Violence-Worn Republic Wary Of Russia's Promises

Police officers and investigators at the site of an explosion on the outskirts of Makhachkala.

Police officers and investigators stand at the site of an explosion at the traffic police station on the outskirts of Makhachkala, the capital of Russia's Dagestan region on Jan. 6. A suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed car at the police station, killing at least six officers and wounding 16, police said. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP

In Russia's southern republic of Dagestan, militants and police are killed or wounded in the streets almost every day. War continues between Islamist insurgents and Russian security forces here and elsewhere in Russia's Caucasus region.

But the people of Dagestan try to get on with their lives. The Dagestan soccer team recently played a big game — and got hearty pep talk beforehand from Magomedsalam Magomedov, the president of the semi-separate republic.

Russia's Caucasus Regions

In Dagestan and the nearby republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, militants have vowed to create an independent Islamic state. The Russian government has responded brutally. Alyson Hurt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alyson Hurt/NPR

Later, Magomedov talked about a tougher part of his job: ending what he called Dagestan's "constant conflict." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised a new approach. He wants to end the cycle of violence by improving the economy and creating jobs.

"People need work," Magomedov told NPR. "You understand, though, the state can't just build new plants and factories, like it used to in Soviet times. We will create conditions so business will develop in Dagestan, and investments will arrive and bring new jobs."

Magomedov is an economist whose specialty is job creation, which explains why Medvedev appointed him last month to lead the troubled republic. But the question for Magomedov is how to attract investment in what amounts to a police state.

Public Skepticism

Russian special operations forces are constantly on the attack in Dagestan, hunting for insurgents. Magomedov delicately avoided criticizing his own government's forces.

"They do their job. And they do it within the bounds of the law," he said. "But if they use force ... if the physical use of force on their part is improper or not the appropriate reaction, of course, we don't support such behavior."

Around Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital, the streets are teeming with taxis blaring music, vendors selling kebabs and people flocking to afternoon prayer. Dagestan has 2.5 million people, the majority Muslim. And in the fight against Islamist extremism, this is one of the world's battlegrounds.

In Dagestan and in the nearby republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, militants have vowed to create an independent Islamic state. The Russian government, under former President Vladimir Putin, responded brutally. Medvedev, the current president, has kept up the pressure. He recently described extremism in this region as a cancerous tumor.

Many in Dagestan, like Svetlana Isayeva, say they don't believe Medvedev's new promise to build up the economy.

"It's wonderful what he said," Isayeva says. "But the citizens of Dagestan should see and feel deeds. It's not just about listening to an interview, and then applauding."

Svetlana Isayeva is the founder of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights. i i

Svetlana Isayeva is the founder of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights. She formed the group in 2007, after her son was kidnapped — a victim, she says, of a government raid. Sergei Rasulov for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sergei Rasulov for NPR
Svetlana Isayeva is the founder of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights.

Svetlana Isayeva is the founder of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights. She formed the group in 2007, after her son was kidnapped — a victim, she says, of a government raid.

Sergei Rasulov for NPR

A Struggle With Fear

Isayeva runs a group called Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights. She formed it in 2007 after her 25-year-old son was kidnapped — a victim, she said, of a government raid. Her son had no militant ties, she says, though one old acquaintance of his did kill a police officer. Isayeva says she believes federal forces responded by casting a huge net and rounding up as many young men as they could find.

She has not seen her son since.

"You can't even imagine the torture of going to bed and waking up in the morning with one and the same thought: 'Maybe today I'll learn something; now I'll get some news.' "

The government has denied targeting innocent people. But the Mothers of Dagestan and other families have similar stories. There is a sense among many people in Dagestan that there is no way to build up an economy when young men fear leaving their houses.

'We Work Here. We Live Here'

Makhachkala's mayor, Said Amirov, knows fear. Militants have tried to assassinate him 15 times. In 1998, a bullet pierced his car and shattered his spine. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

When asked what keeps him going to work — onto these dangerous streets every day in a wheelchair — he responds: "Where should I go? Shall I run to America? We work here. We live here. What kind of answer would you like to have?"

This republic desperately needs jobs, he says. And if the Kremlin is serious about investing there, the people will give it a chance. Nothing, the mayor says, is impossible.

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