Big government is back in Dagestan

Dagestan's Khasavyurt is a city that never quite fit into Russia's power vertical — and local government is starting to feel the consequences. RU

Badma Biurchiev
16 June 2016

Khasavyurt, Dagestan's second city, is starting to get a reputation for civil resistance. CC-SA 4.0 Zastara / WikimediaCommons. Some rights reserved.In Khasavyurt, Dagestan, the first six months of 2016 have been marked by three high profile events — winter protests against attempts to close a mosque, the death of a newborn child in a local hospital and the mobilisation of small traders against the authorities’ confiscating contraband good. 

At first glance, these events don’t seem to be connected. However, if we look at the wider context, not only do these events complement one another, but they also point to a number of significant trends. In particular, how the republic authorities, the driving force behind Moscow’s governance techniques, have become hostage to their own policies.

This city, famous throughout southern Russia for its markets, is now entering a new era. And its immediate future, in which the state will clearly play a larger role, is unlikely to be an improvement on its recent “bandit” past. 

Why is Khasavyurt important? 

At the end of May, Dagestan’s Anti-Terrorist Commission (ATC) held its first ever visiting session in Khasavyurt. The city, which lies on the border with Chechnya, hosted not only Ramazan Abdulatipov, the regional governor (who also chairs the ATK), but also Sergei Melikov, Vladimir Putin’s presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. Indeed, it was Melikov who suggested the new venue

Less than a week later, on 1 June, the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights also held a meeting in Khasavyurt. The meeting was originally slated to take place in Chechnya, but after Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov refused to guarantee the safety of Igor Kalyapin, who heads the Committee against Torture (and who was recently attacked in the Chechen capital), the council decided to hold its session in Khasavyurt instead. 

Both organisations discussed how to combat terrorism. But while the securocrats and officials at the ATC meeting mainly reported on their successes, the presidential council on human rights focused on a hot issue for the whole of Dagestan — the so-called "Wahhabi lists” of alleged radical Islamists, which, in reality, often include local civic activists. 

This city of self-sufficient people doesn’t fit easily into Russia’s power vertical

It’s no surprise that Khasavyurt was chosen to host both government officials and their opponents, the official human rights activists. With its population of 140,000, Khasavyurt is the second largest city in Dagestan after the capital Makhachkala. The city, which is home to three equal ethnic groups (Avars, Chechens and Kumyks), is extremely important in both economic and strategic terms, but its potential points of conflict are also numerous. Indeed, given the deficit of land and other resources, the mobilisation of any these groups could lead to serious destabilisation across the region.

Suffice to say, there is a battle for this city going on. The main players are Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen republic, and Sagidpasha Umanakhov, former long-term mayor of Khasavyurt and Dagestan’s minister for transport, energy and communications. Some experts even saw the recent events in Kenkhi, an Avar village in Chechnya, as part of this “battle”. Kenkhi gained fame thanks to whistleblower Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, who, after complaining to Vladimir Putin about the state of affairs in the village, was forced to flee from the Chechen authorities to Dagestan.


February 2016: the death of a new mother in this maternity hospital in Khasavyurt set off protests. Image courtesy of the author.So far, the Khasavyurt administration has managed to balance these interests successfully. According to Khabib Magomedov, the director of a Dagestan state university research lab on combating extremism and terrorism, this is down to the city’s specific trajectory over the past 20 years. “The people who live in Khasavyurt are self-sufficient,” Magomedov tells me. “One way or another, they are connected through economic interests, and this is why they try to solve difficult issues peacefully.”

Khasavyurt rose to the fore during the wars in neighbouring Chechnya. It was this period that saw the food, goods, building materials and other markets develop in the city. Today, these are the biggest in southern Russia. As a result, the city’s residents are less reliant on the public sector, and aren’t as wired into the fight over the budget “pie”.

It’d be a mistake to describe Khasavyurt as some kind of “free city”. It’s simply that, until recently, the city was ruled by clear, albeit unwritten laws put in place by former mayor Umakhanov, who ruled the city from 1997 until 2015. 

Umakhanov’s road to power has been a winding one. In the language of sociology, this is the story of a transformation from a “strong-arm businessman” to a “stationary bandit”. In fact, two years ago, when the high-profile arrests of high local “barons” were in full-swing, Kadyrov openly referred to Umakhanov as a bandit. The mayor replied by hinting that the Chechen leader was behind one of the attempts on his life.

After this standoff, it became clear that Umakhanov’s positions were no longer safe. He would have to either negotiate with the Chechen leader or share the fate of other political heavyweights (who would discover, to their surprise, federal military helicopters arriving to remove them from their fiefdoms).

After lengthy talks, a compromise was found. Umakhanov was pushed upstairs and left his chosen successor in charge. The mechanism of “the return of big government” had, however, been already set in motion. The republic is coming back to the city — and bringing its own rules with it. 

The politics of self-sufficiency 

The first sign that something wasn’t right came earlier this year. On 31 January, the law and security authorities decided to close down the Salafi North mosque in Khasavyurt. Roughly 5,000 people held a protest march, and the mosque we reopened the next day. 

A month earlier, the mosque’s imam had been arrested on charges of storing weapons and supporting Islamic State. Indeed, since the end of 2015, there have been attempts to close down numerous Salafi mosques in Dagestan, including in Makhachala and Derbent. Muslims belonging to that branch of Islam, a growing fundamentalist reform movement, expressed their opposition everywhere. But it was only in Khasavyurt that they managed to get their mosques reopened almost immediately. 

The harassment of Khasavyurt’s Salafis continued, of course. People who took part in protests were brought in for questioning by the police, after which many had to leave the city. And in April the imam of the “East” mosque, another “bad” temple, was also arrested.

“They wanted to show that nobody would be left in peace, and gave people some ‘friendly’ advice to leave the area” 

Magomed, who took part in the protest, agreed to talk to me on the condition that I changed his name. “They started harassing us the day after the protest. It was more of a scare campaign. The security forces know everyone, and questioned people from different groups, not just the leaders. They wanted to show that nobody would be left in peace, and gave people some ‘friendly’ advice to leave the area. After these chats, some people did leave the country, for Egypt, other places. But most people just dispersed around our villages here in Dagestan, ‘for a bit of peace and quiet’”.

“How come people here in Khasavyurt succeeded in forcing the authorities to hand back the mosque keys, even if only briefly?” - I ask. 

“Makhachkala is a much more urban place,” Magomed tells me. “Khasavyurt, on the other hand, is a big village. Groups of people passed the word on social networks and a crowd gathered. People are better at organising things here. And there are a lot more Salafis: there are 12 Salafi mosques in Khasavyurt, and only two in Makhachkala. We can have 10,000-15,000 people, ten percent of the population, at Friday prayers, whereas in Makhachkala it’s more like two or three percent. And in the city the authorities have always been much more anti-Salafi than in Khasavyurt, which also makes a difference. People here aren’t used to being treated like this.” 


Khasavyurt's "Eastern" mosque. Image courtesy of the author. The authorities wasted no time in reasserting their power, but the locals were inspired by their short-lived victory to stage another demonstration. On 2 February, nearly 600 people gathered at the town’s maternity hospital, where a woman had died the day before after giving birth by caesarean section. 

According to Zarina Agmadova, chief press officer at Dagestan’s ministry of health, the women’s health clinic had advised the woman against having another baby, but “despite the counter indications for a sixth pregnancy, the woman refused to use contraception, for religious reasons.”

The demonstrators, however, claimed that the reason for the woman’s death was negligence on the part of the doctors, who didn’t intervene in time during labour. “Zalina was left on her own from midnight to 7 am, when the doctors found her lying in a pool of blood,” a family member told journalists. Protesters also recalled other cases of poor medical care in the town. Attempts by doctors and officials to rebut the complaints merely enraged the crowd further, and stones started flying through the hospital windows.

In the end, the authorities were once again forced to back down. On the same day Dagestan’s investigative organs brought a charge of causing death through criminal negligence against the hospital staff

Interestingly enough, the residents of the neighbouring town of Kizlyar were planning to hold a similar protest on 4 June: according to rights activists, three women had died giving birth in their local maternity hospital in the previous two months. This time, however, the police dispersed the protesters and no one has heard about any checks on the hospital taking place.

The next clash with the authorities that ended in a small victory (for the people of Khasavyurt) took place at one of its markets. At the end of April, lcoal police began carrying out regular raids on trading centres to seize counterfeit goods. The traders were, however, angered by the fact that the economic crime department’s officers refused to name themselves or present any ID. They would just turn up, accompanied by the local riot squad, and confiscate goods without any explanation.


Khasavyurt's Empire market has become a site of resistance against the city authorities. Image courtesy of the authorities.In early May, the stallholders at the Empire clothing market finally ran out of patience. When the riot squad appeared, led by a plainclothes officer, the traders blocked a shop exit and refused to allow the police to remove any goods from it. After this, according to market staff, the cops changed their tactics and offered the traders a deal: register as sole traders and pay your taxes, and we won’t confiscate your goods.

“We pay our taxes — and our roads are terrible; no one ever fixes them. Where does our money go?” 

“We don’t believe them,” says Rustam, one of the traders (not his real name). “What’s it all about? Counterfeit goods and taxes are two completely different things. We’ve always paid our taxes. We work and work, and it’s always ‘give us this, give us that’. They won’t leave us alone. We pay our taxes — and our roads are terrible; no one ever fixes them. Where does our money go?”

“And if we register as sole traders, then we won’t make any money at all. Why have they picked on us, in Khasavyurt? There’s counterfeit stuff everywhere. So close the borders, close Moscow, if you want to stop it. We just go to the wholesalers, buy goods and sell them.”

“They think we’re rolling in money,” butts in Fatima, another trader. “But we only just survive. And there’s no other work here – you finish school and get a market stall. That’s how most people live. What else can you do? The market owner threatened that if we started complaining to anybody we’d be out on our ears. He thinks he feeds us but it’s us that feed him! Why do we have to keep our mouths shut about it?”

The regional authorities have suddenly discovered that the official Islamic hierarchy is playing its own political game

“All our traders have noticed how since mayor Umakhanov left, there’s been some kind of carve up going on,” adds Rustan. “There’s no new leader in Khasavyurt. It’s probably all down to the governor, Abdulatipov.”

Rustan describes how the governor “came here a month ago and said that if the taxes on small business were increased, it would bring in an extra billion roubles,” a figure Rustan contests.

“The politicians in Makhachkala don’t know anything about our markets here – where did he get that figure from?” Rustan adds. “Some shops have closed down. People are scared – they’re getting their goods together and leaving. Putin himself said, ‘don’t touch small businesses’. But these guys come with AK-40s, like we’re some kind of terrorists. But once they’re taken the goods, they can pull it all down properly. And they make the traders pay for it!”

Elections raise the stakes to a new level

What do these three stories have in common? They’re all linked by the fact that, for a short time at least, the people in Khasavyurt were able to hold their ground and force the authorities to meet their demands.

But this isn’t to suggest that this reflects the kind of people we have here. This desperate resistance to the new order springs from the fact that the town has become stuck in a time warp.

In its dealings with Khasavyurt, the state, in the form of the republican authorities, has come to act like a “roving”, rather than a “stationary”, bandit. American sociologist Mancur Olson theorised that the stationary bandit differs from his roving companion in strategy — specifically, the stationary bandit focuses on his future, taking less from citizens in the short-term (which enables to take more in the long term). Meanwhile, the roving bandit focuses on maximising income without any long-term plan. 

When new parties are springing up everywhere, all with support from somewhere “at the top”, even the most unlikely alliances are possible

This change in the behaviour of the republican powers isn’t surprising. Our country’s vertical power structure encourages this very behaviour. To remain in your post as regional governor, you have to constantly convey a rosy picture of stability and your people’s support for the “party and government’s” policies. In this, the regional head has two allies: the power exerted by the police and security services and the economic dependence of the population. In return for their stolen sovereignty, the people are offered hospitals — where patients die after the simplest operations. 

The irony is that the Kremlin plays the same games with its regional representatives. The All-Russian Peoples’ Front (ONF) is a so-called civic movement set up by Vladimir Putin in 2011 — ostensibly, to maximise public influence on government. The ONF may appear to be useless, but in fact it plays quite an important role, exercising voluntary control over local government bodies, which in its turn makes them more dependent on Moscow. Not every pronouncement from the ONF’s activists is acted on, but the file at the presidential administration in Moscow is regularly updated — as regional governors are well aware.

The start of Russia’s parliamentary election campaign has raised the stakes to a new level. In Dagestan, the regional People against Corruption Party (NPK) is quickly gaining support. The media have already christened it the Muftiat Party, since its members claim that their numbers include religious leaders as Magomedrasul Saaduyev, the second-in-command to the regional Mufti and a figure of authority for both the official spiritual establishment and the Salafis too.

Among other prominent Dagestanis linked to NPK are Abdul Asayev, the son of the famous Sheikh Said-effendi Chirkeysky (killed by a suicide bomber in 2012), and Khazmukhammad Abubakarov, the father of the former mufti of Dagestan Mukhammadsaid Abubakarov (who also died in an explosion on 1998).

Some Dagestani political analysts have seriously suggested that the presidential administration is behind the NPK, and this is indirectly substantiated by the rather nervous reaction of Dagestan’s regional governor Ramazan Abdulatipov to a question about his views on this new anti-corruption party. 

“In the first place,” the governor told a newspaper on 3 June, “I am not aware of the existence of such a party, although I keep myself closely informed about the political process in the country and the region. A party needs a leader and an agenda, and I don’t see either of these. If there are people around these religious leaders who are pushing them into politics, then their spiritual authority will decline, and I wouldn’t like that to happen.”

Interestingly enough, this happened just a day after Dagestan’s mufti Ahmed-Hadji Abdulaev had expressed his approval of Muslim clerics’ involvement in politics. Citing Russia’s law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, the mufti said that “anyone employed by the Dagestani Spiritual Board of Muslims (DUMD) and any imam has the legal right to participate in elections, to vote and stand for election”. 

An interesting situation is arising. The regional authorities, who have been supporting the DUMD against the Salafis, have suddenly discovered that the official Islamic hierarchy is playing its own political game, and aligning itself with Moscow. This is at least a rational explanation for the decision to close all the Salafi mosques. The followers of this “pure” branch of Islam are in the minority in Dagestan, but they are generally active in public life and capable of taking collective action. So it would be logical for the official Muslim leadership to neutralise their inconvenient opponents before entering the political arena. 

Thus, when new parties are springing up everywhere, all with support from somewhere “at the top”, even the most unlikely alliances are possible. Be that as it may, the anti-corruption party won’t win seats in September, but instead frustrate their opponents in United Russia, Russia’s ruling party. The high-pressure campaign will remind the “roving bandits” in power that their situation is precarious, and force them to show even more zeal in their bootlicking of the federal government.

This city of self-sufficient people doesn’t fit easily into Russia’s power vertical. And now the residents of Khasavyurt have been deprived of the unenviable choice between “stationary” and “roving” bandits.

What is the future of Russia's North Caucasus? Find out more about the effects of strong-arm methods against civilian populations and how rural communities are slipping away from the state's control — and building their own infrastructure. 

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