On November 21, Dagestan’s President Ramazan Abdulatipov made a surprising statement about possible administrative changes in the republic. Speaking at a government meeting in Makhachkala, Abdulatipov said that Dagestan would be subdivided into four areas, each with its own plenipotentiary representative reporting to the head of the republic. The four area representatives would answer to the head of Dagestan and, together with republic’s prime minister and speaker of the republican parliament, inform him about the situation in the republic on a weekly basis. In an interview with the Gazeta.ru website, the Dagestani president’s press-secretary, Magomedbek Akhmedov, said that Abdulatipov believes “there is not enough feedback,” inasmuch as “the information he is receiving is not sufficient. He needs his own representatives and in order to avoid opening representatives’ offices in each raion, the raions will be grouped into districts” (https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2013/11/21_a_5763977.shtml).
Dagestan is currently divided into 42 raions and 10 cities—52 administrative entities in all. The smallest of the raions, the Bezhtinsky territory, has a population of a little more than 7,000 residents. The largest among the raions, Khasavyurt raion, has a population of over 140,000. The capital of the republic, Makhachkala, is home to over 570,000 people or about 20 percent of the total republican population (Russian State Statistical Service, Gks.ru). The proposed administrative changes fit into the logic of the Russian authorities and their representatives in the North Caucasus. Since meaningful political reforms are practically taboo, administrative changes are advanced instead, with the aim of increasing the level of the government control over the population. The top-down approach, however, has its natural limitations and is rarely sufficient to reap the hoped-for results.
Dagestani expert Enver Kisriev told Gazeta.ru: “The president [of Dagestan] apparently thinks that if instead of forty subjects only four report to him, it will be easier for him to understand the situation, but this is an extremely dangerous assumption. The republic has clear ethnographic and geographic sub-regions. So setting up such structures will promote political rivalries between those sub-regions. Another chain-of-command, and another source of conflict between the head of republic and heads of raions, will be created. This is an additional factor for instability.” Abdulatipov’s press-secretary said the division of Dagestan may follow the pattern of the lines between the republic’s electoral districts, dividing the republic into Northern, Central, Southern and Mountainous districts (https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2013/11/21_a_5763977.shtml).
Experts warn that ethnic differences in Dagestan could explode if the republic is divided into sub-regions. Dagestan is the most ethnically heterogeneous republic in the North Caucasus. The largest ethnic group, the Avars, comprise only 29 percent of the total republican population. Ethnic Dargins come in second, with 17 percent. The Turkic-speaking Kumyks come in third, with 15 percent. Ethnic Lezgins come in fourth, with 13 percent, and so on (2010 Russian census results, Gks.ru). The smaller ethnic groups, such as the Laks, Nogais, Lezgins and others, have repeatedly raised the issue of seceding from Dagestan and creating separate home republics for their ethnicities. Lezgins, for example, are concentrated in southern Dagestan, while Nogais are concentrated in northern Dagestan. Dividing Dagestan into four sub regions could reignite the old separatist trends in the republic.
It is still unclear whether Moscow was behind this initiative or if Abdulatipov decided to create the new administrative structure on his own. In any case, Dagestan will not be subdivided unless Moscow approves of the move. If Moscow is orchestrating the division of Dagestan behind the scenes, it means that the Russian government essentially has abandoned hope of controlling the situation in the republic in its current form. Dividing Dagestan would supposedly pit the neighboring sub-regions against each other and make Moscow better off in terms of controlling them—in other words, by establishing a new version of divide and rule. The desperation of the Russian government and willingness to make use of extreme measures is reflected in the intense number of rumors, which have been spreading throughout Dagestan. According to one rumor, the Russian army plans to launch a large-scale military operation in Dagestan soon after the Winter Olympics are held in Sochi in February 2014. Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin, rejected this rumor at a meeting with Dagestani journalists (https://www.riadagestan.ru/news/politics/budet_li_masshtabnaya_voyskovaya_operatsiya_v_dagestane_posle_olimpiyskikh_igr_v_sochi/).
Perhaps, one of the most vexing aspects of Dagestan in the eyes of Moscow is that the perpetrators of attacks in Russia proper still come from the republic. In October, another female suicide bomber from Dagestan carried out an attack in the Russian city of Volgograd, killing eight people, including the attacker herself. Attacks inside Dagestan do not receive nearly as much attention in the Russian media and have become routine. On November 20, two men, 26-year-old Magomed Akhmednabiev and 24-year-old Islam Akhmedov, along with their wives, were killed by security forces in the village of Novosasitli in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district. One of the females was identified as 26-year-old Suzanna Magomedova (https://ria.ru/incidents/20131121/978756663.html). A counter-terrorist operation regime was introduced in two different areas of Dagestan on November 21, including part of the republican capital Makhachkala and the Shamil raion in the republic’s mountains (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/233854/). That day, a suspected militant was killed in Shamil raion while another suspect was killed in Tabasaran raion the following day (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/233944/).
Whether the republican’s government’s tentative decision to create sub-regions in Dagestan stems from the republic’s president or directly from Moscow, the planned move shows that the government is dissatisfied with the situation in the republic. Administrative reform in Dagestan may, however, become a trigger not only for unpredictable changes in the republic, but also may create greater demand for administrative changes, specifically border shifts, elsewhere in the North Caucasus.