The past month has brought a surge in reporting on conflicts, skirmishes and violence in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. These are not only insurgencies against Russia, but also a hostage situation in Georgia. As always, reports are inconclusive and questions always remain about motivation and who exactly is fighting whom. Much of the conflict appears to originate in Dagestan, which is the seat of an extremely violent insurgency. Skirmishes appear to be spilling into Georgia, and worryingly for Putin, into the heartland of Russia.
On July 19, in Tatarstan, one leading Muslim cleric was shot and another was killed by a bomb. Tatarstan is much closer to Moscow than Dagestan, considered part of Russia’s ‘heartland’ so the spread of violence to this region is particularly alarming. It is indicative that the violence raging in Dagestan, where the killings of security officers and civilians is a daily occurrence, may not be contained much longer. The BBC concisely explains why violence in Tatarstan is quite worrying:
But Tatarstan, a mainly Muslim region on the Volga River, has long been seen as harmonious and stable. Even decades ago, in the Soviet Union, Tatarstan was seen as a model of peaceful co-existence for different nationalities and religions.
In Ingushetia, multiple attacks have taken place, most prominently, bombings on August 19 and 27. The first attack took place during a funeral for a police officer, killing at least seven other policeman. In the August 27 attack, three were killed in an explosion at a marketplace
Georgia, a state brought to global attention for its brief war with Russia in 2008, experienced its first clashes since the war when five young men were taken hostage by armed men who apparently crossed the border from Dagestan.
Based on recent media reports, the hostage situation between Georgia and Dagestan appears to be (mostly) resolved after a deadly shootout resulting in the deaths of three Georgian military personnel and eleven alleged militants. What exactly motivated the hostage crisis is still unclear and frankly, murkier with each report. Georgian news media describes the crisis as such:
News about missing five men from the village of Lapankuri was first reported in the Georgian media sources in the morning of August 28…Several hours later, on the same day, on August 28, Rustavi 2 TV reported in its 3pm news bulletin that all five men were found as a result of search operation in which rescue teams, local police, military police and a helicopter was involved. Rustavi 2 said in that report that the men went missing after “they lost their way”. Before the midnight the Georgian authorities started sending troops to the area and the Interior Ministry announced about the operation aimed at “pursuing” armed group, which was referred to as “squad of saboteurs”…Some locals said that the five men were treated well while being held by the gunmen; it, however, remains unclear what was the motive behind taking the villagers in hostage.
According to the official version of events, the armed group ambushed Georgian border patrol’s vehicle and detained several officers, while they were searching for the missing young men. [A] Senior officer offered gunmen to release the villagers and other border guards and to keep only him in hostage, which was accepted by the militants.
As of August 31, it was unclear if the senior officers were still being held by militants. Shooting broke out when the militants refused to surrender.
It is worth pointing out that even though a group calling themselves the Caucasus Emirate, linked to Chechnyan militants, has vowed to retaliate for the death of the eleven men, leadership in Georgia is still pointing fingers at Russia and blaming them for all problems in the post-Soviet states. Additionally, political opposition groups in Georgia are hinting that the current administration, under Saakashvili, orchestrated the entire crisis to gain popular support prior to upcoming parliamentary elections in October.
In another incident of recent violence in Dagestan, on August 28, a prominent Sufi cleric, Said Efendi Chirkeisky (also called Said Afandi in the media), was killed by a suicide bomber in his home along with six others, including a child. The suicide bomber was reportedly the wife of a fundamentalist Islamic leader. Chirkeisky was a critic of Salafi Islam, which is a much stricter form of Islam than Sufi Islam. This made him a target of radical groups, and the religious leader had been targeted for assassination previously and survived.
As a testament to Chirkeisky’s influence, media reports indicate over 100,000 attended his funeral. RFE/RL’s reporting on the impact of his death is worth reading (linked above), as it clearly explains how dialogue between Salafi and Sufi leaders is likely to be more difficult now that one of the more important promoters of peace has been murdered. Sufi Islam is generally very critical of the violent aspects of Salafi (Wahhabi) Islam, causing rifts between the two ideologies. Many Salafi extremists have called for the deaths of leading Sufi clerics, stating Sufi Islam is not a ‘pure’ form of Islam.
In the wake of the assassination, Dagestan’s provincial leader, Magomedsalam Magomedov, has called for the formation of civilian paramilitary squads, essentially vigilante squads, to prevent and repel attacks by Islamic extremists.
You don’t need to know much about the situation to see how poorly that could turn out. Dagestan is already a violent (and underreported) conflicts. Arming civilians and encouraging them to turn on each other rarely works out well.