Moscow prosecutors have charged Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, the capital city of Dagestan, the turbulent Russian province in the North Caucasas, along with two other men, with the murder of an investigator more than two years ago.
According to reports, a dramatic operation over the weekend involving a helicopter, sealed-off roads and 40 armored cars were used in the arrest of the mayor, who was subsequently flown by army helicopter more than 1,000 miles north to a jail in Moscow.
Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, also arrested 10 other Dagestani officials, including Amirov’s nephew, Yusup Dzhaparov, the deputy mayor of Kaspiysk, a Makhachkala suburb. The murder victim, Arsen Gadzhibekov, chief of the investigation department in Makhachkala's Sovetsky District, was shot to death outside his home in Kaspiysk in December 2011. Gadzhibekov was probing criminal gangs in Dagestan at the time.
Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reports that Amirov is believed to have been the mastermind behind the killing.
The agency noted that Gadzhibekov was investigating not Amirov himself but the interests of several of his closest officials. Amirov has also long been rumored to have links to criminal drug gangs operating throughout the region.
The Moscow Times reports that the special forces operation to arrest Amirov occurred in total secrecy, given Amirov’s complete domination of local law enforcement agencies.
"This was a brilliant operation executed by the Kremlin to show that Moscow can put the situation in order if it wants to," Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told the Times.
Amirov, who said he is innocent of the charges and claimed the prosecution is politically motivated, could face life imprisonment if convicted of murder. He and his defendants also face charges of possessing illegal weapons.
Dagestan is one of the Russia’s most restive regions -- periodic murders and bombings perpetrated by a criminal underworld scar the landscape, while an Islamic insurgency wages war against Moscow. BBC reports that Amirov, one of the most powerful men in the North Caucasus, has himself survived no less than 15 assassination attempts, one for each year he has served as mayor. Nicknamed the Immortal One, he is nonetheless partly paralyzed and bound in a wheelchair, the remnant of a murder attempt.
Amirov is also quite the scholar -- Itar-Tass notes that he possesses a doctoral degree in economics and also holds a position of senior lecturer at Dagestan’s State University. He is also a member of the Academy of Social and Humanitarian Sciences and the Russian Municipal Academy.
On top of all that, the 59-year-old also wrote several books, including “In the Name of Law and Order" and “We Defended Peace.” He even received commendations and awards from the FSB -- the same entity that just arrested him.
Itar-Tass speculates that the arrest of Amirov, which has apparently been hailed and celebrated by ordinary Dagestanis, may reflect Moscow’s wish to impose tighter rule over a province that has seen an unprecedented level of corruption and criminality in recent months.
Moscow officials were also likely concerned about violence in Dagestan spilling over into the Summer Olympic Games in nearby Sochi.
The arrest may also be linked to upcoming gubernatorial elections scheduled to be held in Dagestan. According to the Times, polls showed Amirov held an edge over the current acting head of the republic, Ramazan Abdulatipov.
Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin fired the former governor of Dagestan, a man named Magomedsalam Magomedov, apparently over his inability to quell the unrest in the province. (Abdulatipov replaced Magomedov on an interim basis in January.)
According to the Times, the chief of FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, informed Putin that Abdulatipov could govern Dagestan only if Amirov were arrested or removed.
“Improving the situation in Dagestan and in the North Caucasus in general is a policy of the Russian president,” Abdulatipov himself told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily newspaper, in an apparent reference to Amirov’s spectacular arrest. “All those who committed certain violations or were suspected of some offenses over many years feature on the general list. I believe that this hard work will take much time. Many of those wealthy people have fortunes. They have connections at various levels. But this work will continue, because this is a policy of the Russian president and the target he has set.”
Gregory Shvedov, editor of the Caucasian Knot website and an expert on the Caucasus, told the Moscow Times that the arrest also marks a bold gambit by Moscow to exert its authority across the width and breadth of the huge Russian Federation. "This is another sign that the Kremlin is tightening the screws across all of Russia,” he told the Times. “Physical force instead of 'soft power' is being used against the insurgents in the North Caucasus or anybody connected with them. This is the so-called scorched-earth policy, which does not need people who can build bridges between the warring sides. Amirov was one of these people -- maybe the most influential in Dagestan and certainly much more powerful than its current head, who is expected to be officially appointed a few months from now.”
Dagestan is also next to Chechnya, the native land of the two young men, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who allegedly carried out the bombings at the Boston Marathon in mid-April, killing three people and wounding hundreds. Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with Boston police, had visited Dagestan for six months last year, apparently to move closer to his roots and meet with Islamic fundamentalists.