Dagestan Gears Up for Change as the End of its President’s Term Nears

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 18

The first president of Dagestan, Mukhu Aliev, has about six months left before he is either reappointed for a second term or replaced. The anticipated end of Aliev’s presidential term has sparked a remarkable wave of activity in the republic.

On April 28, a nephew of the northern Dagestan strongman, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, was killed in Khasavyurt. The murder of the 25-year-old man stirred tension in the second largest town of Dagestan, to the extent that additional interior ministry troops and police were deployed there and Aliev himself paid a special visit to the town. While the murder may not be directly related to politics, this incident indicates the nervousness of the situation and the extent of the overall violence in the republic (Kommersant, May 6).

Signs of political struggle in Dagestan first appeared in the mainstream media earlier this year in February. In an astounding chain of events, the newly appointed head of the Russian tax office’s branch in Dagestan, Vladimir Radchenko, was forced out of the republic, and Moscow had to rescind its decision to appoint him. In a follow-up development, Aliev was quoted as saying that unspecified people of Dagestani origin in Moscow, assisted by certain Moscow officials, had plotted against him. Radchenko himself openly stated that Aliev’s son took part in his abduction and had pressured him to step down (Kavkazky Uzel, February 13).

Following this clash between Aliev and Moscow, commentators became somewhat pessimistic about Aliev’s chances of being reappointed as president for a second term. Against this backdrop, a number of districts (raions) in the republic tentatively proclaimed opposition to the acting president—most notably, Derbent in the south, which is the third largest city in Dagestan, and the Khasavyurt district in the north.  One can conclude from this that a smooth transition of power and the resolution of political conflicts in Dagestan are likely out of the question (Regnum News Agency, February 18).

Despite the multitude of challenges that Dagestan and its current leader face, experts still considers him to be one of the most plausible presidential candidates. Yet, one of the major Dagestani papers with links to the government has openly suggested that Aliev has not coped with the task of modernizing the republic and that a new person is needed. The paper lists among the possible presidential candidates or their backers the powerful mayor of Makhachkala; the Dagestani billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, an ethnic Lezgin; as well as other former and current officials (Novoe Delo, May 1).

Dagestan, which is the largest and most diverse republic of the North Caucasus with 2.7 million people and over 30 ethnicities, was governed by a collective body, the State Council, until the 2006 reform. Moscow, driven by the desire for political uniformity, pressed the Dagestani leadership for a constitutional reform that abolished the State Council and introduced the position of president. Ironically, the newly established presidency was in fact much less independent, being appointed by the Russian president, than the previous head of the State Council, who was elected.

Still, the description of the president’s position contains startling formulations for a republic that is not an independent state, like the responsibility to protect the territorial integrity of Dagestan.

The goal of the 2006 reform was also to mark an end to the policy of ethnicity-based political appointments, in which each ethnicity was entitled to a certain number of seats out of the total of 121 in the local parliament and to certain positions in the executive and judicial branches.

But now, just three years after the reform, the president of Dagestan is arguing for what seems to be a return to the previous order. “If here [in Dagestan] the president, the prime minister and the parliament’s speaker are of the same ethnicity, there will never be any stability,” he said. “We cannot drift away from clans or ethnicities” (Kavkazky Uzel, April 23).

There is little likelihood that Moscow will openly abandon its ill-conceived policy of uniformity for all Russian regions. Nevertheless, the reality on the ground is such that the policies are adjusted to the extent that they become essentially heterogeneous.

Besides an Islamic insurgency that has sometimes forced the law enforcement bodies and the military to seal off whole towns and even chunks of the republic’s territory, there have also been popular uprisings. The issue of arable land distribution, traditionally a very sensitive one in Dagestan, as well as in other parts of the North Caucasus, is increasingly driving popular protests (Respublika, April 24). Dagestan combines several risk factors for the likelihood of peasant unrest: a large and fast growing rural population, widespread poverty and the lack of credible political institutions.

It is commonplace among Moscow analysts to put all blame for the political violence in Dagestan on local customs and peculiarities. Yet, the constraints that Moscow’s unitarist policies put on local politics in such a complex region as Dagestan contribute to the difficulties of finding the optimal political model for the republic. From the Dagestani vantage point, the following point of view, expressed by the newspaper Novoe Delo, is gaining popularity: “For those in Moscow, it is best of all if the churkas [a contemptuous term referring to non-Russian people of the former Soviet Union and Russia] are killing each other, and they are not interested in our economic development because they are afraid that we will then secede.” This is another indication of the growing discontent and distrust toward Moscow in the republic, as the overall situation shows little sign of the much promised and advertised improvements. This combination certainly promises another tumultuous cycle of leadership change in the republic.