MOSCOW—The rugged Russian republic of Dagestan between the nation of Georgia and the troubled republic of Chechnya first loomed large in the American consciousness when two of its sons, the Tsarnaev brothers, carried out a terror attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013 that left three people dead and hundreds injured.
A jihadist insurgency, begun as a spillover from the Chechen wars of the 1990s, had been underway in Dagestan for years. But, far from Moscow, it had attracted relatively little public attention even in Russia.
In the five years since the Boston bombing, the troubles in the Tsarnaevs’ homeland have continued, while Moscow’s efforts to impose order often have foundered amid brutal police tactics and endemic corruption.
But that may be changing.
For the first time in decades the Kremlin has decided not to appoint a representative of a local clan to rule Dagestan, a republic of 3 million people with 32 ethnic groups, most of them Muslims. Instead, President Vladimir Putin sent a Moscovite, the former head of the security committee at the Duma, the Russian parliament: Vladimir Vasilyev. And many in Dagestan hope that 68-year-old general will put an end, at last, not only to lawlessness in the local government but in the law enforcement agencies as well.
Today, as things are, mothers cry in pain for their disappeared children. On a recent afternoon, eyes sunken from sleepless nights, a group of women lined up along the wall in front of the cameras holding pictures of their missing sons. In their video the group, called “Mother’s Heart,” asked Putin and Vasilyev, to assign an investigative commission to look into what they called the “falsified cases” against their children.
It is significant that Gen. Vasilyev’s appointment and his clean-up operation began less than two months before Russia’s presidential election on March 18. Dozens of prosecutors and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers arrived from Moscow to start more than 70 criminal cases against several top officials, including the mayor of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, as well as the acting prime minister and his two deputies.
“We simply changed the rules for the game,” Vasilyev explained to journalists last week.
Moscow’s revolutionary attack on corruption in Dagestan impressed longtime observers of Northern Caucasus issues. “In my opinion, this is an effort to implement an imperialistic or Soviet totalitarian approach by switching from the old system, which delegated power to local authorities in exchange for loyalty, to a new system of hands-on management of the republic from the center,” Gregory Shvedov, editor in chief of the news website Caucasian Knot, told The Daily Beast.
In any case, Gen. Vasilyev was not joking: The scale of Dagestan’s war on corruption was unique for Russia, a country where opposition activists accuse top officials of shocking violations.
But abuses by local law enforcement as it claims to fight terrorism may be harder to address.
The Mother’s Heart group has bombarded Vasilyev with letters, demanding he meet with them and listen to their stories. The group includes 86 mothers whose sons either are dead or still kept in some prisons.
“All our sons have been kidnapped by werewolves in epaulettes,” one of the mothers, Gulia Karakhanova, told The Daily Beast. In the past five years local officials have given five dead sons back to the mothers from the group, the other 81 sons are still missing.
Karakhanova’s 19 year old did not come home on May, 4, 2015. “My son had a severe lung disease, a chronic cough… and shortness of breath. He could not walk long distances. I do not believe that he could be involved in any serious crimes,” Karakhanova exclaimed. “I have no doubt that local prosecutors, investigators, FSB officers are all connected in this lawlessness against my son.”
Dagestan’s troubles have not been limited to its own borders. Thousands of young people have joined militant groups in the Middle East, making Dagestan a land of heartbroken mothers wondering if their sons and daughters were still alive in Syria and Iraq. Some, like Zubeidat, the mother of the Tsarnaev brothers, were aware of their sons’ crimes, others had no clue about the whereabouts of their children. The spread of radical Islam and violence have ruined many women’s lives.
Meanwhile, frustration and rage with local law enforcement agencies have been growing, radicalizing the population. Dagestan’s suicide bombers have shaken several Russian regions, while the Russian special security services report that they have cornered alleged terrorist groups all over the Northern Caucasus.
Investigators for Transparency International are skeptical about the Kremlin’s ability or will to put an end to Dagestan’s corruption. Last year the former head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, publicly admitted giving a bribe. “I myself gave bribes to Roskomnadzor [the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science]. I was the rector of the university, if I could not pass the academic accreditation normally, humanly, then I had to pay,” Abdulatipov admitted at the educational forum “New Quality—New Goals” last April.
Instead of investigating the former head of the North Caucasus republic, the Kremlin appointed Abdulatipov to represent President Putin on humanitarian and economic affairs in the Caspian region.
“We do not believe that the anti-corruption campaign in Dagestan is genuine, after all our requests to investigate Abdulatipov have been ignored,” Ilya Shumanov, the deputy head of Transparency International’s branch in Moscow, told The Daily Beast.
But Dagestan is still full of hope for positive changes. A senior corruption fighter and human rights defender, Magomed Shamilov, is convinced that Vasilyev’s efforts to find justice will succeed if the official relies on the local civil society.
“If Vasilyev is smart, if he wants the people of Dagestan to believe him, he should issue an order to include all civil groups in the process of reforming Dagestan,” Shamilov told The Daily Beast. “Otherwise this war on corruption and injustice will be seen as a show staged before the presidential election.”
And Mother’s Heart?
For eight long months in 2015-2016 a heartbroken Gulia Karakhanova pleaded with local investigators to start looking for her son, but all her requests were ignored, so the woman had to investigate her son’s kidnapping alone. Several witnesses described a violent scene to her: some men beating, kicking, and kidnapping her screaming son in daylight, in their home town of Derbent.
“I have sent two letters to Vasilyev, asking him to receive me. I am still hopeful that I am going to be heard,” Karakhanova told The Daily Beast. “Vasilyev is my last hope.”