As of January 29, an estimated 50,000 inhabitants of Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala remained without central heating, water and stable electricity supply for several days. Officials said that cold weather was causing the disruption and they would attend to the problem. Over 100 protestors blocked railways in Makhachkala that connect Russia and Azerbaijan for an hour on January 29, demanding a restoration of the utilities supplies. The police managed to restore the order after negotiations with the protestors (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 29).
In 2009, various Dagestani cities experienced blackouts as the electricity supplier cut electricity because of payment arrears. In response, protestors blocked highways and occasionally illegally restored power supplies. Technological failure is at least part of the problem, as Makhachkala’s official population grew more than two-fold in the past twenty years, up to 700,000, while unofficial estimates put the figure even at one million. The city stretches from south to north along the Caspian Sea coast for over 70 kilometers. The abundant growth was not accompanied by corresponding investments in the city’s infrastructure.
The mass protests coincide with uncertainty over the future of Dagestan’s leadership. The republic’s current president, Mukhu Aliev, is widely believed to be stepping down by the time his first presidential term expires on February 20. There has been no official confirmation of this, however. Several contenders are competing to succeed Aliev. Most experts and media reports suggest Dagestani Deputy Prime Minister Magomed Abdulaev would replace Aliev, while Magomedsalam Magomedov, a former speaker and now member of the republican parliament, would become Dagestan’s prime minister. In a report on January 27, Gazeta.ru referred to sources in the Russian presidential administration and the State Duma asserting that a change of leadership in Dagestan was imminent. Abdulaev is reportedly close to State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council and former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The ethnicity of leaders is an important consideration in Dagestan, the most ethnically diverse republic in the North Caucasus. Abdulaev, an Avar, would replace Aliev, also an Avar, as president of republic, while Magomedov is a Dargin, the second largest ethnic group in Dagestan after the Avars. Besides, Magomedsalam Magomedov is the son of Magomedali Magomedov, who preceded Mukhu Aliev as the republic’s leader.
The republic is rife with speculation about who will succeed the current president, and the nervousness is growing. On January 27, the Vice-Speaker of Dagestan’s parliament, Nikolai Alchiev, reportedly survived an attempt on his life when an unknown attacker driving in a car shot at his vehicle near Makhachkala (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 27). Later, some of Alchiev’s colleagues in the parliament expressed their doubts about whether the assassination attempt actually occurred (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 28).
The issue of last year’s fraudulent mayoral elections in the large southern Dagestani city of Derbent, which is connected to the republican leadership succession issue, also remains in an ambiguous state. On January 28, Dagestan’s Supreme Court turned down an appeal by pro-opposition voters to hold mayoral elections on March 14 –the next regularly scheduled election day in Russia. Instead, the electoral commission said they would hold the elections in October 2010 and the Dagestani Supreme Court agreed with this proposal.
According to opposition supporters, President Aliev put pressure on the court to make this ruling. “There is a legal vacuum in Derbent,” one of the court applicants Shakhban Gapizov said, explaining their motives for appealing to the court to have the elections as soon as possible. “An illegitimate mayor, Felix Kaziahmedov, disrupts all work. There has been no heating [or] water supply in the city for the past four months; teachers and medical staff have not received wages for the past three and a half months; people are suffering,” Gapizov noted. The applicants said they would appeal to the Russian Supreme Court to allow them to have earlier elections (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 28).
The court’s ruling added to the state of limbo in Dagestan, as President Aliev is known to support Kaziahmedov, Derbent’s de facto mayor. The elections in the city that took place in October 2009 were so manifestly rigged and voters there so agitated that they riveted the attention of the Russian president and press, resulting in the elections’ results being overturned in December. The scandalous elections may have added to Moscow’s dissatisfaction with President Aliev’s conduct and the impression he was losing control over the republic.
Meanwhile, the ongoing problem of extra-judicial reprisals by law enforcement agents against suspected Islamic insurgents took an unexpected turn. On January 22, the police in Makhachkala tried to arrest Rumil Begeyev, a 27-year-old Salafi Muslim and Derbent resident who the police had registered as a suspicious character. Police say that after Begeyev was apprehended, he managed to kill a policeman and escaped from their car. However, the witnesses told the Dagestani paper Chernovik that Begeyev was crying out for help when four armed men in plain clothes suddenly approached, beat him with a handgun and dragged him into their car. While the police tried to take him away, their car collided with two other cars and Begeyev escaped from the police as one policeman accidentally shot another colleague. The escapee’s relatives are now trying to secure a just hearing on his case and make him surrender under certain guarantees from the authorities (Chernovik, January 29).
“Economic problems are not the most pressing issues for Dagestan, but rather the death squads [of the security services], that kidnap and shoot young people without investigating and trying them in the court,” said Adallo Aliev, a well known Avar poet and an outspoken critic of the Dagestani authorities, in a recent interview (Novoe Delo, January 29).
For the next president of Dagestan, dealing with the issue of transparency in the police force will be one of many problems to reckon with in this complex North Caucasian republic.