As the details of the arrest of the mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, continue to emerge, experts predict a dangerous power vacuum in the republic. Amirov was arrested by Russian special forces at his home in Makhachkala on June 1 in a military-style operation. According to the well-known Dagestani social scientist, Enver Kisriev, Amirov “held back radical structures, helped the ethnic Russian population, the Russian Orthodox Church. He was always loyal to all the leaders of Dagestan and to the authorities in general. What has happened now practically threatens the remnants of the order that still was in place in Dagestan.” Kisriev deplored what he called Moscow’s “untimely and incorrect” impulses that are pushing Dagestan into the “abyss of civil war.” The expert said Amirov was arrested because some people had managed to convince the Russian leadership that Makhachkala’s powerful mayor was the source of all the vices of the republic (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/225315).
Many observers connect Amirov’s arrest to a grudge that the acting president of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, may have against him. Indeed, Amirov was considered to be the most powerful politician in Dagestan, given that he presided over the growth of the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala, since 1998. Greater Makhachkala has a population of 700,000, or about one quarter of the republic’s population, and is still rapidly growing as it attracts people from all over the republic, who are seeking jobs and a better life. In an interview with the Russian TV channel Rossiya on June 9, the current Dagestani leader denied he was behind Amirov’s arrest or felt in any way threatened by him, but still he appeared to endorse the mayor’s detention (https://kavpolit.com/abdulatipov-ob-amirove-ya-ego-ne-boyalsya-on-menya-ne-pugal).
Some Dagestani experts, including the former editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Chernovik, Nadira Isaeva, Moscow is moving to replace local Dagestani leaders with virtual military rule in the republic (https://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/dagestan/1676183.html). Indeed, the spree of changes in the government of the republic indicates that a purge is underway. The former president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, was apparently asked to resign from his position in January 2013 and a series of other changes on the republican and district level soon ensued.
Ramazan Abdulatipov is explicitly dependent on Moscow, which appointed him, unlike the previous leaders of Dagestan, who went through a lengthy process of negotiations with the republican elites. Abdulatipov is now likely to replicate this model throughout the republican structures of power, appointing people who are personally loyal to him. However, this model is unlikely to work nearly as seamlessly in Dagestan as it has worked in Chechnya. The reason is that Dagestan is a highly diverse republic ethnically. The establishment of any acceptable level of social order in the republic is unlikely without considering the interests of various ethnic groups. For example, over the past several months, representatives of the second largest ethnic group in Dagestan, the Dargins, have been displaced from positions of power in the republic, the presidency and the administration of the republican capital. The head of Dagestan will now be expected to “compensate” these “losses” to the Dargins in one way or another. Of course, Abdulatipov may appoint a loyal Dargin to the position of Makhachkala mayor, but Dargins will remain dissatisfied unless they can actually have access to power and resources.
The process of replacing homegrown Dagestani leaders with Moscow’s puppets should not be overestimated. First, there are local constraints for Moscow, which faces the challenge of governing an ethnically heterogeneous republic. Second, the previous Dagestani authorities were not in any way anti-Russian or pro-independence. In 2005, Said Amirov, was awarded a medal for cooperation with the Federal Security Service (FSB) by the FSB’s Deputy Director Sergei Shishin (https://www.riadagestan.ru/news/2005/1/6/10324/). Amirov is now accused of plotting to kill an investigator, Arsen Gajibekov, but the larger story may well be that Amirov’s men were conducting dirty jobs for the FSB, including some killings. The Russian security services eventually decided to remove him either on their own initiative or under pressure from Russia’s political leadership.
Even Kremlin-friendly experts on the North Caucasus like Maksim Shevchenko admit that if Moscow does not continue the “cleansing process” in Dagestan, regional criminal groups will divvy up Amirov’s legacy, which will ultimately result in increased terrorist activities in the region (https://www.islamnews.ru/news-140081.html).
While this outlook for Dagestan is quite plausible, the republic’s alternatives are unclear. Administrative measures, such as dismissing corrupt officials, should obviously be complemented with developing participatory institutions and a strengthening of the rule of law. However, it is highly doubtful Moscow wants any form of participatory democracy in Dagestan. At the same time, Moscow’s ability to implement the rule of law in Dagestan is also questionable. Even the Russian government’s willingness to delegate all power in the republic to Ramazan Abdulatipov is unclear. Such a concentration of power in the hands of Abdulatipov could potentially lead to greater social order in Dagestan, but also to his greater insulation from Moscow. Many Russian experts have lamented the high level of Chechnya’s independence from Moscow as a result of the policy of Chechenization in the republic. Rather, Moscow would prefer to have a high level of control over the head of Dagestan, who would have limited powers similar to other Russian regional governors.
In the long run, the more likely scenario for Dagestan is exactly what pro-Kremlin analyst Maksim Shevchenko fears the most—an administrative reshuffle in the republic with no meaningful reforms. This implementation of the Kremlin’s blueprint for the region may in fact lead to a decrease in social order in the republic and higher volatility in an already unstable republic that could further destabilize Russia’s southern frontier.