Electricity cutoffs in the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala, have become the focal point of social protest actions in the republic. The Dagestani electricity distribution company imposed restrictions on the supply of electricity in Makhachkala on May 21 and extended the restrictions to several other Dagestani cities on May 26, claiming the city governments had a huge debt, amounting to 1 billion rubles ($32 million) (RIA Dagestan, May 30).
Popular protests immediately broke out in Makhachkala and suburban areas, with groups of people seizing electricity distribution plants, blocking highways and switching the supply of electricity back on by themselves (RIA Novosti, May 26-27).
The Makhachkala city government, headed by one of the Dagestan’s political heavyweights, Said Amirov, has fiercely rejected the energy company’s claims, downplaying the amount of debt owed and accusing the company of "unlawful and destabilizing" actions. The Dagestani prosecutor-general’s office issued a special statement, calling on the republic’s citizens to fight for their rights using only legal means. The conflict between the Makhachkala authorities and the energy distribution company erupted first during last winter, when over 40,000 people were cut off from their electricity supply (Kavkazky Uzel, May 28).
Relations between energy distributors and city governments, who often control the delivery of electricity to the end-users, are notoriously non-transparent throughout Russia. Only in Dagestan, however, has the argument between the two conflicting sides led to mass protests and people taking action, which underscores yet again the significantly deeper distrust the inhabitants of the regions of the North Caucasus have towards government. Ironically, Dagestan is the only republic in the North Caucasus that produces more electricity than it consumes, due to high capacity hydroelectric plants in the republic’s mountains.
In addition, the first presidential term of the current head of Dagestan, Mukhu Aliev, is approaching its end and expectations in Dagestan are high that he could be replaced. This is fueling a power struggle in the republic, which is known for its multi-ethnic make-up and numerous warring factions. In the latest showdown, President Aliev suffered a humiliating defeat in an attempt to appoint a lower ranking judge in one of the republican districts. As one anonymous Dagestani parliamentary deputy put it: "Soon Moscow will decide who will be the new head of the republic. New configurations of political forces are being created, which was evident at the [parliament’s] session. Whatever anyone says, voting against the president’s candidate means Aliev is losing influence in the parliament" (Novoe Delo [Dagestan], May 29).
The ongoing political struggle in Dagestan has not stopped the Kremlin from promoting the republic among the Muslim nations abroad. On May 17, a Palestinian business delegation visited Makhachkala, and both the visiting Palestinians and their Dagestani hosts vowed to expand economic cooperation (RIA Dagestan, May 17). The visit followed a much more prominent visit to Dagestan by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who paid a two-day visit to Makhachkala on April 7-8. Mr. Abbas apparently revealed that his trip to Makhachkala had high-profile Kremlin patronage, telling Dagestani President Mukhu Aliev: "In Moscow, we communicated with the president of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev, with the prime minister of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and with the foreign minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov. At all the meetings I felt that they referred to you, Mr. President [Mukhu Aliev], and your government, with a great respect." In the course of the talks, Abbas officially invited Aliev to visit Palestine (The Regnum news agency, April 8).
In the meantime, both the Islamic insurgency in Dagestan and the security services’ counterinsurgency operations in the republic have been as relentless as usual. Heavy fighting again took place in the central part of Makhachkala on May 31, when security forces identified an alleged militant in one of the city’s apartment houses. The house was surrounded in an officially announced counterinsurgency operation and eventually taken by the security services, which killed the suspected insurgent. (RIA Novosti, May 31; EDM, June 2). Several days earlier Dagestan’s deputy mufti Ahmed Tagaev was gunned down near his home in Makhachkala (ITAR-TASS, May 25). Mr. Tagaev was known for his strong opposition to Islamic extremism coupled with a loyalist stance in regard to Russian officials. He was, for instance, quoted as a supporter of the idea to rename one of Makhachkala’s streets after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (Kommersant, May 27).
As the security situation across the North Caucasus remains precarious and the Russian economy is on a downward slide, the Kremlin continues to maintain its grip on the region often using the same crude methods of oppression as in the past, including collective punishment, according to Amnesty International. (Kavkazky Uzel, May 28).
However, a more recent, parallel trend can be seen in the Kremlin’s cautious attempts to rally assistance from abroad to help with its troubled frontier regions. Besides facilitating visits by Palestinian administration officials, Moscow also favors other formats: for example, on May 15-19, a big conference on the Caucasus was organized in Italy by the Associazione Rondine Cittadella della Pace with over 150 participants, including Russian officials (Kavkazky Uzel, May 30).
If engaging the outside world to help find durable solutions in the North Caucasus proves to be a long term Moscow policy in the region, it will mark a considerable break from the policies that have been employed by Moscow so far. The North Caucasus has been one of the most isolated regions of Russian Federation, with special restriction zones that are closed to foreigners and great hurdles deliberately put in the way of foreign visitors, especially journalists and NGO workers, obtaining visas. Furthermore, borders between the North and South Caucasus are still formally closed to non-CIS citizens by Russia, so even foreigners that have their Russian visas intact normally cannot cross the borders of South Caucasus countries into the Russian North Caucasus using existing highways.
Top Russian officials have been vocal in accusing unnamed Western powers of meddling in the North Caucasus while providing little in the way of evidence. And the possibility of Moscow opening up the North Caucasus to the outside world still seems a long way off, judging by the modest steps that have been undertaken so far.
But as the economic crisis evolves along with the understanding of Russian interests in the region, this may be one of the few viable options for Moscow. The North Caucasian republics are all heavily subsidized by Moscow, but as its resources become scarcer, Moscow may be forced to adopt a more participatory model of governance, one that provides the means and incentives for the region to support itself. This will likely include attracting investment from abroad and expanding regional freedom.