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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dagestanis Try to Stick to Their Guns

MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan -- Three years ago, Alil Ibragimov paid 13,500 hard-earned rubles ($550 at the time) for a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the Dagestani black market. He says he did so in response to a request by the Dagestani authorities for civilians to arm themselves against Chechen militants.

In June, however, the same Dagestani authorities took Ibragimov's gun away without any compensation as part of a drive to get the weapons back.

The move left Ibragimov angry, and he vowed to go to court.

"It was the Dagestani police who recommended that I buy a weapon anywhere I could, it was the same police that registered my Kalashnikov, and now the very same police take it away, saying no money will be returned to me," he said bitterly.

Ibragimov, a 35-year-old truck driver, is one of the unlucky few who have lost their guns to the police, while thousands of other Dagestanis opt to keep their firearms with them for personal security.

Many of these guns were acquired on the eve of the second Chechen war in August 1999, when federal troops had not yet amassed in this southern republic and Dagestani police did not have enough manpower to beat back Islamic militants who invaded western Dagestan from Chechnya under the command of warlord Shamil Basayev.

The Dagestani government called for the republic's male population to volunteer for a hastily created armed militia, which fought alongside federal troops and local police against insurgents at the Chechen border and guarded settlements in nearby areas.

Thousands of assault rifles were distributed to civilians, and those who had previously acquired weapons illegally were given the chance to legalize them.

"You may have whatever you wish -- pistols, assault rifles, grenade launchers, even a tank. But come to us and register it," Dagestani Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov said at the time.

During that hot August, local television reported that 6,000 rifles from the stocks of Dagestan's Interior Ministry were distributed in just one day.

The militarization of the republic was sped along by an acceptance of arms possession at a political level.

Dagestan is the only Russian region that has passed a bill on weapons giving residents the right to own any kind of gun as long as it is registered. The bill has never been signed into law, but in 1999 it helped to arm 25,000 volunteers.

Dagestan's attitude to arms possession was in apparent violation of the Russian Constitution, which allows no bodies other than law enforcement agencies to carry weapons and says nothing about volunteers. But when Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov hurried to Dagestan to discuss the issue with the local authorities in September 1999, he accepted their reasoning.

Today, the Dagestani authorities are trying to convince people that they don't need the weapons any more, in an apparent attempt to cooperate with the Kremlin's efforts to align regional legislation with federal laws.

"We are obliged to comply with the federal law on weapons, which stipulates that there are no grounds for ordinary people to possess assault firearms," said Abdul Musayev, spokesman for the Dagestani Interior Ministry. "The inspecting commissions sent here from Moscow demand that we bring the situation regarding weapons in the region into line with this law."

The 1996 federal law permits ordinary citizens to have only hunting and sporting firearms with permission from the Interior Ministry. Illegal possession of arms is punishable by up to four years behind bars.

Musayev said there are no statistics on how many guns were distributed in 1999 because, as well as the Interior Ministry, other bodies such as the Defense Ministry's local draft recruitment offices and town administrations were giving weapons away left and right, providing holders with permits and not informing police.

Musayev said the Dagestani Interior Ministry collects registered assault firearms from residents through local police officers, who pick up the guns from their owners for "reregistration" and never give them back.

"We just have no right to, the law forbids giving out firearms," Musayev said.

But a source in the ministry said the police have collected only a few guns. Despite the threat of criminal prosecution, Dagestanis prefer to hide them because of the high price of guns and the low level of their salaries, he said on condition of anonymity.

Musayev said the Dagestani Interior Ministry has pushed for financial compensation for the owners of requisitioned guns but without success.

"We sent hundreds of letters to different ministries with the request to provide money, and everywhere we were answered that there is no law for such compensation," Musayev said.

Ibragimov fell for the reregistration trick when he lost his Kalashnikov in June.

"I am an idiot, I should have told police I had lost the gun in combat in the Botlikh region, where I fought in 1999," the former volunteer said. "Many of my friends have gotten away with saying so."

Another way of saving a gun, or even acquiring a new one, is by taking advantage of corruption in Dagestan's police force.

Sergei, a 29-year-old retail trader running a tiny kiosk in Makhachkala, said he bought a powerful Remington shotgun after bribing a police inspector to give him a paper saying it was a hunting rifle.

"It cost me just $50, and the inspector told me to bring more willing people," Sergei said.

He added that he needs the gun to protect his business because he does not trust the effectiveness of the police.

Eduard Urazayev, a spokesman for the Dagestani government, said public resistance to disarmament is growing and people have started to protest through their representatives in the republic's parliament.

"At the parliament sessions lawmakers protest against disarmament, saying people need weapons as the ultimate guarantee of personal security," he said.

Urazayev said these voices grew stronger after the deadly bombing of a Victory Day parade in Kaspiisk in May, which killed 43 people.

The enforcement of the disarmament is least visible on the streets of Makhachkala, where dozens of young men can be seen wearing pistols buckled to their blue jeans.

According to Musayev, the men are registered as working in private security companies and have the right to carry guns.

The armed teenagers disperse along the city's main Ulitsa Yaragskogo, which has turned into an outdoor currency exchange. The men stand beside the road waving wads of dollars and rubles and loudly urging passersby to use their services.

"There has not been a single hold-up in the three years I have worked here," one of them said. "You'd have to be an idiot to go against our guns."

The proliferation of weapons in a volatile region like Dagestan has, of course, created its own set of law-and-order problems. Police file reports almost daily of former volunteer militiamen misusing their guns.

The most notorious instance of law enforcement officials being unable to control heavily armed citizens occurred in October 1999, when several hundred armed volunteers refused to allow Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov to enter Dagestan.

Maskhadov was due to meet Dagestani leader Magomedali Magomedov for negotiations backed by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the border town of Khasavyurt, but police failed to disperse the armed crowd and he was forced to turn back. The next day, Russian troops marched into Chechnya.