A Caucasus Wedding

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Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission Daniel A. Russell. Reason 1.4 (
b, d)

Summary
——-

¶1. (C) Weddings are elaborate in Dagestan, the largest
autonomy in the North Caucasus. On August 22 we attended a
wedding in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital: Duma member and
Dagestan Oil Company chief Gadzhi Makhachev’s son married a
classmate. The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed
the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land,
ethnicity, clan, and alliance. The guest list spanned the
Caucasus power structure — guest starring Chechen leader
Ramzan Kadyrov — and underlined just how personal the
region’s politics can be. End Summary.

¶2. (C) Dagestani weddings are serious business: a forum for
showing respect, fealty and alliance among families; the
bride and groom themselves are little more than showpieces.
Weddings take place in discrete parts over three days. On
the first day the groom’s family and the bride’s family
simultaneously hold separate receptions. During the
receptions the groom leads a delegation to the bride’s
reception and escorts her back to his own reception, at which
point she formally becomes a member of the groom’s family,
forsaking her old family and clan. The next day, the groom’s
parents hold another reception, this time for the bride’s
family and friends, who can “inspect” the family they have
given their daughter to. On the third day, the bride’s
family holds a reception for the groom’s parents and family.

Father of the Groom
——————-

¶3. (C) On August 22, Gadzhi Makhachev married off his 19
year-old son Dalgat to Aida Sharipova. The wedding in
Makhachkala, which we attended, was a microcosm of the social
and political relations of the North Caucasus, beginning with
Gadzhi’s own biography. Gadzhi started off as an Avar clan
leader. Enver Kisriyev, the leading scholar of Dagestani
society, told us that as Soviet power receded from Dagestan
in the late 1980s, the complex society fell back to its
pre-Russian structure. The basic structural unit is the
monoethnic “jamaat,” in this usage best translated as
“canton” or “commune.” The ethnic groups themselves are a
Russian construct: faced with hundreds of jamaats, the 19th
century Russian conquerors lumped cantons speaking related
dialects together and called them “Avar,” “Dargin,” etc. to
reduce the number of “nationalities” in Dagestan to 38. Ever
since then, jamaats within each ethnic group have been
competing with one another to lead the ethnic group. This
competition is especially marked among the Avars, the largest
nationality in Dagestan.

¶4. (C) As Russian power faded, each canton fielded a militia
to defend its people both in the mountains and the capital
Makhachkala. Gadzhi became the leader from his home canton
of Burtunay, in Kazbek Rayon. He later asserted pan-Avar
ambitions, founding the Imam Shamil Popular Front — named
after the great Avar leader of mountaineer resistance to the
Russians — to promote the interests of the Avars and of
Burtunay’s role within the ethnic group. Among his exploits
was a role in the military defense of Dagestan against the
1999 invasion from Chechnya by Shamil Basayev and al-Khattab,
and his political defense of Avar villages under pressure in
Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

¶5. (C) Gadzhi has cashed in the social capital he made from
nationalism, translating it into financial and political
capital — as head of Dagestan’s state oil company and as the
single-mandate representative for Makhachkala in Russia’s
State Duma. His dealings in the oil business — including
close cooperation with U.S. firms — have left him well off
enough to afford luxurious houses in Makhachkala, Kaspiysk,
Moscow, Paris and San Diego; and a large collection of luxury
automobiles, including the Rolls Royce Silver Phantom in
which Dalgat fetched Aida from her parents’ reception.
(Gadzhi gave us a lift in the Rolls once in Moscow, but the
legroom was somewhat constricted by the presence of a
Kalashnikov carbine at our feet. Gadzhi has survived
numerous assassination attempts, as have most of the
still-living leaders of Dagestan. In Dagestan he always
travels in an armored BMW with one, sometimes two follow cars
full of uniformed armed guards.)

¶6. (C) Gadzhi has gone beyond his Avar base, pursuing a
multi-ethnic cadre policy to develop a network of loyalists.
He has sent Dagestani youths, including his sons, to a
military type high school near San Diego (we met one
graduate, a Jewish boy from Derbent now studying at San Diego
state. He has no plans to enter the Russian military).

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Gadzhi’s multi-ethnic reach illustrates what the editor of
the Dagestani paper “Chernovik” told us: that in the last
few years the development of inter-ethnic business clans has
eroded traditional jamaat loyalties.

¶7. (C) But the Avar symbolism is still strong. Gadzhi’s
brother, an artist from St. Petersburg, ordered as a wedding
gift a life-sized statue of Imam Shamil. Shamil is the
iconic national symbol, despite his stern and inflexible
character (portrayed in Tolstoy’s “Hadji-Murat” as the
mountaineers’ tyrannical counterpart to the absolutist Tsar).
Connection with Shamil makes for nobility among Avars today.
Gadzhi often mentions that he is a descendant on his
mother’s side of Gair-Bek, one of Shamil’s deputies.

The Day Before
————–

¶8. (C) Gadzhi’s Kaspiysk summer house is an enormous
structure on the shore of the Caspian, essentially a huge
circular reception room — much like a large restaurant —
attached to a 40-meter high green airport tower on columns,
accessible only by elevator, with a couple of bedrooms, a
reception room, and a grotto whose glass floor was the roof
of a huge fish tank. The heavily guarded compound also
boasts a second house, outbuildings, a tennis court, and two
piers out into the Caspian, one rigged with block and tackle
for launching jet skis. The house filled up with visitors
from all over the Caucasus during the afternoon of August 21.
The Chair of Ingushetia’s parliament drove in with two
colleagues; visitors from Moscow included politicians,
businessmen and an Avar football coach. Many of the visitors
grew up with Gadzhi in Khasavyurt, including an Ingush
Olympic wrestler named Vakha who seemed to be perpetually
tipsy. Another group of Gadzhi’s boyhood friends from
Khasavyurt was led by a man who looked like Shamil Basayev on
his day off — flip-flops, t-shirt, baseball cap, beard —
but turned out to be the chief rabbi of Stavropol Kray. He
told us he has 12,000 co-religionists in the province, 8,000
of them in its capital, Pyatigorsk. 70 percent are, like
him, Persian-speaking Mountain Jews; the rest are a mixture
of Europeans, Georgians and Bukharans.

¶9. (C) Also present was Chechnya’s Duma member, Khalid (aka
Ruslan) Yamadayev, brother of the commander of the notorious
Vostok Battalion. He was reserved at the time, but in a
follow-up conversation in Moscow on August 29 (please
protect) he complained that Chechnya, lacking experts to
develop programs for economic recovery, is simply demanding
and disposing of cash from the central government. When we
pressed him on disappearances, he admitted some took place,
but claimed that often parents alleged their children had
been abducted when in fact their sons had run off to join the
fighters or — in a case the week before — they had murdered
their daughter in an honor killing. We mentioned the
abduction of a widow of Basayev, allegedly to gain access to
his money. Khalid said he had not heard of the case, but
knew that Basayev had had no interest in wealth; he may have
been a religious fanatic, but he was a “normal” person. The
fighters who remain are not a serious military force, in
Khalid’s view, and many would surrender under the proper
terms and immunities. He himself is arranging the immunity
of a senior official of the Maskhadov era, whose name he
would not reveal.

¶10. (C) During lunch, Gadzhi took a congratulatory call from
Dagestan’s president, Mukhu Aliyev. Gadzhi told Aliyev how
honored he would be if Aliyev could drop in at the wedding
reception. There was a degree of tension in the
conversation, which was between two figures each implicitly
claiming the mantle of leadership of the Avars. In the
event, Aliyev snubbed Gadzhi and did not show up for the
wedding, though the rest of Dagestan’s political leadership
did.

¶11. (C) Though Gadzhi’s house was not the venue for the main
wedding reception, he ensured that all his guests were
constantly plied with food and drink. The cooks seemed to
keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron
somewhere day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the
carcass on the tables whenever someone entered the room.
Gadzhi’s two chefs kept a wide variety of unusual dishes in
circulation (in addition to the omnipresent boiled meat and
fatty bouillon). The alcohol consumption before, during and
after this Muslim wedding was stupendous. Amidst an alcohol
shortage, Gadzhi had flown in from the Urals thousands of
bottles of Beluga Export vodka (“Best consumed with caviar”).
There was also entertainment, beginning even that day, with
the big-name performers appearing both at the wedding hall
and at Gadzhi’s summer house. Gadzhi’s main act, a
Syrian-born singer named Avraam Russo, could not make it
because he was shot a few days before the wedding, but there

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was a “gypsy” troupe from St. Petersburg, a couple of Azeri
pop stars, and from Moscow, Benya the Accordion King with his
family of singers. A host of local bands, singing in Avar
and Dargin, rounded out the entertainment, which was constant
and extremely amplified.

¶10. (C) The main activity of the day was eating and drinking
— starting from 4 p.m., about eight hours worth, all told —
punctuated, when all were laden with food and sodden with
drink, with a bout of jet skiing in the Caspian. After
dinner, though, the first band started an informal
performance — drums, accordion and clarinet playing the
lezginka, the universal dance of the Caucasus. To the
uninitiated Westerner, the music sounds like an
undifferentiated wall of sound. This was a signal for
dancing: one by one, each of the dramatically paunchy men
(there were no women present) would enter the arena and
exhibit his personal lezginka for the limit of his duration,
usually 30 seconds to a minute. Each ethnic group’s lezginka
was different — the Dagestani lezginka the most energetic,
the Chechen the most aggressive and belligerent, and the
Ingush smoother.

Wedding Day 1
————-

¶11. (C) An hour before the wedding reception was set to begin
the “Marrakech” reception hall was full of guests — men
taking the air outside and women already filling a number of
the tables inside, older ones with headscarves chaperoning
dozens of teenaged girls. A Dagestani parliamentarian
explained that weddings are a principal venue for teenagers
— and more importantly their parents — to get a look at one
another with a view to future matches. Security was tight —
police presence on the ground plus police snipers positioned
on the roof of an overlooking apartment block. Gadzhi even
assigned one of his guards as our personal bodyguard inside
the reception. The manager told Gadzhi there were seats for
over a thousand guests at a time. At the height of the
reception, it was standing room only.

¶12. (C) At precisely two p.m. the male guests started filing
in. They varied from pols and oligarchs of all sorts — the
slick to the Jurassic; wizened brown peasants from Burtunay;
and Dagestan’s sports and cultural celebrities. Khalid
Yamadayev presided over a political table in the smaller of
the two halls (the music was in the other) along with Vakha
the drunken wrestler, the Ingush parliamentarians, a member
of the Federation Council who is also a nanophysicist and has
lectured in Silicon Valley, and Gadzhi’s cousin Ismail
Alibekov, a submariner first rank naval captain now serving
at the General Staff in Moscow. The Dagestani milieu appears
to be one in which the highly educated and the gun-toting can
mix easily — often in the same person.

¶13. (C) After a couple of hours Dalgat’s convoy returned with
Aida, horns honking. Dalgat and Aida got out of the Rolls
and were serenaded into the hall, and into the Makhachev
family, by a boys’ chorus lining both sides of the red
carpet, dressed in costumes aping medieval Dagestani armor
with little shields and swords. The couple’s entry was the
signal for the emcee to roll into high gear, and after a few
toasts the Piter “gypsies” began their performance. (The
next day one of Gadzhi’s houseguests sneered, “Some gypsies!
The bandleader was certainly Jewish, and the rest of them
were blonde.” There was some truth to this, but at least the
two dancing girls appeared to be Roma.)

¶14. (C) As the bands played, the marriageable girls came out
to dance the lezginka in what looked like a slowly revolving
conga line while the boys sat together at tables staring
intently. The boys were all in white shirts and black
slacks, while the girls wore a wide variety of multicolored
but fashionable cocktail dresses. Every so often someone
would shower the dancers with money — there were some
thousand ruble notes but the currency of choice was the U.S.
hundred dollar bill. The floor was covered with them; young
children would scoop the money up to distribute among the
dancers.

¶15. (C) Gadzhi was locked into his role as host. He greeted
every guest personally as they entered the hall — failure to
do so would cause great insult — and later moved constantly
from table to table drinking toasts with everyone. The 120
toasts he estimated he drank would have killed anyone,
hardened drinker or not, but Gadzhi had his Afghan waiter
Khan following him around to pour his drinks from a special
vodka bottle containing water. Still, he was much the worse
for wear by evening’s end. At one point we caught up with
him dancing with two scantily clad Russian women who looked
far from home. One, it turned out was a Moscow poet (later
she recited an incomprehensible poem in Gadzhi’s honor) who

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was in town with a film director to write the screenplay for
a film immortalizing Gadzhi’s defense of Dagestan against
Shamil Basayev. By 6 p.m. most of the houseguests had
returned to Gadzhi’s seaside home for more swimming and more
jet-skiing-under-the-influence. But by 8 the summer house’s
restaurant was full once more, the food and drink were
flowing, the name performers were giving acoustic renditions
of the songs they had sung at the reception, and some
stupendously fat guests were displaying their lezginkas for
the benefit of the two visiting Russian women, who had
wandered over from the reception.

The Wedding — Day 2: Enter The Man
————————————

¶16. (C) The next day’s reception at the Marrakech was
Gadzhi’s tribute to Aida’s family, after which we all
returned to a dinner at Gadzhi’s summer home. Most of the
tables were set with the usual dishes plus whole roast
sturgeons and sheep. But at 8:00 p.m. the compound was
invaded by dozens of heavily armed mujahedin for the grand
entrance of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, dressed in jeans
and a t-shirt, looking shorter and less muscular than in his
photos, and with a somewhat cock-eyed expression on his face.
After greetings from Gadzhi, Ramzan and about 20 of his
retinue sat around the tables eating and listening to Benya
the Accordion King. Gadzhi then announced a fireworks
display in honor of the birthday of Ramzan’s late father,
Ahmat-Hadji Kadyrov. The fireworks started with a bang that
made both Gadzhi and Ramzan flinch. Gadzhi had from the
beginning requested that none of his guests, most of whom
carried sidearms, fire their weapons in celebration.
Throughout the wedding they complied, not even joining in the
magnificent fireworks display.

¶17. (C) After the fireworks, the musicians struck up the
lezginka in the courtyard and a group of two girls and three
boys — one no more than six years old — performed gymnastic
versions of the dance. First Gadzhi joined them and then
Ramzan, who danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic
stuck down in the back of his jeans (a houseguest later
pointed out that the gold housing eliminated any practical
use of the gun, but smirked that Ramzan probably couldn’t
fire it anyway). Both Gadzhi and Ramzan showered the dancing
children with hundred dollar bills; the dancers probably
picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones. Gadzhi told
us later that Ramzan had brought the happy couple “a five
kilo lump of gold” as his wedding present. After the dancing
and a quick tour of the premises, Ramzan and his army drove
off back to Chechnya. We asked why Ramzan did not spend the
night in Makhachkala, and were told, “Ramzan never spends the
night anywhere.”

¶18. (C) After Ramzan sped off, the dinner and drinking —
especially the latter — continued. An Avar FSB colonel
sitting next to us, dead drunk, was highly insulted that we
would not allow him to add “cognac” to our wine. “It’s
practically the same thing,” he insisted, until a Russian FSB
general sitting opposite told him to drop it. We were
inclined to cut the Colonel some slack, though: he is head
of the unit to combat terrorism in Dagestan, and Gadzhi told
us that extremists have sooner or later assassinated everyone
who has joined that unit. We were more worried when an
Afghan war buddy of the Colonel’s, Rector of the Dagestan
University Law School and too drunk to sit, let alone stand,
pulled out his automatic and asked if we needed any
protection. At this point Gadzhi and his people came over,
propped the rector between their shoulders, and let us get
out of range.

Postscript: The Practical Uses of a Caucasus Wedding
——————————————— ——–

¶19. (C) Kadyrov’s attendance was a mark of respect and
alliance, the result of Gadzhi’s careful cultivation —
dating back to personal friendship with Ramzan’s father.
This is a necessary political tool in a region where
difficulties can only be resolved by using personal
relationships to reach ad hoc informal agreements. An
example was readily to hand: on August 22 Chechnya’s
parliamentary speaker, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, gave an
interview in which he made specific territorial claims to the
Kizlyar, Khasavyurt and Novolak regions of Dagestan. The
first two have significant Chechen-Akkin populations, and the
last was part of Chechnya until the 1944 deportation, when
Stalin forcibly resettled ethnic Laks (a Dagestani
nationality) there. Gadzhi said he would have to answer
Abdurakhmanov and work closely with Ramzan to reduce the
tensions “that fool” had caused. Asked why he took such
statements seriously, he told us that in the Caucasus all
disputes revolve around land, and such claims can never be

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dismissed. Unresolved land claims are the “threads” the
Russian center always kept in play to pull when needed. We
asked why these claims are coming out now, and were told it
was euphoria, pure and simple. After all they had received,
the Chechen leadership’s feet are miles off the ground. (A
well-connected Chechen contact later told us he thought that
raising nationalistic irredentism was part of Abdurakhmanov’s
effort to gain a political base independent from Kadyrov.)

¶20. (C) The “horizontal of power” represented by Gadzhi’s
relationship with Ramzan is the antithesis of the
Moscow-imposed “vertical of power.” Gadzhi’s business
partner Khalik Gindiyev, head of Rosneft-Kaspoil, complained
that Moscow should let local Caucasians rather than Russians
— “Magomadovs and Aliyevs, not Ivanovs and Petrovs” —
resolve the region’s conflicts. The vertical of power, he
said, is inapplicable to the Caucasus, a region that Moscow
bureaucrats such as PolPred Kozak would never understand.
The Caucasus needs to be given the scope to resolve its own
problems. But this was not a plug for democracy. Gadzhi
told us democracy would always fail in the Caucasus, where
the conception of the state is as an extension of the
Caucasus family, in which the father’s word is law. “Where
is the room for democracy in that?” he asked. We paraphrased
Hayek: if you run a family as you do a state, you destroy
the family. Running a state as you do a family destroys the
state: ties of kinship and friendship will always trump the
rule of law. Gadzhi’s partner agreed, shaking his head
sadly. “That’s a matter for generations to come,” he said.

BURNS