days after Magomedtagirov's demise. Alluding to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's comments at a June 9 Security Council session to the effect that the poor performance of the Interior Ministry in several North Caucasus republics has undermined popular trust in those republic's leaders, Aliyev singled out the ineffectual work of Daghestan's police as the most important of three factors that, he claimed, hamper the fight against "religious extremism." The other two were corruption and "clans," meaning primarily ethnic- or family-based economic interest groups.

Addressing local police-department heads on June 15, Aliyev asked rhetorically: "How many people work in the police who are not worthy of doing so? Many of them discharge their duties inadequately and some of them discredit the entire police force."

That criticism raises the question why, if Aliyev was so dissatisfied with Magomedtagirov, he did not alert Moscow to the damage he believed Magomedtagirov was inflicting and ask Moscow to replace him. According to Kamalov, Aliyev did in fact twice ask Moscow to name a new interior minister, but Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev rejected those requests.

Visiting Makhachkala on June 25 to present his condolences to Magomedtagirov's family, Nurgaliyev said that a successor would be named by the end of the month. No such announcement has been forthcoming, however, which suggests serious disagreements between Makhachkala and Moscow, and/or between government agencies in Moscow, over the most appropriate candidate.

Speaking to the news agency Regnum just hours after Magomedtagirov's death, Kamalov argued that on no account should a successor be chosen from among Magomedtagirov's subordinates. Kamalov argued that "the level of corruption within all subdivisions of the republican Ministry of Internal Affairs is too great.... At the same time, there is no point in naming a minister from outside Daghestan who has no previous connections with the republic. The best solution would be to choose a candidate from among Daghestanis serving in the power agencies in other federation subjects. There are experienced managers who come from Daghestan. Such a person, who is familiar with the situation on the ground, could normalize the situation within the ministry in three or four months."

But the professional qualifications and political reliability of Magomedtagirov's successor may not be the only, or the most important factor under consideration. The most qualified (on paper) Daghestani candidate may well belong to the "wrong" ethnic group. Magomedtagirov was an Avar, as is Aliyev, but he was named interior minister under Aliyev's predecessor Magomedali Magomedov, who was a Dargin. Moscow may be chary of risking a repeat of the political crisis that followed the appointment in February of a Slav to the post of Daghestan's top tax official -- a position traditionally held by a Lezghin.

Chechen 'Cooperation'

A further factor of possible relevance is the ongoing joint operation to locate and destroy militants on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. Announcing that joint operation on May 17, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov proposed that Daghestan's police and security forces should coordinate their activities with those of the other two republics.

Daghestan's leaders initially ignored that call for three-way cooperation. Then on May 20, Interior Ministry spokesman Colonel Mark Tolchinsky told that his ministry knew nothing about it. He said his ministry "can fight terrorists and extremists without Kadyrov's help," and implied that its methods are more selective and persuasive and less brutal than those of his Chechen colleagues.

On June 10, five days after Magomedtagirov 's assassination, Kadyrov repeated his plea for greater regional cooperation. He argued that "it will be easier for us to wipe out the enemy through joint efforts," and that "only together can we put an end to this evil."

Finally, in a long interview with Interfax dated July 8, Kadyrov claimed that he reached an agreement with Magomedtagirov on such cooperation shortly before the latter was killed. Kadyrov characterized the situation in Daghestan as more unstable than anywhere else in the North Caucasus, and advised President Aliyev to "take things into his own hands and start imposing order."

Kadyrov further claimed that Russian Interior Minister Nurgaliyev had given the green light for cooperation between the interior ministries of all North Caucasus republics, but that "there is still no progress on an reaching such an agreement" with Daghestan.

Daghestani experts reacted negatively to Kadyrov's repeated offers of "help." Journalists Khabib Magomedov told Regnum on July 9 that the participation of Chechen police in operations in Daghestan would only make things worse. Even if there were a slight improvement in the overall security situation, Magomed argued, it would be more than offset by the negative political reactions. Moscow-based human rights activist Abdurashid Saidov similarly argued that Chechen involvement could cause the situation to deteriorate irrevocably.

Kamalov for his part challenged Kadyrov's claim to have reached an agreement with Magomedtagirov on cooperation between their respective forces. Kamalov said he met twice with Magomedtagirov in the month before his death, and that Magomedtagirov adamantly opposed the deployment to Daghestan of either police or Interior Ministry troops from neighboring republics.

Whether or not senior officials in Daghestan -- specifically President Aliyev and Shanshin -- share those reservations is impossible to say. Nor have there been any indications that Moscow is seriously considering empowering Kadyrov to coordinate police operations with Daghestan's Interior Ministry, which would necessitate selecting a candidate to head Daghestan's Interior Ministry who would be willing in effect to cede his personal authority from the day of his appointment.

True, Moscow can delay a decision on Magomedtagirov's successor for several more weeks, but not indefinitely. By contrast, Aliyev, whose presidential term expires in February 2010, needs a highly qualified candidate who would duplicate Shanshin's differentiated approach to be named as soon as possible.

In his July 5 interview with, Kamalov warned that the wrong choice -- meaning a Magomedtagirov clone -- would not only nix Aliyev's chances of being reappointed for a second presidential term; it could also lead within six to 12 months to an upsurge of terrorist activity that could prove impossible to contain.

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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