Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 8

By Nabi Abdullaev

For all their seeming liberality, the amendments adopted to the constitution of Dagestan at the March 19 session of the republic’s Popular Assembly have substantially impeded the development of democracy in Dagestan.

Situated at the southernmost point of the Russian Federation, Dagestan has enormous ethnic diversity, being home to a larger number of ethnic groups than any other region of Russia. During the Soviet period, political power in the republic was put in the hands of representatives of the different nationalities — the only requirement was their loyalty to the supreme power in Moscow. The leaders of the republic (the first secretaries of the republic’s Communist Party) promoted members of their own nationality. In the meantime, Moscow controlled the most sensitive posts in the local administration (Party Control bodies, KGB, and so on).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, government reform was intensively discussed in Dagestan. The aim was to secure peace, stability and balance in this multiethnic environment. Several different models of government were considered. Following consultations with leaders of public and ethnic movements and two republic-wide referendums, a compromise was finally reached and in July 1994 Dagestan adopted a new Constitution. The Constitution was adopted by a Constitutional Assembly consisting of 225 deputies of the Supreme Soviet (the republic legislature, since renamed the Popular Assembly) and an equal number of delegates elected by local government bodies, and district and city assemblies.

Dagestan’s Constitution departed from that of the Russian Federation in three key ways. First, a “collective presidency” — the State Council — was instituted. This body is composed of one representative from each of the republic’s eleven “titular” ethnic groups, plus one representative each from the ethnic Russian, Azerbaijani and Chechen communities. Then, in order to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single ethnic group or clan, a norm was established whereby the post of chairman of the State Council (effectively, the head of the republic) would rotate on the ethnic principle. That is, the post might not be held consecutively by two people from the same ethnic group. The State Council and its chairman are appointed by the Constitutional Assembly. Third and last, deputies to the parliament would be elected by proportional representation.

The first State Council took office in 1994. According to the Constitution, it was to remain in office for two years. Magomedali Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin who had been Speaker of the republic parliament, became the head of the State Council.

Two years later, a constitutional crisis broke out. Although Dagestan’s constitution did not allow for the extension of executive terms, the republic’s Constitutional Court in March 1996 upheld a petition by a group of parliamentary deputies for the Constitution to be amended so as to make such an extension possible. The Constitutional Assembly was not authorized to prolong the government’s term so, two days later, an extraordinary session of parliament amended the Constitution in order to give the Assembly that power. The way in which the vote was organized violated parliamentary rules and procedures. The Constitutional Assembly nonetheless extended the State Council’s term for a further two years. Magomedali Magomedov and his supporters explained this step by alluding to the complexity of the economic and political situation in Dagestan. “Don’t change horses in mid-stream,” they said.

Another two years passed. Then, on March 19 this year, the Popular Assembly reviewed the Constitution once more. Just as two years ago, it was presented with a petition from a group of deputies. The deputies called for the Chairman of the State Council, Magomedali Magomedov, who has headed the republic for the last eight years, to be given the opportunity to remain in his post for a further four years. To this end, the deputies called for abolition of the principle of rotation of the chairmanship of the State Council along ethnic lines. The need to bring Dagestan’s Constitution into line with the Russian Constitution was cited as the main argument in favor of repealing the principle of rotation. Following this logic would also have required the repeal of proportional representation and replacement of the State Council by a popularly elected president. These other two differences between the Dagestani Constitution and the Russian Constitution remain in effect, however.

The March 19 session of parliament, at which the deputies’ petition was to be debated, was attended by 111 deputies — an unusually high turnout. Dagestan’s parliament is supposed to consist of 121 deputies, but only 119 are at present on the active list (one deputy has died, while another has disappeared from public view). Seventy of these deputies are republic or municipal government officials, employees of the administration of the State Council and the government, high-ranking officials of district or city administrations, or directors of state- or municipally-owned enterprises. That it to say, the majority of the lawmakers are people whose jobs and material prosperity depend directly on the executive branch.

Before and during the collection of signatures, some of the deputies received top-ranking posts in the executive branch, and more than a few were given money to improve their living conditions. Those so favored were expected to show their gratitude by overcoming the resistance of those who opposed the idea of changing the Constitution. The opposition was led by parliamentary Speaker Mukhu Aliev. Unlike the head of the executive branch, Aliev has only limited ability to offer jobs and benefits. Those deputies who had not had their palms greased and who refused to sign the petition were, according to a source in the Popular Assembly, subjected to “arm-twisting.”

In this way, the supreme executive authority, the State Council and the government, secured the necessary parliamentary majority, though 86 votes (with 11 abstentions and 14 votes against) can hardly be called an overwhelming victory. Especially since three of those voting “for” were members of the government who had, in violation of Dagestan’s Constitution, retained their seats as deputies to the Popular Assembly, while another vote came from a deputy who was simultaneously a deputy to and chairman of the Derbent District Assembly, and who also, therefore, did not have the right to vote. If those without the right to vote are discounted, the motion was really supported by 82 votes — only one vote above the constitutionally required two-thirds majority.

The deputies voted unanimously in favor of setting up new local government bodies: district and city assemblies, at which the other 121 members of the Constitutional Assembly are to be elected. The appropriate law was passed, and elections of local deputies have been set for June 7.

On March 18, there was a protest meeting in Makhachkala’s central square attended by between 1,500 and 2,000 people. The meeting was organized by the Committee to Defend the Constitution, set up on the initiative of Mukhu Aliev. Kurban Makhmudhajiev, chairman of the Makhachkala City Assembly and a leading member of the of the Committee to Defend the Constitution, told journalists that the committee’s members represented all social strata and a wide spectrum of ethnic groups.

Demonstrators carried placards calling for Magomedov’s resignation and for the Constitution to be protected against attempts to introduce amendments that could, in the opinion of the meeting’s organizers, push Dagestan to the brink of civil war. The demonstration continued the following day, when the Popular Assembly voted in favor or changing the Constitution. That day, about three thousand people demonstrated against the constitutional amendments.

These protests went unheeded, and the amendments were adopted in an entirely legal manner. It is nonetheless clear to many in Dagestan that these latest legislative changes mean that political and economic power in the republic is being concentrated in the hands of a single ethno-political group. This ruling group is dominated by Dargins — the second largest ethnic group in the republic. The group does not consist exclusively of Dargins, but all the key functions are controlled by them. State Council Chairman Magomedali Magomedov, Mayor of Makhachkala Said Amirov, and Finance Minister Sirajudin Gamidov, among others, are Dargins. Their power also extends to the mass media. Not one serious publication in the republic has dared to present an analysis of what has taken place. All of the newspapers, television, and radio have restricted themselves to a bare account of the facts.

The changing of the Constitution of Dagestan is the first major achievement of the new Dagestani oligarchy. It took place absolutely legally, in the total absence of democratic control.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Nabi Abdullaev heads the political department of “Novoye delo,” an independent weekly newspaper published in Makhachkala.