Rebellion Creeping Through Caucasus

Russia has tried to tame this southern region for decades, but its policies seem to only stoke anger fueling a militant Islamic movement.

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

October 23, 2005

GHIMRI, Russia — A dripping and cavernous tunnel, three miles through the belly of the mountain and lighted only by a spindly strand of dim bulbs, marks the entrance to the land of deep gorges and outlaw villages of the Caucasus range.

Emerging in the bright daylight on the other side is like entering another world, a Russia that is not Russia. Road signs every few feet are bright green with Arabic script: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." Several dozen signs bear the words of a legendary Caucasian warrior: "He who thinks about consequences is not a hero."

Since the 19th century, Russia has tried to tame the 650 miles of snowy peaks and fertile lowland slopes between the Caspian and Black seas. Today, the Caucasus wars seeping out of Chechnya through the surrounding, predominantly Muslim republics are increasingly being waged under a banner of militant Islam.

This creeping Islamic revolution, analysts suggest, is the latest outcome of the Kremlin's failure to adopt a coherent policy for combating religious extremism in a nation with 23 million Muslims.

Moscow's disorganized and violent attempts to suppress Caucasian Muslim insurgents have swept up thousands of innocent believers in the process. The brutal arrests, police raids and mosque closures appear to be alienating a population that until now had largely sympathized with Russia's attempts to quash terrorist attacks and bring peace to the region.

In areas like this mountainous region of Russia's Dagestan republic, the battle for hearts and minds may be lost. Ghimri, a tiny village of terraced gardens on the slope of a 5,000-foot abyss, is known as a lair of insurgency that outside police rarely enter except in force.

Islamic militancy is no stranger to Ghimri, from which 19th century warrior Imam Shamil fought under the banner of Islam against Russian troops until his surrender in 1859.

Today, women and even young girls wear head scarves, and some cover their faces. Arabic, the language of the Koran, is taught to all students. The local imam moved last year to establish separate schools for girls and boys and was thwarted only when no second building could be found. The mosque in the neighboring village, where the imam is chairman of the town council, broadcasts two hours of Islamic programming four days a week.

The village of 3,800 has also imposed many aspects of Islamic Sharia law as a supplement to Russian law. Thieves may be asked to make a public apology at the mosque, rather than going to a government-run jail.

Residents here have unabashed contempt for the regional government.

"People turn to Sharia law because the authorities who are supposed to represent the law breed lawlessness. People have very little hope of getting any justice from the secular authorities, so they turn to the muftis for support," said Kazimagomed, 38, an unemployed construction worker who declared "it will be the end of me" if his last name were published.

Already, Kazimagomed said, there are signs of a clash of civilizations at his own doorstep. "If we don't change everything from the roots to the very top in Dagestan, then war will be inevitable — and not war like Chechnya, or some of those other places, those small run-ins, but a war that will last for centuries."

In a report to the Kremlin leaked to the Russian media this year, President Vladimir V. Putin's envoy to the region, Dmitry Kozak, warned of a backlash over corruption and poverty that he said could lead to instability across the northern Caucasus.

"Sharia enclaves" — a logical projection of what is starting to happen in Ghimri — could lead to the emergence of an Islamic state in Dagestan's mountains, the report predicted.

"The unsolved social, economic and political problems are now reaching a critical level. Further, ignoring the problems and attempts to drive them down by force could lead to an uncontrolled chain of events whose logical result will be open social, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts in Dagestan," said excerpts of the report published in July by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

That's the openly declared goal of Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, who unsuccessfully tried to invade Dagestan in 1999.

Basayev has made no secret of his hope of sparking a regional uprising that would lead to Russia's pullout from the Caucasus and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate across the mountainous republics. He miscalculated in 1999: Dagestanis fiercely fought the Chechen incursion, and Russia declared its second war on Chechnya.

Now, many observers here believe Basayev's strategy is to wait for Islamic revolution to seep in of its own accord.

In Dagestan, where 90% of the 2.6 million people are Muslims, the greatest frustration is with the Moscow-backed authorities, whose pervasive corruption has established a stranglehold on nearly every conceivable form of economic enterprise.

Magomedali Magomedov is the Kremlin-backed leader of the republic. His three sons control oil transshipment and two of the other most lucrative businesses in the republic. Businessmen close to the government control everything else — from big industry to corner mini-marts. Residents who hope to get a leg up by getting a government job or studying at the police academy must pay thousands of dollars in bribes.

Meanwhile, the average Dagestani earns $101 a month, less than half that in the rest of Russia. At least 30% of the people are unemployed.

Resentment has soared over the last two years with a series of crackdowns on non-government-sanctioned Islamic practice all over the North Caucasus — the response to a sharp increase in militant Islamic insurgent attacks. More than 970 Russians, soldiers and civilians alike, have been killed in the last two years. Dagestan has seen almost daily attacks against police and government targets.

In the republic's capital, Makhachkala, police have swept through mosques and arrested hundreds of worshipers during prayer. In southern Dagestan, police destroyed the minaret of a mosque, said the editor of an Islamic newspaper in the area.

A massive insurgent attack that authorities say left more than 125 people dead in the nearby republic of Kabardino-Balkaria this month was preceded by the closure of mosques, the harassment of men with beards and women with head scarves, and numerous brutal interrogations of suspected insurgents.

The situation there became so aggravated that 400 Muslims asked Putin in August for permission to emigrate — a petition that was ignored.

"Up until now, the people of the Caucasus saw Moscow as a possible arbiter and supporter in their clash with the local clannish elites," said Kheydar Jemel, head of the Moscow-based Russian Islamic Committee, who has been a strong advocate of Muslim rights. "But the Kremlin's errors have been so insistent and so stupid that at last I think people have lost all hope of using Moscow as a base for reform — and the worst separatist has become the Kremlin itself."

Gassan-Hadzhi Gasanaliyev is the imam at a Dagestani mosque raided by the police last year. "It's as if the police were waging war against their own people," he said. "They don't ask who's guilty and who's innocent. People go searching for their relatives who've been taken away, no one knows where they are. They disappear, or come back maimed.

"People dream of revenge," the cleric said. "There is now an undeclared, invisible war that no one can stop."

Authorities say the vast majority of Muslims reject violence and do not wish to see their religion hijacked by extremists.

"The most dangerous thing about [the extremists] is that they consider anyone who does not agree with their ideology to be enemies of Islam, against whom any violent measures can be taken, including physical annihilation," said Akhmad Magomedov, head of Dagestan's official Committee on Religious Affairs, which acts as a government liaison to officially sanctioned clerics.

"Such an approach is unacceptable to the absolute majority of Muslims in the North Caucasus who want to live in the secular state of the Russian Federation, where they are guaranteed full freedom of worship and religion," he said.

Such sentiments notwithstanding, many clerics in the remote mountain regions have slipped outside the control of the official spiritual boards and are "competing for legitimacy and influence" with the local secular authorities, said Nabi Abdullaev of the Center for Eurasian Security Studies in Moscow.

"Imagine this local village mayor: He's got two policemen, while the imam has a congregation of 200 people who respect and trust him. The mayor has a choice: either enter into confrontation, call for backup from Makhachkala, which may or may not come … or go to the imam, show your respect and start coordinating your future activities with him," said Abdullaev, a native Dagestani.

"Gradually, what you get is a sort of creeping Islamic revolution."

People here in Ghimri insist that they are looking not for the establishment of an independent Islamic state, but for the election of honest government officials, jobs, an end to brutal police operations and gardens big enough to grow vegetables.

"If a referendum were held in Dagestan, 50% would support Sharia law. They're the true believers. The other 50% would support corruption, prostitution, mafia, drug addiction and bribery," said Kazimagomed, who sat one evening last week in a vine-covered courtyard with his friend Shamil, 40, as the sun slipped below the dizzying granite cliffs that rise above the village.

Kazimagomed said he had been unable to find a job since getting laid off from a nearby hydroelectric construction project 2 1/2 years ago. He supports his wife and two children on government stipends of about $5 a month, plus the occasional odd job. Shamil hasn't worked since the tunnel was finished in 2000.

"Only about 5% of the population works. The rest live without money. I have three children, me and my wife — five people. How do I feed them? What do I do?" Shamil said.

The two men traveled to Moscow last year and worked on a construction project for two months. But when it was over, the employment agency that issued their contract went bankrupt — a common scheme — and didn't pay them.

"If you're interested in finding some kind of militant or contract killer, it isn't that hard to do," Kazimagomed said.

"If you come up to somebody and work them over psychologically, for $25,000 or $30,000, they'll do anything," he said. "Look at me. I'm impoverished. I'm indigent. I have nowhere to turn. And if you offer me that amount of money, what do you think will happen?"

As the muezzin made the evening call to prayer marking the end of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, they each lighted cigarettes, smilingly apologizing that it was frowned upon in Islam, but they couldn't help it.

"We don't support all this talk about separatism," Kazimagomed said finally. "I want to take my wife and children to go to the sea, to Moscow. I don't want to only see these four mountains on all sides of me for the rest of my life."

But the road out of Ghimri goes through a tunnel three miles long, and off the road lies the abyss. Some Dagestanis say they long ago came to believe there is no exit from the impasse with Russia.

One recent morning in Makhachkala, two old friends drove through the city center. One of them, Magomed, railed at the government. "Russia was our motherland — but she turned into a mother-in-law!" he grumbled.

"He's always complaining," the other man, Ali, said, smiling. "You want to know what it reminds me of? There's sometimes a fish that gets caught in a net. The fish keeps writhing and striving, because she has one hope in her mind — the sea.

"But I can see her from a distance," he said. "I know she'll never get out."

Natasha Yefimova of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.