Dagestan Becoming a ‘Second Syria,’ Moscow Analyst Says

November 23, 2014
Crowds of women look for their husbands and sons, locked in police basement cells in Makhachkala. Photo by Anna Nemtsova. Russia, 2012.

Staunton, November 22 – Under the impact of Moscow media, Russians have become accustomed to thinking that anti-Russian militants in the North Caucasus are bearded men who fight in the forests. But recent events in Dagestan suggest, Vladislav Maltsev says, that in that republic, they are now an urban street movement capable of fighting local siloviki [law-enforcers].

Maltsev, who tracks religious affairs for Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that this trend has gone so far that it is entirely appropriate to speak about “an unnoticed Islamic revolution” in Dagestan and even about the emergence of “a second Syria” within the borders of the Russian Federation.

On October 31, Dagestani police detained several people who had just come out of a Salafi mosque in Makhachkala. But instead of intimidating the others in attendance, this official action led the remaining parishioners to come out and surround the police cars. The police responded by shooting in the air, but even that did not cause the Muslims to back down.

Instead, this resistance prompted the authorities to send more senior officers to the site and to begin negotiations with those who were challenging the actions of the police, Maltsev points out.

“Something similar already took place on September 26 at the Historical Mosque in Moscow,” he notes, and that action sparked enormous discussion on Muslim social network sites. But the Moscow events were “only a pale copy” of those in Dagestan where the people acted more as the Muslim Brotherhood did earlier in Egypt.

The October 31 clash was not unique. Three weeks earlier, Dagestani police seized Nadir Abu Halid, one of the most popular Salafi leaders in Makhachkala. His followers met and decided to liberate him by surrounding the police station where he was being held and demanding that he be set free.

Efforts to disperse the crowd were unsuccessful, and so the authorities sent in even more senior officials to begin negotiations, Maltsev says. At the same time, the police mobilized as Dagestani Muslims posted on their websites that “God is Great, soon a second Syria will begin in Dahestan.”

It should be remembered, the Moscow journalist continues, that “the civil war in Syria which has not ended yet began in March 2011 with disorders in Dera where protesters whose base was the El Omar mosque took by storm police stations. The key role in these disorders . . . was played by Salafi Muslims and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In the wake of the Makhachkala standoff, Maltsev says, Ali Charinsky, a Muslim activist who served as a spokesman for the Islamic community of Moscow at the time of the September events there, declared that “the solution of all the problems of the Muslims of Russia is social-political activity,” a statement that the journalist says is a call for them to go into the streets.

Dagestan is far and away the most Islamic republic in the North Caucasus: it has more mosques per capita than anywhere else and has been sending a vastly disproportionate number of its believers on the haj to Mecca in recent years. Moreover, Islam now plays as it did in early times the key unifying force in what is the most multi-national republic in Russia.

But in the past, most of the resistance to Russian control there had been centered in its inaccessible mountainous rural regions. Now, that resistance is moving into the major cities, calling into question Moscow’s ability to maintain control over a key region on the Caspian littoral which sits astride key north-south transportation networks.