With its speedy victory over Georgia last year, Moscow garnered respect in the region, where strength is seen as the highest virtue, and where in fact it has almost cult-like status. Russia has gained two protectorates, the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and yet its actions elsewhere in the region have created a credibility problem. Even though the Kremlin has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, it continues to suppress similar separatist movements at home. In the case of Chechnya, Moscow's ventures have come at the cost of two wars and more than 100,000 presumed dead.
"Just take a look around in Dagestan and in the Caucasus," says Adallo, the poet, in Makhachkala. "No one can sleep soundly here anymore, neither the people nor those in the government."
Eight weeks ago, a sniper shot Dagestan's interior minister in the heart while he was attending a wedding. He was reputed to have participated directly in the torture of underground fighters, and after he was killed Moscow praised him as a "Russian hero." The mayor of Makhachkala, also a man with a dubious reputation, has survived 15 attempts on his life, and he now runs the lively coastal city from a wheelchair.
A new concrete road runs from Makhachkala into the mountains southwest of the city, enabling Russian tanks and Dagestani police patrols to move more quickly as they hunt down insurgents. There are an estimated 1,000 rebels in this region alone, men who have been unable to find jobs in the Caucasus and, while looking for work in neighboring Russia, are consistently referred to as "black asses," or second-class citizens. Such discrimination only fuels the spirit of resistance among the combative people of the mountains.
Troops from the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, have surrounded the village of Gubden, and checkpoints dot nearby roads. Indignant local residents produce photos of the bodies of two men that show the signs of horrific torture. Meanwhile, the evening news on the government-run television station reports that the two were underground fighters killed in a gun battle with police.
The killings may have been an act of revenge for an incident that happened a few days earlier, when police were ambushed and shot to death. It is difficult to differentiate between victims and perpetrators in the Caucasus. Some underground fighters behave like common criminals when they demand protection money from local residents. The police and intelligence agents, on the other hand, have not shied away from killing innocent people so that they can report successes to Moscow in the hunt for terrorists.
On the surface Achulgo, a mountain stronghold perched at 2,100 meters (6,890 feet) above sea level, seems peaceful enough. An elderly woman is selling postcards depicting a likeness of Imam Shamil, who is still revered as a hero by the mountain peoples today. Shamil resisted the Russian army in the 19th century, when Moscow subjugated the Caucasus. In 1855, the war of conquest consumed one-sixth of the budget of czarist Russia, costing Moscow more than it cost the British to subjugate India.