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

Dagestani Islamist Leader Goes Free

Released from jail, Russia's foremost Islamist politician faces an uphill struggle to rebuild his career
By Nabi Abdullayev

When the judge finished reading the not-guilty verdict, the bearded defendant sitting in the steel cage turned his face to the wall and said a quick prayer. Only then did Nadir Khachilayev, the leader of formerly the largest Muslim political organisation in Russia, step out into the courtroom and shake hands with his defence lawyers.

On March 11, a Dagestani court cleared Khachilayev, once the leader of the opposition in the autonomous republic, of charges of illegal arms possession brought against him by the police, leaving him free to resume his political career. But observers wonder if this time Dagestan's most flamboyant politician will be able to make a comeback.

True to his reputation, Khachilayev, made a series of eye-catching allegations on his release. He said he would call on the federal authorities in Moscow to investigate collusion by the local authorities in Dagestan in a series of high-profile murders in the autonomous republic.

"I am sure that personalities from the top echelons of the republic are behind up to 35 unsolved murders," he told the Russian news agency Interfax on March 17. "These people benefit from instability, which they use as a pretext to eliminate their political opponents, who are prosecuted as criminals for crimes they never committed."

Khachilayev was referring to his own arrest on January, following an explosion that tore apart a truck in the centre of Makhachkala, killing seven Russian army conscripts. The next day, local police searched the Islamist leader's house and said they had found weapons, an explosives fuse and videocassettes, featuring the torture and execution of Russian soldiers by Chechen rebels.

The case against Khachilayev collapsed after the court found that the police had made a string of procedural mistakes in searching his house. He had staged a hunger strike and claimed in an interview from his jail cell that his arrest "was a purely politically motivated, related to the future elections to Dagestan's state council in June 2002."

Dagestan is the most ethnically diverse region of Russia and home to at least 14 major ethnic groups. It is also the only region whose leader is not elected by popular vote, but by a council of local politicians. The serving leader, Magomedali Magomedov, is expected to be re-elected next June.

Khachilayev has no chance of getting the top job himself but could be a thorn in the side for the governing regime in the election campaign.

Nadir Khachilayev used to be a deputy in the Russian parliament, the State Duma, head of Russia's powerful Union of Muslims and, along with his elder brother Magomed, one of the richest men in Dagestan. But he never managed to take power in the autonomous republic.

"Since being elected in Russian parliament in 1996, when his career reached its peak, Nadir Khachilayev has wasted most of the political capital he acquired with the help of his family," said prominent Dagestani sociologist Enver Kisriev.

Indeed, the history of Khachilayevs sounds like a Godfather-like saga, and serves as a vivid illustration of how violence became the main political tool in the North Caucasus in the last decade.

From a poor background, Khachilayev rose on the wave of nationalism and religious revival that followed the end of the Soviet Union, becoming the most colourful of a new generation of anti-Communist politicians. He and his three brothers, all martial arts experts, led the Lak ethnic group in the early 1990s after they organised an armed militia to defend the inhabitants of Novolak region in western Dagestan against the claims of neighbouring Chechens.

In the mid 1990s, as nationalist passions in Dagestan cooled, Khachilayev found a new political niche for himself. He denounced the governing regime for corruption and preached fundamentalist Islam as an ideal state model.

The young politician, who had developed friendly ties with Chechen warlords, won broad public support for his part in the so-called Khasavyurt peace agreement which ended the first Chechen war in 1996. When the war was over, he gained more popularity for his activities in securing the release of hostages from Chechnya.

However, Khachilayev's career then spun out of control. In 1998, he led an armed attack on Dagestani government buildings in the centre of Makhachkala. When the raid failed, he was forced into hiding.

The incursion into Dagestan by Chechen warriors, supported by local Muslim radicals, the following year turned the tide of public opinion. Khachilayev was detained by the Russian authorities in the radical Islamist village of Karamakhi. As the second Chechen war began, the imported brand of Islam known as Wahhabism was officially banned in Dagestan and its appeal began to wane.

In summer 2000, the Khachilayev brothers were put on trial, but were given light sentences and then amnestied. In December the same year, Magomed was shot dead in a brawl with his bodyguard.

Now, free to restart his career once again, Nadir Khachilayev's fragile hopes of a political comeback seem to be centred on Moscow, more than Dagestan. Outside the autonomous republic, he still has the support of prominent Islamists, such as Geidar Jemal - a leading fundamentalist with top-level connections - who called him a "model Muslim".

That is why, on his release, the Islamist leader, immediately called for Moscow to take control of the security structures in Dagestan. Khachilayev said he wanted to see the creation of a new federal anti-terrorist force for Dagestan, which would be independent of the local authorities.

"The existing anti-terrorist organisations are totally dependent upon the local leadership and, therefore, they lead investigations according to the guidelines imposed by the politicians who head the republic," he complained.

However, independent experts are sceptical about Khachilayev's chances. "Any ambitious plan drawn up by Khachilayev today has no prospects," said Kisriev. "As of now, he has lost the support of his ethnic group, which he enjoyed at the beginning of 1990s, of Dagestani Muslims whom he sought to represent in the mid-1990s and of the elite of the ethnically based parties." The Union of Muslims, which he used to head and which once claimed to have 20,000 Muslims, has now ceased to exist.

Kisriev added that the financial assets of what was once one of Dagestan's richest clans are probably in a poor state after other republican political gamblers had taken over Khachilayev-controlled ventures in recent years.

Although his support base has eroded, however, Khachilayev's colourful presence seems destined to remain on the Dagestani scene for some time. He is still only 42 and has a small personal army of dozens of armed men at his disposal.

Nabi Abdullayev, a Dagestani journalist, works for the Moscow Times in Moscow.