A suicide bombing in the Russian city of Volgograd on October 21 raised the specter of Islamic radical-inspired violence at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin can be counted on to use a heavy hand to keep a lid on trouble during the showcase event. Yet, when considering the potential threat, it’s important to keep in mind that Putin’s policies have played a key role in radicalizing Islamists in Russia, particularly in the volatile southern autonomous republic of Dagestan.
The Volgograd bombing -- in which a suspected female Islamist from Dagestan detonated herself on a crowded bus, leaving six dead and dozens seriously wounded – fueled speculation about a potential terrorism campaign in Russia during the run-up to the Games, or even an attack in Sochi during the event. Such fears may be overblown. Russia is spending an estimated $3 billion to ensure the safety of the Games, and while security operations in Russia have in the past been prone to failure due to corruption, human error or simply bad luck, experts consider the risk of an attack in Sochi itself to be low.
But the fact remains that the security situation in Dagestan is perilous, with assassinations, abductions, shoot-outs and car bombings happening almost daily. In the week following the Volgograd bombing, for example, a 12kg bomb was defused near a shopping mall in Khasavyurt; a car bomb killed a police investigator in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala; and two suspected militants armed with explosives were killed in a firefight with police. Dagestan’s history of violence includes 12 killed by two bombs in Kizlyarin 2010, Islamic insurgents killing 58 police officers and Dagestan’s interior minister in 2009, and, in 2008, the death of the deputy commander of Russia’s Interior Ministry forces in the North Caucasus.
The escalation of violence in recent years has been linked to the rising support for Salafist movement among younger Muslims in Dagestan. It is important here to note that support for radical interpretations of Islam is a relatively recent phenomenon in Dagestan. The republic’s descent into chaos can be traced to political decisions made during the first presidency of Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s.
Up until then, Dagestan had remained remarkably stable, despite the existence of a number of factors that fuelled conflicts elsewhere in the Caucasus. Dagestan’s relative success was due to a set of formal and informal institutions that helped keep violent trends in check. These included the traditional organization of communities into djamaats which served as a marker for identity and functioned as de-facto units of political organization. The republic also benefitted from the continuity of Soviet-era political elites in formal state institutions. These institutions were successful in integrating post-Soviet challengers into the political process.
In addition, Dagestan had a constitution that ensured power-sharing among various groups under a consociational model of democracy. Meanwhile, traditional Islamic structures worked in support of republican state structures. In short, continued stability in Dagestan was possible because local leaders enjoyed a relatively large degree of autonomy in dealing with its internal affairs.
Everything started changing in early 2000. Shortly after his rise to power, Vladimir Putin embarked on a campaign of recentralization to bring key economic and political assets back under control of the Kremlin. Initially, these policies made sense: the last years of Boris Yeltsin’s administration were chaotic, and many observers agreed that Russia seemed to be falling apart in the late 1990s.
The main change for Dagestan was that the president of the republic was no longer to be elected, but nominated by the Kremlin and then approved by the parliament of the republic. With the stroke of a pen, the accountability of the highest office in the republic was no longer toward the djamaats and the old elites in the republic, but to the Kremlin alone.
The “election” of Mukhu Aliev in February 2006 under the Kremlin’s new rules heralded a significant shift in the balance of power in the republic, and resulted in the unraveling of previously effective institutions. The competition for the control over lucrative resource flows led to the formation of new factions, in which formerly sidelined militant Islamists suddenly became attractive partners.
The republic’s current president is Ramazan Abdulatipov, a former Soviet apparatchik who was hand-picked by Putin. Given that he is one of the great political survivors of the post-Soviet era, it’s not particularly surprising that counter-terror operations in Dagestan under Abdulatipov’s watch seem to be as much about consolidating his personal authority as they are about combating Islamic extremism. As part of the "counter-terrorism operations" authorities have been known to detonate explosives in private homes without warning or warrant, while citizens suspected of terrorism can simply disappear.
Against this background, aggressive security sweeps targeting militant Islamists may well disrupt possible plans to make Olympic Games-related mischief. But over the longer term, they won’t lead to a sustainable political environment in Dagestan.
Putin and his pawns in Dagestan will not be able to shoot themselves out of the Islamist threat. As long as autocratic tendencies and corruption shape the Kremlin’s policies in the North Caucasus, money and time will be wasted, and lives will continue to be lost.
Cornelius Graubner is a Caucasus and Central Asia expert based in New York. He tweets at @cgraubner.