Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 4

By Zaira Abdullaeva

The mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, occupies a special place amongst the politicians of Dagestan. Belonging neither to the old communist guard nor to the republic’s power-hungry, blatantly mafia-like new leaders, Amirov serves as a buffer between the two groups. It is probably for this reason that he is a frequent target for terrorist attacks–since the mid-1990s he has survived fourteen attempts on his life.

At the end of February, a mayoral election was held in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. It went almost unnoticed. The republic’s State Council (Gossovet), which has the constitutional right to select the form that local government elections should take, opted on this occasion not to put the election to a popular vote but to leave it to be settled by the Makhachkala city council.

Amirov was almost unanimously re-elected for a second term. Almost–because two of the forty-two deputies on the city council voted, anonymously, against him. Political experts regarded these two votes as no more than a democratic nicety: No one in Dagestan had any doubt that he would win. Amirov is one of the most powerful and promising politicians in Dagestan, and his headlong career is the product of the specific way that relations between the republic’s ethnic elites have been managed in both Soviet and post-Soviet times, allowing the advancement of a man of his kind.


He was born in 1954 in the village of Dzhangamakhi in the Levashi region of Dagestan, which is also where the current leader of the republic, Magomedali Magomedov, comes from. In 1977 Amirov took an ordinary job in the republic’s Department of Consumer Cooperation (the name for the Soviet government agency handling the purchasing of agricultural produce and raw materials such as wool and leather from farmers, and the distribution of industrial goods in rural areas).

The effective leader of the republic at that time was the first secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party, Magomed Salam Umakhanov, an ethnic Dargin, like Amirov. In the constant rivalry in Dagestan between the two major ethnic groups, the Avars (27 percent of the republic’s population) and the Dargins (17 percent), the war was conducted mainly by helping one’s kinsmen to advance up the career ladder. This was possibly the reason why Amirov had become head of Dagestan’s system for consumer co-operation at the end of the 1980s.

This system was deemed to be extremely lucrative–colossal sums of cash and huge quantities of industrial goods were involved, from clothing to automobiles, which were always in extremely short supply in the Soviet era. There were therefore frequent misappropriations and other violations of the law under investigation by law enforcement agencies and the print media. Such explanations as have been given for Amirov’s material wealth are generally the stuff of criminal legend, which no one has been able to confirm or deny. Amirov himself sidesteps the question in interviews.

The situation changed dramatically in the mid-1980s, when the leadership of the Dagestani party (and thus of Dagestan itself) fell to the Avars, and the Dargins were squeezed out into secondary roles. The Dargins’ highest-level representative in the government, Magomedali Magomedov, became chairman of Dagestan’s Supreme Soviet, a body which was effectively a front intended to give a national face to Soviet power.

However, in 1991, with the disbanding and outlawing of the Communist Party by the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, it was the country’s Supreme Soviets that assumed complete power in the regions, at least for a while. It was at this time that, under Magomedov’s leadership, an ethnically structured model for the government of Dagestan took shape.

Ethnic origin–which had always been an unspoken factor in the make-up of the republic’s bureaucratic apparatus–now overtly replaced considerations of party membership.

In the early 1990s, almost all of Dagestan’s ethnic groups formed themselves into so-called national movements, through which new members of the ethnic elite, who were generally from the lower social classes–such as the Khachilaev brothers of the Lak People’s Movement (Kazi-Kumykh) or Gadzhi Makhachaev of the Avar National Front (named after Imam Shamil)–could be elevated to the higher echelons of power in the republic and even in Russia.

The Dargins, once in power, found it harder to mobilize themselves around a single center–rivalries within the ethnic group led to a fragmentation into several different political factions.

The might of the state machinery and especially of the law enforcement agencies, which found themselves vying with several other political forces, shrank dramatically, and every statesman of note needed to secure the backing of some real power. Said Amirov, who had been promoted to the rank of vice premier of the Dagestani government by Magomedali Magomedov in 1991, sought to protect his own position with the powerful patronage of Magomedov, now chairman of the republic’s State Council. Almost immediately afterwards, the first attempt was made on Amirov’s life.

The role Amirov plays in the republic is enormous. Over the last decade he has ensured the security and immutability of Dagestan’s leadership, and therefore also the stability of the political situation in the republic. Hence the great authority he enjoys both with the people and within Dagestan’s state apparatus. And hence–in all probability–the terrorist attacks against him. As a result of one attack in 1992, Amirov is now wheelchair-bound.

“The secret of Amirov’s power is his style. While other politicians weigh up all the consequences and then go for a compromise, Amirov adopts a position of principle and pursues it regardless,” says Enver Kisriev, a Dagestani sociologist. “That’s why he has so many enemies. Yet since sustaining severe injuries which have forced a major change of lifestyle, Amirov has completely given up worrying about his safety.”

In the republic’s government, Amirov has dealt with some of the most intractable problems, those of social services and religious organizations. In 1997 the religious conflict between Dagestan’s Islamic fundamentalist Wahhabis and members of Dagestan’s traditional (Sunni) faith, brought Amirov out of the shadows and into the political public eye. He was tasked with conciliating the warring parties, and although reconciliation proved unattainable, Amirov’s efforts nevertheless enhanced his reputation as a man prepared to take on the most complex of problems.


In February 1998, in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala, where one-quarter of the republic’s population lives, the first popular mayoral election was held. Amirov was the sole Dargin candidate, while the Avars were split between the businessman Shirukhan Gadzhimuradov and the then chairman of the city council, Kurban Makhmudgadzhiev. Amirov won with a substantial majority. Before long he had become head of the republic’s Union of Local Authorities, which brings together most of the heads of administration from the republic’s cities and regions.

A month later, with the June 1998 election for the head of the republic approaching, Magomedali Magomedov asked the republic’s parliament to amend Dagestan’s constitution, which provided for the compulsory rotation of the leadership of the republic among representatives of the various ethnic groups. Avar politicians, who had been expecting Dagestan to come under their control, attempted to mount a protest in parliament and on the streets of Makhachkala, but the city, under Dargin control, gave them no support. The constitutional amendment therefore went through. Meanwhile, Amirov began his term of office in the city by making improvements in the housing and utilities sector and bringing the whole of the transport services market and the small-scale wholesale markets under the city’s management.

It is worth noting that by the mid-1990s, deprived of all subsidies, the city’s public transport system, supposedly serving half a million citizens, had collapsed. The only remaining transport services were provided by private minibus operators. Amirov declared that their routes were now city property, set up several municipal transport companies and, with the help of the city police, began to force the private operators to join them. Initially, the drivers organized strike action, but in the end Amirov won the day. The single genuinely independent trade union in the republic, the NPPVD (Independent Union of Entrepreneurs and Drivers of Dagestan), put up lengthy lawsuits against the mayor’s office and bloody clashes with strike-breakers, but was finally compelled to give up the fight.

Things were more difficult with the wholesale markets, where the whole city’s produce was traded. The Avar business groups that controlled them rejected Amirov’s proposal to relocate their trading points from the city center to the outskirts. On more than one occasion the city police tried to disperse the markets by force, but each time the 1,500 or so traders refused to budge. Amirov succeeded in dispersing them only in May of last year (2001), at the end of a bloody operation by Dagestan’s elite OMON troops. This was achieved by blockading the city to prevent supporters of the traders from coming in from the region’s agricultural areas. The traders put up such fierce resistance to the authorities that dozens of policemen and civilians were injured in the clashes. Over a dozen of the organizers of the resistance were given criminal convictions in February 2002, albeit with short or suspended sentences.

But in May 1998 the traders, having organized an indefinite protest in the square in front of Dagestan’s parliament and government buildings and the mayor’s office, began actively support an insurrection by the Khachilaev brothers, which Amirov was unable to contain.

On May 21, threatened with arrest for opposing the authorities, the Khachilaevs–the Lak national leaders–together with fighters of the Kazi-Kumykh movement and market traders, seized control, unopposed, of Makhachkala’s government buildings. Buoyed by this easy success, the traders tried to attack the mayor’s office, but there they encountered armed resistance from Amirov’s security guards. The mayor’s men held back the attackers until the head of the republic, Magomedali Magomedov, returned from Moscow and was able to reach a peaceful agreement with the Khachilaevs.

The brothers called off their men and then spent the month that remained until the leadership elections in the republic putting together an opposition coalition. They were joined by the Kaspiisk city mayor, Ruslan Gadzhibekov, the former head of Makhachkala City Council Makhmudgadzhiev, the chairman of the republic’s Pension Fund, Sharaputdin Musaev, and the chairman of the government’s Fishing Industries Committee and one of the Avar ethnic leaders, Esenbolat Magomedov.

On the day of the election, which was to be based on voting by the parliamentary deputies and representatives of the local administrations, Musaev announced his own candidacy as chairman of the State Council, but he lost to Magomedov. Amirov, who had delivered to Magomedov the lion’s share of his loyal supporters, was the last to cast his vote.

In the months that followed, there were several more attempts on Amirov’s life, for one of which the former city council chairman, Makhmudgadzhiev, was sentenced to thirteen years’ imprisonment, with the actual perpetrator receiving eighteen years.

But the most famous attack on Amirov took place on September 4, 1998, when a truck stuffed with explosives was blown up next to Amirov’s house, but the explosion was off target, destroying dozens of neighboring properties. The death toll was twenty, with over eighty more injured. Later, two close relatives of Sharaputdin Musaev were found guilty of committing this terrorist act.

Amirov’s popularity was boosted substantially by the events of August 1999. In the days immediately following the incursion into Dagestani territory by the rebel forces of Shamil Basaev and Khattab, Amirov formed and armed a so-called international brigade of 300 men from amongst his supporters and, together with hundreds of other volunteers, they rushed to western Dagestan to hold off Basaev’s men until the arrival of Russian troops.

Some weeks later, Amirov formed from this brigade an armed city police force of fifteen hundred men, under his personal command. Countering objections from the local Interior Minister, Amirov replied that in times of crisis the republic’s own police force was unable to guarantee the city’s security. Moreover, he said, he was still under personal threat of terrorist attacks.

Every evening the roads leading to Amirov’s home are guarded by armed police and even his children are accompanied to school by bodyguards. On several occasions the windows of the mayor’s office and Amirov’s motorcade have come under fire from grenade-launchers. Fortunately, no one has yet been hurt.

Meanwhile, Amirov’s organizational and managerial talent is making its mark in Makhachkala, where all the communal systems are back in working order. His predecessor as mayor had been nicknamed “Trottoirovich” (The Sidewalk King) by the locals because his term of office left pedestrians with almost nowhere to go: Every space, however tiny, could have a kiosk or shop built on it. So Amirov began his period in office by cleaning up the sidewalks.

Public spaces such as parks and beaches were restored; a system of storm drains was established; and the city’s roads were comprehensively resurfaced. In the first three years of Amirov’s term tax collection rose by 40 percent, 20,000 new jobs were created and the city’s budget deficit fell from 88 percent to 40 percent. Amirov was able to report these facts to representatives of ‘Literary Russia’ magazine in August of last year, when they visited Makhachkala to award him the title of “Best Mayor in Russia 2000.”

Once a “covert” politician, Said Amirov is today the most public politician in the whole republic. It could not, however, be claimed that democracy has flourished as a result: The republic’s media, including the independent media, no longer feel able to criticize the leadership, as they did five or so years ago.

But his popularity amongst the people of Makhachkala is considerable–he appears on local TV almost every evening to report on what’s been accomplished, he never forgets gifts for children and senior citizens on public holidays, and sorts out all the housing problems of the city’s residents.

“In my view, Amirov genuinely wants to improve the life of the people of Dagestan,” maintains Enver Kisriev, “and, unlike many other politicians who rely on criminal circles or the republic’s officials for support, Amirov puts his trust in the ordinary people.”


Today Amirov is the head of the republic in all but name. However, his injury, which is a significant impediment to his dealings with Moscow’s political players, for example, may also prove to be an impediment to the acquisition of further power in the future. Probably because he is little known in Moscow, political observers in Moscow and Dagestan differ in their assessments of his prospects.

“His popularity is considerable, but that’s in Makhachkala. And Makhachkala is not even Dagestan,” says an expert from Moscow’s Panorama think tank, Anvar Amirov. “Of course, he is an impressive and unusual man. If he were an ordinary politician, he would have a better chance of further career advancement–he’s young, energetic, has great authority and shows exceptional management talent. But too much hinges on his personality, he has too many enemies and he’s suffered an unbelievable number of attacks.”

Kisriev disagrees: “Amirov is a strong-willed man, he’s no fool and he works hard to better himself. He inspires the people’s sympathy and even his injury enhances his charisma. Amirov, unlike other politicians, has a program that is clearly comprehensible to the ordinary people of Dagestan, and with Makhachkala he’s proved that he can put any of his ideas into effect.”

Kisriev does not believe that Amirov will stand against Magomedov in the June 2002 election for the head of the republic. “He will wait as long as Magomedov wants to retain power,” he says.

Apparently the only major obstacle blocking Amirov’s path now is the possibility of further terrorist attacks.

In September 1998, answering a question about whether he expects further attempts on his life, Amirov told the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper: “I hope not, but there probably will be more. We politicians are strange people, prepared, even in the face of terrifying threats, to pursue our aims. The only thing that will stop me is death.”

Zaira Abdullaev a correspondent of the Novoye Delo weekly in Makhachkala, Dagestan.