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Russia’s imperial policies in the North Caucasus

Maksud Djavadov

Even during his time, the independence movement was not monolithic. The Islamic resistance movement under Sheikh Shamil was composed of various ethnic and tribal interests with shifting allegiances

At a superficial level, events in Dagestan may appear straight forward. One gets the impression that there is an Islamic movement struggling to gain independence from Russia. However, this does not reflect the entire reality. The latest crisis regarding the presidential nomination shows that there are many other issues that impact on the political landscape. It is necessary to understand other socio-political forces in Dagestan in order to accurately assess the Islamic pro-independence movement.

Dagestan: Known and unknown

One of the best known facts about Dagestan is that it was home of the legendary 19th century hero, Sheikh Shamil or, Imam Shamil as he is known in Dagestan. However, even this fact is often overlooked because Sheikh Shamil was the leader of both Dagestan and Chechnya. Since Chechnya has been much in the news in recent years because of its independence struggle, many people associate Sheikh Shamil only with Chechnya. Sheikh Shamil was an Avar, one of the ancient ethnic groups in Dagestan.

Even during his time, the independence movement was not monolithic. The Islamic resistance movement under Sheikh Shamil was composed of various ethnic and tribal interests with shifting allegiances. One of the epic leaders of the resistance movement in the 1800s was Hadji-Murad. He gained fame for his courage in battles but alas, also for shifting allegiances. Understanding the motives behind Hadji-Murad’s shaky allegiances to safeguard the interests of his clan, tribe and family provide a good example of Dagestan’s complicated political landscape. Hadji-Murad was responsible for the assassination of Gamzat-bek, the first leader of Dagastani resistance against Russia. Hadji-Murad later fought alongside Gamzat-bek’s trusted commander, Sheikh Shamil whom he later also abandoned because of rumors spread by the Russians that Shamil wanted to kill him. This shows that personal interests often supersede principles in Dagestan. It is precisely such interests that Russia exploits to maintain its dominance over the Caucasus.

When examining the situation in Dagestan it is necessary to bear in mind that it was never an independent state within its current borders. The current territorial borders of Dagestan were drawn up after Russian colonization. Dagestan, like many other places in the region, lacks the concept of statehood. It is thus difficult to formulate a state strategy that would be acceptable to all thirteen ethnicities in Dagestan. Dagestani ethnic groups value their communal independence more than territorial independence. Specific concepts of a modern state which are imposed on the world by the descendants of those who were signatories to the Westphalia Treaty of 1648 are alien to most parts of the world. For Dagestan, however, the general principles of a modern state are alien to the mindset and culture of the people inhabiting this area. It does not mean that ethnicities living in Dagestan cannot come to terms with living in one country if it were to attain independence. For this to be realised, however, a system to accommodate everyone’s interests must be put in place and be transparent and flexible.

Power and Interests

In Dagestan, power means the ability to convince as many ethnic groups as possible to support one’s own vision of the country. Currently only Russia manages to pull the largest number of ethnicities towards its vision of Dagestan. The reason for Moscow’s success is simple: it is more flexible in its approach than others. Moscow is willing to accommodate local ethnicities and tolerate their narrow perception of independence. This is clearly demonstrated by the widespread knowledge in Dagestan that local government officials have their own militias which function under Moscow’s patronage. All these militias, however, are officially incorporated within the local security apparatus and function within the legal framework of the Russian Federation. This issue was addressed in the letter sent by Dagestan’s Peoples Assembly (DPA) to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2009 prior to his nomination of a presidential candidate.

In addition to Moscow, the other centres of power revolve round wealthy local politicians who also have a good amount of firepower at their disposal. Since Dagestan’s population is only three million and ethnicities comprising it are not large in number, the distribution of power among community leaders is small. Those community leaders that secure their business interests and share some of the wealth with members of their ethnic clans manage to define the interests of their community within their own business and political ambitions. This creates a dependence of success, that is, success of an ethnic group depends upon the success of its leader.

When Medvedev was due to nominate a presidential candidate for DPA to approve in January 2010, most Dagestanis were more interested in the nationality of the nominees than in their actual policies. (As this issue goess to press, the nomination had not been announced). One of the potential candidates wasMagomedsalam Magomedov whose father was President of Dagestan for 15 years until 2006. Magomed-salam’s nomination immediately aroused opposition of many local leaders simply because he belongs to the Dargin ethnic group. Magomedsalam is the only Dargin candidate competing against four others, all of them Avars. This means that at present, Moscow favours the Avars in its ethnic politics in Dagestan. The reason for this is that without the backing of the Avar masses, any independence movement in Dagestan is not likely to succeed.

Currently Avars play an important role as ethnic balancers economically and numerically as they did for the past 150 years. From the religious point also Avars are important since they traditionally have great influence on Sufi tariqas in the region. Even though Dagestan’s internal power labyrinth is one of the key factors in Russia’s policies, the Chechen factor also plays an important role. Chechens also live in Dagestan and Chechen politics have played a major role in Dagastan’s political arena.

Moscow understands that the core of the pro-independence movement’s members in Dagestan, as in the rest of the North Caucasus is connected to Chechnya. All pro-independence movement leaders in Dagestan have either fought alongside the Chechens or are still fighting. Therefore, countering Chechen influence in Dagestan is one of the key factors in Russia’s decision-making process. Pro-independenceChechens in Dagestan are actively involved in the underground movement fighting Russian presence. However, it is not the pro-independence Chechens in Dagestan that worries Russia, but ones that are allied with those whom Moscow appointed to run Chechnya. The problem is that Russian nominated Caucasus leaders are guided first by their egos and tribal loyalties and then by allegiance to Moscow. The Russians know the local mentality and realize that if Chechens in Dagestan ask for help from the pro-Moscow Chechen establishment, reinforcements will come in defiance of Moscow’s will. This is because of the local honor code that is based on ego. If such a situation ever develops it will destroy the fragile power balance among ethnicities in Dagestan which the Russians have worked so hard to build after 1999.

For Moscow the key decision-making aspect depends on who is willing to preserve Russian influence in Dagestan. It does not matter who it is: people speaking a foreign language, have different looks or even be part of a small army as long as they preserve Russian sovereignty in the region. However, as the Islamic movement presses on with its attacks, Russia might miscalculate its political response as it is currently in the process of doing. On January 19, the Russian president committed a political blunder which can potentially turn into a long term strategic gain for the pro-independence movement in North Caucasus. For the first time in decades Russia created a position for managing the region and called it “The Governor-General for the North Caucasus.” Along with creating this new/old imperialist post, the Russian president appointed an outsider to run the region subordinating security of the entire region to him. Together with naming Alexander Gennadyevich Khloponin, an ethnic Russian who was formerly governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, the Russian president also ordered that his office be located in Petegorsk, a Russian town at the far end of the Caucasus.

This newly created post will certainly anger local pro-Moscow leaders not just in Dagestan and Chechnya but in the entire North Caucasus territories. Having a Chechen or Dagestani leader as a subordinate of Moscow is different because this makes him feel equal to the Russian president due to his high status in the Caucasus region. The fact that control over the pro-Russian leadership is now outsourced to a low ranking official, will certainly upset the ego of many quasi-independent regional leaders. This factor is significant in the Caucasus.

Islamic Movement

There is no formal Islamic movement in Dagestan. There are cells or autonomous armed groups that attack Russian and pro-Russian forces in Dagestan. These groups are mostly commanded by individuals who fought in the Chechen wars and now want to replicate past Chechen successes against Russian forces. Ideologically these groups have a Wahhabi orientation and thus do not appeal to the wider Muslim population of Dagestan. One of the primary reasons is that most Dagestanis are from the mainstream Sunni Muslim schools of jurisprudence and many are Sufis. There is also a strong Azeri Shia Muslim community in Dagestan whom the Wahhabis do not even consider as Muslims.

The killing of a large number of local security officials by armed groups fighting Russian forces has created strong animosity between various ethnic groups. This makes it difficult to establish a transparent and flexible platform in order to launch a mass-based Islamic movement. The armed groups that claim to be fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Caucasus Emirate in North Caucasus encompassing Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Cherkesia and Adigeya have no concrete socio-economic program apart from some Islamic slogans.

The armed pro-independence groups also lack the backing of many influential Islamic leaders who fought in the first Chechen war and actively represented the Islamic aspirations in Dagestan. One such leader is Ali Adallo, a famous Dagestani poet of Avar descent who was deputy of Shamil Basayev at the Congress of Dagestan and Chechen Peoples. Adallo has an Islamic vision and has wide appeal among the masses. He does not support Russian presence but also gives only limited support to the armed groups.

This situation does not augur well for creating a mass movement by the armed groups that are fighting in the name of an Islamic state. However, if Russia’s centralization policies upset a good number of quasi-independent leaders, their shift towards pro-independence groups in Dagestan may create a potential turn around. If committed Muslims implement ideas with appropriate flexibility that appeal to most ethnic groups, then the Russian position will be weakened. The ability to combine hard and soft power against Russian presence along with a flexible approach is crucial to achieving Dagestan’s independence. If Moscow does not back down from the recently announced centralization policy in the North Caucasus, we might soon witness the very people Russia currently supports becoming the hardest for it to control.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 11

Muharram 15, 14312010-01-01

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