BACKGROUND: Amirov's arrest, carried out by an unprecedented concentration in Dagestan’s capital city of heavily armed forces including armored personal carriers, fighting vehicles, and helicopters, received both positive and negative reactions in Dagestan. Many in the republic are convinced that Amirov’s 15-year tenure as mayor of Makhachkala has been marked by physical liquidation of his political opponents, large-scale corruption, control over local businesses, and other forms of mismanagement. His arrest thus gives rise to hopes that change is possible in the country; a prospect increasingly associated with Ramazan Abdulatipov, Dagestan's acting president since early 2013. Sources in Dagestan have recently alleged that a conflict was underway between Abdulatipov, an ethnic Avar, and Amirov, an ethnic Dargin, over issues ranging from redistribution of power and wealth through a system of local clans to the forthcoming presidential elections in fall 2013, should they to take place. Some Dagestanis hope that Amirov’s arrest is a result of Abdulatipov’s vow to rid the country of corrupt and dishonest policemen and statesmen.
Federal Security Service (FSB) officials have accused Amirov and a number of other politicians close to him, including his nephew, the deputy mayor of Kaspiysk, of the murder of a detective in 2011. It is likely that more charges will follow as the trial proceeds, exposing Amirov’s controversial networking and practices that have long been a public secret in the republic. Some observers point out that Amirov’s alleged cooperation with insurgent leaders, for instance the notorious Ibrahim Hajidadayev of the Gimry jamaat, has contributed to the prevalence of Amirov and his clan in Dagestan’s complicated clan structure. Yet, whatever the outcome of Amirov’s trial, the removal of a single person, albeit the most controversial and powerful, from the republic’s political scene will hardly change the established practices of Dagestani policy-making, which has often been characterized by a specific form of modus vivendi between the authorities, including the law enforcement agencies, and criminals and members of Islamist jamaats formally in war with the former.
IMPLICATIONS: This cohabitation has become consolidated in the recent decade. Some jamaat leaders have acquire a safe haven in their native rural areas, where they could run their bases and hide out. In return, the local administration and law enforcement of these areas are not targeted by the jihadists. Representatives of authorities and jihadists are often related, natives of the same village or town, and belong to the same ethnic group, which helps them forge non-aggression pacts to mutual benefit. According to some Dagestanis, this factor has impeded the efficiency of the counterinsurgency campaign in parts of the republic, and has prompted Dagestani authorities to deploy police units from distant areas. Even so, insurgents are often informed by the local authorities of the upcoming crackdown. This problem contributed to Moscow’s decision last year to reinforce counterinsurgency operations in Dagestan with Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior units.
Second and perhaps most important, authorities and law enforcement, as well as jamaats in Dagestan are interested in “taxing” local businesses, which has been a key reason for violent confrontations between the two sides. Insurgent groups depend heavily on an inflow of funds, while positions in the Dagestani police are more or less openly sold – or given to ethnic or clan kin – and employees expect opportunities to acquire a return on this investment.
Attempting to avoid violence, law enforcement and jamaat leaders sometimes strike deals on their shares in the extortion. Given their relative power, shares can vary from approximately one third to two thirds. While some jamaats are led by convinced jihadists who refuse any form of cooperation with the authorities, others have combined jihad with crime and collaboration, or simply switched the aim of their activities to personal enrichment.
In some instances, jamaats and siloviki have exerted pressure on local businesses or wealthy individuals in a “good cop, bad cop” manner. With the approval of local authorities, law enforcement officers could request businessmen to pay a certain amount of money, usually in the thousands of dollars. Failing to do so would turn them into targets of local insurgents who have often profiled themselves as guardians of morality. Since many local businesses can easily be labeled as anti-Islamic in nature (such as restaurants selling alcohol, saunas associated with prostitution, etc.), killing or crippling their owners can both help jamaat leaders make solid money, and ensure their popularity among traditional and religious Dagestanis. In other instances, local businesses are approached by jamaats to pay the so called zak’at to insurgents, of which a portion is handed to the authorities. Another option for local siloviki is to murder defiant businessmen and declare them insurgents killed during counterinsurgency operations. Given the impunity and incompetence prevailing within Dagestan’s police, this could even benefit the careers of responsible police officers. As a result, innocent Dagestanis have frequently become targets of violence perpetrated by both law enforcement and insurgents, which has in the recent decade shaped the negative attitudes of the Dagestanis public toward the local police.
In this scheme of money-making, Amirov enjoyed a special standing given the scope of his power and influence. Some Dagestanis allege that while large businesses and oligarchs were off limits to local law enforcement (Dagestani oligarchs routinely possess armed guards of their own resembling private armies), Amirov’s cooperation with Hajidadayev, and possibly other insurgent leaders, was instrumental in extorting money from them. According to some local sources, businessmen periodically had to pay serious money to Amirov and his clan to make sure they and their relatives would not become victims of “Wahhabi terrorism.” The same was true for Amirov’s political opponents and leaders of competing clans. Even though precise information on this subject is for understandable reasons difficult to obtain, some commentators have alleged that recent murders and arrests of some insurgents have paved the ground for Amirov’s detainment, possibly because they have testified against him.
CONCLUSIONS: Doubts remain as to whether Amirov’s arrest is indicative of a shift in Moscow’s policies toward the Dagestani elites or just an outcome of “clan wars” that have become an entrenched feature of regional politics. If it merely represents an attempt by Dagestan’s present leader or his closest circle to take over power and wealth in the republic, the impact of such a move will be rather insignificant. Even so, it has already contributed to reinforced inter-ethnic tensions between Dagestan’s two major ethnic communities, Avars and Dargins, given Abdulatipov’s and Amirov’s ethnic origins and power bases. In Dagestan’s situation of permanent inter-ethnic competition, many Dargins consider Amirov’s “liquidation” as another attempt on the part of Avars to concentrate power in the republic in their own hands, following the recent de facto replacement of Dagestan’s former president Magomedsalam Magomedov, another Dargin, by Abdulatipov, an Avar.
If Amirov’s arrest is part of Moscow’s far-reaching efforts to cleanse the Dagestani elites, serious societal change could be expected in the country. Getting rid of corrupt and unpopular leaders and siloviki engaged in criminal activities would significantly improve public attitudes toward local elites. Along with an announced reform of the Dagestani police, this could potentially reduce support for the insurgency, seen by many ordinary Dagestanis, particularly the youth, as the only way of punishing the siloviki and authorities for their impunity. Hopefully, the ongoing deterioration of the situation in Dagestan, along with the general inability of local authorities to put an end to the insurgency, has led the Kremlin, already concerned over the security implications of the North Caucasus insurgency for the upcoming Olympics in Sochi (2014), to rethink its policy toward the region. Coming months will show whether such hopes are valid.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered” (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2013) and “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective” (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).