On February 20 the Kremlin announced the appointment of a new leader for Dagestan. Russian President Vladimir Putin nominated 65-year-old Mukhu Aliev to lead the North Caucasus republic and asked Dagestan’s legislature to confirm his choice. All but one of the 102 local lawmakers present voted to confirm Putin’s nominee (Interfax, February 20). Aliev is the first person to hold the title of “president of Dagestan.” Prior to this appointment, the 75-year-old Magomed Magomedov had been the top local official as chairman of the republican State Council. A law introduced in late 2004 abolished that political structure and established a presidency.
On February 16, Magomedov met with Putin in Moscow and returned home to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the same day. “I told the president I am getting old and asked him to accept my resignation. The president agreed,” Magomedov said, after arriving at the airport from Moscow (Interfax, February 16). Magomedov had ruled Dagestan for 13 years, and his resignation has been long anticipated. Immediately after Magomedov’s statement, the Russian media began guessing who would succeed him as leader of the republic. According to the new law, the Russian president has the right to appoint heads of regional executive branches, subsequent to approval by the local parliament. Analysts realized that the Kremlin would have the final say in the matter, but they were not sure what kind of person the Russian authorities wanted to lead the largest republic in the North Caucasus.
Last year Dagestan grew increasingly unstable as local insurgents, supported by Chechen rebels, stepped up their activities. Moscow had to send additional troops to pacify the region, but clashes continued. Last year Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s Special Envoy to the Southern Federal District, described Dagestan as rife with interethnic, religious, and social conflicts. He presented a report to Putin that depicts the republic as being on the brink of collapse. Specifically, “One should recognize that, taken together, the unsolved social, economic, and political problems are now reaching a critical level” (see EDM, July 14, 2005). In addition to the typical mix of separatism, guerilla war, corruption, and clan conflict, the situation in Dagestan is even more complicated because of the multiethnic composition of the local population. How best to share power and economic benefits among the main ethnic groups has long been a sticking point.
When choosing a successor to Magomedov, the Kremlin wanted a person with no close ties to any of the local clans and who could be equally capable of fighting terrorism and rebuilding the regional economy. Nikolai Gryaznov, head of Dagestan’s branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Stanislav Ilyasov, a former prime minister of Chechnya, were among the candidates considered (Regnum, February 16). At the same time, the political circles within Dagestan put forward their own candidates, most notably Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, and Saidgusein Magomedov, head of the republican branch of the Federal Treasury (regnum, February 16). However, the Kremlin decided on Aliev, the chairman of Dagestan’s parliament.
Aliev ran Dagestan in the mid-1980s when he was head of the local branch of the Communist Party. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new political system was established in Dagestan. According to the new constitution adopted in 1992, the chairman of the State Council would be the leader of Dagestan. The chairmanship was to change every two years and rotate among representatives of local ethnic groups. Since Aliev was the local party boss as well as an Avar, the largest ethnic group in Dagestan, he was in line to become the first chairman. However, Magomedov, then chair of the republican parliament, persuaded Aliev to give him the first term as chairman. But when Magomedov’s two years were up, he refused to vacate the position. He continued as chairman for 13 years. Aliev appeared too weak to force Magomedov to keep his promise. Magomedov made his ethnic group, the Dargins, dominant in Dagestan for more than a decade.
After 13 years, Aliev finally has taken the helm of Dagestan with help from the Kremlin. Moscow handpicked Aliev for his reputation as an independent figure who does not belong to any clans or political groups. The Kremlin likely also favored his weakness as a politician, thinking his government could be easily controlled by “advisers” from Moscow. The fact that Aliev is an Avar might also have influenced the Kremlin’s choice. The Avars are rumored to be the leading group within the Dagestani rebel movement.
Moscow used a similar strategy in Kabardino-Balkaria last fall, (see EDM, September 23, 2005), when they appointed Arsen Kanokov, an individual with no strong ties in the republic, to be a president fully dependent on the Kremlin’s decisions. Nevertheless, the speculation that Kanokov could quickly solve the region’s economic and security problems has almost stopped since the October 13 rebel attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Aliev, who is an even weaker leader and older than Kanokov, will hardly manage to save Dagestan from turning into another front of the Caucasian war.