The Washington Post ran a lengthy feature Tuesday on the violence in Dagestan, the restive Muslim-majority republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region whose troubles have long hovered under the radar as the world fretted over the Chechen insurgency and Moscow’s tensions with independent Georgia to the south. Yet, as this 2009 U.S. cable claims, the security situation in Dagestan made the republic “the most dangerous place in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus.”
The Post sketches the conflict there — what is, almost mechanically, described in the press as a “low-level insurgency” — in terms of a sectarian clash between a dissident strain of orthodox Salafism and the Sufi secularists who rule the republic in Moscow’s name. Even if this binary is an oversimplification, Dagestan remains a place under the grip of an unpopular regime and stalked by extremists. Says the Post:
Police have killed 100 people they identified as rebels since the beginning of the year, Interior Ministry officials said in June, and human rights activists accuse police of killing first and then finding a crime to assign to the body.
Local journalists estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 armed men are in the forest at any one time, with perhaps 5,000 others prepared to join them. The forest shelters organized terrorism as well — the U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Doku Umarov, a Chechen terrorist with al-Qaeda connections suspected of hiding in Dagestan who has been accused of terrorist attacks on Moscow.
Police officers in the republic’s capital, the Caspian Sea city of Makhachkala, line up behind fortifications reminiscent of compounds for security officers in Iraq or Afghanistan — and, like in those war-ravaged countries, still are routinely subject to attacks. As in Chechnya, the legacy of decades of Soviet rule and heavy-handed Russian policy-making smolders. And, as in Chechnya, Moscow and the ruling establishment have looked to an anachronistic tactic to win hearts and minds: the 21st century’s opiate of the masses, the grand spectacle of soccer.
While Chechnya’s controversial President Ramzan Kadyrov brought a string of global all-star teams to Grozny, Dagestan took a similar, perhaps more eye-catching tack. Anzhi Makhachkala, a soccer team in the Russian first division that until this year was as unheralded as it was obscure, has become almost overnight a budding global powerhouse. Bankrolled by the Dagestani billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, who bought the team in January, Anzhi has gone on an incredibly spending spree, catapulting a club that only came into existence in 1991 possibly into contention with Europe’s leading lights. Their greatest capture so far? Last week’s signing of Samuel Eto’o, arguably the greatest player out of Africa in the past decade and, at the age of 30, now also the highest paid athlete in the history of the sport.
The arrival of Eto’o in this mountainous, impoverished, fringe corner of Europe is an incredible switch for a superstar accustomed to mass adoration in Barcelona and Milan. Kerimov, an oligarch who made his fortune in fertilizers and minerals, seems cut from the same cloth as Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and pal of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who has plowed large sums of his own money into soccer in Russia and abroad. Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson, noted soccer journalist and an authority on the game in Eastern Europe, suggests it’s likely that Moscow’s political imperatives have stoked Anzhi’s rise. Wilson writes:
It’s a fairly open secret that oligarchs are encouraged by Vladimir Putin to invest in sporting ventures. Kerimov may be a diehard Anzhi fan, but it seems just as likely that he was advised to invest. After all, if Anzhi do well, it ‘normalises’ the situation in Dagestan, just as Terek Grozny’s ongoing presence in the top flight supposedly makes Chechnya a more palatable place. Decentralisation, reaching out to the regions, has been a cornerstone of Putin’s policy in all spheres (its success in football is seen in the fact that none of the last four champions have been from Moscow).
Yet it’s still hard to see who this audacious venture really impresses. The team trains in the Moscow region, far from unstable Dagestan, and flies into Makhachkala only to play “home” games. Eto’o, if some rumors are to be believed, may remain in Italy (where he had been playing for Inter Milan) and link up with his team aboard a private jet. It’s difficult to see how such a fleeting connection to Dagestan could mollify the discontent of Salafist dissidents.
Nor is the rest of Russia all that pleased with Anzhi’s emergence. When recent Anzhi arrival Yuri Zhirkov, formerly of London’s Chelsea, turned out for the Russian national team, he was booed savagely by his own country’s fans. They were angry about the perceived political leg-up afforded to a number of North Caucasus sides — a sentiment likely tinged with longstanding prejudices against those from the Caucasus.
And so the show goes on, with Dagestan’s own Harlem Globetrotters vying for supremacy in Russia. But even the most glamorous of sporting headlines will add little gloss to an embittered republic, a world away from Moscow and at war with itself.
Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. Find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.