Republic of Daghestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov recently demanded that the police make cracking down on the insurgency their top priority; Interior Minister Major General Abdurashid Magomedov (the two men are not related, the president is a Dargin and the minister a Lak) for his part complained that midlevel police officers adduce the insurgency as an excuse for their failure to prevent and solve other kinds of crime.
What neither admitted is that the police in Daghestan, as elsewhere in Russia, themselves engage in criminal activities and function as a "krysha" -- protector -- for organized crime groups. In an interview last year with the website Caucasian Knot, Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow described Daghestan's Interior Ministry as not a part of the government called on to protect the state system, but an independent actor, a "fortress under siege" that seeks in the first instance to defend "its own corporate interests."
That the police have long been the militants' primary target is largely due to former Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, who construed the controversial 1999 legislation banning "wahhabism" (meaning Salafi Islam) as giving the police a free hand to kill anyone suspected of collaborating, or even sympathizing, with the insurgency.
Police have launched counterterror operations on the basis of false denunciations, using tanks and heavy artillery to kill devout but blameless believers, some of them women. They are also believed to be behind many of the cases in which men known to be practicing Muslims are abducted, tortured, and then summarily executed.
The perpetrators of those killings are rarely, if ever, apprehended and brought to trial. There is no incentive to do so; and even given the political will, identification would not be easy given the multiplicity of federal and republican police and security units engaged in counterterror operations in Daghestan.
Individual Daghestani officials have conceded that such indiscriminate violence has proven counterproductive. Rizvan Kurbanov, a former first deputy prime minister with responsibility for the law-enforcement agencies, admitted in November 2010 that "we know that in many cases what impelled people to head for the forest [to join the insurgency ranks] was their outrage at illegal actions by members of the law-enforcement agencies."
But other senior law enforcement officials adduce the difficulty of identifying the perpetrators of arbitrary reprisals to exonerate their subordinates of blame. Last November, for example, the Daghestan Prosecutor-General's Office released a statement saying its investigations have not brought to light any evidence that law-enforcement agencies were involved in any of the 29 abductions reported in Daghestan between January and October 2011. The statement stressed that the fact that the perpetrators in every case were armed, masked, and dressed in camouflage fatigues does not mean that they were police or security personnel.
Such disclaimers cut little ice with the population at large, who are increasingly at risk of being killed or injured. The website Kavkaz-uzel noted that civilian casualties in the ongoing fighting in Daghestan rose by almost 40 percent last year compared with 2010, to reach 74.
In late November, relatives of the "disappeared," together with the independent Muslim organization Ahl us-Sunnah (People of the Tradition [of the Prophet Muhammad]), staged a mass demonstration in Makhachkala to protest police brutality and abductions. Kurbanov, whom President Magomedov dispatched to reassure the protesters their grievances would be investigated, was met with jeers and whistles and shouts of "we don't believe you!"
President Magomedov on January 16 assessed the overall effectiveness of the police in 2011 as "unsatisfactory," despite what he termed a "huge amount of work done." He noted that the number of crimes rose by more than 8 percent but did not cite specific figures. He further stressed that "the fight against terrorism and extremism" should be a priority for every government agency.
Abdurashid Magomedov conceded that his ministry's performance in 2011 fell short in some respects, including in fighting corruption. At the same time, he took issue with the president, arguing that the fight against terrorism should not take precedence over "our primary function of combating crime." One year earlier, in December 2010, he had argued the opposite, telling subordinates in his New Year address that "the primary focus remains the struggle with extremism and terrorism."
President Magomedov's criticism of the Interior Ministry calls into question the effectiveness of the blanket reassessment over the past year of the republic's 16,000-plus police force. Some of the 200 officers dismissed as a result told journalists the process was unfair. One officer who had worked in the police for 35 years attributed his dismissal to a corruption investigation he undertook in 2006-2007 and for which he was formally reprimanded.
Dismantling the ties between the Daghestani police, organized crime groups and government officials may be utopian; drafting and enforcing strict guidelines for the conduct of "special" and "counterterror" operations that would minimize the likelihood of innocent civilians -- including the two men shot dead in Makhachkala on January 20 -- being arbitrarily killed is not.
As Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko, former head of the Public Council's working group for the North Caucasus recently argued, the process of "adaptation," under which former militants lay down their arms to become law-abiding members of society, should cut both ways, with the "force" agencies, too, pledging to abandon illegal methods.