Politeía Digest

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

From Moscow to Mecca

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As this part of Russia’s empire frays, fundamentalist Islam takes a stronger hold

ONLY the call to prayer disturbs the morning air in the small Dagestani village of Novosasitli. Dogs do not bark here. All “unclean” animals have been exterminated. Apart from an occasional counter-terrorist raid, life is quiet. People leave their houses unlocked; there has not been a theft for years. A few weeks ago two women were killed—but they were fortune-tellers, or, according to local men, witches.

Most women wear the hijab. Alcohol is forbidden, polygamy common. Officials rarely come by, but life in the village is more orderly than in much of the rest of Dagestan. The locals have built a school extension for the growing number of children. Some of the money came as a zakat—a mandatory charitable contribution by the better-off to the poor, as required by the Koran. Disputes are settled by imams.

The village is home to Abdurakhim Magomedov, a charismatic spiritual leader of Islamic fundamentalists and the first translator of the Koran into the local language. “Fifteen years ago, only half the people in Novosasitli wanted to live by sharia law. Today everyone in the villages wants it,” he says. To achieve this, he adds, Dagestan needs to be free.

Last summer, after a few young women were kidnapped from the village, a community group set up a checkpoint and a night watch. But last month a military truck with ten gunmen came and smashed the checkpoint. If this was an attempt to draw Novosasitli into Russia’s orbit, it achieved the opposite, increasing the tension that is tearing apart not only Dagestan but the whole north Caucasus—and, with it, Russia.

Russian rule has always been tenuous there. The territory, which stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian, was colonised late and was never fully integrated into Russia’s empire. Its Muslim peoples enjoyed considerable autonomy, both religious and cultural, until the Bolsheviks took over—whereupon the Caucasus was so modernised and Sovietised that when the Soviet Union fell only Chechnya declared its independence.

Two wars later Chechnya is relatively stable under President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel whose patron is Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister. Grozny, Chechnya’s once-ruined capital, is now a surreal place boasting several skyscrapers, the largest mosque in Europe, chandelier-lit streets and a Putin Prospect. The president enjoys something of a personality cult: official licence-plates carry his initials, and banners outside schools thank him for “taking care of our future”. Yet Chechnya is virtually a separate state, where women must wear headscarves in public and the sale of alcohol is restricted.

Violence has spread from Chechnya to other north Caucasus republics and beyond. Outsiders notice it only when suicide-bombers blow themselves up on the Moscow metro or at the capital’s international airport. Yet parts of the north Caucasus are in a state of simmering civil war. Statistics are unreliable, but by the estimates of Memorial, a human-rights organisation, at least 289 Russian soldiers and policemen were killed last year and 551 wounded. About the same number died in 2009—more than Britain has lost in Afghanistan over the past ten years.

On paper, all five predominantly Muslim republics (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia) are part of a single administrative district. On the ground, however, they are separated by borders and checkpoints fortified by sandbags and machineguns. Crossing from one republic to another feels like crossing a national frontier. Taxi-drivers from Dagestan prefer not to venture into Chechnya.

Each of the republics has its own political set-up and is unhappy in its own way, but the root of the problem, say experts, is shared: the de-legitimisation and crumbling of the Russian state and its inability to rule by law. In much of the north Caucasus corruption has eroded the very basis of the state, which performs almost none of its functions and is seen as a source of disorder and violence rather than security.

This also holds true in the rest of Russia, but the north Caucasus has a strong alternative to Russia’s political system: Islam, which now unites all the Muslim republics. Whereas the first Chechen war in 1994 was fired by nationalism and separatism, the second war (which echoes still) had a strong religious dimension. The leader of the Islamist rebels, Doku Umarov, has proclaimed himself emir of north Caucasus. Read more in The Economist.

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Written by Theophyle

April 9, 2011 at 7:58 am

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