A month after local elections were held in Dagestan, key municipalities in the republic still do not have legitimate authorities. An open and latent political struggle has ensued in the republic’s most populous cities—Makhachkala, Khasavyurt, Derbent and Buinaksk. The republic’s flamboyant governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, attempted to replace local elites in key Dagestani cities with people completely loyal to him. However, the plan quickly backfired because regional forces in Dagestan turned out to be much stronger than anticipated. The Dagestani government changed the republic’s electoral system, replacing direct elections for mayors and district leaders with a special administrative procedure that resembles the one used by the president of the Russian Federation to appoint regional governors. A special government commission puts forward mayoral candidates to local councils, which are expected to approve of the government’s candidates. The government commission has disproportionate powers to reject unwanted candidates and approve desirable candidates, even those who were not popularly elected in the municipalities (Novoe Delo, October 17).
The standoff between Dagestan’s regional government and municipal authorities has taken its most violent form in Buinaksk. On October 16, deputies of the Buinaksk city council organized a public meeting with their voters in the city’s central square. As the deputies met their voters, the police attacked both groups, and several people were injured, including two deputies. The incident sparked a heated argument in the republic because as violent as Dagestan is, police beating up people’s deputies, especially seniors, is not received well by the public. It is clear who was behind the attack—Aleksei Gajiev, the head of the administration of the Dagestani governor, had earlier visited Buinaksk and warned local leaders to refrain from holding public protests. At the same time, the city authorities prevented the deputies from gathering in the building of the city council because the vast majority of them, 17 out of 21, are members of the Party of Veterans of Russia, not the ruling United Russia party, and have been at loggerheads with the city mayor (Riaderbent.ru, October 16).
According to the authorities, most of the estimated 400 protesters in Buinaksk were from the Avar village of Karanai and back the former mayor of Buinaksk, Osman Osmanov, whose supporters are reportedly battling with those of the current mayor, Gusein Gamzatov, for control of the city. Osmanov was mayor of Buinaksk from 1997 to 2001, and the surprise victory of the Party of Veterans of Russia may propel him back into the position of mayor. Party affiliations mean little in Dagestan: rather, personalities and ethnic affiliations rule in the republic (Chernovik, October 23).
Buinaksk, with a population of about 60,000, is primarily an Avar-Kumyk city. Long one of the most volatile places in Dagestan, it only calmed down to some degree in the past two years. The republican authorities’ plan to handpick officials for the district, however, has jeopardized the positive security dynamic in the area. The Dagestani replica of the Russian power vertical creates multiple issues across the republic: the authorities in Makhachkala force the appointment of loyal mayors and district heads, and the latter handpick municipal leaders even at the village level.
It comes as no surprise that villagers in some areas are protesting government interference in their affairs quite vigorously. In Kayakent district, which is located to the south of the city of Izberbash on the Caspian coast, deputies in several villages resigned en masse to draw public attention to government interference in the life of tiny municipalities (Chernovik, October 23).
The battle over the leadership of another major Dagestani city, Derbent, remains ongoing. On October 23, Ramazan Abdulatipov unexpectedly visited Derbent and reportedly urged local leaders to support the candidate that the officials in Makhachkala are pushing (Riaderbent.ru, October 23). According to some experts, southern Dagestan remains the most autonomous part of the republic and the republican government is pushing to establish tighter control over the area, which includes two cities and a dozen districts (Eadaily.com, October 5). The main ethnic groups living in southern Dagestan are the Lezgins, Tabasarans and Azerbaijanis; there also exist a myriad of other small ethnic groups.
Some experts warn that the active push to change the local elites and build a power vertical in Dagestan may eventually undermine the republic’s stability rather than improve it. The major flaw in the logic of those in Moscow and Makhachkala who are trying to create a replica of the Russian power vertical in Dagestan is that the proposed centralization of the republic will not be accompanied by a windfall of funding. President Vladimir Putin successfully traded “prosperity in exchange for freedoms” with Russian society at a time when the country was enjoying enormous oil and gas revenues. However, the push for centralization in Dagestan comes at a time when the government has little cash on hand and thus is unable to offer it in exchange for political freedoms. Forceful political change without compensation is, therefore, likely to result in greater volatility in Dagestan in the months and years ahead.