The North Caucasus (Russian) Republic of Dagestan has avoided large-scale violence despite its proximity to Chechnya but is now suffering from escalating street warfare. Several hundred local and federal security forces, administrators, politicians, ministers and journalists have been killed since 2003. The militant Islamist organisation Shariat Jamaat is responsible for much of the violence. Some of its leaders fought in Chechnya, but its extremist propaganda is also attracting unemployed Dagestani youth. This home-grown extremism, espousing jihadi theology and employing terrorist methods, is a new phenomenon. Police efforts to end the street war have been ineffective and in some instances counter-productive. While supporting loyal local elites, Moscow can help halt the increase in violence if it implements an efficient anti-corruption policy and reintegrates youth into the economic and political system.
Street warfare has increased since 2003 and has by far surpassed inter-ethnic conflict over land, resources and employment as the main source of violence. In response, the republic’s security forces, often with federal reinforcements, are conducting special operations against Islamic militants which result in yet more bloodshed. The cycle of attacks and reprisals has created a spiral of violence, which has grown distinctively worse in the past year.
Dagestan is not a second Chechnya. Secession has no public support, but the porous border between the two republics has contributed to the problems. Their Islamist movements have historically had different agendas, but in the late 1990s links were created between Dagestani and Chechen Islamists, culminating in an August 1999 joint attack in Dagestan and declaration of a unified Chechen-Dagestani Islamic State. The incident provoked a return to conflict in Chechnya, counter-terrorism operations throughout the North Caucasus and the adoption of an “anti-Wahhabism” law in Dagestan which has in effect criminalised many moderate young Muslims, rather than neutralised jihadi fighters.
Shariat Jamaat has little difficulty recruiting young Dagestanis who are unemployed, traumatised by cruelty endured in jail and motivated by propaganda promoting jihad and armed resistance. Corruption and nepotism exclude many from the economy, feed their grievances and drive them into radical Islamist movements. Corruption is widespread in many regions of the former Soviet Union, but in Dagestan the problem is more severe and coupled with a flourishing black market and clan-based economic system.
Violence in Dagestan today is mainly caused by jihadi fighters, not inter-ethnic tensions. Although competition for land and political appointments often follows ethnic lines, the republic’s ethnic complexity has neutralised tensions by encouraging allegiances between groups and has prevented the emergence of a dominant one. Conflict between Avars and Dargins, nevertheless, remains a possibility, especially after an Avar, Mukhu Aliyev, became president. Electoral reforms in 2006 sought to “de-ethnicise” politics by ending ethnic electoral districts and introducing a general voting list. They were put to the test in the March 2007 parliamentary elections and appeared to be a relative success: the elections were less an inter-ethnic competition then a personal duel between Aliyev and Said Amirov, a Dargin, for political and economic power.
Makhachkala/Moscow/Brussels, 3 June 2008, crisisgroup