A Case Study: Problems In Dagestan Are Indicative Of Larger Issues

By Sergei Markedonov

Russia Profile, Russia
Aug 1 2007

The threats and political challenges in the Russian North Caucasus
are changing rapidly at present. Similarly, the geography of the
political instability is also changing. Now, the main opponent of
the Russian state–and therefore the main challenge to security and
stability in the region–will not be "defenders of a free Ichkeria"
or secular nationalists, but participants in the "Caucasian Islamic
International." Today it is not Chechnya, but Dagestan that is the
hotspot in the region. Reports from the area’s largest republic now
recall the "counterterrorism operation" in Chechnya.

What is striking, however, is the ideological and methodological
inability of those in the government who have created the strategy for
the Caucasus. The events of 1999 in Chechnya and around the "rebellious
republic" were categorized as a "terrorist threat" and the struggle
against it was dubbed a "counterterrorist operation"; it’s also
frequently termed "the fight against international terrorism." The
Russian authorities at least attempted to place the Chechen crisis
within a defined system of coordinates.

What is now happening in Dagestan, however, is not explained through
any kind of framework, not even an inadequate one. In the first half
of 2006 alone over 70 terrorist acts were carried out. And, unlike
terrorist acts in Chechnya, the majority of those in Dagestan are
not anonymous in nature. Thus, an understanding of what is happening
in the largest republic in the North Caucasus should become the top
priority for Russia’s leadership.

At the beginning of the 1990s, during the period of the so-called
"parade of sovereignties," ethno-nationalism and the idea of ethnic
self-definition dominated in the North Caucasus. In practice, this
resulted in the implementation of the principle of ethnic domination
in politics, administration and business. Radical ethno-nationalists
actively used terrorist methods in their struggle, and it would be
wrong to say that the outbreak of terrorism in Dagestan began only

Between 1989 and 1991, over 40 politically-motivated attempted
murders were carried out. The number dropped to just under 40 in
1992, but in 1993, there were around 60 attempted murders and armed
attacks. There were also key terrorist acts in the early 1990s. In
June 1993, gunmen of the ethnic Avar Imam Shamil People’s Front and
the ethnic Lak "Kazikumukh" movement seized personnel of the regional
military commission in Kizlyar and demanded that the Russian Interior
Ministry remove its special forces units from the city.

Unlike the terrorist acts of 2005-2007, the attacks committed during
this period were not ethno-political in character and not driven by
religious justifications. The same motivation lay behind the actions
of the Chechen separatists who, from 1991, were fighting for an
"independent Ichkeria." After 2000, however, the ethno-nationalistic
slogans lost their former attraction and began to give way to those
of religious radicals. Dagestan became the distinctive leader in the
political struggle for the "purity of Islam."

It was this republic that evolved into the distinctive intellectual
center for religious radicalism in which the "Wahhabis" carried out
their most stubborn acts of armed resistance against the official
authorities–both those in the republic and on the national level.

What caused this change in events?

The Role of Religion

In Dagestan, the replacement of the nationalist discourse with the
discourse of religious radicalism was made easier because the republic
is the most multiethnic in Russia. Until the recent reforms to the
Dagestani administration, the State Council, the executive body of
power in the republic, was formed on the basis of ethnic parity and
comprised 14 different ethnic groups. It’s also worth noting that
certain ethnic groups in the republic weren’t considered separate
during the compiling of censuses; both during the Soviet era and
during the preparation of the All-Russian Census of 2002, for example,
the Botlikh were recorded as Avars and the Kubachins were recorded
as Dargins. Due to this diversity, ethnic nationalism simply has no
future in Dagestan.

The groups living in the republic seemed to realize this: At the
beginning of the 1990s, Dagestan was the only republic in the North
Caucasus not to adopt a declaration on independence and sovereignty.

During those years, there was only one "separatist party" in the
republic–the Party for the Independence and Revival of Dagestan.

Almost from its foundation in June of 1992, however, it was a
marginal party.

At the same time, Dagestan is the most heavily Islamic region of the
Russian Federation. Over 90 percent of the population of Dagestan is
Muslim. Ninety-seven percent of Dagestan’s Muslims are Sunni, with
Shiites making up the remaining 3 percent. The non-Muslim population is
split between the Russian Orthodox and Armenian churches and a small
minority of Mountain Jews (Tats). At the same time, unlike the other
republics, Dagestan has strong theological traditions that sometimes
manifest as religious radicalism. The penetration of the republic by
"renovationist Islam," whose adherents are called Wahhabis in the
media, dates back to the 1920s and 1930s.

Traditionalism versus Radicalism

At the beginning of the 1990s, Islam was regarded as an integrating
force that could bind together the ethnic mosaic of Dagestan.

According to Zagir Arukhov, a leading expert on the study of Islam in
Dagestan, who was killed in a terrorist attack, "It was expected that
the all-out nature of the Islamic system of regulation, the limited
nature of Islam as a socio-cultural system, and flexible interaction
with the state authorities would give Islam important advantages in
the conditions of the socio-political reconstruction of society."

However, the transformation of Islam into a factor of stability and
unity failed to occur. In the process of the "rebirth" of Islam
in Dagestan, fundamental contradictions between the followers of
traditional Caucasian Islamic traditions–Sufis–and the Wahhabis
became evident.

In the opinion of expert Dmitri Makarov, "Wahhabism and Sufism occupy
different positions with regard to the existing social-political
order in Dagestan, which is founded on clan ties. Sufi Islam is
structurally incorporated into those ties. In rejecting Sufism,
Wahhabism also rejects the social order that is sanctioned by it."

Dagestan’s Wahhabis made criticism of the republic’s authorities the
keystone of their propaganda and promotional efforts. Widespread
misuse of official positions by bureaucrats, corruption, social
differentiation and, as a result, high levels of unemployment, the
lack of transparency among the authorities and their insensitivity to
the needs of the population lay behind the successes in recruitment
achieved by the Wahhabis who were able to offer an alternative: True
"Islamic order," a radical rejection of communism, democracy and
"false Islam" as political models incapable of providing social
harmony and ethnic peace.

This desired "order" could only be achieved through the path of the
struggle for the true faith–a jihad. Wahhabism appealed not to the
clans, but to values of equality and brotherhood that were higher
than clan links. As commmunist values collapsed, the universal,
inter-ethnic principles of Wahhabism, focused on social justice,
filled the ideological vacuum. In these circumstances, the Wahhabis
created their social foundations in the republic.

The Role of the State

But the rise of Wahhabism in Dagestan also resulted from a loss
of Russian influence in the republic and the regionalization of
authorities. The political elite in Dagestan has, in effect, not
changed since the early 1990s. It proved to be effective in the
struggle with ethnic extremism during the "parade of sovereignties,"
the "Chechen revolution" and at the time of Basayev’s raid in 1999.

But to counteract religious extremism, a more subtle adjustment to
the administrative system is required.

But what are the options facing the Russian state in this context?

The first immediate goal is to bring the power of the federal
authorities to Dagestan and to the Caucasus as a whole. The remoteness
of Moscow from the region’s problems can no longer be endured. The
ignorance of the Russian community–both expert and political–should
also no longer be tolerated.

Additionally, Russian ideology–the idea of a Russian nation–needs
to be spread actively and, in the best possible sense of the word,
aggressively. Many Dagestanis are not yet ready for a radical break
with Russia in favor of an Islamic state. Consequently, the Russian
project, universal and supra-ethnic, should win out if handled

The assertion of Russian state institutions in the Caucasus is not just
an anti-terrorist struggle, which would in itself be ineffective. It
is the normal regulation of internal migration.

Dagestan is densely populated, and the movement of its working-age
population into the rest of Russia is a timely goal. But that movement
into the country’s internal regions is impossible without a sense that
Dagestanis are citizens of a united nation–as well as some efforts
to combat xenophobia among ethnic Russians. Without that sense,
such a movement will merely provoke a new wave of inter-ethnic tension.

As early as 1993, in an interview, Magomedsalekh Gusayev, who was
at the time the chairman of the committee on national policies and
external relations of the Republic of Dagestan, maintained: "Migration
is very active among the peoples of Dagestan; 400,000 Dagestanis are
living beyond the republic’s borders. Returning to Dagestan, often
embittered, having lost their housing and property, they become a sort
of detonator for the migration of the Russian-language population
of Dagestan." Unfortunately, over the past 14 years, little has
changed. The number of migrants has merely grown, as has the extent
of dissatisfaction with the corruption of the authorities. Today,
in light of ever-increasing terrorism in Dagestan, it should also be
acknowledged that bringing order to this republic will be impossible
without changes in the very heart of Russia. Dagestan is merely a
specific case in the general crisis of Russian internal politics.

Regional elections held in early March showed again how dangerous it
is to introduce change into the power structures of Dagestan. These
elections, the first held under new rules requiring representatives
to the local parliament to be elected on party lists, resulted
in the marginalization of the Communist Party, which traditionally
played a popular and positive role in the republic. Unlike in central
Russia where the Communist Party is an archaic, nationalist force,
in Dagestan, the Communist Party is the only political movement
not structured around ethnic groupings or clans. It is a secular
force that cites ideas of social justice. It promotes the virtues
of science and education as well as the "friendship of peoples." The
United Russia party, which won a crushing victory on March 14, will not
bring political stability to the region. The local branch of United
Russia suffers from internal power struggles between bureaucratic
clans led by Mukhu Aliyev, the republic’s current president and Said
Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala. Party list voting in regions like
Dagestan that have no multi-party tradition will only weaken local
power structures and leave the door open for Islamic extremists to act
outside the system if they feel their concerns aren’t being addressed.

Sergei Markedonov is head of the Department for International Relations
at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.