Polyglot Dagestan speaks language of dissent as Russia struggles with its most dangerous republic
Dagestanis fear Vladimir Putin is hardening his line on the diverse republic
In government headquarters in the republic of Dagestan, the epicentre of Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism, spokesman Albert Gasanov cheerfully unleashes a fiendish tongue-twister.
It makes him sound something like a frog choking on a packet of crisps. “There’s a story that in the 19th century, the tsar sent a spy to Dagestan with orders to master our language,” Gasanov says, switching to Russian. “When he finally went back, the tsar demanded to hear what he had learned. The spy took a walnut from his pocket and crushed it in his hand: ‘That’s how they sound down there,’ he told the tsar.”
When Gasanov speaks of “our” language, he means that of the Avars, the largest ethnic group in this dizzyingly diverse republic of about three million people. The Avars make up about a third of a population that comprises more than 30 different ethnic and linguistic groups, living in a republic much smaller than Ireland pinned between the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea.
“When God was handing out languages, one to each country, he accidentally split the sack and dozens fell out all over Dagestan,” says Gasanov with a smile, warming to a theme that delights Dagestanis of all ethnicities: the uniqueness of this starkly beautiful but violent land.
Outside the government building – hardscrabble Makhachkala’s very own White House – children pedal bicycles past huge posters of Russian president Vladimir Putin while older Dagestanis chat on benches beneath a Soviet-era statue of Vladimir Lenin. From a nearby mosque the call to prayer ripples out over the revolutionary’s head: many Russias collide in Dagestan.
The vast square is closed to ordinary traffic, and official cars entering the area are checked for explosives by armed guards. Dagestan is Russia’s most dangerous republic: last year, shootings and bombings killed more than 400 people and injured about 300 more.
Police and officials are the main targets of fighters who pledge allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate, Islamist militants who claim to have supporters and fighters across the North Caucasus, which stretch from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Chechnya, where separatist rebels fought two wars with Russian troops in the last 20 years, is now relatively stable, held tight in the fist of pro-Kremlin warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.
But the violence that plagued Chechnya has seeped into neighbouring republics, and above all Dagestan, where the cocktail of problems is combustible: poverty, unemployment, rampant corruption, police brutality, clan divisions and growing animosity between Sufi and Salafi Muslims.
“You could say the situation is constant – constantly getting worse,” says Svetlana Isaeva, founder of a group called Mothers of Dagestan. “If the authorities don’t stop beating and torturing and kidnapping people, things will never improve.”
Mothers of Dagestan was created in 2007 by women whose relatives had disappeared or been abused after being taken into custody. Isaeva’s son Isa was arrested in April that year, on suspicion of having contact with militants. He has not been seen since.
Isaeva and other activists and analysts say they fear Putin is now hardening his line in Dagestan in a bid to crush the insurgency ahead of next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, at the opposite end of the Caucasus range from Dagestan.
The leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, has ordered the use of “maximum force” against the games. “There’s no long-term plan – it’s all about Sochi,” says Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. “Dagestan is like a pot on a hot stove. It is bubbling and bubbling and eventually the pressure will be too much.”
This year, the Kremlin appointed a new leader to Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov. He has been praised for targeting corrupt officials but he also scrapped a commission that sought to rehabilitate militants and is accused of overseeing a wave of repression against rebels’ relatives and conservative, Salafi Muslims, whose relations with moderate Sufis are badly strained.
Abdulatipov’s policies fuel the fear that Putin wants to implement a “Chechen solution” in Dagestan: using any means necessary to crush the militants while suppressing all dissenting voices and ignoring egregious rights abuses. Reporters, activists and lawyers are regularly threatened and attacked in Dagestan, and several have been murdered.
“This is how it started in Chechnya,” says Isaeva. “We are afraid of a ‘Chechen solution’ here.” In Makhachkala, people note the growing popularity of long beards and hijab as evidence that moderate Sufis are losing ground to conservative Salafis; Sufism is officially approved but that does not help its cause among disaffected young Dagestanis who see the state as brutal and corrupt.
Boston Marathon bomber
The radicalisation of Dagestan caught the world’s attention this year when it was revealed that one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, spent several months with his father in Makhachkala in 2012 and apparently contacted figures linked to local militants.
The Caucasus Emirate denied playing any role in the Boston attack. Deputy prime minister Ramazan Dzhafarov dismisses claims of the abductions and systemic rights abuses that are often blamed for fuelling anger towards the authorities, and he insists people do not join the rebels simply because they are poor or unemployed.
“Young men from well-off families join too,” he says. “Some are disappointed with life; others are influenced by those who spread ideas about a caliphate; some seek adventure, or idolise the bandits because they are supposedly brave and can fire a gun.”
Dzhafarov says that about 150 militants are active in Dagestan, and he derides their “so-called commanders”. “They murder, extort and kidnap people to make money – and claim this is all for Islam.” But something seems to gnaw at his defiance. “Unfortunately we do see that the armed groups are being replenished by young people,” he says.
“When 10 bandits are killed another 10 are ready to replace them.” Like the local language for the tsar’s spy, Dagestan’s insurgency will be a very tough nut for Russia to crack.