Dagestan remains one of the few Russian regions in which local political life still exists despite all of Moscow’s efforts to eliminate it. Tensions are running high in the republic as 23 parties gear up for municipal elections in September. As the largest and most ethnically diverse republic of the North Caucasus, Dagestan has 52 administrative units, including 42 rural districts and 10 cities. In some cases, the boundaries of administrative units coincide with the boundaries of ethnic groups, but in others, they overlap. The stakes in Dagestan’s municipal elections are quite high because access to political power has direct implications for the prospects of individuals and groups. Although the elections are indirect, Dagestan has over 30 ethnic groups, and political competition in the republic is difficult to suppress.
In July and August, Dagestan was shaken by the arrests of several top officials, including the head of Buinaksk district, Daniyal Shihsaidov, who was accused of misappropriating government funds. The home of his father, Khizri Shihsaidov, who is the speaker of Dagestan’s parliament, was searched (Newsru.com, August 2). Earlier, the security services arrested Kizlyar district head Andrey Vinogradov and put his patron Sagin Murtazaliev, who heads the Dagestani branch of the Russian government pension fund, on the wanted list. The authorities suspect Vinogradov, Murtazaliev and their associates of a series of murders and financing terrorism (Lenta.ru, July 29).
Russian observers hailed the arrests of the Dagestani officials as a signal that Moscow is strengthening control over the region. However, the level of Moscow’s control over Dagestan should not be overestimated—in part, because the republic has a powerful neighbor with its own interests in the republic. Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, voiced support for Murtazaliev, stating that the latter was a “true patriot of Russia” (Kavkazskaya Politika, July 31).
Law enforcement authorities put both Vinogradov and Shihsaidov on helicopters and flew them out of Dagestan—apparently fearing that they would not be able to keep the men under arrest inside the republic. This move was probably designed to display Moscow’s might and its ability to target even high-profile local officials in the North Caucasus. In reality, however, it indicates that Russia’s power on the ground is still fairly precarious.
On August 25, Dagestani authorities attempted to avert mass street protests by the Party of Veterans in the city of Buinaksk. A large police force was deployed to prevent party members from marching. Instead, the protesters announced that they would hold a meeting of party members and voters. Supporters of Murtazaliev also announced plans to hold a rally in Makhachkala. Meanwhile, a low-key conflict is reportedly brewing between Dagestan’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, and republican Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov. The republic’s state-sponsored TV channel has criticized the Ministry of Interior for numerous abuses, including killings, while police officials verbally attacked the TV station (Chernovik, August 28).
Dagestan’s cities will arguably play the biggest role in determining its political future, and the capital Makhachkala and the southern Dagestani city of Derbent are holding mayoral elections. After a lengthy battle, Abdulatipov was able to oust Derbent’s combative mayor, Imam Yaraliev, the former republican prosecutor, in August (Kommersant, August 11). Yaraliev successfully fought off the republican governor’s attacks for at least a year. Abdulatipov also seems to be unable to find the “right” mayor for Makhachkala, given that he earlier removed Said Amirov as the capital’s mayor. Dagestan’s governor appears to be on a quest to install pliable bureaucrats throughout the republic, but as soon as the bureaucrats take office they stop being sufficiently pliant.
It comes as no surprise that in a multiethnic society like Dagestan’s, there are ethnic quotas for filling official positions. This, for example, makes it harder to find a replacement for the speaker of the parliament, Khizri Shihsaidov, because, according to the republic’s unwritten rules, he should be replaced by an ethnic Kumyk. However, all other plausible candidates among the Kumyks are substantially weaker than Shihsaidov, which means that they would not have the same level of support from the republic’s Kumyks. Yaraliev’s temporary replacement as Derbent’s mayor is Mavsum Ragimov, an ethnic Azerbaijani. The rule, however, is that an ethnic Lezgin should head Derbent, because Lezgins are the largest ethnic group in the city. An ethnic Azerbaijani is supposed to be deputy mayor because Azerbaijanis are the city’s second largest ethnic group (Novoe Delo, August 22). Multiple changes of mayors have taken place in another southern city of Dagestan, Dagestanskie Ogni, and some locals are already complaining that the republican government is returning old corrupt officials to office under the guise of “fighting corruption” (Onkavkaz.com, August 19).
Dagestan’s political life is surprisingly resilient, given how much effort Moscow has made to eliminate the political process in the North Caucasus republic. Still, despite all their power, the authorities in Moscow cannot abolish such basic conditions in the republic as its multiethnic composition and the economic and political interests of its multiple groups.