Dagestani Clans Replicate Themselves Despite Government Efforts to Eliminate Them

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 20

On October 21, the authorities in Dagestan announced that the head of the Dagestani branch of the Russian Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography, Adam Amirilaev, had stepped down from his position and was replaced by his deputy, Rizvan Bulatov (to05.rosreestr.ru, October 21). Amirilaev is the son-in-law of a former Dagestani political heavyweight, Gaji Makhachev, who died in a car crash in Moscow in 2013. Amirilaev’s resignation, along with last summer’s resignation of Kazbekovsky district head Abdula Makhachev, are signs that Makhachev’s group is weakening in Dagestan, according to Dagestani analyst Shamil Aliev. Amirilaev was appointed to his position in 2012 soon after the previous president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, stated that the Dagestani branches of four Russian federal agencies dealing with property rights were the most corrupt offices in the republic. Magomedov called them “thieves that subsist on Dagestani wealth; people and organizations that have discredited themselves.” However, the corruption scandals did not end after Amirilaev succeeded his predecessor. Soon after his appointment, in May 2012, the agency was accused of misappropriating land worth about $30 million (kavpolit.com, October 22).

Dagestan is known for its complex clan structure. The republic is home to a dozen relatively large ethnic groups and scores of smaller ones. Ethnic Avars comprise the plurality, 29 percent of Dagestan’s roughly three million people. Dargins are the second largest group, comprising about 17 percent of the republic’s population. Over the past three decades, ethnic Avars and Dargins intermittently governed Dagestan, although none of the ethnic groups has ever managed to monopolize political power in the republic.

The current governor of the republic, Ramazan Abdulatipov, is an ethnic Avar. Gaji Makhachev was also an Avar along with his protégé Adam Amirilaev. Makhachev’s replacement, Rizvan Bulatov, comes from the same clan as another Dagestani political heavyweight, Ilyas Umakhanov, who is an ethnic Dargin and vice-speaker of the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) in Moscow. Umakhanov is highly popular with Dagestanis and has serious chances of becoming the republic’s next governor (kavpolit.com, October 22).

The Dagestani Service of State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography, which affirms land ownership rights, is a highly specialized and powerful office, according to the Dagestani analyst Magomed Magomedov. “Given the fact that real estate operations in Dagestan are traditionally done in the shadows, with the involvement of corruption, while issued property rights are practically impossible to revoke even through a court, you can imagine the power of this office,” Magomedov told the Caucasian Knot website. The lucrative government real estate oversight office in the land-starved republic was reportedly promised to the powerful mayor of Dagestan’s second largest city, Khasavyurt, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, in return for his resignation from his position. However, something did not work out quite as expected and Bulatov was appointed to the vacant position instead (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 23).

Saigidpasha Umakhanov, an ethnic Avar, has been the mayor of the city of Khasavyurt since 1997. Umakhanov played a leading role in the fighting that ensued during the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999, thereby solidifying his positions in the city. Ramazan Abdulatipov, who has been the governor of the republic for less than two years, apparently has little influence over the longtime mayor of Khasavyurt and has unsuccessfully tried to remove him from his stronghold.

The power struggle between Dagestan’s clans is not restricted to Avars and Dargins. Ethnic Lezgins wield substantial power through the Moscow-based billionaire of Lezgin origin, Suleiman Kerimov, and Moscow’s recently appointed envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov. In 2011, Kerimov had plans to invest in tourism in Dagestan, developing beaches on the Caspian Sea (tvrain.ru, May 27, 2011). By 2013, Kerimov had suffered heavy financial losses, but rebounded (forbes.ru, April 29) and in 2014 won a much more modest, but important bid for the reconstruction and development of the Makhachkala international airport. With a net worth over $6 billion, Kerimov is currently ranked 19th among Russian billionaires and the 215th richest person in the world (forbes.com).

Power shifts in Dagestan indicate that Abdulatipov is trying to diminish the alternative power centers in the republic, solidifying his political clout. However, as he manages to replace some members of the weakened clans, other, more powerful clans come to forefront. The Dagestani clan system perpetuates itself despite the attempts of the republican governor and Moscow to destroy the powerful networks of the Dagestani elites. Multiple reasons exist for the tenaciousness of the Dagestani clans, but the primary reason for their endurance and great influence in the republic is Moscow’s own policies in the region. By disallowing a participatory political process in the regions, especially in such ethnically complex regions as Dagestan, the Russian government affirms a political order in which political problems are resolved through personal connections and networks.