On March 22, a Moscow court sentenced the brother of a former governor of Dagestan to 12 years in prison for bribery and large-scale fraud. Additionally, the court ordered the defendant to pay the government an eight million ruble (around $100,000) fine. Radzhab Abdulatipov had presided over the Committee on Education, Science, and Culture in the People’s Assembly of Dagestan (regional parliament). Police arrested him in September 2018, less than a year after his brother Ramazan Abdulatipov stepped down from the governor’s position in this largest North Caucasus republic (TASS, March 22). Initially, prosecutors requested a 15-year sentence for the former governor’s younger brother. He was reportedly involved in a social security fraud scheme that allowed people, for a bribe, to receive disability payments from the Russian government (Interfax, March 11).
Dagestani observers note that the imprisonment of Radzhab Abdulatipov signifies the loss of influence of the former governor in the territory. The move also looks like a personal insult, as the former head of the republic had apparently asked President Vladimir Putin to intercede in the legal case involving his sibling (RBK, December 11, 2018). Ramazan Abdulatipov (74) is not taken seriously in Dagestan anymore, but Moscow has offered him a cushy retirement. Currently, he serves as the Russian Federation’s representative to the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Previously, and within days after his resignation in 2017, the Russian government created a special position for him—Russian presidential envoy for humanitarian and economic cooperation with the Caspian states. It is unknown if the regional envoy position was ever refilled after Abdulatipov vacated it for the OIC.
The imprisoning of governors or their close relatives remains a rare occurrence in Russia. In a country where selective justice is commonplace, such attacks, therefore, usually have political undertones. In this case, Moscow appears to have been determined to use repression to whip up the Dagestani elites and secure their loyalty to the center. Locals, however, have tended to perceive the case as reflective of the waning influence of Abdulatipov’s clan inside Dagestan. Ramazan Abdulatipov’s nephew Radzhab Radzhabov recently failed to win reelection at Abdulatipov’s home Tlyaratinsky District. Some observers now expect that the authorities might follow up with investigating the former governor of Dagestan himself (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 23).
The consequences of uncovering the social security fraud in Dagestan remain unclear. The Prosecutor’s Office said that in 2017 alone, about 24 million rubles (around $310,000) were siphoned off from the Russian Pension Fund as a result of the unjustified designation of 300 residents of the republic as disabled. Along with Radzhab Abdulatipov, officers in the Main Bureau of Medical and Social Expertise for Dagestan, including the head of the Bureau, Magomed Makhachev, were detained. One might expect that after the wave of sweeping arrests, the process of awarding government pensions for genuinely needy people would have been streamlined. However, local civil rights activists say that individuals still have a hard time obtaining the benefits they are entitled to. Moreover, they assert that the most widespread issue even under Ramazan Abdulatipov was not the problem of false disability claims but the inability of people in need to receive their lawful benefits (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 23).
Radzhab Abdulatipov himself pleaded not guilty. While his higher-rank brother, Ramazan, criticized the wave of arrests of top Dagestani officials that ensued soon after his stepping down. The former republic head called on the Russian authorities to weigh carefully its actions in Dagestan and avoid sweeping campaigns. His advice, however, went unheeded (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 5, 2018). The regional parliament appeared to show muted opposition to the imprisonment of its members. Radzhab Abdulatipov was not stripped of his deputy mandate right up until the court passed the sentence against him (Novoe Delo, March 24)
Is Ramazan Abdulatipov himself in danger of being investigated? On March 21, the governor of Penza Oblast, Ivan Belozertsev, and the CEO of the Russian pharmaceutical company Biotek, Borish Shpigel, were both arrested on charges of bribery (RBK, March 22). Experts contend that the Kremlin is continuing its push against the vestiges of participatory politics in Russia. Governors are being reminded that they are fully dependent on the goodwill of the president of the Russian Federation (Ekho Moskvy, March 22).
Unlike Belozertsev, Abdulatipov is not in power currently. If he does not try to influence Dagestani politics, he may well avoid personal repercussions. However, the imprisonment of his brother could be an indication of such attempts from his side and a warning for him to avoid any further unwanted activities inside Dagestan to undermine the current Moscow-appointed governor.
The Kremlin has good reasons to believe that Dagestani elites are unhappy about its attempts to unseat them. Under the slogans of the anti-corruption campaign, Moscow has rooted out top officials of Dagestan in several waves. The first wave followed soon after Ramazan Abdulatipov was appointed the acting governor of Dagestan in 2013. Following Abdulatipov’s resignation in 2017, Vladimir Putin appointed outsiders to lead the republic who would then purge local bureaucrats and elected officials alike. Decimating the Dagestani elites apparently left Moscow only partly satisfied; hence, none of this republic’s governors have served a single full (four-year) term since Abdulatipov stepped down in 2017. Purges of Dagestani ruling circles helped Moscow to establish tighter control over Dagestan; however, it is unclear what will become of the republic. It has certainly become more expensive for the Kremlin to maintain: Dagestan is the second-largest recipient of budgetary funds after annexed Crimea (Forbes.ru, March 11).
So far, the anti-corruption campaign in Dagestan looks to have increased the burden on the Russian budget. The North Caucasus republic continues to consistently lag in various ratings of Russian federal subjects. This creates a breeding ground for popular discontent, which regional elites are likely to tap into to regain power. Moscow has opted for repressions against the local elites under the slogans of combating corruption, while permitting its appointees to control the disbursement of lavish subsidies. However, the latter officials still have to rely on local support if they are to succeed in their roles. Given the frequency of governor replacements, the Dagestani model of imposing direct rule by Moscow might eventually fail and give way to the return of some form of indirect rule.