"Moscow was getting worried about the influence Bilalov was acquiring," Valeriy Dzutsev, a journalist from the North Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz told me. "The rationale for building the resorts was to make North Caucasians work for a Russian company and so keep them under full control. But if the North Caucasians themselves owned the company, then it wouldn't make any sense to Moscow. So he had to be dismissed or even rooted out as he had substantial influence and capital." Maxim Bystrov, who has previously held positions in Moscow, was subsequently appointed as the new figurehead at Northern Caucasus Resorts.
The Bilalov firing can be interpreted as one stage of the Kremlin's intent to rein in North Caucasian autonomy; something it is eager to achieve in the prelude to the Sochi Olympics. This process has also resulted in changes at political level, particularly in Dagestan, the most troublesome of the North Caucasus republics. In January, Magomedsalam Magomedov was discharged as Dagestan's president. Magomedov, an ethnic Dagestani Dargan, was an appointee of Medvedev in 2010 and was an advocate of dialogue with radical Islamist groups. Magomedov was replaced with Ramazan Abdulatipov, a hard-line politician with closer links to Moscow than to the various ethnic peoples of his region.
Seemingly "soft" initiatives advanced by Magomedov, such as a rehabilitation facility for Islamist militants, were shut down and the Russian government forces intensified their counter-insurgency operations. One operation in April saw the forced relocation of Gimry village's 5,000 population, including hospitalized patients, to a temporary shantytown as police forces hunted a group of militants. Mass damage was reported in the village and three suspects were killed. Such activities give the impression of progress against Islamic militants but leave the broader population resentful of authority.
"The village was full of power agents in masks and camouflage who came in different military machines," reveals the text of an appeal signed by 300 Gimry residents, who say they were given no prior warning about the operation. "Shooting was opened. Residents began hurriedly leaving Gimry. From a fright, some elderly villagers had heart attacks, and one had a stroke. [The agents] turned everything upside down, broke doors and smashed household equipment."
Continuing with changes in the region, in early June the mayor of Dagestan's capital city Makhachkala, Said Amirov, was arrested along with a dozen companions by an elite Kremlin-affiliated commando squad and taken by helicopter to Moscow on charges of criminal activity. Amirov was mayor since 1998 and, like Magomedov, enjoyed strong support from the Dargan ethnic group. He was regarded as the last strong authority figure in Dagestan. The timing of the leadership upheavals was not a coincidence.
"[The timing] was done deliberately," Emil Souleimanov, a writer and professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies in Prague's Charles University, told me. "The recent events in Dagestan are closely [linked] to the Kremlin's efforts for the security of the Sochi Olympics. Moscow is carrying out a number of significant 'clean-ups' of the republic's elites."
In the space of several months, three of the most prominent Dagestanis, Bilalov, Magomedov, and Amirov were swiftly banished from power. But while the Kremlin ostracism of locals in favor of loyalists may give the impression of taking control over an unruly region, such tactics will likely be ineffectual in curtailing the radical ideologies that are the true threat to stability.
The Caucasus Emirate, the largest and most active militant group in the North Caucasus, was responsible for the bombings of Moscow's Metro in 2010 and its airport in 2011, killing 76 people and injuring hundreds more civilians. In 2007 the group's leader, Doku Umarov, labelled Russia and other Western nations as the enemies of all Muslims. Such statements by Umarov have been oft-quoted in the media, elevating the perception of a militant threat at the Sochi Olympics.
However, more recently the Caucasus Emirate has moderated its stance, and it has little to do with pressure from the Kremlin's strong-arm tactics. Last year, following the surge in Russia's anti-Putin protests, Umarov released a video in which he stated: "Events in Russia have shown us that Russia's peaceful population does not support Putin's Chekist [security state] regime." He added that militant operations should be carried out "with precision against the security services, the special services, and the reprobates who are officials ... Our religion tells us to take care of the peaceful population and not to touch them." Then in April this year, the Caucasus Emirate made a statement distancing itself from Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Boston bombings, noting the "order by the Emir Doku Umarov, which prohibits strikes on civilian targets".
The ability of civilians in Moscow and St Petersburg to openly demonstrate their discontent prompted the militant network to change the tone of its campaign. But diminishing the autonomy of the North Caucasus may undo any progress toward the group's moderation.
Regardless of whether the Caucasus Emirate reverses it outlook or if offshoot groups attempt attacks, tight security at Sochi will dampen the potential for violence at the Olympics. The event will likely pass off peacefully and be deemed a success, but it will be a temporary mask over the wide-ranging suppression and disenchantment in the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin's latest efforts at spreading its wings and establishing centralized rule in the vast, multi-ethnic region will likely prove to be an obstacle to long-term stability. Short-term aesthetics cannot reconstruct a fractured region.