With Breakdown of Order in Russia’s Dagestan Region, Fear Stalks Police
By ELLEN BARRY
MAKHACHKALA, Russia — At a certain point last summer, when snipers on rooftops began picking off police officers, Col. Mukhtar Mukhtarov’s wife blocked the door with her body and refused to let him leave home in his uniform.
For 25 years, it had been one of the great joys of Colonel Mukhtarov’s life to walk the streets in his red-striped police cap. But by last summer all that had been turned so thoroughly on its head that he quietly went back to his bedroom to change into civilian clothes.
His son Gassan, a 20-year-old beat officer, has known the job only this way, thick with fear. He changes in his car outside the station house. Aware that militants often follow police officers for days before killing them — his neck sometimes prickling with the sense of being watched — Gassan Mukhtarov swaps license plates with friends to make himself harder to track. He is still not safe. He knows that.
“They’ve known who I was from the first day,” he said.
It is all a measure of how thoroughly order has broken down
in the Russian region of Dagestan, in the North Caucasus. Fifty-eight police officers were killed in attacks here last year, according to the republic’s Interior Ministry, many of them while running errands or standing at their posts. Last month alone, according to press reports, 13 officers were killed in bombings and gangland-style shootings.
The gunmen — some combination of Islamist militants, alienated young people, ordinary criminals and foot soldiers in private armies — just melt back into the city, to be described in the next day’s news reports as “persons unknown.”
As the number of attacks doubled, to 201 last year from 100 in 2008, the authorities tried to offer relief. The blue stripes were removed from most police cars and officers were told they no longer had to wear uniforms on the way to work. In a weird touch, every traffic officer in Makhachkala (****ounced ma-HACH-ka-la), the capital city, is now backed up by a riot policeman in camouflage, Kalashnikov assault rifle at the ready.
Even so, recruits are under pressure from friends and relatives to quit, said Gassan Mukhtarov, who is a lieutenant. He said he could not really blame them.
“If you had a son, would you let him work as a policeman?” he asked. “I wouldn’t let my own son do it.”
The police occupy a miserable place in Russian society, where many citizens see officers as so corrupt and brutal they prefer to settle their disputes alone. But no environment is more hostile than the North Caucasus
, where occasional clashes with militants have intensified into something closer to guerrilla warfare.
has been trying to wipe out the militant underground since the late 1990s, when separatists moved into Dagestan from bases in neighboring Chechnya. But because Moscow prefers to cast the conflict as a law enforcement problem rather than a political one, much of the burden of fighting it has been shunted onto the police, said Alexei V. Malashenko
, a Caucasus specialist at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
That fight has left behind a residue of rage among the public. Reports of abductions and deaths of civilians are common in the wake of antiterrorism operations, though in the crowd of masked men who whisk suspects away, it is hard to say who works for the federal government and who for the police.
In any event, it has stopped mattering. In a culture that prizes revenge, uniformed police officers are a proxy for all those masked men — for the government itself — because they cannot hide.
Magomed Ataranov, 30, came to understand this after five years on the police force, when he and some other officers trotted over to help a woman who had fallen on the road. The men were laughing over some triviality, and Mr. Ataranov is still not sure what happened, but the woman glared up at them from the ground and said she hoped they would all be killed.
“We were used to it,” said Mr. Ataranov, who left the force a year later. “But from an ordinary woman I didn’t expect it.”
Lt. Col. Mark V. Tolchinsky, lead spokesman for the republic’s Interior Ministry, said attacks on the police rose last year in response to aggressive antiterrorism raids. He was not particularly hopeful about the new safety measures, but said violence had not made it any harder to recruit or retain officers.
“There is no work in Dagestan, if only for that reason,” Mr. Tolchinsky said.
“If one of them left us, how would he feed his children? Would he steal? Or would he go into the forest,” where militant groups are headquartered?
“A war has been going on here since 1997,” he said. “Maybe it sounds improper to say, but our workers only leave us dead.”