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Daghestan's Silovik With A Human Face

In most of Russia's 83 federation subjects, the second most powerful man is the prime minister or the parliament speaker. Not so in Daghestan, where Rizvan Kurbanov, 50, the first deputy premier with responsibility for police and security, is positioning himself as the eminence grise behind, and a possible successor to, republic head Magomedsalam Magomedov.
Short and stocky, with a mop of grey hair, Kurbanov trained as a lawyer. On graduation from Daghestan State University he entered the republican prosecutor's office in 1986 and worked his way up to the post of chief prosecutor for ecological issues. But in 2003, he fell foul of then republican President Magomedali Magomedov (Magomedsalam's father), and was transferred to Moscow to work in the Justice Ministry's directorate for the Central Federal District. There he established a network of contacts that ranges from businessmen (he is reportedly on friendly terms with Daghestani billionaire oligarch Suleiman Kerimov) to prominent politicians and religious figures.
Kurbanov was named first deputy prime minister in March 2010 after Magomedsalam Magomedov took over as Republic of Daghestan president. He first caught the public eye in April 2010, when he personally commanded a secret raid to crack down on illegal gambling in Makhachkala.
Kurbanov makes no secret of his admiration for, and close ties with, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. But while Kadyrov continues to rely on brute force and threats to quash the Islamic insurgency in Chechnya, Kurbanov has become the public face of Magomedov's much-publicized efforts to persuade young fighters to lay down their arms and reunite them with their families.
In his inauguration speech, and at intervals since then, Magomedov has repeatedly appealed to insurgents to lay down their arms and return to a peaceful civilian life, promising "lenient" treatment at the hands of the judiciary for those who do not have blood on their hands as a result of "terrorist" acts. Last fall, Magomedov established a government commission, chaired by Kurbanov, to help those young men who avail themselves of the offer of clemency to adapt to their new lives. To date, more than 40 of them have responded positively to that offer, and none of them or their parents has complained of the way they were treated, according to Kurbanov.

At its session two weeks ago, the commission heard a plea for clemency by three young men jailed for setting fire to stores in Makhachkala that sold alcohol, and decided to petition for their early release. The three showed up for the session wearing neatly- ironed clean shirts, and they weren't handcuffed.

Kurbanov is adept at stage-managing his various activities in such a way as to receive positive, even admiring media coverage. He ranks fifth in terms of mentions (most of them favorable) in the independent weekly "Chernovik" for the period from March 1, 2010 to the present day. The commission's regular sessions are extensively covered in the Daghestani press, even though local journalists, including RFE/RL stringers, are barred from attending.

As commission chairman, Kurbanov has met with the hapless parents of recalcitrant fighters, expressed sympathy for their predicament, and promised them assistance in trying to persuade their sons to quit the insurgency. By contrast, Kadyrov has no compunction about ordering the torching of militants' parents' homes and threatening to hold the parents themselves legally responsible for not bringing up their sons "properly."
When senior officials from Ingushetia (where republic head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has similarly repeatedly appealed to young fighters to surrender) visited Makhachkala last month to compare notes with Kurbanov on the success of their respective efforts, he took them to meet four young would-be jihadists from Kazakhstan apprehended in Makhachkala in February. Kurbanov reportedly quoted the Koran to the young detainees and prayed with them. But when he offered them his mobile phone so they could call home, a penitentiary official protested that was not allowed, whereupon Kurbanov called the man's superior in Moscow and got him to override that ban.

In July, two months after launching his personal blog, Kurbanov invited a group of bloggers to his office one evening for a discussion that ended only after midnight, and during which republic head Magomedov and Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov (a Lak, like Kurbanov, and so no relation to Magomedsalam, who is a Dargin) dropped by to say "hello."

At a joint meeting on August 23 of Daghestan's Security Council and Anti-Terrorism Commission, Kurbanov argued persuasively in favor of making better use of the internet and social networks to prevent the younger generation from falling victim (as the young Kazakhs confessed they had done) to the blandishments of jihadist websites.
But on at least one occasion, he has used social-networking in a way that hints as a possible KGB background: his first-ever blog post was a Stalinist-style appeal to apartment owners to snitch on potential tenants whose behavior they consider suspect.
If one factors out the rumored price of the post of republic head, Kurbanov is arguably no less qualified than Magomedov: he is as intelligent, if not more so, more decisive, and not afraid of getting his hands dirty. Plus, he enjoys the support of Kerimov, Kadyrov, and, almost certainly, of the Kremlin. Kurbanov's identification in the public eye with the success (or lack of success) of efforts to deprive the insurgency of manpower makes him vulnerable in several respects, however.
The insurgents, who responded in late November to Magomedov's appeals to lay down their arms with an ultimatum of their own to "quit fighting Islam or we'll kill you," may target Kurbanov as they killed Interior Minister Adilgirey Magomedtagirov in June 2009. He could equally be killed by the hard-line faction in Makhachkala that categorically rejects the very idea of talks with, let alone clemency for, repentant fighters. One prominent member of that faction, Magomedov's press secretary Garun Kurbanov (no relation to Rizvan), was gunned down on the street a month ago.
Alternatively, that hard-line faction might seek to discredit both Kurbanov in his role as coordinator of Daghestan's security forces and the very idea of rehabilitating former militants by staging a botched assassination attempt on Magomedov for which the insurgency would be blamed.
Finally, Kurbanov might be tempted to go too far in protecting his fellow Lak Abdurashid Magomedov if the Interior Ministry was found to have engaged in extra-judicial reprisals, especially against innocent law-abiding civilians. When human rights activists accused the police of gratuitous brutality during a special operation against two suspected militants in Makhachkala last week, Kurbanov immediately denied any wrongdoing on the part of the interior Ministry. He characterized Magomedov as "a true professional," adding "this is not his handwriting or his methods."

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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