District Elections in Dagestan Reveal Ethnic Discord

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 18

Earlier this year, the North Caucasian republic of Dagestan was rocked by two election campaigns, including elections for the local legislature and elections for district and village chiefs. Both the campaigns and elections themselves – all of which were held on the same day, March 11 – were full of violence, fraud and conflict. The authorities have finally managed to form a parliament that is loyal to the Dagestani president, Mukhu Aliev (an ethnic Avar). The influence of former Dagestani leader Magomed Magomedtagirov’s clan was thereby reduced, and Mogmedtagirov’s son, who had formerly chaired the old legislature, was replaced by Mukhu Aliev’s man.

The district and village elections, however, did not go as smoothly for the authorities as the parliamentary elections. They raised tensions in some districts of the republic and revealed strong anti-government feelings among the rural population.

Makhachkala and the Kremlin wanted to control the results of all the elections in the republic. Not a single village chief was supposed to be elected without the permission of Mukhu Aliev’s administration, which in turn reports to Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District.

The residents of some Dagestani settlements, however, had other ideas. In many areas, the elections were won by the opposition. Some of the results were cancelled by local electoral committees, which sparked protests. One hundred fifty residents of two villages in the Khasavyurt district, Mogilevskoye and Petrvoskoye, gathered in the center of Makhachkala, the republican capital, on March 28 to demand that Gaydar Sharapudtidov, an opposition leader, be declared the winner of the election for local administration instead of the old boss, Khasmagomed Dachaev, who was officially declared the winner (Kavkazky Uzel, March 28).

In Kyzlyar district, the elections were won by Saigida Murtazaliev, an Avar, against a candidate of Russian origin who was supported by the administration of Mukhu Aliev. Support for Murtazaliev was so high, however, that no amount of fraud could give the victory to Makhachkala’s candidate.

According to the Regnum news agency, the elections in the mountainous Tsumada and Botlikh districts adjacent to war-torn Chechnya were the most contentious. Tsumada District Chief Magomed Gadzhibirov faced a strong candidate from the opposition, Asadula Omarov. The Tsumada election committee declared Gadzhibirov the victor, whereupon supporters of Omarov attacked and destroyed local poll stations. The authorities were forced to declare new elections. Elections are also going to be repeated in the Botlikh district, where the opposition candidate is also very popular. Repeat elections are also expected in Dakhadaevsky district, among other areas.

The electoral tensions in Dagestan, however, do not always result in a standoff between the population and the authorities. There are also standoffs between the multi-ethnic republic’s various ethnic groups. According to the Politkom website, following the elections in Karabudakhkentsky district, a new local police chief of Dargin origin was appointed (the Dargins are one of the ethnic groups of Dagestan), which sparked mass protests by the local Kumyks, another minority.

As one can see, the elections in Dagestan were characterized by the public’s distrust of the authorities and by tensions between different ethnic groups. This can be seen especially clearly at the local level, where elections are not as easily rigged as elections for the republican legislature.

The elections in Dagestan have demonstrated the fragility of governance in Dagestan. Based on fraud and corruption, it is unable to provide real democratization and economic development. Endless conflicts between the opposition and the authorities, and between different clans and ethnic groups, could eventually lead to the total collapse of government institutions in the republic. This is especially alarming against the background of the rising Islamic insurgency in the region.

Russian troops and republican police units in Dagestan continue to comb the mountain areas looking for insurgents. Recent reports of clashes in the wooded mountains of the Karabudakhkentsky and Untsukulsky districts show that the rebels are trying to set up a network of underground military camps all over the region. Unlike in the past, when the militants in Dagestan preferred to operate in large cities, today they are focusing on the wooded areas, which may mean that their aim is to unleash a guerrilla war like the one that is going on in Chechnya today. Given the weakness and unpopularity of the republican authorities in Dagestan, any strong attack by the rebels could become a tsunami that washes the government away.

More democracy and an alternative to the clan-based and ethnic governing system need to be found. Otherwise, the population will finally turn to the rebels, who do not distinguish people by their ethnic origin and seek to unite all Dagestanis on the basis of religion.