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

Dagestan's Guns-For-Cash Deal

Regional authorities try to wean people off the weapons culture.
By Musa Musaev

The authorities in Dagestan are hoping to persuade residents to part with the private arsenals they have accumulated in recent years, but many in this part of the Russian Caucasus are determined to hang onto their guns.


An amnesty and a buy-back programme have been offered for three months from October in a bid to demilitarise the heavily armed republic, which lies between the Caspian Sea and Chechnya.


Military weapons have long been widely held - illegally - in private hands across much of the Caucasus.


Their availability in Dagestan increased dramatically in 1999 when a radical guerrilla group from Chechnya launched an incursion into the republic. In response, the authorities armed some of the local population so that they could support Russian regular troops. Dagestan's president Magomedali Magomedov issued a special decree allowing private arms purchases for self-defence.


Despite the endemic poverty in the republic, many people bought guns. Gasan, a resident who formerly commanded a local unit guarding military facilities, said, "No one had the money to buy weapons then. Many sold livestock, or other property, and bought weapons."


Now, everyone has a chance to disarm in return for payment - and with no questions asked about the origins of the weapon.


Notices outside police stations state that a pistol can be exchanged for 5,000 rubles, about 160 US dollars, an assault rifle for 6,000 rubles, a machine-gun for 7,000 rubles, and an under-barrel grenade launcher for 8,000 rubles. A spokesman for Dagestan's interior ministry said that five million rubles had been set aside to fund the programme.


Payment is to be made only six weeks after the weapon is presented, a delay that may help explain why some will not be persuaded to give up their firepower.


According to Dagestani interior ministry figures, the first 10 days produced a haul including 30 hand grenades, eight pistols, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, 10 multiple-rocket launcher projectiles, one landmine and17,000 rounds of ammunition.


However, not a single Kalashnikov rifle, the most widespread weapon, had been surrendered in the first 10 days, though they have started to trickle in since.


The district where most weaponry has so far been turned over is Gumbet, which shares a 33-kilometre border with Chechnya. By October 21, weapons worth a total of 386 thousand rubles - about 12,000 dollars - in compensation had been turned in, though there was only one Kalashnikov.


Others places where weapons have been returned are the Soviet and Kirov districts of the Dagestani capital Makhachkala, and the towns of Buinaksk and Kaspisk.


Police in Gumbet say that the paths leading from Chechnya are now well guarded, meaning there is no need for the civilian population to bear arms.


But Ali, a Kalashnikov-owning resident of Kazbek, another border area, said he had faith in his weapon, not the authorities or their promise of money and legal amnesty.


"They don't pay money out at once," he told IWPR. "Giving up a weapon is stupid. Sooner or later, those who do will be subjected to a criminal investigation. They have no immunity."


He recounted how a friend had surrendered some ammunition, but arranged for the money to be paid to his elderly father. "Why should anyone set a family member up for money like that? Illegal arms possession is and will remain a crime."


According to police in Gumbet, the authorities in the republic are unhappy with the way the handing-in process is going. They quoted Dagestan's deputy interior minister, Major General Omarov, as saying that of the 1,970 rifles handed out during the 1999 crisis, not one had been returned. However, Gumbet's local interior ministry commander, Captain Nazhu Nazhuev, told IWPR that 200 rifles distributed in 1999 were recovered in 2000.


Cash is the main incentive for handing in weapons, the Gumbet police said. This part of Dagestan suffers heavy unemployment, has no gas supply, paved roads or telecommunications. The soil around the local centre, Mehelta, is too poor for successful cattle farming.


For some, then, the buy-back programme is a windfall.


One man from the village of Nizhnoye-Inkho in Gumbet was able to surrender several heavy rockets that he said he'd found abandoned by Russian troops - minus the warheads - and simply stored in his shed.


Police told IWPR that residents from the village of Igali were showing particular interest - they live on the route that Russian forces used during the fighting in 1999, and were able to buy large quantities of black-market hardware from the soldiers at rock-bottom prices.


But there are questions - even among the police - over whether compensation will be forthcoming.


For example, a television report showing police handing out cash to a resident of Kazbek district was purely for promotional purposes, according to Major Shamhal Ibragimov of the Gumbet police. In reality, he said, money was extremely short.


Musa Musaev is an independent journalist in Makhachkala.