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A New Power Struggle In Daghestan?

Khadzhimurad Kamalov during an antipolice protest in Makhachkala
Khadzhimurad Kamalov during an antipolice protest in Makhachkala
Khadzhimurad Kamalov was gunned down late on December 15 outside the editorial office of the independent weekly newspaper "Chernovik" that he founded eight years ago.

Most Daghestani politicians and fellow journalists have linked Kamalov's killing to his journalistic and political engagement. "Chernovik," and Kamalov personally, have a reputation for fearless and trenchant reporting and analysis of the corruption and human rights violations for which Daghestan has become a byword.

Tatiana Lokshina of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch commented to Reuters that in light of the wave of killings of journalists and human rights activists in the North Caucasus in recent years, Kamalov's death "could almost have been expected."

But the timing of his death suggests he may have been a victim of a broader domestic political struggle in a region where over the past two decades murder has become an integral component of interfactional politics.

Kamalov, 46, was an Avar. He was born in the village of Sogratl, which some observers regard as a hotbed of Avar nationalism. The Avars are the largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups, followed by the Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, and Laks.

When Kamalov founded "Chernovik" in the summer of 2003, Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin, had been de facto republic head for over a decade, and the Avars were already hoping that one of their number would be named to succeed him. It is logical to assume that the paper was, and still is, financed by one or more wealthy Avars.

An Avar, Mukhu Aliyev, was duly named to succeed Magomedov as president, and Kamalov served for a time as his press secretary. But Aliyev served only one presidential term before being shunted aside last year in favor of Magomedali Magomedov's son, Magomedsalam.

It is a measure of Kamalov's intelligence and influence that Magomedsalam Magomedov named him a member of his Economic Council. In a televised tribute, Magomedov recalled that in that capacity, Kamalov "regularly proposed interesting ideas," and that "he cooperated actively with us and we frequently talked for hours." He also lauded Kamalov's role in promoting freedom of speech and dialogue between opposing factions.

Not Insurgent Target

Ethnic rivalries are thus unlikely to have played any role in Kamalov's death. It is equally unlikely the insurgency were responsible. The shooting was committed by a single masked gunman who fired 14 shots, only six of which hit the victim, including the final one in the head -- the hallmark of a contract killing.

The insurgency generally prefers to use snipers in urban conditions, the most high-profile such killing being that of then-Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov in June 2009. Even when insurgents kill at close range, they are so accomplished that they do not need to resort to the coup de grace to make assurance double sure.

Ruslan Kurbanov of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Oriental Institute suggested Kamalov may have been targeted by one of the new generation of particularly vicious organized-crime groups that surfaced in Daghestan in the mid-2000s. But most experts are convinced he was killed because of his, and the paper's, track record in chronicling corruption, the rigging of elections, and the extrajudicial killings perpetrated by Daghestan's law enforcement agencies in the name of combating the Islamic insurgency.

No Friend Of The Police

Kamalov's last and posthumously published article described apparent machinations during the December 4 local elections in the village of Gunib and identified by name several influential politicians who may have contributed to the defeat of a competent and uncorrupt candidate.

In July 2008, two separate criminal cases were brought against "Chernovik," one in connection with an article that quoted Rappani Khalilov, an insurgency commander killed the previous year, and the second for allegedly inciting hatred of the police. Both ended in acquittals, and Daghestan's Supreme Court threw out an appeal to have the paper shut down. Its then-editor, Nadira Isayeva, was one of last year's recipients of the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual award.

Despite the acquittals, many senior members of the law enforcement agencies continued to regard Kamalov as an apologist for the Islamic insurgency in light of his unceasing criticism of torture, abductions, and other human rights violations, in particular his defense of innocent and law-abiding devout Muslims targeted by police for their imputed cooperation with the insurgency. His name (and Isayeva's) figured on a so-called death list distributed in Makhachkala two years ago of persons to be targeted for their purported engagement on behalf of militants.

Seemingly arbitrary police brutality has persisted in Daghestan for years under successive republic heads and interior ministers, and is increasingly perceived as one of the factors that impel young Muslims to "head for the forest" and join the insurgency ranks. In a bid to stem and reverse that exodus, Magomedov established a government commission one year ago to help repentant fighters "readapt" to civilian life. That commission is regarded with hostility and profound suspicion by some political hard-liners, not all of them representatives of the "siloviki." Its future is in question since its chairman, Rizvan Kurbanov, has been relieved of his post as first deputy prime minister with responsibility for law enforcement and security to take up his mandate as a State Duma deputy.

Protesting Official Impunity

In addition to his journalistic activity, Kamalov was one of the organizers of sporadic protests in Makhachkala against police brutality. It is not clear, however, whether he was involved in the most recent such demonstration on November 25, during which an estimated 5,700 participants, many of them reportedly aligned with religious groups at odds with Daghestan's government-backed Muslim Spiritual Board, condemned, and called for an end to, abductions, torture, human rights abuses, and discrimination on religious grounds.

Are security forces free to kill and torture with impunity.
Are security forces free to kill and torture with impunity.
Rizvan Kurbanov, whom 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!" "Chernovik" expressed cautious optimism that the scale of the protest, on the eve of elections to the Russian State Duma, would finally galvanize the republic's leaders into taking positive action to end such practices.

That optimism proved misplaced, however. Senior law enforcement officials immediately sought to exonerate the agencies they head. The Prosecutor-General's Office released a statement on November 29 saying its investigations had 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. 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.

Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov (no relation to Magomedsalam) for his part formally denied the veracity of a blog post by lawyer Ziyavuddin Uvaysov, who claimed that some police officials admitted after the protest that police do indeed engage in torture and abductions.

In addition, one of Magomedsalam Magomedov's most powerful political rivals, longtime Makhachkala mayor and fellow Dargin Said Amirov, seized on the November 25 protest to focus attention on the authorities' perceived inability to contain a potential upsurge of religiously motivated protest.

At a meeting with the republic's mufti, Akhmad-hadji Abdullayev, Nationalities Minister Bekmurza Bekmurzayev and the imams of Makhachkala's 42 largest mosques, Amirov said he shares the protesters' concern over human rights abuses and religious discrimination. At the same time, he condemned the November 25 demonstration as potentially destabilizing, recalling the protests in Makhachkala in May 1998 that culminated in the storming and sacking of the government building.

Whether Amirov's comments, and the killing of Kamalov, constitute the first salvoes in a battle to discredit, undermine, and ultimately replace Magomedov (with or without the support of the embattled siloviki) is not yet clear.

Meanwhile, a prominent and powerful Avar politician has hinted he may tap into the wave of popular outrage at Kamalov's death in order to exert pressure on the authorities and ensure the murderer is apprehended and brought to trial. Khasavyurt Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov, who spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign in 2004 to force Magomedali Magomedov to resign, told a gathering of journalists in Makhachkala on December 18 that "Khadzhimurad was indeed an independent and honest journalist. It's impossible to find another like him.... His numerous friends and the healthy forces in society will do everything to find the killer. [But for that] we really need to be united."

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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