Political and Militant Leadership Changes in Dagestan

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 40

The many changes that have occurred in Dagestan during the past month can only astonish those following the developments in the republic. Most important is the recent change in the leadership of the Dagestan jamaat. The death of Rappani Khalilov, one of the jamaat’s leaders and the head of the Dagestan front of the resistance movement, on September 17 (www.lenta.ru, September 17) will undoubtedly have an impact on the jamaat’s activity in the near future. The death of a crucial figure like Khalilov does lead to a temporary pause, during which links with various insurgent groups are reestablished and the previous leader’s plans are readjusted. Yet this effect will only be temporary because the structure of the movement is such that no one is irreplaceable, including its leadership.

On the orders of Doku Umarov, the slain Khalilov has been replaced by his deputy, Abdul Madzhid (www.kavkazcenter.com, October 1). According to the Chechen resistance leadership, the new emir began his wartime career during the Second Chechen War. His onetime participation in the eastern Chechen front (currently commanded by emir Aslambek Vadalov) suggests that he was trained in Khattab’s camps. Even though he was born in Dagestan, Madzhid is closely connected with the men who are fighting nearby in the borderlands of Chechnya, making it possible for him to find support among the Chechens and giving him a definite advantage in his new role as jamaat leader.

The fact that it took Madzhid only ten days to bring order to the resistance cells spread across the republic and receive the oaths of fealty from the many various detachments of the “Shariat” jamaat indicates that he has been able to become the true leader of the organization (www.jamaaatshariat.com, October 11) and that he is respected by the rank and file. While Madzhid was consolidating power, Doku Umarov honored his recently fallen subordinate by granting Khalilov the posthumous rank of general and the “Honor of the Nation” award, the highest decoration bestowed within the resistance movement (www.chechentimes.net, October 3).

Doku Umarov has continued to rehabilitate the reputations of the most radical leaders of the Chechen jamaat. Arbi Baraev, who was killed on June 23, 2001 in Alkhan-Kal, had his rank of brigade general officially restored by one of the presidential decrees signed in October. (His rank had been previously stripped by Aslan Maskhadov for his participation in the 1998 anti-government demonstrations in Gudermes.) Umarov has thus rehabilitated those that Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev had once declared as the enemies of Ichkeria and the Chechen people. It is well known that the first such decree, “About the Sharia Guard,” was issued by Umarov on April 7 (www.kavkazcenter.com, April 28).

It seems that the vice-president of Ichkeria, Supian Abdulaev, is seeking the complete rehabilitation of the radicals, which is altogether understandable, since he, being their representative and protégé in power, must act for the sake of the interests of his party. But, Dokka Umarov is obviously underestimating the consequences of these actions. In trying to recruit for himself a few additional individuals who, for the most part, do not have key roles, he is unintentionally antagonizing those who support the policy of his predecessors – Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev. Dokka Umarov should learn from his predecessor’s errors and step in the same river twice. In 1997, having won the [Chechen presidential] elections, Aslan Maskhadov, to the great displeasure of many of his supporters, decided to draw the radicals into the government. A series of vitally important posts in the Cabinet of Ministers was given to their [the radicals’] representatives. And, only after the tragic events of the summer of 1998 in Gudermes was Aslan Maskhadov forced to finally break with them. All subsequent attempts to persuade Aslan Maskhadov, and then his successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, to reach an agreement with those who had once challenged the authorities failed. Dokka Umarov has decided to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor and may end up losing the trust of the majority. It should be noted, however, that the majority is apparently penniless, while the (radical) minority has financial injections that may be the impetus behind the Chechen separatist leader’s decisions.

Just as there have been changes in the “Shariat” jamaat in Dagestan, there have also been changes in the official ruling elite. The election lists of “Edinaia Rossia” are missing a few famous names, including the millionaire Suleiman Kerimov and Gadzhi Makhachev, a representative of the Avars (the largest ethnic group in Dagestan and the republic’s most important political force) who has been a participant in all previous parliaments elected after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the case of Kerimov, it is possible that the obstacle has resulted from business competition, with the pressure coming from Igor Sechin, Vladimir Putin’s chief financial ally. Makhachev’s absence, on the other hand, is most likely the work of Vladislav Surkov, who has tried to keep individuals with a criminal record out of the party. Makhachev past is well known, since he has been convicted of several severe offenses and was once considered a leader of the Avar criminal groups.

In the government of Dagestan, the removal of Agriculture Minister Rapi Abakarov, Deputy Chief of Staff Dzhaparbeg Shamkhalov, and Secretary of the republic’s security council Gitinomagomed Gadzhimagomedov are all directed at increasing the power and influence of the republic’s president Mukhu Aliev, who was forced to make concessions upon taking office in order to maintain the balance among the many clans of the republic. Many of the republic’s functionaries who answer directly to the president are not particularly important or even politically controversial. These offices are reserved for the most numerous ethnic groups of the republic – Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Laks, and Lezgins. Only if the balance between these groups is broken can one discuss a threat to the stability and order within Dagestan. All other changes are simply a meaningless reshuffling of office holders.

The posts appointed by the Federal authorities—essentially, the Kremlin—are a notable exception and include the Interior Ministry, the Attorney General’s office, the local branch of the FSB, the Ministry of Justice, judges of all levels, and those local appointees that need Moscow’s confirmation, which include the head of the railroads, airports, etc. Attempts to analyze the changes in the non-Federal appointments (www.gazeta.ru, September 18) are unnecessary, since they attempt to explain phenomena in Dagestan using mechanics that are only applicable to other regions of the country.

Recently, the republic’s parliament amended the constitution of Dagestan in order to allow for the parliament, rather than the president, to appoint the speaker of the legislature. This change has been made in order to comply with Federal law (www.gazeta.ru, September 27). While this has nominally removed one of Aliev’s powers, it has actually done little to change his authority. The post of speaker is always assigned to an ethnic Dargin, with the power to appoint the speaker being circumscribed by the same ethnic policies that affect the rest of the Dagestan government. As it has been noted previously in “Chechnya Weekly,” the presence of several dozen native ethnic groups in Dagestan determines much of the staffing policies and makes any long-range analysis of particular appointments futile.

In light of the overall dissatisfaction with the government of the republic, the voice of the armed opposition is often clearly heard. The blows struck by the insurgents against the security services have become constant and unceasing. The death of Rappani Khalilov, an event that the authorities did not even see fit to present as a grand victory, was viewed as another part of the daily activity of the services and the police. The guerrillas responded with a number of attacks, suggesting that nothing has genuinely changed despite the loss of their leader.