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Analysis & Opinion
12.01.10 Political Suicide
By Tom Balmforth

The incidence of terrorist attacks in Dagestan has spiked in the new year, with only a month to go until the term of Dagestan’s incumbent president Mukhu Aliyev expires. On January 8 Russia’s top political brass came out with some tough rhetoric, demanding tangible results in the counter-terrorism operation in the North Caucasus. Since, five militants have since been killed, including one said to be an important leader in the Dagestan insurgency. But is this really likely to slow the Islamist insurgency? And will the appointment of a new president further fan the flames in the republic?

On January 6, a Lada Niva Jeep pulled into a traffic police depot in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital. The driver detonated explosives equivalent to100 kilograms of TNT, killing himself and six police officers and injuring ten others, RIA Novosti reported. Since then, another police officer has been shot dead, two police cars have been attacked and the republic has witnessed four bombings, one of which was successfully diffused before it destroyed a section of the railway.

In the aftermath of the suicide bombing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held a meeting with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s internal security service, to reiterate the necessity of taming escalating terrorism in the North Caucasus and to reaffirm Russia’s counter-insurgency strategy. “As far as the rebels are concerned, our policy remains the same,” Medvedev told Bortnikov. “We need to eliminate them, and to do this resolutely and systematically - i.e. regularly.”

These orders have been rapidly carried out. Early Sunday morning, the police led a special operation to capture two militants hiding in a house on the outskirts of Makhachkala. After a long gunfight, both rebels were killed and one was later identified as Madrid Begov, previously known as the “emir” of Makhachkala who had participated in high-profile terrorist attacks in the republic last year, a police spokesperson told RIA Novosti. Three other militants have also since been killed.

But Alexey Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, doubts that assassinations of militants and even leaders of the Makhachkala and Shakhal terrorist groups would have much impact. “We hear this practically each year, each month: the main figures in Islamic activism are simply replaced with new ones – particularly in Dagestan. We have to recognize that this is a movement. While not a ‘mass’ movement, it is a movement, it is an organization. These are not armed bandits or gangsters. It is something that looks like an Islamic opposition,” he said. “If one of them is assassinated, he will just be replaced – simple as that,” he said.

Sergei Markedonov, the head of the Interethnic Relations Department at Moscow’s Institute of Political and Military Analysis and a specialist on Caucasian affairs, agrees that a more complex solution is needed. “The situation is getting worse because there is no systematic strategy. As we saw with Medvedev’s statements on January 8, there was nothing new – just the same old ‘kill the bandits’,” he said. “In order to make a better strategy we need to set new objectives for that better strategy. In this case, modernization should not be in the economy – it needs to be in the system of governance.”

Alongside modernizing the economy, bringing stability to the North Caucasus was one of the main themes of Medvedev’s presidency last year. But Markedonov claims that the latter is only possible through Russia’s political modernization. “The system of governance in Russia is far from modern. And it’s obvious that such a strategy isn’t going to be thought up by a single talented civil servant. It needs the involvement of academics and long, ongoing discussion,” said Markedonov.

Malashenko believes that Dagestan’s insurgency has two root causes. The first is the general situation in the republic, which is characterized by high unemployment and a “significant gap” between Dagestan’s Muslim population and the local administration, which ultimately reports to Moscow, the distant federal center. These conditions provide fertile ground for radical Islamization, where many seek Sharia Law as an alternative to the Russian constitution’s federal law, Malashenko said. The second, more direct reason for the current unrest is that Dagestan is due for a change of president in February and Medvedev has the final say. “The fact that the Kremlin is currently making its decision on who will be the president of Dagestan for the next four years is making the situation considerably more tense,” said Markedonov. It is possible, for instance, that militants are increasing insurgency in order to expose the incumbent as an inadequate leader.

From the point of view of a Kremlin looking to stabilize the republic, “who to back” is a tough question. And not only because of the complex ethnic make-up of Dagestan, dominated by the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks and Lezgins. There is also disagreement amongst Moscow’s political elite about who should take the presidential armchair. “For instance, Boris Gryzlov, chairman of parliament, wants one man; [Nikolai] Patrushev, [secretary of the Security Council], wants another,” said Malashenko.

In December, Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, managed to whittle down its list of candidates for the top post to five people, and Medvedev approved it on December 16. It includes the Avar incumbent Aliyev, the Avar businessman Magomed Magomedov, the Avar Deputy Prime Minister Magomed Abdoulayev, the Dargin regional lawmaker Magomedsalam Magomedov, and the Avar Saigidgusein Magomedov, the head of the federal treasury. “Aliyev has for some time looked to be the front-runner but now it is looking far less clear cut,” said Malashenko. “Now, even experts close to the Kremlin are saying that Aliyev could lose his seat,” he added. Markedonov said that Aliyev’s recent meeting with Medvedev on January 11 did nonetheless suggest that he was still the number one candidate. Still, a strong rival will emerge in Magomedsalam Magomedov, who is backed by Suleyman Kerimov, a Dagestan billionaire with strong political ties in Moscow, said Malashenko. “But really, it’s impossible to say who will win. When I’m asked, I usually answer – ‘who could have predicted the appointment of Medvedev’,” Malashenko added.

While there is still uncertainty over whether president Aliyev will hold onto his seat, it looks certain that the violence in Dagestan will continue. “They say sometimes that Dagestan is permanently on the eve of civil war. Well, maybe. It does sound true,” said Malashenko.
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