Thursday, January 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Daghestan Sliding Toward Chaos, Civil War

Paul Goble

Baku, January 17 – Daghestan, both in its capital city where people continue to demonstrate against the lack of electricity, heat and water in this coldest January in many years and in rural areas where Islamist groups continue to be active, is rapidly sliding toward the chaos of a civil war, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an article posted online this week, Igor Boykov, who writes frequently about the North Caucasus, said that the situation in Daghestan is already so bad that Moscow has effectively declared “a total information blockade in federal media about the true state of affairs” there (
While nearly half of the million residents of Makhachkala are without basic services, he continued, central Russian media continue to insist that the only places in Russia where people are doing without them this winter are “two Yakut settlements with a population of a couple of hundred people.”
The republic and city governments have no immediately obvious way of ending the protests, which have grown bigger and more violent since the first of the year, by turning the electricity, heat and water supplies back on or of blocking the growing threat from Islamic radicals in the mountains.
Because of widespread official corruption, the republic owes so much money to its supplier of electricity that there is little or no hope that Makhachkala can pay what it owes or prevent the protests over heat and light from acquiring a political dimension, Boykov argued.
And it lacks the police power of its own to block the demonstrations, stem the continuing series of murders of local officials – one more of whom was killed last night -- or retake control of some of the republic’s outlying districts where Islamist radicals rather than the government are in effective control of the situation.
Should these the protests in the city link up with the Islamist elements in the countryside – and that is a very real possibility, Boykov suggested – then there would be “a revolutionary situation” in Daghestan that could threaten the ability of the authorities to keep order.
The protests in Makhachkala over the last several weeks have included mass meetings and the blocking of streets and public transport, and the demonstrators now are demanding not only that they get their heat and light back on but that the leaders of the republic be replaced.
At the barricades they have put up in some places, Makhachkala residents have put up signs with messages denouncing republic president Mukha Aliyev: “We believed you, but you have not justified our hopes,” Boykov says, citing the regional journal Chernovik, number 1 (2008).
And this anger about services has caused many people there to be increasingly angry about the way in which Aliyev and others falsified the parliamentary election returns. He reported that 90 percent of Daghestanis had taken part in the vote and that 90 percent had voted for United Russia. In fact, “no more than 8-9 percent” took part.
The reason the power was turned off at the end of last year is that local officials owe 200 to 400 million rubles (8 to 16 million U.S. dollars) to the power company, a debt the officials were directly responsible for incurring and one that they now have no resources to do anything about.
Indeed, Boykov wrote, the explanation for this debt “must be sought in the enormous palaces” which the officials have built for themselves from funds they have skimmed from the communal service payments of the population. And these houses thus now symbolize for many what is wrong in Daghestan.
And underlying this are simmering ethnic conflicts in that most multi-national republic of the Russian Federation, with members of one group blaming the situation on officials from another. Officials in the past have exploited such divisions to maintain order, but now, these divides could exacerbate current tensions.
Indeed, Boykov argued, “it is completely possible in the nearest future to expect not only mass protest actions but also mass disorders,” especially if people in the cities and Islamist elements in some rural areas link up, a development he suggests is quite likely.
Last summer, Daghestani President Aliyev had to acknowledge that the situation in the countryside of his republic has decayed to the point that the aul of Gimri in Untsukul rayon is “de facto beyond the jurisdiction of Makhachkala.” But in fact, other places are as well, Boykov said.
And despite the claims of both Makhachkala and Moscow, Daghestani militant organizations have “not been defeated. They are as before capable of military actions. And they are even expanding the zone of their influence, converting into a military theater Southern Daghestan which until recently had been stable.”
This militant underground, he said, is “actively infiltrating” the protest groups on the streets of Makhachkala, something that Boykov said had prompted him to suggest that Daghestan’s communists should “seize the initiative.” But the latter responded that they couldn’t: “There are no cadres and no people capable of working with the masses.”
That seems to be true of the government in Makhachkala as well, a lack that as Boykov concluded, could be filled by Islamist radicals. That they have the cadres and the people who can do so, he warned, is something about which no one in Moscow or Makhachkala should have any doubts.

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