An elite commando squad from Russia's FSB security service staged a military-style assault in downtown Makhachkala Saturday, using helicopters and armored vehicles to corner and arrest the strife-torn Caspian city's powerful mayor, Said Amirov, and about a dozen of his men.
Mr. Amirov has been mayor of Makhachkala, capital of the multiethnic republic of Dagestan, since 1998, and has survived 15 assassination attempts in the past two decades. His power base is a major ethnic clan, the Dargans, which experts say has enabled him to run the city almost as his private fiefdom. Russian law enforcement also believes he was at the center of a vast organized crime ring.
A note posted on the official website of the Investigative Committee says Amirov and his men were arrested in connection with the 2011 murder of a senior state investigator and that they are under investigation "in a number of other serious and especially serious crimes in the Republic of Dagestan."
Appearing in Moscow's Basmanny court Sunday, Amirov said that the case against him "is concocted and I do not admit any guilt."
But experts suggest there is also a political background to this story. Dagestan, a mountainous region with dozens of different linguistic and ethnic groups – and at least six major ones, none of which is dominant – is largely beyond the ambit of Kremlin politics, and has been slipping into anarchy for well over a decade.
Best known to Americans as the place the alleged Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, came from, Dagestan is racked by a low-level Islamist insurgency, which carries out terrorist bombings and assassinations so frequently that even the Russian media scarcely bother to cover them.
Earlier this year President Vladimir Putin sacked the republic's leader, Magomedsalam Magomedov, also a Dargan, and replaced him with a veteran Moscow politician, Ramazan Abdulatipov, who has no strong roots in Dagestan's complex ethnic hierarchy.
"Everything that's going on now is connected with the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The Kremlin needs some semblance of calm and order in the north Caucasus region so that nothing disrupts the Olympics, and so is changing the way it deals with Dagestan," says Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"Previously, there was a complicated formula for buying off various ethnic clans. But in replacing Magomedov with someone who's not connected with any strong clans, the Kremlin signaled that it's going to put much more stress on the federal security forces in its efforts to impose order.... Amirov was the strongest man left in Dagestan – he could mobilize 200 armed supporters at virtually a moment's notice – and he has relatives in influential positions all around. With his arrest his clan is seriously weakened. The goal is to change the balance among the clans, and give more scope for the security services to act," Mr. Petrov says.
Dagestan was a peaceful place in Soviet times, not only because the KGB kept a tight grip, but also thanks to an elaborate quota system that ensured each ethnic group a place at every official table. The Russian language, taught in an admirable mass education system, served as lingua franca – and still does – in a place that's a Tower of Babel. The entire local elite was integrated, and disciplined, in the ranks of the Communist Party.
That system has since mostly broken down. Official corruption, mass poverty, abuses committed by security forces, and widespread male unemployment all play a part in radicalizing young Dagestanis and propelling them into the growing Islamist revolt – a breeding ground for terrorism that has become a painful subject of interest in the United States in the wake of the Boston bombings.
Experts say the Kremlin is declaring war on the old ethnic clan system, and Amirov's arrest is probably the beginning of a much wider campaign to restore political control over the republic.
"It looks like Amirov's arrest is the beginning of a large-scale effort to cleanse the political landscape in Dagestan," says Alexei Vlasov, director of the Center for Political Studies of the Post-Soviet Space at Moscow State University. "It's a demonstrative step from Moscow and the Dagestani leadership that things are going to be changed."
"The alternative would be to leave things as they are, in which the elite is too fragmented and every little clan leader goes his own way. Yes, perhaps there's probably going to be some tough measures.... Dagestan is the weakest link in the entire northern Caucasus, not so much because of the Islamist extremists but mainly because its local authorities are so hopelessly ineffective. So, the Kremlin's message in arresting Amirov is that changes are coming. All local officials will sit up and take notice, because if Amirov can be arrested, no one is safe. There is no turning back; the Kremlin is going to have to go all the way with this," he adds.
[Editor's note: The original headline mischaracterized the FSB raid as military. Though the raid was military-style, the FSB is a civilian organization.]