Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 4

By Nabi Abdullaev

Vladimir Putin won 81 percent of the votes in Dagestan, Russia’s southernmost republic. It was one of the highest results among the Russian regions. To a great extent, this result was achieved thanks to the openly biased position of the republican state structures.

While Moscow journalists had the luxury of following the campaigns conducted in support of various contenders for the Russian presidential post, their Dagestani colleagues wore themselves figuring how to dilute the dense flow of local pro-Putin propaganda.

Members of the Jewish community of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, held a meeting in the city’s synagogue, during which they unanimously decided to support Putin in the elections. The republican football team Anzhi issued calendar cards which declared “Anzhi with Putin, Putin with Anzhi,” and pictured a gloomy Putin superimposed over Makhachkala’s stadium. The members of the Congress of Nogai in the town of Terekli-Mekteb called on Putin to help them with their cultural autonomy while calling on their compatriots to support vote for him.

The leaders of Dagestan’s trade unions have indicated that they see Putin’s presidency as the only way of bringing about Russia’s salvation. Just six months ago, however, they saw Yevgeny Primakov as the country’s savior. At that time, Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, was in charge of the regional election headquarters of Fatherland-All Russia, the movement headed by Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Dagestan not has not only supported Putin, but provided the launching pad for his political career. In early August 1999, during the initial days of the Chechen incursion into Dagestan, then President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin, a hardliner, to replace the moderate Sergey Stepashin as prime minister. Stepashin’s sin was that just one day after he publicly declared that Russia had lost Dagestan, fighters headed by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev captured several villages in Western Dagestan.

Putin’s image in Dagestan was enhanced not only by the pumping of federal troops into the republic and the suppression of its religious and nationalist extremists, but also the transfers in of money transfers from the federal budget. Dagestan is one of the most economically depressed regions in Russia–suffering from religious, ethnic, political and economic contradictions and plagued by heavily corrupt local authorities. Thus it was looking for the “strong hand.” Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet intelligence officer, provided it.

And, as often happens in an Eastern political cultural, gratitude has been expressed in an exaggerated form. “Putin saved us as good father saves his children,” declared Magomed Umargadzhiev, the head of administration of Botlikh region, which was attacked by Khattab’s and Basaev’s gunmen in August, 1999. “Putin is a real patriot of Russia and he acted like a son of Dagestan,” declared Gamid Buchaev, the Rector of the Dagestani Academy of Management, expressing the overall public exaltation of Putin in Dagestan.

Putin returned the compliments. In September 1999, just before Russian troops were dispatched to Dagestan, ordinary Dagestanis prevented Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov from entering Dagestani territory to meet Magomedali Magomedov, the head of the Dagestani State Council, for negotiations. That same day, Putin said during a press conference: “I respected and trusted Dagestani people. Now I really do love them.”

Putin’s tenure as Russia’s acting president also began in Dagestan. On December, 31, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin resigned, Putin flew to Dagestan to greet the New Year with Russian serving on the Dagestani-Chechen border. While the trip was clearly a propaganda move designed to show the new leader spending the holiday with soldiers in the country’s most troubled region, it nevertheless had the desired effect, highlighting the difference between Putin and Yeltsin, Who rarely left Moscow. In addition, Putin announced his sympathy for the Dagestanis who had taken a pro-Russian position in the Caucasus wars. While this may have been simply a campaign they are just campaign tactics, Dagestanis took these gestures as evidence that Putin was the only top Russian politician who understands them.

“Putin is the only top Russian politician who truly and actively supports us,” declared Magomedali Magomedov, the Dagestani leader, during a meeting to support Putin’s presidential candidacy. “We have seen how his predecessors promised us a lot and did little. But Putin is a strong politician who is deeply concerned about the problems of the country and our republic.”

Dagestan, in fact, was the first Russian region to form a movement in support of Putin’s candidacy for the Russian presidency. Khizri Shikhsaidov, Dagestan’s prime minister, became the head of the local headquarters to support Putin, which was clearly in violation of Russia’s election laws but follows the general pattern of “king-making” in Russia’s regions. Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, who headed the regional Duma election headquarters of Fatherland-All Russia, which competed against the pro-Putin “Unity” political movement in last December’s State Duma elections, tried unsuccessfully to supplant Shikhsaidov as head of Putin’s election headquarters in Dagestan. This was a vivid illustration of how dependent the regional player are on the political situation at the top of the country’s power pyramid. Eduard Urazaev, the spokesman for the Dagestan State Council and Government, explained the competition to head Putin’s local election team this way: “The clear support for Putin in Dagestan is good for both the federal and regional governments. It helps the republic by demonstrating its pro-Russian position and helps Putin by building his image as a politician who does not have an anti-Caucasus bias.”

The only political group in Dagestan which has expressed discontent with the official pro-Putin exaltation is the republic’s communists. The statement by Dagestani leader Magomedali Magomedov, that “those who don’t vote for Putin are the enemies of Dagestan,” provoked a furious uproar among Dagestan’s leftists. They even issued a statement blaming the Chairman of the State Council for violating the law, for engaging in election agitation before it was permitted and for misusing this official post to influence the result of the presidential elections.

The programs for the socio-economical development of Dagestan, which were adopted during the Yeltsin period and then suspended due to a lack of funds, are now being revised and put into action. But all the measures that are being taken have a political coloring. For example, in signing a memorandum of mutual understanding with the LUKoil state oil company on February 29, Magomedali Magomedov declared that it was related to the assistance Putin had given to the republic in boosting its economy and attracting state and private support for developing its natural resources.

Dagestan is a poor region. Eighty-five percent of its budget for 1999 consisted of federal aid. In 2000 the federal share in the local budget will exceed 90 percent. This is the most likely explanation for why Dagestanis are obliged to bet only on the favorite in Russia’s presidential elections.

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.