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

Killers Target Top Dagestani Politicians

Tough new measures to clamp down on Caspian Sea poachers have sparked a national outcry in Dagestan
By Guria Murlinskaya

A bitter struggle over fishing rights in the Caspian Sea has been blamed for a series of assassination attempts on Dagestan's political elite.

The latest target was Gazimagomed Amirov, brother of Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, who has survived 18 attempts on his life over the past two years.

Gazimagomed Amirov was ambushed on the same day that a prominent Dagestani politician was jailed for plotting to kill his brother. Most observers agree that the two events owe little to coincidence.

The would-be assassins struck as Amirov drove up to his apartment on Oktyabrskaya Street, in the town of Izerbasha. Two masked gunmen riddled his car with machine-gun bullets whilst a third threw a hand grenade into the road.

"First of all, I thought that children were letting of Chinese firecrackers," said the deputy. "It's one thing when it happens to someone else but you can hardly believe it when it happens to you. It was like a dream. But when I realised that I was being shot at, I immediately took cover so as not to give them the satisfaction of carrying out their contract."

Amirov was wounded in the back by shrapnel and underwent an operation in a nearby hospital.

Despite claims by Izerbasha prosecutor Ramazan Shakhnavazov that the victim's "commercial activities were not being considered as a motive", the local press has been swift to link the shooting to Amirov's role as deputy head of the West Caspian Administration for the Conservation of Fish Reserves.

The Dagestani fishing industry has been in turmoil since Magomedali Magomedov, chairman of the State Assembly, launched a joint anti-poaching operation with the Russian Border Guard Service.

Last month, more than 800 fish traders from Market No. 1 blocked Prospect Gamidova and Ulitsa Lenina in protest over the initiative. One self-confessed fish poacher told IWPR, "We wouldn't mind the authorities imposing their Russian laws on us if they also created the conditions for a normal existence. But we've always caught fish this way and will continue to do so."

Some observers have said openly that the terrorist bombings in Buinaksk in September 1999 were directed against border guards who enforced the anti-poaching laws and then sold impounded fish stocks on the black market.

Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, has crossed swords with the fishing cartels on several occasions.

Last week, Kurban Makhmudgadzhiev, the chairman of the Makhachkala City Assembly, was jailed for 13 years for hiring an assassin to kill him. The would-be killer, Shamil Magamedov, was sentenced to 18 years' hard labour.

Makhmudgadzhiev had been a close ally of Amirov until shortly after the latter's victory in the mayoral elections. They fell out over a subsequent decree to move a wholesale fish market from the centre of Makhachkala to its outskirts.

The Dagestani Supreme Court heard that Makhmudgadzhiev -- who had a large personal stake in the market -- promptly organised a protest meeting of fish traders in the city's main square. He called on his supporters to "take the Dagestani State Assembly by storm".

After failing to sway Amirov by mass demonstrations, Makhmudgadzhiev attempted to assassinate the mayor on three separate occasions - each time hiring men to plant explosives under his car.

Dagestani police then launched a massive hunt for the disgraced politician who promptly fled to Chechnya. However, earlier this year Makhmudgadzhiev returned unexpectedly to Dagestan and was arrested.

A letter he wrote to his wife in prison points towards a larger and more sinister conspiracy. "I would never have come back to Dagestan if the Boss had not sent your brother after me and hadn't persuaded me to return home. If it hadn't been for the Boss, I wouldn't be behind bars right now. Only the Boss could have brought me back here."

The identity of the "Boss" remains a mystery.

Guria Murlinskaya is a regular IWPR contributor