When I arrived in Makhachkala just before dawn, the streets were aglow with bonfires burning in the streets.
"Did they cut off the heating, or something?" I asked the driver.
"No, it's tradition," he said. "They're celebrating Novruz Bayram – spring equinox in Russian."
Novruz is typically celebrated on the eve of March 22. But the killings of two renowned local journalists on March 21 – Channel One reporter Ilyas Shurpayev and head of state television company GTRK Dagestan Gadzhi Abashilov – encouraged mourning Makhachkala residents to postpone the celebration one day. Ilyas was murdered in his rented apartment in Moscow only a month after moving to the capital. Hours later Abashilov was killed in a drive-by shooting in Makhachkala in an apparently unrelated incident.
"Shurpayev used to say that he was choking from the tight professional space [in Dagestan]," his colleagues said. "Moscow had hardly ordered any reporting from the region at the time, so he decided to pack up and move to the capital."
"Honestly, the entire city was just stunned," my driver said. "Ilyas was our pride – consider him the face of Dagestan. People say he stumbled on something important and told Abashilov. Then they were both killed."
On March 21, Abashilov was shot dead while traveling home after leaving a local supermarket in the Makhachkala district Uzbekgorodok (Uzbek Town). The district was named after the Uzbek workers who raised many local buildings in the Soviet era. Investigators later counted 20 bullet holes in his vehicle. His driver was hospitalized in critical condition. Abashilov died before the ambulance arrived.
"The criminals were driving a Jiguli-99," said Andrey Gezeu, a computer store manager, who was nearby that evening. "A patrol car sped off after them."
The pursuit lasted 15 minutes and shots were fired at the vehicle's wheels. But the criminals managed to evade capture.
"Actually, Shurpayev was a customer of mine," Gezeu said. "I sold him an Acer laptop not long before he left for Moscow. It wasn't that high-tech a computer. It cost around 25,000 rubles."
Investigators found Shurpayev's laptop, money and credit cards in his Moscow apartment. They have consequently excluded robbery as a motive. The journalist also asked the concierge to let two men from the Caucasus up to his apartment. They're now the prime suspects in his killing.
"This is probably a domestic murder," said a KP inside source at Dagestan's Interior Ministry.
"At the moment, we're not drawing any connection between these two murders. It was Abashilov, though, who was killed as a result of his professional activities, according to the most generally accepted theory."
However, many Makhachkala residents are skeptical that the two murders are unrelated.
Shurpayev wrote in his Internet blog the night before his murder that his name headed a purported list of unwelcome journalists in Dagestan. Abashilov was also allegedly among the names.
The blacklist appeared at the local Dagestani newspaper Nastoyashee Vremya (Real Time) in the thick of a scandal between the publications' editorial group and its founders.
According to the newspaper's journalists, General Director Rizvan Rizvanov had prohibited them from mentioning the names of several individuals.
"We weren't given a written ban," a newspaper employee said. "But they made us understand that we'd have to answer for even mentioning anyone from the 'list.' Shurpayev, Alik Abdulgamidov, Abashilov, local journalists Viktor Chigirik, Khadji Murad Donogo, Anatoliy Korkmasov, Oleg Sanaev, sculptor Sharif Shakhmardanov, and Public Prosecutor's Office employee Tofik Ashurbekov. Andrey Melamedov, the newspaper's chief editor, refused to carry out the order, and submitted his resignation. Imagine what a shock it was when two people from the list were killed practically on the same day!"
"Don't rush to conclusions," said employees at the local Investigative Division of the Public Prosecutor's Office. "We're informed about the list and we'll look into a possible connection with the murders. At the moment, though, it's not being considered as primary evidence by the investigation."