Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan: Controversial Opposition Figure Killed

Nadirshah Khachilayev was an important figure in turbulent recent history, but why would anyone want to kill him now?
By Enver Kisriev

The murder of one of Dagestan’s most colourful and controversial figures, Nadirshah Khachilayev, draws a line under a period of instability in which politics was accompanied by the daily threat of violence.


On August 11, Khachilayev was shot dead outside the gates of his house as he was getting out of his Landcruiser jeep. He was 44. No one has been arrested for the killing so far, though it looks like a professionally-organised hit.


Together with his brother Magomed, Nadirshah Khachilayev was one of the most prominent leaders of Dagestan’s powerful “ethnic parties”. His star had fallen in recent years and he had spent time in prison. But at the zenith of his influence, he was wealthy, he sat in the Russian parliament, and he had hundreds of armed supporters at his disposal.


However, Khachilayev was not a warrior, and not really even a politician. He was a flamboyant figure who built up a reputation that collapsed almost as quickly as he had constructed it.


The Khachilayev brothers rose to fame as Dagestan tried to come to terms with the end of the Soviet Union, and their story is symptomatic of many of its problems.


Economically, the republic stayed one of Russia’s poorest regions in the Nineties – but for a few there were opportunities to get rich quick. Conventional politics was undeveloped, so many would-be politicians aligned themselves with their ethnic community, raising fears that Dagestan would tear itself apart along ethnic lines. There was an upsurge in Islamic activism, alarming Moscow which feared a repeat of the radicalism seen next door in Chechnya. The Khachilayevs were players in all these games.


Members of the small Lak ethnic group, the Khachilayev brothers – four in all – started from humble beginnings. Three of them – Nadirshah, Magomed and Adam, the youngest - won fame in the Soviet Union as karate champions. Along the way Nadirshah managed to study literature in Moscow and even had some short stories published. By 1993, Adam had already met a violent end, gunned down by a Chechen.


As the USSR imploded, Magomed was the first to make a name for himself, founding a Lak “ethnic party” which wielded considerable influence and stood in opposition to the Dagestan government. He later became head of the Dagestani fisheries company, which controlled the lucrative trade in caviar and sturgeon from the Caspian Sea.


He and Nadirshah cultivated connections in Chechnya, which they successfully used to broker a meeting between Boris Yeltsin’s national security adviser Alexander Lebed and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. When this led to the end of the first Chechen war in 1996, they became well-known in Russia as a whole.


The same year, Nadirshah was made the head of Russia’s Union of Muslims, and tried to cultivate his image as a Muslim community leader, though made some quirky choices. He met Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and invited the American Louis Farrakhan, head of the controversial Nation of Islam, to Dagestan.


In 1996, he was also elected to the Russian State Duma. His entry to parliament owed as much to luck as popularity, since his four rivals, all from the large Avar ethnic group, managed to split what would have been a landslide in their favour.


Nadirshah publicly opposed the re-election of Dagestani president Magomedali Magomedov in March 1998. Two months later, the two brothers and hundreds of their armed supporters stormed and occupied government headquarters in Makhachkala and demanded the resignation of Dagestan’s leadership. Their action was widely seen as a coup attempt, but may simply have escalated from a clash involving Nadirshah’s armed followers which left several policemen dead.


They were persuaded to back down, and the standoff marked a downturn in their fortunes. In September 1998, Nadirshah was stripped of his seat in the Russian parliament and went into hiding in Chechnya. His brother was detained, and a year later Nadirshah himself was arrested in Moscow. Both were freed in early 2000, but Magomed was shot dead in November the same year.


Analysts say that after his elder brother died, Nadirshah lost most of his influence. He tried to re-launch his political career in 2002 and stood, unsuccessfully, for election in the Dagestani parliament. But without his brother’s backing, he was already a figure of the past.


Nadirshah Khachilayev was murdered at a time when he was no longer a political player and was living in relative obscurity. Yet local media have barely touched the story because even now, the issues involved are highly controversial.


Media in Moscow have speculated that he was killed by political opponents. That may betray a misunderstanding of the way Dagestan works – Khachilayev was never a powerful political figure and remained an outsider at the end. However, he cannot have been short of enemies from his earlier days.


The period when men like the Khachilayevs drove about in expensive cars followed by an armed retinue is over. But Nadirshah’s death shows that violence is still prevalent. Only ten minutes earlier, assassins murdered Major Tahir Abdullayev, a senior officer in Dagestan’s anti-terrorism office. It is not even clear whether there is a connection between the two killings.


Enver Kisriev is a senior associate at Dagestan's Institute of History, Archaeology and History.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game