On February 8, a protest rally took place in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala. The protesters accused the police of discriminating against Muslims in this Muslim-majority North Caucasian republic. “In the past I repeatedly addressed all government offices, asking them to properly investigate the injury inflicted on my son Gasan and the killing of his pregnant wife, Saniyat Magomedova, in 2006, but no one listened to me”, one of the organizers of the rally, Mamatkhan Baisultanov told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website. According to Baisultanov, he was received by the previous Dagestani president, Magomedsalam Magomedov, but despite the president’s reassurances the investigation was halted in October 2012. Another protest organizer, Magomed Kartashov, told Kavkazsky Uzel: “Muslims are humiliated in Russia and throughout the world. Our girls are not allowed to study, they are driven out of educational institutions for wearing the hijab [Islamic dress]. Books written by well-regarded Islamic scholars are outlawed, which is unacceptable” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/219846/).
The leadership in Dagestan underwent a surprise change in January 2013. Magomedsalam Magomedov “voluntarily” stepped down before the expiration of his first term under what appeared to be strong pressure from the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin appointed the long-time Moscow-based political veteran of Dagestani origin, Ramazan Abdulatipov, as the acting head of the republic. Dagestan, plagued by insurgent violence, corruption and rampant human right abuses, now apparently hopes that things will change in the republic for the better.
The mass rally of Muslims in Makhachkala—which, ironically, took place at the city park dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution—started off with a reading of excerpts from the Koran. According to the organizers, the authorities granted them permission to hold the protest only after the republican leadership was replaced. Some of the protesters were anxious to emphasize that they were not against the Russian constitution, but against Dagestani bureaucrats. In a resolution adopted at the rally, participants demanded an end to kidnappings and killings by police, torture in police headquarters, and persecution of women who wear Islamic dress in educational institutions. The protesters also demanded that the authorities stop putting obstacles in the way of Muslims across Russia when they want to build mosques and stop the “information war” against Muslims and Islam in the country. Moreover, the resolution demanded that Russian authorities stop supporting Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and maintain neutrality in intra-Islamic affairs (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/219880/).
The demands voiced by the protesters in Makhachkala on February 8 were perhaps the most comprehensive in scope and the most political in substance compared to any previous action by Muslims. The demonstration showed why the authorities do not want to allow public protests to take place. Even though they are triggered by individual grievances, the isolated complaints eventually aggregate into larger demands for political change and may translate into political action. Since political authority in the regions of Russia, including the North Caucasus, is practically hijacked by local groups that have a complex symbiotic relationship with Moscow, any demands for political changes are regarded as a threat to the whole system of power in the Russian Federation.
Observers in Dagestan are waiting to see what the position of the republic’s new leader will be on the insurgency and on those affected by the unlawful actions of law enforcement personnel. So far Ramazan Abdulatipov has remained silent on these pressing issues, having largely restricted his activities to a bureaucratic reshuffle of government officials (https://www.government-rd.ru/pub/meropriyatiya/ramazan_abdulatipov_utverdil_strukturu_organov_isp). Among the notable administrative moves was the establishment of a separate government committee for freedom of consciousness and religious affairs. This may point to a continuation of the government policy of engaging in a dialogue with the Muslim factions that are not under the control of the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Dagestan and are deemed to support the insurgency.
At his first meeting with the new Dagestani leader on February 1, President Vladimir Putin stressed that the new republican government should be ethnically balanced (https://kremlin.ru/news/17404). Abdulatipov hardly needed this reminder because Dagestan has been run in a way taking into account “the balance of ethnicities” for quite a long time. After Abdulatipov, an ethnic Avar, replaced Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin, as head of Dagestan, other shifts took place in this multi-ethnic republic: an ethnic Dargin, Mukhtar Mezhidov, replaced ethnic Avar Magomed Abdulaev as Dagestani prime minister, while an ethnic Kumyk, Khizri Shikhsaidov, replaced another ethnic Kumyk, Magomed-Sultan Magomedov, as the republican parliament’s speaker.
There are strong groups of influence outside the government of Dagestan that have a say in republican politics. According to some estimates, Abdulatipov was chosen as a neutral but well-known political figure that could prevent antagonism between multiple Dagestani factions. Many observers point to the powerful mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, who is an ethnic Dargin and whose influence extends far beyond the republican capital. There are also wealthy and influential investors, such as Suleiman Kerimov, an ethnic Lezgin, and Ziyavudin Magomedov, an ethnic Avar (https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2013/01/30_a_4947013.shtml). Ziyavudin Magomedov also happens to be a cousin of Akhmed Bilalov. The latter was just sacked by President Putin from the government committee preparing Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Games. Bilalov was also removed as director of the Northern Caucasus Resorts company (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2122368).
Until now, Ramazan Abdulatipov has managed to stay out of controversial debates about the future of Dagestan, but issues related to the insurgency and police abuses, as well as power-sharing schemes, are unlikely to go away. Abdulatipov will have to take a stand on some divisive issues, such as relations between Islam and the government in the republic, which will clarify his role in Dagestan.