the Hottest Spot in North CaucasusEthnically, Dagestan is the most diverse region of the Caucasus. Historically, the territory was divided into many different khanates or kingdoms. It was not until the Caucasian War in the Nineteenth Century that Imam Shamil managed to unify Dagestan and the larger part of Chechnya under the flag of Islam.
Today, the region counts fourteen languages with the status of official languages. Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, the system of power in Dagestan has rested on maintaining a fragile ethnic balance among larger ethnic groups such as the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins.
Like the majority of North Caucasus, Dagestan is a poor, subsidized region. Federal subsidies account for eighty percent of its budget. According to official data, the Gross Domestic Product per capita was 2,600 USD in 2010.
Dagestan has the third highest birth rate in the Russian Federation. With some twenty newborns per thousand people, its birth rate lags behind only its neighboring regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia. The median population age in Dagestan is twenty-five with forty percent of the population between the ages of fourteen and thirty-five.
According to 2011 official data, unemployment in Dagestan is highest (25.8 percent) among young people between the ages of twenty and twenty-four. Some 700,000 Dagestanis, out of a total population of only three million people, have left their homes in search of jobs in Russia.
The unemployment rate in Dagestan now stands at eleven percent. Even though that indicator is far lower than in neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia, where unemployment exceeds forty percent, it is still three times higher than the average indicator in Russia.
Such unstable conditions provide fertile ground for stirring up ethnic conflict. The situation is further exacerbated by inter-religious conflict, which is far more acute in Dagestan than in any other region of the North Caucasus.
Dagestan is the hottest spot in the North Caucasus at present. Following the Second Chechen War and installation of Ramzan Kadyrov’s pro-Moscow regime, the epicenter of the fight between federal government forces and insurgents has shifted to Dagestan.
According to Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, seventy percent of all terrorist attacks in Russia occur in Dagestan. In 2011 and the first few months of 2012, some one-hundred-and-sixty law enforcement officers were killed by insurgents in Dagestan, according to Federal Security Service (FSB) data. The toll among insurgents exceeded two hundred dead during that same period.
The severity of that fight is also conditioned on the fact that not only insurgents and the government oppose each other in Dagestan, but so do supporters of various Islamic movements. The religious infighting often takes on an uncompromising and violent character, as was shown once again with the killing of Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkavi in late-August.
Acclaimed Russian journalist Yulia Latynina equates the killing of al-Chirkavi with the killing of a sitting Pope in terms of religious importance. That is just how respected and influential the murdered spiritual leader was among followers of traditional Islam, Sufism, in Dagestan.
Sufism, as a mystical dimension of Islam and a traditional direction of Islamic philosophy, has dominated Dagestan since the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. An integral element of that movement is tariqas – Sufi spiritual orders. Each tariqa has a sheikh with multiple murids (students and followers). Imam Shamil, the leader of the Caucasians in the war against Russia in the Nineteenth Century, led the Naqshbandi tariqa.
The Naqshbandi and Shazili tariqas, which are dominant in Dagestan to this day, were united by the Sheikh Said. The slain Sheikh is believed to have had thousands of murids, including a number of high-ranking government officials. The Muslim spiritual administration of Dagestan is entirely manned by students and followers of Sheikh Said.
Traditional Islam is relentlessly opposed by Salafis, who follow a radical, fundamentalist Islamic movement that does not recognize sheikhs or any other authority as spiritual mediators between people and God. Salafis, or Wahhabis as they are better known, advocate literal, strict and puritanical approaches to Islam.
It was Salafism that became the ideological focus of the jihad in the 1990s, first in Chechnya and then in other regions of the North Caucasus. In the view of the “mujahedeens,” the Caucasus is the land of Islam and it is the duty of every Muslim to fight to free it from “infidels.”
Salafi radicalism has been growing from year to year. Salafis view leaders of traditional Sufi Islam and “taraqaites” as traitors to genuine belief who must be annihilated.
Yulia Latynina traces the first attempt of Salafis to gain control over Dagestan back to 1999, when troops of Shamil Basayev entering Dagestan from Chechnya to assist local Salafis touched off the Second Chechen War. Although the insurgents were defeated in that conflict, Latynina notes that the situation in Dagestan has radically changed since then and that “Salafis have turned from marginal into a leading political force which everyone shuns to vex and to whom everyone pays tribute.”
Along with Russian federal troops, clerics also became a prime jihadist target. In 1998, terrorists killed Dagestani mufti Said Muhammad Haji Abubakarov. Several other clerics were assassinated in the years that followed. In 2011, Sheikh Sirajuddin Khuriksky, a follower of Sheikh Afandi who was himself highly respected by local Muslims, was murdered.
In response to the violence, the local government launched its own terror campaign against Salafis. Law enforcement bodies not only chased after armed insurgents but peaceful followers of Sufism as well. The Russian Memorial Human Rights Center reports that government killings, abductions and secret jailing of adversaries of the regime, and fabrication of criminal cases against them, have become the norm in Dagestan.
Human rights defenders contend that the state has dealt with the problem of religious extremism “by supporting one of the sides – Sufis – and outlawing Salafism.” That, in turn, has only further widened the rift in the region and deepened civil conflict.
According to some estimates, religious conflict in Dagestan has already claimed the lives of three thousand people.
The Memorial Human Rights Center notes that, after Magomedsalam Magomedov assumed office as the new President of Dagestan in early 2010, the new government seemed to recognize the futility of attacking violence with violence and made attempts to establish a dialogue with Salafis.
In April 2012, Dagestan witnessed a remarkable event when influential leaders of the Sufi and Salafi movements sat down at a negotiating table for the first time ever. Their dialogue was spearheaded by Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkavi. The traditional Islam movement and the government even legalized a “peaceful wing” of Salafis.Memorial Human Rights contends that the dialogue between the two Islam movements has not been at all welcomed by either radicals or law enforcers: “Fighters try to frustrate the peacekeeping process with terrorist acts and killings while law enforcement bodies sabotage the activity of ‘adaptation commission,’ disregard guarantees given by the state to fighters who put down their arms and yield, and continue to infringe human rights which also plays into the hands of radicals.”
The culmination of those tensions came in August with the murder of the region’s most influential Sheikh. As Yulia Latynina reports, that killing will inevitably escalate hostility in the region and will make it difficult for the two Islamic wings to continue any constructive dialogue with one another.
Latynina herself pointedly blames the Salafis for the Sheikh’s murder and sees the identity of the suicide bomber as clear evidence of Salafi culpability. According to law enforcement authorities, the suicide bomber was a Russian follower of Wahhabism by the name of Aminat (Alla) Saprikina. She had been married four times, each time to a Salafi insurgent who was subsequently killed by law enforcement officers. Saprikina was allegedly chosen as a Russian suicide bomber in order to shield any specific ethnic group in Dagestan from retaliation.
Dagestani insurgents have not claimed responsibility for the murder of Sheikh Said Afandi. In a statement published on the website of the local branch of the Caucasus Emirate, insurgents called on the society “to refrain from jumping to quick conclusions” on who is behind the killing. Insurgents have not ruled out the possibility that that killing was masterminded by Russian special services to provoke a war between Salafis and Sufis.
Ruslan Gereev, the Director of the Center for Islamic Studies of the North Caucasus, is among those who believe that the most recent terrorist act was aimed at thwarting peacekeeping negotiations in the region. “It is advantageous here to blame groups hiding in woods for everything,” asserts Gereev, adding: “I think, however, that the killing of the Sheikh was performed by the third forces who do not favor the process of negotiations.”
Russia seems to have been bracing itself for greater volatility in Dagestan. In March, local news media and blogs disclosed that a large number of additional Russian troops had been deployed to the region. Sources estimated that number at twenty-five-to-thirty thousand military officers of the Interior and Defense Ministries – the equivalent of two full divisions. Heavy military equipment has been sent into Dagestan too. Local sources say that Dagestan has not seen such a concentration of troops since 2000.
This summer, local information sources reported intensive movement of Russian troops and equipment toward regions bordering Georgia. That information was confirmed by news agency reports that, on 16 August, an assault vehicle careened off the road into a gorge, killing two servicemen, during planned military drills conducted in the mountainous Tsunti region bordering Georgia.
Also in August, local law enforcement authorities reported that clashes between insurgents and federal forces had intensified in the Tsunti region near Georgia’s Lopota Gorge. Those clashes claimed lives on both sides.
The Tsunti region, historically also known as Didoeti, is populated by a small ethnic group of the Tsez which now numbers only about fifteen thousand people. In 1944, the Tsunt or Dido people became the victim of Stalinist repressions and were forcefully deported to the Vedeno region of Chechnya. Some fifty to seventy percent of them are believed to have died from malaria, starvation and hypothermia during deportation. After the return to their homeland, the Dido people repeatedly voiced demands for preservation of their identity and improvement of their living conditions.
At the end of 2010, a Dido delegation visited Georgia to communicate their problems to official Tbilisi and to ask for assistance. The delegation head, Magomed Gamzatov, told Georgian officials then that the Dido people wanted to be integrated into Georgia. A few months later, in February 2011, Magomed Gamzatov was found dead in his home.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 113, published 10 September 2012.