Is Russia losing control of its war on Islamic fundamentalism in the North Caucasus? In Dagestan, the answer to that at question has become inextricably linked with state corruption. Salikh Gadzhiev is the man who was charged with halting the corruption. What happened when this middle-aged man with high blood-pressure and a dicky heart took on the corrupt establishment is revealing about the nature of power in Russia today.
Corruption, the police and the Islamists
A virulent strain of the global battle against militant Islam is being fought out on Russia’s southern border, in Dagestan. The police hold the front line in the local civil war with the radical Islamists. Corruption in police ranks is increasingly giving the Islamists the upper hand.
'Police corruption not only keeps driving the young into the arms of the Islamists. It helps finance the Islamist cause'
The civil war raging in Dagestan is indirectly linked to the two wars which have been fought in neighbouring Chechnya. Chechnya’s wars may have started as a bid for freedom from Russian domination. But the cause morphed into a stand-off between the secular state and radical Islam. When the Russian army left Chechnya in 2009, the conflict did not end. It was driven underground. And it has surfaced over the mountains, in Dagestan. Since the police, rather than the army, are prosecuting that war, public confidence in the police is a key issue in Dagestan. Police corruption not only keeps driving the young into the arms of the Islamists. It helps finance the Islamist cause.
Police colonel Gadzhiev runs the task force charged with purging police corruption in a service where honest policemen have recently found themselves being framed, or targeted for ‘retirement’. All over Russia, people’s confidence in their police is at an all time low. The latest research from Levada Centre shows 7% satisfaction with police, and falling. But in Dagestan, the situation is ‘a hundred times worse,’ according to Gadzhiev. He has lost 27 men [link in Russian] from his own task force. Today, he reckons that only about 10-20% of the force are reliable: ‘Unless serious reforms are undertaken in the Ministry, within 5 years this crucial government department will have been finally ruined, ’ he predicts.
Salikh Gadzhiev, the police colonel charged with fighting corruption in the Daghestani police force, has been unable to get a meeting with the head of the Russian Ministry of Interior to discuss corruption.
For the last 6 months Gadzhiev and a group of senior Dagestani policemen have been trying, and failing, to meet Russia’s Minister of the Interior Vladimir Kolokol’tsev, their ultimate boss, to discuss this crisis. ‘We’re a voice crying in the wilderness. No one will listen.’
So he teamed up with a man who has made a lifetime study of fighting injustice in Dagestan’s police force. Magomed Shamilov, 1.98m in his socks, volcanic in energy, was once a policeman himself. After being sacked not once, but twice, for his obsessive habit of championing injustice, he set up his own, independent union for police officers and the judiciary. It’s an odd sort of union: only Shamilov knows the full list of its members. For if any acting police officer were known to be a member of Shamilov’s union, he would be sacked.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits an FSB Special Forces Centre in Makhachkala, Dagestan in 2009. Photo (cc) The Press and Information Service of the President of the Russian Federation
Shamilov reckoned that the Sochi Olympics in February 2014 offered them a chink of hope. For this was the moment when the eyes of the whole world would be turned on the N.Caucasus. ‘If we act now, before the Olympics, we might, if we make an enormous effort, be able to rescue the situation. After that, things could spiral out of control.’
The two men wrote to Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, and asked him to intercede with Russia’s Minister of the Interior Kolokol’tsev on their behalf. Fedotov tried to get the Minister to respond, but failed.
Going public was a last resort. Aware of the risk they were taking, the two men involved the human rights organisation Memorial. At a joint press conference, Memorial’s chair Oleg Orlov said: ‘corruption in the force is so bad that it is almost impossible to work within the law. We’ve tried and failed to get this through to the MVD leadership, but it’s useless. Those officers who try to resist become outcasts.’
So, at the beginning of March, Gadzhiev, Shamilov and other senior policemen flew from Makhachkala to Moscow to launch a press campaign, in a final bid to convince Minister Kolokol’tsev to grant them an audience. With Memorial standing behind them, they gave interviews to the television channel Dozhd [Rain TV], newspapers Novaya Gazeta, Izvestia, Kommersant and the website Caucasian Knot.
They painted a picture of a force where corruption had long ago become systemic: ‘It costs about 300-500,000 roubles to buy a rank and file job,’ testified retired deputy commander of the Dagestani police force, Lieut Col Magomed Guseinov: ‘The cost of an officer’s job is upwards of a million.’
'Dagestan’s Ministry of the Interior has been a profitable business for a long time….in the security services, corruption is directly bound up with extremism and terrorism'
‘Our rates are more modest,’ chipped in the retired commander of the mobile squad from the provincial town of Khasavyurt, Abdulkadyr Bekmurzaev. ‘300,000 will buy you a rank and file job, 5-700,000 to become an officer. Money from bribes is usually put in one pot, though there are some enterprising places where they’ll give you credit.’
‘It’s an iron rule in the Ministry of the Interior,’ Shamilov confirms: ‘Half of what you earn after that goes to the boss. If you follow the economic logic, when a policeman dies, the bosses win out, as it means there’s another job for sale. The death of one man can earn you good money.’
‘Dagestan’s Ministry of the Interior has been a profitable business for a long time,’ volunteered Suleiman Abdullaev, a senior officer still serving in the Economic Crimes Unit. ‘In the security services, corruption is directly bound up with extremism and terrorism.’ For the last 4 years, for instance, his team has been fruitlessly investigating a case involving 200 train wagons of pure alcohol worth one and a half billion rubles. 30% of the profits from this illegal distillery were due to go to the Islamist fighters, while the godfathers of the operation were the top brass of the Ministry of the Interior.
Oleg Orlov, one of the leaders of Memorial, in the human rights' organisations Moscow office. Orlov has helped publicise Salikh Gadzhiev's anti-corruption fight. According to Orlov, the corruption in the Dagestani police force is ‘so bad that it is almost impossible to work within the law'. Photo: europeparl.euroropa.eu
The litany of grievances flowed on. There were the prisoners who were being tortured. There were the police widows and hundreds of policemen crippled in the course of active service who were not receiving the pensions due to them. On the mundane level, there were the ‘hundreds, nay thousands’ of officers drawing salaries for policemen who had never turned up for work. There were the ordinary policemen who, on top of their police shifts, were forced to work unpaid as security guards for their bosses, or set to protect the luxury homes of the rich (the bosses, not the men, being rewarded for this service).
Yet, since for most young men the only alternative was to join the fundamentalists, demand for police jobs remained high. For in Dagestan jobs are as rare as hens’ teeth.
A month has passed since Gadzhiev’s audacious press campaign. Russia’s Minister of the Interior has not responded by agreeing to meet him. Instead, in Dagestan they have started proceedings against Gadzhiev.
Stress had taken such a toll on the 56-year old colonel, that by the time he flew home to Makhachkala in mid-March he had to be rushed to hospital and admitted to an emergency ward. There, he was promptly tracked down by a police inspector who forced him to discharge himself from hospital in order to account for his actions. He has since been refused admission to the hospital attached to his own Ministry of the Interior, by order of the Minister.
Salikh Gadzhiev is indeed becoming an outcast, as Memorial’s chairman predicted. He will be lucky to get away with being sacked, in the view of his ally Shamilov: ‘In Dagestan today any policeman can be shot, blown up or written off as a Wahhabite. It happens a lot.’ He sighs: ‘It makes you wonder - has Russia abandoned Dagestan?’