Dagestani experts say the republic’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, has managed to disrupt Dagestan’s existing bureaucratic structures but failed to build a better system of governance. Abdulatipov has succeeded in centralizing political power in his hands to some extent, but his tighter control of the government apparatus has not translated into better management of regional affairs. As municipal authorities come under greater control of the government in Makhachkala, they become less responsive to their constituents and not necessarily more prudent managers.
Over half of the mayors and heads of administrative districts of the republic have been dismissed by Abdulatipov under various pretexts. Two years ago, many people in Dagestan were sympathetic to the primary message of Abdulatipov’s political campaign—fighting corruption. However, after some time, people discovered that their daily lives have been largely unaffected by the changes in the municipal and republican governments. “Today officials in Dagestan are mostly preoccupied with retranslating statements and declarations by Ramazan Abdulatipov and they do not take part in shaping the political agenda,” wrote Mairbek Agaev, a journalist with the Dagestani independent newspaper Chernovik. “Few of the ministers, heads of the municipal districts or deputies of the republican parliament are able to discuss openly various political and economic processes. Instead, they prefer to look at everything through the eyes of the leadership of the republic.” As a means of promoting political uniformity throughout the republican government, Abdulatipov threatened: “Any official who criticizes the republican or federal authorities will be immediately dismissed from his position” (Chernovik.net, January 30).
By building his own regional “vertical of power,” Abdulatipov may have impressed his subordinate bureaucrats and part of the population, but there does not seem to be an end to his crusade against corruption, while the economic situation in the republic remains deplorable. In a republic as complex as Dagestan, installing a true “power vertical” may well be associated with the degradation of development prospects and higher violence at a later time. The republic is made up of 42 districts and 10 city administrative units. Dozens of ethnic groups, speaking different languages, inhabit the republic. The geography of Dagestan is also quite complex with mountains, plains and a long Caspian Sea coast. Large swaths of land in the north of the republic are semi-desert, while southern Dagestan has snow-capped mountains.
In order to consolidate power further, and in line with the general trend in Russia toward stripping the population of its voting rights, Dagestan has adopted new legislation that eliminates elections for heads of municipalities. Instead, the deputies of municipal councils will elect them from among themselves. After they are elected, they will be stripped of deputy responsibilities and the voters will not be able to recall them. Since the republican government ultimately decides who is on the ballot, removing any feedback mechanisms between the population and the municipalities will likely result in the complete destruction of local polities in Dagestan (Kavpolit.com, February 5).
The republican governor’s attempt to recreate a semblance of Putin’s power vertical in Dagestan has backfired a number of times. In some districts, locals revolted against Abdulatipov’s appointees, who may have been on good terms with the republican leadership, but did not necessarily have the respect of locals. By pressing ahead with appointing his own men in the districts, Abdulatipov not only upsets the locals, but fails to resolve pressing issues at the district level. “Show me at least one municipality where the indicators of tax collection, the shadow economy, the resolution of land disputes and employment have improved,” Agaev wrote (Chernovik.net, January 30).
As one of the indicators of popular frustration with Abdulatipov’s performance, periodic rumors started to circulate in Dagestan about his “imminent dismissal.” Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, who is an ethnic Lezgin and a Russian military commander who grew up outside Dagestan, frequents the republic suspiciously often, leading people there to believe that the Kremlin is grooming him to replace Abdulatipov. Melikov denies the allegations, but given the previous stealthy decisions of Moscow, locals understand that nothing can be taken for granted (Ndelo.ru, February 4).
Reforms are certainly needed in Dagestan, and Abdulatipov appeared to be the man who could implement them. However, Abdulatipov neither has the strategy to do it nor does the situation in Moscow allow him to accomplish much. Dagestan’s governor has complained that Moscow does not allow him to use the mineral resources of the republic, effectively depriving the republic of much needed resources for the economic development of the North Caucasus republic (see EDM, October 1, 2014).
Moscow’s objectives in Dagestan are also contradictory. On the one hand, the central government would probably like to improve Dagestan’s economy and also, at the same time, undermine the social base of the insurgency in the volatile republic. On the other hand, an economically strong and self-sustainable Dagestan is also not in the interests of Moscow. Since Dagestan has substantial deposits of oil and gas, the republic could easily become quite self-sufficient, just like its neighbor to the south, Azerbaijan. The security concerns trump the economic interests, and the Russian government appears set to continue the same policies of juggling regional officials in the republic, rather than allowing some sort of participatory politics and unsupervised development.