Alexander Khloponin’s resignation as the Russian president’s representative in the North Caucasus Federal District could not have surprised anyone who has followed developments in that region. Analysts anticipated the resignation of Moscow’s envoy for the past two years, when it became apparent that the project of attracting investment and businesses into the region had not met the Kremlin’s expectations about pacifying the North Caucasus through money (https://topwar.ru/36657-igor-romanov-sudba-kavkaza-eto-sudba-vsey-rossii.html).
Khloponin was appointed Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasian Federal District on January 19, 2010. Khloponin, who up to that point had been governor of Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, also assumed the position of Russian deputy prime minister (https://www.interfax.ru/world/119593).
Russian authorities advertised Khloponin as a multi-millionaire who would not embezzle government funds in the North Caucasus, but steer businesses to the region. However, after four years of work, it can be concluded that he did not invest his own money in any of the projects in the region, nor did he attract other investors to the region either. All potential investors in the North Caucasus wanted to receive 100-percent guarantees from the Russian government to offset the risk of attacks by the armed militant opposition. In 2013, the Russian government increased its guarantee to those investing in the North Caucasus from 70 percent to 100 percent (https://rus.ruvr.ru/2012_12_20/Severnij-Kavkaz-biznes-bez-riska/), but even that was insufficient to turn the North Caucasus into a Mecca for foreign businesses (https://www.rosbalt.ru/main/2014/05/12/1267362.html).
Khloponin’s political activities were also in vain. His attempts to rein in Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov also ended in defeat, so he had to publicly praise Chechnya’s ruler (https://www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2011/09/09/888301.html). Moreover, this conflict signaled to other republican leaders that Russian President Vladimir Putin had chosen Kadyrov over Khloponin, which further diminished the latter’s authority. One of the primary elements of Khloponin’s plan was to establish himself as a regional decision maker. However, the leaders of the North Caucasus still preferred to resolve their issues in Moscow, not in Pyatigorsk. Thus, Moscow set up an inefficient intermediary bureaucratic structure that had little influence. Khloponin had no responsibilities connected to the security situation in the North Caucasus, so he had no impact on that important aspect of regional policy.
Khloponin’s resignation was only a matter of time, but no one knew who might replace him. On May 12, President Putin appointed new envoys to the Siberian and North Caucasian federal districts. The commander of the joint forces of the Russian interior ministry’s troops in the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, became the new presidential envoy in the North Caucasus (https://www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2014/05/12/1267248.html).
The Ministry of Interior’s Lieutenant-General Sergei Alimovich Melikov was born on September 12, 1962. He is a Tabasaran—an ethnic group close to the Lezgins in Dagestan. In 1986, Melikov graduated from the Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher Military Command School of the USSR Interior Ministry in Seratov. In 1994, he graduated from the Mikhail Frunze Military Academy, and in 2011, Melikov graduated from the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (https://ria.ru/spravka/20140512/1007506464.html).
Melikov’s entire career with the Ministry of Interior’s troops was spent in the North Caucasus. Thus, after graduating from the Mikhail Frunze Military Academy, named in 1994, he was dispatched to the North Caucasian district of the interior ministry’s forces of Russia and appointed as a senior assistant to the chief of staff of one of its military units. Melikov later served in the reconnaissance division of the North Caucasian district of the interior ministry’s forces of Russia. He held commanding positions in one of the detachments stationed in Novocherkassk and later served in the second regiment of the special division for operational use of the interior ministry’s forces. Melikov also participated in the first Russian-Chechen war of 1994–1996.
In March 2001, Sergei Melikov was appointed deputy commander of the Felix Dzerzhinsky division of the Ministry of Interior’s troops and, in June 2002, he was made the division’s commander and remained in that position until April 2008. In September 2011, Melikov was appointed as commander of the joint forces of the Russian interior ministry’s troops in the North Caucasus, which is in charge of counter-terrorist operations in the region. At the same time, Melikov also assumed the position of first deputy to the commander of the interior ministry’s North Caucasian forces (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/242445/). Judging by his experience, one can see that Melikov’s career was built on his experience fighting the rebels in the North Caucasus, which made him a specialist in this field.
Therefore, it is likely that Melikov’s only task in his new position as Moscow’s new envoy to the North Caucasus will be fighting the armed underground opposition movement. This is a signal to the North Caucasian leaders that they will have to forget about their ambitions and submit to the Russian military general. Vladimir Putin has likely granted him substantial leeway to act, and this is a recognition that Moscow’s perceived answer to the problems in the region will no longer have an economic component but will assume a more blunted use of force to liquidate the rebels.
The Kremlin’s appointment of Melikov also may have serious negative blowback on the embattled regime of Ramazan Abdulatipov, which is experiencing growing discontent among the Dagestani population for his unpopular policies (see EDM, May 15). Melikov’s background as an ethnic Tabasaran is, therefore, important to keep in mind here. Indeed, Moscow likely appointed the new envoy because of his expertise on Dagestan and wants Melikov to tackle the deteriorating situation in that North Caucasian republic in particular (https://www.vz.ru/politics/2014/5/12/686366.html).
Consequently, with these new moves, Vladimir Putin is signaling what his priorities in this region will be for the next 2–3 years: the fight for Dagestan is likely to be his main area of focus. Based upon this development, one needs to ask the question: can Russia turn the situation back to the 1980s, or has Dagestan been lost to Russia forever? The answer to that question remains far from clear, but the next two to three years will show whether Russia still has a chance to keep the northeastern Caucasus under Kremlin rule.