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

Dagestan's Pre-Scripted Phone Chat With Putin

The Russian president gets only a censored view of a North Caucasian village’s problems.
By Diana Alieva
When Russian president Vladimir Putin’s televised phone-in show went to the mountain village of Botlikh, he was supposed to hear, live and unfiltered, the concerns of people in this part of the North Caucasus.



Botlikh is, after all, a village that has a recent history of fighting between government troops and militants, and its residents had a lot of things to ask the president.



However, the phone-in witnessed by this IWPR correspondent was anything but spontaneous. Almost no local people were allowed to take part, and all the questions asked were pre-arranged. The participants consisted of local government officials and their associates, and a few military servicemen.



Any potential troublemakers were kept out by the venue – the event took placed behind the high walls of a new army base in the village.



“The Dagestani authorities sought to guard against any unwanted questions. That is why they chose to use the rifle brigade base,” said Aishat Abdullayeva, senior editor with the local newspaper Svobodnaya Respublika.



Locals said the initial plan was to conduct the phone-in from near the village’s local government offices. However, fearing that embarrassing questions would filter through, officials decided to shift the event to the army base.



Ahead of the phone-in, there were rumours that local residents planned to stage a protest to make Putin’s aware of their concerns. Residents are furious that the military base, which was set up in 2004, has taken up much of the village’s best land.



In addition, they want local conscripts to be allowed to serve in the army unit here, rather than being sent off to other parts of Russia.



“We knew in advance that none of the problems that plague the indigenous population, and which the local government wants to be hushed up, would be given an airing,” said Botlikh resident Omargaji Gasanov.



The village of Botlikh is Dagestan’s largest mountain settlement, with more than 10,000 inhabitants, and is located near the border with Chechnya.



Although Botlikh was the scene of battles in Russia’s 19th century wars to subdue the Caucasus, the first time most Russians heard of the village was when it was attacked by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev in August 1999 – one of the incidents that precipitated the second war in Chechnya.



In 2004, Putin decided to deploy an infantry brigade in Botlikh to combat the militants who had now spread from Chechnya into Dagestan and were regularly attacking police.



Residents staged numerous protests against the base being built on land they had used as gardens and where they had been planning a new residential area. The then Russian defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, said the protests were motivated by Islamic extremist sentiment, and refused to change the plans.



The biggest protest started in April 2005, when locals managed to halt construction work by blocking the road leading from their village to the site of the base.



“The government must give us back the lands that our ancestors developed over centuries,” local resident Magomed Gasanov said at the time. “I don’t want to live near an arms dump where artillery shells and rockets are stored.”



That protest continued for 40 days, until the government promised to build the base further away from the village.



But it did not keep its promise, and the base was set up next to the village after all. Today, it is home to barracks and various other facilities. Further buildings are planned, including a school, kindergarten, theatre and sports complex.



“The cantonment is essential for strengthening security on Russia’s southern border, and large sums have been allocated to build it,” said Dagestan’s president Mukhu Aliev during his latest visit to Botlikh district.



Aliev promised that the military base would benefit the local community. “As part of the work, modern engineering infrastructure is being put in place to solve the local residents’ problems with water and electricity supplies. A gas mains will be laid and new roads built,” he said.



The situation in Botlikh remains tense, and armed confrontations are frequent. In February this year, when soldiers were celebrating a holiday dedicated to them, some servicemen are alleged to have attacked a hostel where local civilians engaged as builders lived. Local people said the soldiers, many of them drunk, arrived in armoured personnel carriers and fired at random. The incident was never investigated.



Village resident Murtuz Gasangajiev said he wanted to raise questions about the base with Putin, but was unable to do so.



He told IWPR the question he would have put to the Russian president, “People in Botlikh knew in advance who would be asking you questions during the phone-in, and what those questions would be. But let me assure you that those questions have nothing to do with the problems our small village has been facing since the base was built. Do you know that construction of this cantonment has engendered a host of intractable problems for the local population?”



Ismail Rajabdibdirov also had a question he would like to have posed. “The military promised to take care of Botlikh’s entire infrastructure,” he said. “However, as a result of a deal between the military and the village authorities, the benefits of civilisation have passed by our village. At a time when Botlikh has no water supply system, they’ve built a swimming pool on the base.”



Past experience of such phone-ins may have deterred the local authorities from allowing locals unrestricted access to the phone-in.



Putin holds these supposedly unscripted chats with the people every year, and the last time the phone-in was conducted in Dagestan, it was almost marred by an unscripted question. As the programme was under way in the town of Kaspiisk last year, a policeman tried to force his way to the microphone and tell the Russian leader that the police in Dagestan were in a state of “utter collapse”. He was kept away from the microphone and later reprimanded by the regional authorities.



“It’s strange that they didn’t think of doing it on board a submarine – no unwanted people would have made it there, that’s for sure,” said Abdullayeva. “I suppose the problem is that Dagestan has no submarine of its own.”



Diana Alieva is a correspondent with the Svobodnaya Respublika newspaper in Dagestan.

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