DAGESTAN: THE EMERGING CORE OF THE NORTH CAUCASUS INSURGENCY
In recent months, violence has increased significantly in the Republic of Dagestan, the most populous autonomous republic of Russia’s North Caucasus with its 2.5 million inhabitants. On September 4, the republic’s minister for national affairs, Bekmurza Bekmurzayev, was assassinated. The next day, the Russian military base at Buynaksk was attacked by a suicide bomber, claiming the lives of four federal soldiers. Shootings, bombings and police raids against the strongholds of Islamist insurgents occur on a daily basis and have become an integral part of the political landscape of this mountainous republic. Yet what are the causes, current situation and prospects of the insurgency in Dagestan?
BACKGROUND: Dagestan is situated in the Northeast Caucasus, which has historically made up the most traditionalist area of the former USSR, along with the Fergana Valley. Alongside neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia, the blood feud is still commonplace in Dagestan, whose ethnic groups are broken down into competing clans. Customary law (adat) still plays an important role especially in the mountainous areas to the south, center and west of the country. Accordingly, Dagestani society lives in line with the patriarchal code of honor where the main virtue of a woman consists in her purity and that of man in his courage, ability to revenge humiliation, and to ensure dignified livelihood and protection for his family members. Importantly, Dagestan has historically been regarded as the cradle of Islam in the North Caucasus. Religiosity is widespread across all strata of Dagestani society. Islam, more precisely Sufi Islam with its locally most common Naqshbandi and Shazali tariqahs, has historically played a crucial role both as a symbol of self-identification of ordinary Dagestanis, as part of tradition in their daily life, and hence as a source of legitimization of public activity. Another important factor is its multiethnic character as Dagestan is home to dozens of ethnic groups. As no ethnic group forms a majority, members of various Dagestani peoples and clans are involved in constant competition over the republic’s limited resources (around 90 percent of the republic’s budget comprises of direct subsidies from Moscow), which is documented in the complicated system of republican and local-level power-sharing mechanisms. Albeit latent, tension exists among members of various ethnic groups. Notwithstanding episodic excesses that periodically occur due to apolitical reasons, local authorities have so far managed to keep it low profile. In fact, Dagestani peoples are quite prone to nationalism. Even though they live side by side, intermarriage is rather uncommon among members of distinct ethnic groups. Last but not least, Dagestan’s corruption, clientelism and nepotism is appalling even by Caucasus standards, with an unemployment rate reaching 80 percent, nearing absolute numbers among youth.
IMPLICATIONS: Fifteen years ago, there was nearly no talk about Islamist insurgency in Dagestan, a decade ago its instances were extremely rare, yet since then it has been increasing drastically. Although some Dagestani communities were the first in the North Caucasus to embrace Salafism in the beginning of the 1990s, the failed incursion of the united Dagestani-Chechen Jihadist insurgents to Western Dagestan in August 1999 largely discredited the ideology across the republic. What happened since then? First, since “Islamist terrorism” was widely recognized as a primary threat to national security in 1999-2001, thousands of mostly young Dagestanis, accused of terrorism and “Wahhabism”, have been taken into custody by local authorities where they were often subjected to Soviet-style interrogation. Deep religiosity has been considered especially suspicious by the authorities, which have been waging full-scale war against real and alleged “Wahhabis” and their sympathizers. Yet for many undereducated, underpaid and corrupt policemen facing impunity, capturing people for ransom has provided for a source of solid income. As authorities have lacked enough evidence to put alleged “Wahhabis” in jail, these were eventually set free following a few months of torture. Many of them never made peace with what was done to them in prisons, and have turned to violence to retaliate the humiliation. In case someone’s relative was killed or seriously wounded, their brothers, sons or cousins have pledged oaths to take revenge for the sake of family honor. As it is difficult for individuals to combat authorities on their own, many young Dagestanis have joined the insurgent movement in the mountains, where there were exposed to the basics of Salafism. The adoption of a common ideology of resistance has cemented the insurgence, shaping specific – now rather de-individualized – goals (the establishment of an Islamic state independent from Moscow) and targets (the Russian occupiers and their Dagestani “marionettes”). The collective memory of Dagestani peoples draws upon the notion of age-old anti-colonial, e.g. anti-Russian, resistance. Fighting local renegades is an even more important task.
Likewise, many Dagestanis have joined the insurgency in protest of the societal sins, be it corruption, erosion of traditional values, inability to realize themselves professionally or in search for a better, Islamic, future for their homeland. Most importantly, membership in Jihadist groups (jamaats) has helped individual combatants to overcome ethnic, sectarian and clan-based loyalties, forging an unprecedented sense of social solidarity based on religion. Thus, the ideologization of resistance has evolved side by side with the politicization of violence.
As a result, a regular civil war is now underway in Dagestan. Approximately 2,500 young Dagestanis are involved in the insurgency, which makes up at least a half of all North Caucasian combatants. Yet their numbers grow as more and more desperate youngsters join their ranks. Unlike neighboring Chechnya with its “normalized” public space, insurgents rely on sufficient sympathies and support from ordinary Dagestanis who are antagonized by both corrupt local authorities and increasingly violent and indiscriminate police forces. While many Chechens have postponed revenge to “better times” in order to avoid reprisals, this process is ongoing daily in Dagestan, where the insurgency has expanded from areas dominated by the Avars, Dargins, and Laks to the Lezgi-dominated south and Kumyk east. Moreover, in some areas of Dagestan local authorities as well as businesses have become targets of racketeering by insurgents. To survive physically, they have to pay those they are supposed to combat; something unheard of in contemporary Chechnya.
CONCLUSIONS: The emblematic feature of the Dagestani insurgency has been its avalanche-like mobilization, provided for by the prevalence of traditional institutions in the Northeast Caucasus. Regardless of the liquidation of some influential field commanders, most recently emir Seyfullah, the movement will not be broken down overnight as individual fighters will continue to wage their wars of revenge. That, in turn, will bring about more reprisals from the local authorities, which will lead to a path of Chechenization as increasing numbers of Dagestanis will become involved in blood feud. As in the case of Chechnya and Ingushetia, the Dagestani insurgency is in its core primarily not a political or religious phenomenon, even though it is organized along the lines of Salafi Islam. This is where its main strength lies. Unlike Chechnya, where ordinary people have experienced two atrocious wars and whose vast majority is thus willing to accept peaceful life under any government, many Dagestanis are euphoric about squaring their accounts with the ones they truly resent. Yet imposing a kind of sultanistic authoritarian regime that has been established in Kadyrov’s Chechnya in recent years would be a rather unfeasible task for ethnically heterogeneous Dagestan.
Additionally, particular jamaats are becoming increasingly mixed ethnically; they continue to be highly autonomous units, based on the principle of territorial, rather than ethnic, kinship, tending to act on their own which makes them difficult to trace down and combat. Yet they share both a common idea of resistance, a strong desire for personal revenge and a hated enemy, thus relying on increasing sympathies from native populations which have always had a tradition of hospitality toward anti-state outlaws. As the war goes on, Dagestani insurgents gain skills from guerilla warfare, as well as awareness of trans-ethnic solidarity with their Dagestani, Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, and Cherkes brethren in arms. In the months and years to come, Dagestan is thus very likely to retain its standing as the epicenter of the North Caucasian insurgency.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective“ (Peter Lang, 2007).