Dagestan Under Vasilyev’s Leadership: New Government With Old Tendencies?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 12

Dagestani head Vladimir Vasilyev (Source: Moskovsky Komsomolets)

On January 21, Musa Musayev, the mayor of Makhachkala, the capital city of Dagestan, was sentenced to ten days in jail before formal charges were brought against him (Chernovik.net, January 21). This is the second case in the last five years of a mayor of the Dagestani capital coming under arrest. In 2013, then-mayor of Makhachkala Said Amirov was also detained. The latest arrest appears to have been designed to strengthen the political authority of the new head of Dagestan, Vladimir Vasilyev, and reduce popular discontent.

The mayor of Makhachkala is one of the most lucrative positions in Dagestan because of the opportunities for corruption. Profitable land sales and municipal construction deals are all controlled by the mayoral office. According to the official investigation into Musayev, the mayor of the city had allegedly illegally handed over state lands to a private company. The criminal proceeding is under the control of the head of Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee (RIA Novosti, January 20). The republican head, Vasilyev, commented that Musayev’s arrest would restore order in Dagestan (President.e-dag.ru, January 22). The crime of which Musayev is suspected was committed in 2016, when Dagestan was still governed by Ramadan Abdulatipov (Sledcom.ru, January 19). Abdulatipov, now Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative to the Caspian region, stood up for Musayev and stated that the beleaguered mayor “might have had to solve problems hastily [operativno],” but “he changed the face of the destroyed city of Makhachkala.” Abdulatipov called the Federal Investigative Committee’s case against Musayev the result of prejudiced attitudes toward Dagestan and Dagestanis (Govoritmoskva.ru, January 19).

Abdulatipov’s nephew is also currently under investigation for corruption (Kavkaz.versia.ru, January 11). Thus, the former head of Dagestan’s remarks regarding Musayev could be assessed as a preventive action or alternatively as a public denouncement of Vasilyev by part of the republic’s elite opposed to the latter’s accretion of power. Some Dagestani journalists and experts suggested Musayev was arrested because he had lost Vasilyev’s trust, or that the new republican head was sending a signal to the local elites (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 19). Interestingly, Vasilyev had praised the mayor’s work in an official meeting in 2017, just several days before the start of the current investigation (Riadagestan.ru, November 13, 2017).

That said, the most probable driver behind the detention of Musayev has been the increasing public discontent plaguing the republic in recent months. And this widespread discontent likely also motivated the recent government reshuffle in Dagestan as well as the decision to bring in outside prosecutorial oversight to the republic (see below). Expectations of justice, better government services and improved living standards have not been realized since Vasilyev’s appointment to lead Dagestan. Vasilyev’s popularity has been dropping since December 2017 (Riaderbent.ru, December 12, 2017). And several public forums were organized late last year, which criticized the Vasilyev government for its inefficiency as well as called for ministerial changes, investigations into corruption, and reforms (Dag.life, October 30, 2017; Onkavkaz.com, December 15, 2017). Moreover, the first months of Vasilev’s governance were accompanied by street protests (see EDM, November 17, 2017). Such roiling discontent, if left unaddressed, could devolve into full-blown social unrest in one of Russia’s most vulnerable regions, on the eve of the presidential election.

On January 13, Vasilyev held a press conference, where he announced a coming government reshuffle. Several ministers in Makhachkala have since lost their positions. Of particular note, Ruslan Magamedov, heretofore the minister of land and property, was replaced by Dagestan’s former deputy prime minister, Ekaterina Tolistikova. Magamedov had been locked in a political conflict with the acting prime minister, Adusamad Hamidov (Chernovik.net, January 19). Thus, Magomedov’s dismissal could have been considered a win for Hamidov, had it not been for the recent arrest of the mayor of Makhachkala, widely considered Hamidov’s protégé (Novosti Kavkaza, January 20). The detention of Musayev could ultimately push Hamidov into “voluntarily” resigning as well.

Less than a week later (January 17), a 38-member group of prosecutors, all of them from outside the North Caucasus and headed by Russian Deputy Attorney General Ivan Sidoruk, arrived in Dagestan to oversee the work of the local prosecutor’s office (Bukav.ru, January 17). This fact implies not only the seriousness of the aim—cleaning up local government services—but is also an indicator of the Kremlin’s and perhaps also Vasilyev’s lack of confidence in the republic’s law enforcement institutions. It is also might be sign that the expected resignations of Dagestan’s minister of internal affairs and prosecutor general could proceed sooner than originally predicted. According to Onkavaz.com, Dagestani Prosecutor General Ramazan Shakhnavazov’s relatives have control over construction contracts within the Makhachkala mayor’s office (Onkavkaz.com, January 13).

After meeting with Vasilyev late last year, Putin signed a presidential order to allocate further subsidies to Dagestan. However, even these may not be enough to quickly and substantially improve the social and economic situation in the republic. According to a recent report by the Institute for Social and Economic Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the socio-economic situation in Dagestan continues to seriously lag behind the rest of the country in terms of economic growth and development (Chernovik.net, December 15, 2017). Vasilyev’s pledge to emulate Tatarstan’s economic growth model seems unrealistic, as Dagestan would first need to more energetically tackle systemic corruption. According to Vasilyev himself, Dagestan’s political system was designed not to solve problems, but only to “powder” the situation (Riaderbent.ru, January 15). The republican government’s inability to tackle the weak economy and government corruption, in turn, is likely to seriously hamper Makhachkala’s attempts to fight radicalism by, for example, supporting moderate Islam in Dagestan (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 22, 2017). Even selective arrests of compromised officials and periodic government reshuffles will probably not bring desired successes. In Dagestan as elsewhere, injustice and inadequate socio-economic opportunities tend to be important drivers of radicalism in youth. It will be very difficult for Vasilyev and Moscow to win Dagestanis’ “hearts and minds” if these conditions persist—a dangerous situation with clear implications for the rest of the region.