According to local observers, political tensions and rumors about Ramazan Abdulatipov’s imminent resignation as Dagestan’s governor have intensified in the republic since the end of January (Onkavkaz.com, February 8). The rumors increased during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Stavropol region, on January 25, to preside over a regional forum of the pro-Kremlin organization All-Russian People’s Front (Obschcherossiysky Narodny Front). During the forum’s question-and-answer session with the Russian president, several Dagestanis complained about the spread of corruption in the republic. Putin responded by saying that corruption was a problem for the entire country, but that he recognized that it is particularly bad in the North Caucasus and Dagestan (Kremlin.ru, January 25).
According to Eduard Urazaev, a former Dagestani minister for nationalities, information and external ties, Putin was quite tense while listening and responding to the questions about corruption in Dagestan and reportedly held a special closed meeting of government officials after the conference. One of the participants in that meeting, Sergei Melikov, the head of the North Caucasian Federal District, held his own meeting afterwards and made a low-profile visit to Dagestan. Many observers, including Urazaev, apparently regard Melikov as one of the most likely contenders for the position of Dagestan’s leader. According to Urazaev, the Russian authorities have been evaluating Melikov as a potential candidate for the position of Dagestani governor for a while. Previously, some people thought that Melikov’s career in the military may be an obstacle for his possible appointment, but he is now seen as a valid candidate, Urazaev wrote (Onkavkaz.com, February 8). In 2011, Melikov became the commander of the Ministry of Interior troops in the North Caucasus. In 2014, he was appointed as head of the North Caucasian Federal District, which includes all the republics of the North Caucasus except Adygea.
In the meantime, Abdulatipov may have his own plans for a successor, according to other observers. On February 1, he unexpectedly appointed the head of his administration, Ramazan Aliev, as first vice-prime minister in the republican government. Some sources said that Abdulatipov wanted to increase his control over Dagestan’s government, but others suggested that Aliev’s appointment is paving the way for his rise to the position of republican governor. The Kremlin makes such appointments in the North Caucasus, but having public visibility helps. Also, according to the sources, Aliev’s candidacy suits Moscow because he made his career outside Dagestan and has few links to the republic. Abdulatipov may favor Aliev because they both come from the Tlyarata district in the mountains of Dagestan (Novoe Delo, February 6).
Melikov would probably be the ideal candidate for Dagestani governor from Moscow’s standpoint. He is a Russian general with extensive experience in the violent suppression of Chechen secession and the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Although Melikov has a Lezgin connection, he was born in the Moscow region and his life and career were mainly connected to Russian regions outside the North Caucasus as well as Ukraine and Moldova, rather than to Dagestan, so he has no popular support base in the republic and would be fully dependent on Moscow. However, Melikov has a connection with the Lezgins rather than the larger Avar and Dargin ethnic groups. The latter are the largest ethnic groups in Dagestan, so the governor of Dagestan normally comes from either the Avars or the Dargins. If Moscow ignores this political arrangement, the republic may be further destabilized.
The independent Dagestani newspaper Chernovik recently ranked possible candidates for the position of republican governor on the basis of text messages from supporters. The project, called “People’s President of Dagestan 5.0” ranked Sergei Melikov in fifth place among twelve candidates. Ramazan Abulatipov, the current governor, placed tenth, preceded by the well-known Dagestani billionaires Suleiman Kerimov and Ziyavudin Magomedov, who placed eighth and ninth, respectively. Republican mufti Ahmad-Haji Abdullaev gathered the majority of the text votes. With the exception of the two Dagestani billionaires and Sergei Melikov, everybody else on the ranking list are Dagestani politicians. The newspaper noted the limitations of text-voting, regarding it primarily as the candidates’ ability to organize their supporters rather than a real vote. Still, the results of the text voting were quite informative (Chernovik.net, February 12).
By law, Moscow may appoint nearly anyone it pleases to replace the sitting governor of Dagestan. However, given the current economic downturn, political appointments have become especially dependent on the local elites. Moscow will either have to invest substantially more funds in Dagestan and buy the elites’ cooperation with someone like General Melikov, or become more sensitive to the preferences of the locals. The candidacy of the next governor of Dagestan will show whether the tide of Moscow’s control over Dagestan is receding or continues to advance. Even though rumors about Abdulatipov’s imminent resignation circulate regularly in Dagestan, this is unlikely to happen unless serious changes take place in Moscow or Abdulatipov loses control over the situation completely. The national elections to Russia’s State Duma in September 2016 will probably be a litmus test that will determine the future of many governors of Russia, including Abdulatipov.