Tensions Running High in Southern Dagestan

Clash with police a sign of increasing discontent in the Dagestani regions.

Tensions Running High in Southern Dagestan

Clash with police a sign of increasing discontent in the Dagestani regions.

President Putin’s envoy for the North Caucasus has intervened to defuse a crisis in southern Dagestan after one person died in clashes last week between police and demonstrators.

Up to 700 demonstrators blocked the main road in the village of Usukhchai, the administrative centre of the Dokusparin region on April 25, demanding the resignation of local authority chief Kerimkhan Abasov and the prosecution of officials for mismanagment of funds.

The protesters tried to march to the local administration building but their way was blocked by a unit of interior ministry special forces - known as OMON - sent from the Dagestani capital Makhachkala. The protesters stood for two hours in the rain holding placards, then made their way to the village of Miskinja where they blocked the main road with a barricade made of cobblestones, pipes and whatever came to hand.

The police then stormed the barricade using teargas, and shooting broke out. The police said that they fired in the air with rubber bullets after they were pelted with stones and that they were fired on first. The demonstrators said that the police fired first.

One demonstrator was killed, five seriously wounded and up to 30 received less serious injuries. Eleven policemen suffered injuries to the body and one was hit in the leg by a bullet.

Southern Dagestan, on the border with Azerbaijan, is predominantly populated by Lezgins who live in both countries. It is one of the poorer parts of the autonomous republic and known as the “red belt” because it traditionally supports the Communists in elections.

Three days after the violence, President Putin’s representative for the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, visited Dagestan, listened to the opposing sides and promised a thorough investigation.

Pensioner and one of the protest leaders Hamdullah Kambarov, one of those who met Kozak, told IWPR, “The OMON opened fire as if war had broken out. They went round the houses next to the road. Before my eyes they beat and arrested a man who was just working in his garden. They arrested more than 70 people and kept them outside for three days in the rain like cattle.

“Last year, the head of the region was elected [illegally] by deputies from the regional assembly as the deputies weren’t elected themselves. There are financial abuses. In seven villages budget money is allocated for the upkeep of sports halls and cultural institutions which exist only on paper. That’s how they appropriate state money. Veterans of labour don’t get any benefits. Pensions are late. They keep back 50 per cent of workers’ salaries.”

The man at the centre of the storm, local head Kerimkhan Abasov, denied these allegations and accused the protesters of having a black market business agenda of their own.

He told IWPR by telephone that between 300 and 450 people had taken part in the demonstration. “Sixty per cent of them were outsiders and not natives of this region,” he said. “For example, of the five demonstrators in a serious condition in hospital, three of them were not residents of our region.”

Abasov said the protesters were acting on the orders of gangs involved in smuggling goods to Azerbaijan, led by men who had failed to be elected to the local assembly, “They earn money at the so-called ‘golden bridge’ at the Yarag-Kazmalyar customs post. They work as taxi drivers and in other jobs dependent on the criminal bosses.”

Disputes and demonstrations like this have become more common in Dagestan recently and generally occur over the distribution of official posts, land or property. Residents of a particular region hold a rally either at home or come to Makhachkala and demonstrate on the city’s central square.

Dagestan’s new president Mukhu Aliev, appointed only in February, has promised to resolve the problems, saying, “There are several reasons [for them] - the relations between the heads of a series of municipal territories, land disputes and the work of the law-enforcement agencies. We will sort out these problems conscientiously and we will not give into the pressure of rallies and violence.”

Some of the disputes are between different members of the elite, others are acts of protest by ordinary people who feel aggrieved when one group takes over power locally and concentrates economic and political power in its hands. The conflicts have become more frequent after municipal elections were abolished in most of Dagestan.

In the Kumtorkalin region in March, around three thousand demonstrators laid siege to the local administration building. Shots were fired, stones thrown and 30 people were hurt.

“If in the near future the president of the republic does not take steps, then the situation in the Dokuzparin region will look like a paradise compared with what might happen,” warned opposition politician Eduard Khidirov. “So far people are stepping back from the brink hoping that the president will resolve problems from above.”

Economist Olga Tsatsieva said that this kind of conflict was occurring across the North Caucasus but was worst in Dagestan. Among other factors, she blamed a rise in extremism that was going unpunished and a “cult of money”.

“The authorities are making certain mistakes,” said Tsatsieva. “For example, the law on private land. Dagestanis voted against this law because of a lack of land. But the government is still stubbornly forcing a private property policy on us and now we are facing the conflicts that have arisen as a result.”

Guria Yusupova, a scholar in Dagestan’s Academy of Sciences, agreed that a range of problems were combining to cause a crisis in the republic.

“Money is disappearing into over-bloated offices and is not getting to the provinces,” she said. “The population is reassured to some extent by the actions of the president of Dagestan in fighting corruption. On the other hand, the level of conflict goes up with the increase in the violent anti-terrorist campaign. Because terrorism has not only ideological but social roots as well.

“There are also the problems of divided and deported peoples and of migration. That’s why the conflict erupted in southern Dagestan. There is relatively high unemployment there and the average salaries are lower than in Dagestan as a whole.”

Musa Musayev is an independent journalist working in Makhachkala.
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