With more than 100 ethnic groups in the republic, Dagestan has a quite complicated structure of government. The republic is ruled by the State Council, in which all major indigenous ethnic groups are equally represented. Members of the State Council and deputies to the republican parliament (People’s Assembly) are not selected in national elections; rather election districts are formed according to the ethnic majority in each locale.
This political structure, enshrined in the republic’s 1994 constitution, does not match recent developments in Russian domestic policy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is creating the “power vertical,” which implies that each region must have a single leader personally responsible for everything that happens in his or her territory. Based on this concept, it was decided in 2002 to hold direct presidential elections in Dagestan in 2006.
This decision has aggravated the power struggle in Dagestan. On July 29, 2004, opposition leader Saygidpasha Umakhanov, mayor of Khasavurt, demanded the resignation of the State Council Chairman, Magomed Magomedov (grani.ru, August 12). In response, Umakhanov’s supporters in Khasavurt organized a rally and demanded a presidential election as early as this year (grani.ru, August 12). They warned that if Magomedov did not resign and schedule the election, the opposition would undertake an armed march to the republican capital, Makhachkala. Umakhanov’s plan was simple: being an Avar (the largest ethnic group in Dagestan), he could easily win. But in fact a free election could be held only if Magomedov, a Dargin (another large ethnic group in the region) vacated his seat.
Magomedov managed to survive the crisis. On August 18, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Adyilgyrei Magomedtagyriev, fired Omar Tupaliev, chief of the Khasavurt police force and Umakhanov’s ally (regnum.ru, August 18). On August 11, the authorities organized a rally in Makhachkala where people expressed their loyalty to Magomedov (regnum.ru, August 11). The influential Council of Elders of Dagestan supported the State Council Chairman as well (regnum.ru, August 18).
Nevertheless, this local show would have meant nothing if the Kremlin had not supported Magomedov. On August 17, during his visit to Makhachkala, President Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District at that time, Vladimir Yakovlev, called the demands of the opposition rally in Khasavurt “unconstitutional” (regnum.ru, August 17).
Umakhanov’s resistance was finally crushed after the tragedy in Beslan, when the Khasavurt mayor had to cancel another rally planned for September 9 (regnum.ru, September 9). Umakhanov regarded the October 14 appointment of Atai Aliev to be the new republican prime minister as Magomedov attempt to get rid of him and designate a successor himself. The Khasavurt mayor told Kommersant, “the prime minister status would allow the successor to deal with federal authorities, officials and to advertise himself in Moscow this way” (Kommersant, October 14).
Dagestan’s debates over direct presidential elections ceased to be important after Beslan. Under Putin’s subsequently announced administrative reforms, all regional leaders will be appointed by the Kremlin rather than elected directly. So the top post in Dagestan in the future will fully depends on decisions made in Moscow. And the Kremlin hardly will choose Umakhanov, who is difficult to control. It is more likely to be a person from Magomedov’s entourage.
While clans loyal to Russia are fighting for power, the anti-Russian forces are trying to profit from the situation as much as possible. Rabbani Khalilov, the leader of the local Islamic rebels, called upon the population to unite under religious rather than ethnic affiliation (Kavkazcenter.com, August 2). The ideology of Khalilov’s group is quiet simple: the problems of Dagestan can be solved only by creating a state based on religious principles, where there will be no place for the endless ethnic conflicts so common in this region.
Putin’s reforms are a real “gift” to Islamic militants because clearly they will likely preserve the corrupt regime of the Magomedov clan, which many Dagestanis dislike. Enver Kisriev, a Dagestani political scientist, has predicted the rise of anti-Russian feelings in the republic: “We [in Dagestan] have had conflicting fractions before, but all of them appealed to Moscow in the end for final decision. And now the popular discontent is concentrated on anti-Russian slogans.”
Even some members of the local “upper class” have begun to look toward the rebels. The secretary of the republic’s Security Council, Ahmednabi Magdigadzhiev, admitted during a September 9 meeting of Dagestan’s Anti-Terrorist Commission that a son of the local leader in Gymry, a large town, had organized an armed group of nine men and joined “illegal armed formations” in neighboring Chechnya (Caucasus Times, September 9). According to Abdullah Musaev, spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, more then 15 local policemen were killed in Dagestan during the first three months of 2004, and this figure does not include Russian policemen and FSB officers (grani.ru, July 23). Skirmishes between the rebels and Russian special forces in the mountains near Makhachkala have become common. The last big fight took place in the outskirts of the capital on September 20 (RIA Novosti, September 20). The federal forces even had to use helicopters to destroy a guerrilla base near Tarki-Tau mountain (yufo.ru, September 20).
The Islamists of Dagestan are certainly a much more serious problem for the Kremlin than the conflict between Umakhanov and Magomedov, since Moscow is unable to influence the former. So any efforts to concentrate power in the hands of one person or one clan will hardly stop a Wahhabi uprising, but they could easily split the political forces loyal to Russia.