From Moscow to Makhachkala: the people in between.

AuthorJones, Kimberly L.
PositionRussian geopolitical and human rights issues in Dagestan Republic governance

Introduction: Setting the Stage I. The Governance Crisis in Context A. Setting the Stage: Land and People of the Mountains B. The North Caucasus Federal District: Adding Fuel to a Governance Fire 1. Dagestan: All Politics Is Local? 2. Moscow's Meddling while Makhachkala's Burning II. From Grozny to Moscow to Makhachkala: Militant Violence in Context A. The Chechen Context: "We Shall Respond to Every Chechen Shot with Thousands of Our Own". B. Militant Violence in Context: From Grozny to Makhachkala to Moscow C. Wars and Peace? III. Human Rights and Wrongs: From Moscow to Makhachkala A. Russia's Rhetorical Commitment to Human Rights B. Silencing Truth: Targeting Journalists C. Killing Hope: Human Rights Defenders in the Crosshairs D. The Deafening Silence of Those Who Suffer IV. From Moscow to Makhachkala: The People in Between The main problem with our society, are these broken links. Everything that ties us together between regions, generations, past and present, has been shattered by the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the successor regime to the Soviet Union. We will only become a healthy society once we have rebuilt those connections, somehow. (1)


Since the mid-1990s, the Russian Federation (Russia) has been engaged in a series of violent struggles within its North Caucasus territory. (2) While much attention has rightly focused on the Republic of Chechnya, the locus of two wars and a protracted counterterrorist operation, the nature of the violence has varied across the region in the interceding years. (3) In the neighboring Republic of Dagestan, violence increased after Russia declared an end to the second Chechen war. (4) Efforts to sustainably stem violence in this restive republic have been stymied because Russia has failed to meaningfully address a series of critically important contextual factors: Dagestani governance, the backdrop of regional violence, and human rights violations against the local population. In short, conflict occurs in context, and by failing to connect the dots, Moscow's policies have undermined security in its periphery-Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, and the hinterlands it governs.

Charles King notes, "Awe and terror have often been intertwined in outsiders' conceptions of the Caucasus." (5) Indeed, it is terror that focused U.S. attention on this oft-overlooked corner of Russia in the spring of 2013. (6) Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the parents of Dzhokar and Tamarlan, the two young men accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013, live in Makhachkala. (7) News articles after the attack were peppered with questions about whether the brothers Tsarnaev were radicalized in Dagestan. (8) A report scheduled for release in the summer of 2013 asks whether the violence of the region has come to the United States, in essence from the Caucasus to Copley. (9) Additionally, the 2014 Winter Olympics are in nearby Sochi, Russia. The state has invested heavily in security for the Olympics, and militants have threatened the international event. (10) "Awe and terror" are also reflected in considering the basic human dignity of the ten million people who live in that region. (11) Since the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994, tens of thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been wounded and even more have had their lives disrupted by violence. (12) Nearly a year prior to his death, murdered Dagestani journalist Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev reflected on human rights concerns in the Republic and stated, "Such a feeling that time in Russia and Dagestan flows in the opposite direction, the authorities want to return society to the Stalinist-Soviet era, where the right to absolute truth belonged only to the state and its opponents were [a]waiting either endless prosecution or imprisonment and extrajudicial execution." (13)

This Article begins with the first contextual factor of governance. It sets the geopolitical stage, situating Dagestan within the Russian Federation and highlighting Moscow's bungled approach to ruling Makhachkala. Part II places militant violence in contemporary context, examining Chechnya and Dagestan. Part III examines human rights issues connected to efforts to stem the violence in Dagestan. While a host of human rights violations could be examined, the focus herein is on journalists and human rights defenders. The conclusion completes the journey and reviews the consequences.

The consequences addressed in that final Part are important for policymakers focused on the region and have comparative value as well. Successful and sustainable efforts to stem political violence, including terrorism, must be undertaken with due consideration for the broader conflict context. Such efforts, whether undertaken by Russia, or other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom or Israel, must also be cognizant of the expansive backdrop constructed where state and society meet and diverge over space and time. Domestic and international counterterrorism measures must be part and parcel of larger, more comprehensive strategies that are willing to embrace the complexities and intersections of geography, culture, politics, and history. Through embracing these complexities, policymakers may find windows of opportunity to transform situations away from violence and toward sustainable peace, thus reducing the risk of terrorism, from Moscow to Makhachkala.


    Governance can be defined "as the traditions and institutions that determine how authority is exercised in a particular country." (14) This section examines Moscow's missteps regarding two key governance challenges in Dagestan: the construction and management of the North Caucasus Federal District, and the state's management of republic-level politics. This analysis demonstrates the disconnect that exists between Moscow and Makhachkala and the people in between, the citizens of the Republic. To provide a backdrop for understanding these two contextual issues, this Part begins with an introduction to Dagestan: the land and people of the mountains.

    1. Setting the Stage: Land and People of the Mountains

    The Republic of Dagestan is situated in the southwestern corner of Russia, nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, a chain that runs east to west across southern Russia. (15) The Caucasus Mountains form a real, physical boundary that separates the region from the rest of Russia, especially Moscow, the federal capital situated more than 1000 miles to the north of Makhachkala, the republic's capital city. (16) Within Russia, Dagestan's territorial neighbors include the Republic of Chechnya, Stavrapol Krai, and the Republic of Kalmykiya. (17) Externally, it borders the Caspian Sea as well as the states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. (18)

    The North Caucasus, depending on perspective, could be termed a magnificent melding or malevolent maelstrom of topography, ethnicities, languages, religion, and political ambitions, including territorial nationalism. Dagestan in particular embodies these characterizations as the most heterogeneous of its regional neighbors. (19) The former president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, acknowledged, "Dagestan is a multiethnic republic. We have more than 120 ethnic groups and 33 peoples and nationalities." (20) Many scholars, analysts and journalists concur as it is described as "the most diverse republic in the Russian territories." (21) Dominant ethnic groups include the Avar (29.4%); Dargin (17%); Kumyk (14.9%); and the Lezgin (13.3). (22) Less concurrence is found regarding the total population numbers: an increase of nearly half a million persons between the 2002 and 2010 census has been called "an astonishing and suspiciously high spike of population." (23) Russian census numbers put the population at 2.9 million, with approximately 700,000 residing in Makhachkala. (24)

    Within the population, the rise, fall, and entrenchment of various faiths and sects have been interwoven with the historical ambitions of empires, including Persia, the Ottomans, and Russia, as well as local geography of mountains and valleys. (25) Islam first arrived in Dagestan in the seventh century; since then, various schools and sects thereof have held sway with the population. (26) Sunni and Sufi Islam have emerged as the dominant forms, and both have helped shape repeated resistance to Russia's hegemonic efforts in the North Caucasus. (27) On this point, however, intellectual caution urges against essentializing:

    Historians and more contemporary analysts both sympathetic and antagonistic to the mountaineers' resistance routinely emphasize the fundamental importance of Islam in the Caucasian Wars [of centuries past], arguing (or assuming) that religion served as the prime motivation in the mountaineers' resistance against the Russian infidel.... [However, Islam's[ significance lies less in its ability to motivate resistance than as a guide for how the resisters should organize their communal lives. (28) B. The North Caucasus Federal District: Adding Fuel to a Governance Fire

    Within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or the Soviet Union), organizing the public lives of the citizenry was the state's job. (29) When the USSR collapsed in December 1991, one state vanished from the map and fifteen new ones emerged in its stead, including the Russian Federation. (30) According to its constitution, Russia is a democratic state with "a republican form of government." (31) The Republic of Dagestan is one of eighty-three administrative divisions that comprise the federation. (32) It is part of the North Caucasus Federal District, one of eight meta-governance constructions within Russia, which bridges the political gap between the multitude of smaller entities and the federal state. (33) Originally, seven districts were created by presidential decree in May of 2000, by the then newly-elected...

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