Dagestan has not seen potentially destabilizing arrests of top officials since the arrest of the mayor of Makhachkala on June 1, 2013 (RIA Novosti, June 1, 2013). That is why the news about a police search of the home of one of the most influential leaders of the new Avar political elite, Sagid Murtazaliev, made top headlines in the republic.
The story began to unfold in the city of Kizlyar at 3 a.m., on July 27. Without first imposing a counterterrorism operation regime, police special forces along with the Federal Security Service (FSB) surrounded the home of the head of Dagestan’s Kizlyar district, Andrei Vinogradov (Onkavkaz.com, July 27). Vinogradov is interesting because he was Sagid Murtazaliev’s personal driver prior to becoming head of the district. The authorities suspected Vinogradov of involvement in the murder of four people (Rrnews.ru, July 27), but Murtazaliev helped secure his release. Clearly, Murtazaliev needed such a person to keep the district under his control. Kizlyar district has attracted the interest of powerful groups in Dagestan because it hosts a large railway hub and multiple brickyards, while the poaching of black caviar and sturgeon is also quite developed in the area.
The authorities flew Vinogradov to the Russian military base in the city of Mozdok, North Ossetia, by helicopter, just as they did with the mayor of Makhachkala in 2013. As the authorities tried to arrest Vinogradov, he and his guards tried to resist, hoping that Murtazaliev would arrive to rescue them. Vinogradov could not have known that Sagid Murtazaliev’s property in the town of Krivaya Balka in Makhachkala’s suburbs was also under siege at that moment. Russian special forces from the Mozdok military base were dispatched to arrest the head of Kizlyar district and Murtazaliev. The Russian forces traveled from Mozdok to Dagestan via Chechnya that night, which alarmed local authorities, who did not know where the Russian forces were headed. Only after the Russian special forces crossed Chechnya from west to east and continued on to Dagestan did the Chechens breathe a sigh of relief.
At the time that Sagid Murtazaliev’s home in the suburbs of Makhachkala was sealed off by FSB and Ministry of Interior forces, he was the head of the Dagestani branch of the Russian Pension Fund. At the start of 2015, some observers regarded him as one of the primary contenders for the position of Makhachkala mayor (Onkavkaz.com, July 27).
Murtazaliev’s ambitions to become mayor of Dagestan’s capital, whose population is steadily approaching one million, may have prompted the authorities’ action against him. Murtazaliev was an Olympic, world and European wrestling champion, but was better known as one of the most influential political figures in contemporary Dagestan. While head of the Kizlyar district, he essentially refused to subordinate himself to Magomedsalam Magomedov, Dagestan’s president from 2010 to 2013. Moreover, since Kizlyar district borders Chechnya’s Shelkovskoi district, Murtazaliev developed friendly relations with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. This friendship prompted some analysts to suggest that Murtazaliev’s arrest was aimed at Kadyrov, but this appears to be an overly exaggerated and complicated explanation (Eadaily.com, July 27).
Given the fact that Murtazaliev, an Avar, counterbalanced the powerful Dargin clan in the capital of Dagestan, it is unlikely that Ramazan Abdulatipov, the governor of Dagestan who is also an Avar, was behind the moves against him. The removal of Murtazaliev from the political scene only weakens in relation to the non-Avar clans in the republic.
It is unclear how the authorities, when planning this large-scale special operation by the FSB and the Investigative Committee, could have missed the fact that Murtazaliev was outside Russia. Murtazaliev was mostly likely in the United Arab Emirates at the time of the operation. It appears that the authorities deliberately carried out the special operation against Murtazaliev’s interests while he was out of the country in order to avoid an open clash with him and his supporters in Dagestan. Kizlyar district head Vinogradov was arrested soon after he returned to Dagestan from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Apparently, Vinogradov returned to assess the situation for the possible return of Murtazaliev himself (Kavpolit.com, July 27). The police in Makhachkala were on high alert because Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was in the Dagestani capital for meetings with the Interior Ministry’s Directorate in the North Caucasian Federal District.
It is interesting that Murtazaliev is practically the main witness for the prosecution in the case against former Makhachkala mayor Said Amirov (Bigcaucasus.com July 28). Since Murtazaliev is abroad, the Russian court will view his testimony against Amirov in a different light, and this may even result in Amirov’s acquittal, which will be a most unpleasant surprise for Dagestani Governor Abdulatipov.
The same day the authorities arrested Kizlyar district chief Vinogradov and searched Murtazaliev’s properties, both were charged with homicide and financing terrorism (Lifenews.ru, July 28). Even if the case against them does not end up in court, Murtazaliev will be out of politics for a long time. That must have been the objective of those who were behind the attack on the Dagestani politician.
Someone in Moscow appears to be paving the way to replace Abdulatipov as Dagestan’s governor. His replacement will probably not be from a known clan, and the ethnic balance that existed in the republic during and after the Soviet period will likely be disregarded. While people in Moscow make decisions for the Dagestanis, this may have devastating repercussions for Dagestan’s stability.