The "slaughterhouse" of Dagestan is not Chechnya
by Nina Achmatova
Suicide attacks on police and institutions are now a daily reality in the Caucasus republic. But it is not over independent: social frustration and Islamic fundamentalism, the factors that threaten to detonate a ticking time bomb. Russia faces important challenge of modernizing the region.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The North Caucasus is still ablaze. Within the region, the republic of Dagestan is where Moscow is focusing its major anti-insurgency efforts. The attack last Sept. 24 in the capital Makhachkala, where a suicide bomber wounded 42 people including policemen and civilians, is just the latest episode that has bloodied the turbulent area. Russian security forces intensified the hunt for terrorists after the Moscow metro bombings in March, triggering the reprisal of guerrillas and transforming the area into a daily slaughterhouse. But Moscow sees force as the only way of preventing total warfare.

Institutions and police targeted

Dagestan, the largest republic in the North Caucasus, is the epicentre of violence as rebels move their operations from Chechnya to neighbouring areas. Bombings are their favoured means of attack and local authority officials and police their main targets. On the night of Sept. 24 a suicide bomber blew himself up in Makhachkala, in an area surrounded by police agents, where earlier there had been a shoot out with guerrillas. On the same day, an armed commando killed the headmaster of a school and there were 12 deaths in a series of shootings. On 4 September, it was the turn of the Minister for National Policy, Foreign Relations and Information of Dagestan, Bekmurza Bekmurzaiev, who was injured following an attack that instead killed his driver. On September 2, a local leader of the Russian secret service (FSB), Colonel Akhmed Abdullaiev, was killed by a bomb placed under his car.

The violence in the Caucasus republic has greatly increased since last Aug. 23 when a series of attacks killed a border guard, while the deputy mayor of Kizlyar, Vasily Naumochkin was hit by a hail of bullets fired by armed men waiting for him outside the Town Hall.

On 6 September, the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs arrived in the North Caucasus to admit that the situation "is deteriorating."

A Guerrillas lair

Dagestan has become the preferred hideout for Islamic fighters fleeing the more controlled Chechnya. Last August 21 Magomedali Vagabov, considered the mastermind of the twin bombings on Moscow’s underground, was killed. Along with him four other rebels were also eliminated. Russian anti-terrorism forces unearthed them near the village of Gunib in the Dagestan mountains. But often in counter-insurgency operations it is the civilians who lose out. In the raids made by the Russians in the Caucasus villages in search of terrorists innocent citizens end up being arrested and tortured, as long denounced by NGOs and activists for human rights in the Caucasus.

But Dagestan is not Chechnya

It is vital for Moscow not to allow the situation to further deteriorate. Dagestan is a region of great strategic and economic importance for Russia: it borders with eternal enemy Georgia and the gas fields of Azerbaijan. Makhachkala is also one of the few Russian ports free of ice year-round.

However, understanding the underlying causes that have transformed the republic into a ticking time bomb is not easy. The same media in Russia are limited to reporting the clashes and attacks, but mainstream debate hardly examines the real reasons for the violence was the case with Chechnya. The fact is that Dagestan is more complex. In the '90s, there were clearly defined enemies in Chechnya: the separatists. Their actions, their ideology was well known and studied. But in Dagestan, neither then nor now has there ever been a genuine separatist movement: it was the only republic in the North Caucasus not to demand independence after the collapse of the USSR and the Party of Independence in the country is relegated to a marginal role .

Neither is ethnic diversity a factor that may explain instability in Dagestan: in the '90s represented a threat to the unity of the republic, with periods of violence and terrorism. But it was the same government that prevented the country's transformation into a second Chechnya.

The factor which, however, is playing an increasing role in the Caucasus and republic is Islam. Those who promote the "rebirth of Islam" (present on the ground in the Salafist movement, ed), belong to different ethnic groups united by faith in Salafist Islam. This finds converts among the people, promoting social justice and fighting corruption. It offers a new alternative to a society disillusioned by its Soviet experience and the democratic post-Soviet era.

Unlike Chechnya, the activities of rebellion and dissent against Moscow are found in diverse environments: ethnic, religious, business and the same local government. In any given attack the motive may be the "privatization" of state property, while in another Islamic extremism. Among the ranks of Islamic fighters are not just religious fanatics, but also citizens who are victims of corruption or the tyranny of the authorities.

The main challenge facing Moscow – according to the renowned Russian Caucasus expert, Enver Kisriev - is to ensure an equitable development throughout the North Caucasus and Dagestan. In a context where institutions and justice are in the hands of corrupt oligarchy, people are forced to resort to violence as a means to solve even the most trivial matters.

Young people also have no future: there is no mechanism to ensure a just social mobility through education and so "young people end up being easy prey for jihadists."