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Russia Wants Tourism, Not Terrorism, for Embattled Caucasus

  • James Brooke

Car bombs and shootings make Dagestan the leader in political violence in Russia’s troubled North Caucasus.

After Dagestan became known as the ancestral home of the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers, however, the world spotlight turned on this Muslim majority region - and Moscow started to take action.

Last week, in a surprise move, a military helicopter took to prison a man seen here as an untouchable warlord: Said Amirov, the mayor of Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala.

The Kremlin wants to pacify the North Caucasus before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games are held next February on the western edge of the Caucasus Mountains.

Tourist haven?

Looking to the long term, the Kremlin believes that tourism offers a way out for the impoverished North Caucasus.

The potential is clear here in Dagestan’s Derbent, Russia’s oldest and southernmost city.

For more than 1,500 years, the Derbent fortress controlled a narrow strip of land between the eastern edge of the North Caucasus and the Caspian Sea.

“The people that live in Derbent are really proud of our fortress. And we are waiting for tourists. Bring on the tourists. We’re all for it,” said Shakmarda Mardonov, who works in the fruit market below the fortress.

Mardonov and others remember the Soviet days, when a quarter-million tourists came here every year. Since then, the fortress became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Violent reputation

Despite this honor, there are no tourists today for Abasu Shakalar Sanya, a city taxi driver.

“I said to my friends in Moscow to come down and see the sea and the fortress,” he said. “They said: 'No, they will shoot and kill us.' Have you heard anything like that here? No. It doesn’t happen here. We are friendly people. We love guests and tourists.”

A few blocks away stand the thick, low walls of the Dzhuma Mosque. Built in 734, it is the oldest mosque in Russia.

The mosque and the fortress are centerpieces for a project to bring one million tourists annually here by the end of this decade.

“We want more tourists and guests to come to Derbent," said Imam Magomedovich Yaraliev, mayor of Derbent and a former prosecutor. "We want to make friends and live peacefully. We want to develop our city. We want to have one brotherhood of the people in Dagestan.”

In today’s Dagestan, the violence often seems endless. It is a flash in time, however, compared to the history witnessed by the ancient stone walls of the Derbent fortress.

Over the centuries, the fort changed hands from Persians to Arabs to Armenians to Mongols to Turks, until finally falling to Russians in 1813 - 200 years ago.

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