On May 31, members of Dagestan’s opposition participated in a large conference in Makhachkala, where they called on the republic’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, to step down. According to the conference organizers, Abulatipov’s rule in Dagestan has resulted in “total corruption, poverty and unemployment, persecution of citizens for political and religious reasons, massive infringements on constitutional rights and freedom of citizens and peoples of the republic.” The republic is on the verge of a social implosion because Abdulatipov’s activities are inadequate, the Dagestani opposition said (Chernovik, June 6).
The opposition proposed three possible replacements for Abdulatipov—Gajimurad Omarov, Ilyas Umakhanov and Saigidpasha Umakhanov. The latter is the mayor of the city of Khasavyurt, and he has hastily rejected claims he plans to unseat the current head of Dagestan. “And actually, we should have long ago all become realists and realized that the resolution of this question is exclusively in the power of the president of Russia, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Umakhanov said. Deriding the Kremlin’s policy in Dagestan as “zombie politics,” Ruslan Magomedov, a commentator for the Dagestani newspaper Chernovik, wrote: “Only in Dagestan can a ‘political corpse’—a person who has compromised himself or has zero influence—‘rise and walk’ on the orders of Putin.” Magomedov referred to all three recent presidents of Dagestan—Ramazan Abdulatipov, Magomedsalam Magomedov and Mukhu Aliev—as manifestly weak and unpopular figures in the republic (Chernovik, June 6).
Moscow’s policy of installing “zombies” in Dagestan is not surprising: in choosing the next leader of the republic, the Russian government invariably chooses someone who could not have substantial power of his own—in particular, popular support—because then he will not be sufficiently obedient to the central government. In a hyper-centralized state like Russia, any regionally popular figure with political ambitions is seen as a potential threat to the central government and to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Moscow is evidently less concerned about the potential secession of ethnic Russian regions than ethnic non-Russian regions, so control in non-Russian territories tends to be tighter. This is especially true of the North Caucasus, which has a recent history of secessionist conflict and an ongoing secessionist movement. Not surprisingly, while the rest of the Russian Federation was granted the right to elect regional governors in 2012–2013, the North Caucasian republics, under pressure from the Kremlin, rejected direct election of their governors in favor of appointment by the Russian president.
Ramazan Abdulatipov was dispatched to Dagestan by Moscow in January 2013, replacing Magomedsalam Magomedov as the republic’s president. Initially, Moscow’s appointee launched an anti-corruption campaign, the best-known result of which was the arrest of the powerful mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, in June 2013. However, by fall 2013, public disappointment with Abdulatipov became increasingly evident in the republic as the governor largely failed to deliver improvements to the economy and security, while his own cronyism was exposed. Political oppression also became more pronounced in the republic, as Abdulatipov, apparently enjoying considerable support from Moscow, unleashed attacks on opposition and independent media. The Dagestani opposition conference in Makhachkala took place in secrecy, disguised as a conference of one of Russia’s political parties. A previous attempt to hold an open conference in April failed because the police violently dispersed it (Chernovik, June 6).
Despite the underground-like conference, the Dagestani opposition leaders stated that they would stage public protests if the authorities ignored their demands. The republican authorities, in turn, accused the organizers of the conference of a “political provocation and irresponsible adventurism.” The Dagestani government also discouraged the republican press from reporting on the conference, equating such reports to aiding the opposition. An adviser to Abdulatipov, Denga Khalidov, stated that the conference was illegitimate, but the conference participants responded: “Khalidov simply forgot that people cannot be illegitimate, because they are the only source of authority and execute their power directly.” The authorities should serve the people, they said, not the other way around (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 5).
Abdulatipov has adopted authoritarian methods to resolve Dagestan’s myriad conflicts, including land disputes, which are the most explosive. This approach did not bode well for the situation in the republic. In May, police cracked down on protestors in Makhachkala’s suburbs, where ethnic Kumyks were trying to defend their land rights. The crackdown nearly caused massive riots. The Kumyks say the land belongs to them, while ethnic Laks are settling in the area. The Laks were promised this land because they were asked to vacate Chechen land in western Dagestan (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 17). The Chechens are also unhappy because they cannot reclaim the territory they owned prior to their deportation by Joseph Stalin in 1944, or restore the Aukhovsky district.
To resolve the complex issues that afflict Dagestan, the government needs to have considerable public trust, but Moscow’s policy of appointing weak political figures who can be easily manipulated by the central government hardly helps to resolve Dagestan’s persistent conflicts. Instead, the republic is becoming increasingly less viable economically, more violent and more dependent on Moscow—which may well be the Russian government’s grand plan for the region.