On February 8, President Dmitry Medvedev announced his decision to recommend that the Dagestani parliament appoint Magomedsalam Magomedov as president of Dagestan (RIA Novosti, February 8).
The announcement came less than two weeks before the term of the current president, Mukhu Aliev, expires. Magomedsalam Magomedov was among the shortlisted candidates for president of Dagestan, but, according to media reports, he was not the frontrunner.
Dagestan is the largest republic in the North Caucasus, with a population of 2.7 million, and one of the most volatile. In 2009, several top ranking officials were killed, including the interior minister of the republic. The fact that President Medvedev postponed the announcement of the new presidential choice in this explosive region until the last moment may indicate there was a serious struggle going on behind closed doors both in Moscow and Dagestan.
Magomedsalam Magomedov, 45, has an academic background in economics, with a special focus on workforce development. He distinctly differs from all his predecessors, who were Soviet-era Communist Party leaders who adjusted to post-Soviet Russia with various degrees of success. However, Magomedov’s most frequently cited attribute is that he is the son of Magomedali Magomedov, the leader of Dagestan who preceded the current president, Mukhu Aliev, as the de facto head of the republic. After Magomedali Magomedov left office in 2006 and Aliev became the first president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov was elected speaker of Dagestan’s parliament for the period of one year.
Magomedali Magomedov was a colorful political heavyweight in Dagestan, often referred to as a “master of political intrigues” who managed to stay in power from 1987 to 2006. Dagestan is the most multi-ethnic republic in the North Caucasus, with dozens of distinct ethnicities that zealously guard their share of representation in the public sphere, so the ethnicity of the leader is a significant factor affecting popular support or opposition. The most numerous ethnic group, the Avars, number 800,000 and comprise 30 percent of Dagestan’s population. Outgoing President Mukhu Aliev is an Avar, but Magomedsalam Magomedov is an ethnic Dargin. The Dargins are the second largest ethnicity of Dagestan, numbering a little more than 400,000 and make up 17 percent of Dagestan’s population (www.perepis2002.ru).
Unlike all other regions of the North Caucasus, Dagestan has not had a directly elected regional head during the past twenty years. Instead, a complex system of representation for the numerous ethnicities of the republic was worked out, which culminated in the creation of the State Council (Gossovet), the so-called “collective president” of Dagestan, in 1994. The State Council was comprised of fourteen representatives of the major ethnicities of Dagestan, but Magomedali Magomedov managed to become and stay the primus inter pares for the 12 ensuing years.
The parliament of Dagestan is expected to confirm Magomedsalam Magomedov as president of the republic on February 10. Popular elections of regional governors were abolished in 2004. Since then, Russia’s president submits a candidate to head the regional government for approval by the local parliament and invariably receives it. Despite the fact that there was no voting, the process of appointing the head of Dagestan had some features strikingly similar to an electoral campaign. Members of Dagestan’s parliament and intelligentsia wrote passionate letters in support and against incumbent President Aliev, after which some of them retracted their signatures. Dagestani members of parliament staged a walkout protest at the end of December to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the political process around the appointment of the new president. The tension reached such levels, the independent weekly news paper Chernovik wrote, that “some Dagestanis were driven to heart attacks and nervous breakdowns.” According to the paper, the new president would have to be a good negotiator, address rampant poverty and economic backwardness in Dagestan, reach a conditional peace with the Islamic insurgency and reform the state institutions to make them leaner and more effective (Chernovik, February 5).
A number of commentators assumed that the new president of Dagestan would have to be a good mediator, in order to try to build a broad political coalition to pacify the increasingly volatile republic. However, the fact that Magomedov-the-father dominated Dagestani politics for a long time does not necessarily mean that Magomedov-the-son will be able to do the same. Dagestan under the elder Magomedov experienced an incursion by mixed Chechen-Dagestani armed rebel forces in 1999 that led eventually to the second war in Chechnya. Because of this attack from the outside, Magomedov Sr. was able to reduce internal infighting and reach a great degree of political mobilization and unity among Dagestanis.
In the current environment, building a consensus will inevitably be a much harder task, as the growth of militant Islam, economic hardship and uncertain relations with the federal authorities all are part of a very complicated puzzle. In addition, Moscow has created a precedent under which the son virtually inherits the top leader’s position from his father that is likely to be replicated elsewhere in the North Caucasus, as well as in Dagestan itself.
Several sources said the long wait for the announcement of the name of the future president of Dagestan was the result of disagreement between President Medvedev and the all-powerful Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Delays also accompanied the appointment of the Russian presidential envoy to the newly-created North Caucasus Federal District, of which Dagestan is a part. Aleksandr Khloponin, who eventually became the presidential envoy to the new federal district, is also a deputy prime minister in the Russian government, thus balancing between President Medvedev’s formal authority and Prime Minister Putin’s salient political influence. Khloponin may have had a say in Magomedov’s appointment. As a manager with a strong emphasis on economic development, Khloponin may have preferred to work with an economist.
Moscow’s strenuous efforts to appoint Dagestan’s leader may indicate there are growing differences inside the top political leadership of the Russian Federation. Combined with other pressing issues in Dagestan, it might mean that the new president of the republic is likely to act in a very uncertain environment.