Arrests of Dagestani Officials Signal Republic’s Leadership May Soon Be Replaced

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 16

Russian authorities have unexpectedly continued a series of arrests of Dagestani officials. On August 2, the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested the head of Buinaksk district, Daniyal Shihsaidov, after which the security services searched the home of his father, Khizri Shihsaidov, who is speaker of the Dagestani parliament. Several other officials in the republic were also detained that same day, (Chernovik, August 7). Earlier, on July 29, the FSB arrested Kizlyar district head Andrei Vinogradov and launched an investigation into the activities of the former wrestler and influential head of the republican branch of the State Pension Fund, Sagid Murtazaliev, who was the main backer of Vinogradov. Murtazaliev avoided arrest only because he was abroad at the time (Interfax, July 29).

What initially appeared to be an isolated attack on influential local politicians has turned into a political campaign with aims that far exceed previous anti-corruption campaigns in the republic. The most notable feature of the latest campaign is that the republic’s head, Ramazan Abdulatipov, does not seem to be controlling it. Moreover, some observers note that the latest arrests harm his interests. For example, parliamentary speaker Shihsaidov has been a key figure in Abdulatipov’s governance in Dagestan, and the government’s pressure on him means Abdulatipov cannot defend his team. According to Dagestani experts, Khizri Shihsaidov provided the governor of Dagestan with unique knowledge of local politics, something that Abdulatipov did not possess, having spent 20 previous years in Moscow. Shihsaidov is an ethnic Kumyk, and Abdulatipov primarily faced Dargin opposition (Chernovik, August 7).

Following the latest arrests in Dagestan, some observers see the role Abdulatipov has played in a different light. According to this view, Abdulatipov was dispatched to the republic not to improve the economy and fight corruption, but to provide cover for Moscow’s actions in the republic. Abdulatipov has made positive statements about the arrests, but it is quite evident he is not the one orchestrating them (, August 3). Moscow appears to be paving the way for a new republican leader, likely fairly soon. After losing his allies in Dagestan and demonstrating he is incapable of protecting them, Abdulatipov’s authority will quickly fade; in a dynamic region like Dagestan, he will be unable to survive for long.

While some Dagestanis welcomed the latest arrests, seeing them as targeting corrupt officials, others warned that previous crackdowns on corrupt officials had no effect on the lives of ordinary Dagestanis (Chernovik, July 31). Some observers have suggested that the FSB itself is behind the campaign of arrests in Dagestan: With Russia’s declining revenues, the Federal Security Service’s resources are shrinking, and this is causing the FSB to step up its fight for a share of those declining resources at the regional level. According to this view, the Russian FSB has long outgrown its role as a government agency and become the most powerful clan, with substantial business interests (, August 4). Other observers say that powerful Dagestani groups use the state to fight for their interests. According to the pro-Kremlin journalist Maksim Shevchenko, the question is not about Dagestan or its people; it is about who will control this rich region (, August 7).

Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasian Federal District, Sergei Melikov, is seen by some observers as one of the beneficiaries of the arrests of Dagestani officials. They say that Melikov is quite likely to be promoted to the position of Dagestan’s governor. Moscow may want this change, because Melikov is an ethnic Lezgin and thus can be seen by Dagestanis as one of their own. At the same time, he grew up in Russia and made his career in the Russian military. Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus has no local support base and thus could be the most pliable governor Dagestan has seen in decades. Melikov has often visited Dagestan on various relatively minor pretexts, but was, according to some, preparing the ground for the attacks on the Dagestani clans (, August 6). However, Melikov is not a Muslim, and it is unclear how he would be received in the republic, which derided even Abdulatipov for being a fake Muslim.

The Russian government appears to be set on a course of significant political change in Dagestan. Even though Moscow claims to be waging a war against corrupt officials and clans in the republic, under the current political system in Russia, the old clans can only be replaced by new ones. Russian experts are also quite skeptical that reforms can be carried out in Dagestan, as they do not see the necessary resources in Moscow for them (, August 4).

Even though Moscow may really lack the resources necessary for making positive changes in Dagestan, it certainly has sufficient resources to disrupt Dagestani society. Instead of actual political reforms, Moscow proposes changing the elites in the republic in a forceful way, replacing relatively independent figures with bureaucrats who have no local support and thus can survive only with Moscow’s help. Abdulatipov appears to have been an interim figure who was supposed to pave the way for an even more pliable person. The problem with this approach, however, is that such a person may have even less success than Abdulatipov in governing this complex republic.