Russia seeks to close SOVA Center; Dagestani commander in Ukraine interviewed; Italy accuses Wagner over migrants

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This week's main stories:

  • Russian Ministry of Justice Seeks SOVA Center closure
  • Dagestani commander of Ukrainian unit interviewed
  • Italy blames Wagner for migrant crisis
Russian Ministry of Justice Seeks SOVA Center closure

The SOVA Center —a nonprofit organisation that researches nationalism, xenophobia, and human rights — has reported that the Russian Ministry of Justice is seeking to close the organisation (SOVA Center, 20 March). If successful, another important voice tracking the use and abuse of extremism and terrorism legislation — and thus human rights issues — will be silenced in Russia.


According to a statement posted to the SOVA Center’s website, on 10 March the Main Department of the Ministry of Justice for Moscow submitted a case to Moscow City Court calling for the liquidation of the organisation. The basis for the Justice Ministry’s efforts is SOVA Center failing an audit and being found to have conducted or participated in events outside the area in which it is registered, I.e. Moscow. These include seminars, round tables, and an online conference organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (of which Russia is still a member).


SOVA Center trace the origins of the case to September 2022, when material was posted online attacking the group for “not having the right partners, Russophobia, opposing traditional values, and also for criticising antiextremist legislation and its application.” Shortly afterwards, the group’s critics referred these alleged crimes to various authorities for investigation. 


Russian civil society and human rights organisations have been under immense pressure since Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012, and this has only accelerated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The closure of SOVA Center would eliminate an important source of information into prosecutions involving extremism and terrorism charges. SOVA Center plans to contest the charges in court.

Dagestani commander of Ukrainian unit interviewed

Akhmed Akhmadov, deputy commander of the Imam Shamil Battalion that is fighting in Ukraine, has given an interview to Kavkaz Realii (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). The two most interesting, if unsurprising, features of the interview relate to his discussion of his motivations and recruitment to the group (RFE/RL, 15 March 2023).


According to the interview, Akhmadov is a native of Dagestan who worked as a kickboxing trainer, first at home, then after moving to Ukraine in 2017. He initially joined the Khort volunteer battalion, then headed the All-Ukrainian Congress of the Peoples of Dagestan. He became deputy commander of the Imam Shamil Battalion when it was founded in October 2022. The Imam Shamil Battalion is currently participating in the defence of Bakhmut.


Akhmadov discusses various things in the interview, including the current state of the conflict and the role of Caucasians in it. One of the key takeaways from the interview is his explanation of why he is participating in the conflict. He attributes his decision to fight against Russia to his Dagestani identity, portraying the republic as occupied and his ancestors and relatives as brutally repressed. In other words, he frames his involvement more in terms of displaced conflict (fighting Russia) than in terms of the specifics of the conflict he has joined (defending Ukraine). This is in many ways unsurprising: many North Caucasians fighting outside Russia adopt a similar framing. Nevertheless, the fact that Ukraine is to some fighters of secondary importance should not be overlooked.


The second key takeaway is equally unsurprising: trust plays an important role in recruitment. Thus, Akhmadov says that “no one ends up in the Imam Shamil Battalion just like that — we should know who wants to join, what they did before the war, what they do today, who can vouch for him. We know very well that Russia infiltrates its representatives both into the governments of different countries, and into their armed forces.” This echoes an important theme from the Syrian conflict, where trust was low and fears of spies was high. This impacted both recruitment — with some non-Islamic State groups only accepting people where some kind of personal relationship already existed — and collaboration between groups.

Italy blames Wagner for migrant crisis

In one of the more unusual accusations levelled at Russian Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner, Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto has blamed the group for deliberately driving up immigration to undermine the EU (Deutsche Welle, 13 March).


Crosetto claims that Russia is waging “hybrid warfare” against countries that are supporting Ukraine. As part of this, it is using Wagner’s involvement in Africa to push migrants to the coast, and from there across the Mediterranean into southern Europe. Approximately 20,000 migrants have arrived in Italy thus far in 2023, a more than three-fold increase on the 6,100 who arrived in the same period in 2022. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani insists that many migrants come from areas “controlled by the Wagner group.”


Wagner owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin, via his beloved Telegram account, rejected the accusations, insisting: "We have no idea what's happening with the migrant crisis, we don't concern ourselves with it." 


It is hard to know what to make of these accusations. On the one hand, there are strong grounds for thinking that Wagner is not contributing to African stability (see the 23 February edition of Threatologist Eurasia for a link to a detailed report on Wagner operations in Africa). Instability, in turn, does contribute to migration. On the other hand, no evidence has been presented that this is a deliberate strategy targeting the EU. And the EU is not exactly adverse to blaming others for its migration issues.

Other stories of interest
  • Russian court sentences Crimean Tatar activist to 10 and a half years for membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 15 March).
  • Russian Supreme Court designates the Freedom to Russia Legion as terrorist. The group was founded in March 2022 by former Russian military personnel who defected to Ukraine and has received training from the Ukrainian Armed Forces (Kavkaz Realii, 16 March).
  • Dagestani woman detained in Belgorod for membership of the Citizens of the USSR movement that rejects the legitimacy of the Russian state (Kavkaz Realii, 16 March).
  • In the type of story that is almost designed to delight the world’s tabloids, Wagner has been advertising on Pornhub. Given the group’s penchant for publicity, it may have done so precisely for the purpose of attracting media attention (RFE/RL, 16 March).
  • Prosecutors downgrade charges against Chechen man, from creating an illegal armed formation to assisting terrorism. The man has previously been sought by Dubai for killing Sulim Yamadayev, commander of the Vostok Battalion and a rival of Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov (Kommersant, 16 March).
  • Former senior Dagestani police officer sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in 2010 metro suicide bomb attacks. The officer reportedly warned members of the Caucasus Emirate about police activities and provided transport to one of the suicide bombers (Meduza, 16 March).
  • Ukrainian court sentences Belarusian man to nine years in prison for fighting with Wagner (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 16 March).
  • Chechen Interior Ministry reports two militants killed in 2022. They also claimed eight extremist and 104 terrorism-related crimes in the same period (Caucasian Knot, 20 March).
  • German prosecutors have dropped a case against a Chechen man accused of planning a terrorist attack against a Berlin synagogue, according to Chechen human rights organisation Vayfond (Caucasian Knot, 20 March).
  • The revenues of the Russian University of Spetsnaz in Gudermes, Chechnya, tripled in 2022 to R116,062 million. According to the institution’s tax record, it received R349 million from voluntary donations, a five-fold increase on the previous year (Caucasian Knot, 19 March).
  • Wagner has become involved in a dispute with authorities in Goryachiy Klyuch, Krasnodar, over burying fighters killed in Ukraine at a cemetery in Bakinskaya (Kavkaz Realii, 18 March).

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