Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 8

By Zaira Magomedova

Whenever he visits the Russian regions, President Vladimir Putin always stresses that he plans to continue his work to strengthen the power vertical. “Our main task today is to ensure a clear distribution of powers between Moscow and the regions on the one hand, and between the regional authorities and local government on the other hand,” the Russian president told journalists during a recent visit to Vladimir Oblast. It was with this legislative initiative that Putin’s presidency began. The “removal” of all regional laws which do not conform to the Russian constitution was proclaimed as the priority task facing the new presidential team.

Russia’s Ministry of Justice, entrusted with the task of coordinating this project, submits occasional progress reports. Officials consistently state that the most serious legislative violations continue to occur in Ingushetia and Tatarstan. Dagestan, which has been happily violating the Russian constitution for almost a decade, does not figure in this list of villains.

Furthermore, at the April session of Dagestan’s People’s Assembly (parliament), the chairman of the Duma legislative committee Pavel Krasheninnikov announced that in certain cases regions simply have no choice but to adopt their own laws. By way of illustration, he cited the Dagestani law “On fighting Wahhabism and other extremist ideology,” which has been submitted for discussion at a federal level, but which has not yet received due attention.

Meanwhile, Moscow has as yet made no response to an initiative, presented to the State Duma by the People’s Assembly in January, to introduce ethnic quotas in the governing bodies of other regions. The law has been forwarded for “fine-tuning,” and discussions in the republican and federal press about how ethnic quotas violate the federal law guaranteeing civilians’ electoral rights have also died down.

The main requirement for the Dagestan state machine to function successfully is total control and subjugation. This was the ideal arrangement for the early 1990s, when, first, the old party elite was rather thrown by the dispensation to “take as much sovereignty as you can.” Second, ethnic minority leaders began making their presence felt, adopting nationalist rhetoric and assuming control of nationalist movements which had originally only advocated preserving the culture and art of Dagestan’s national minorities.

Persistent clashes between the authorities and national leaders (clashes which did not always end peacefully, incidentally–in 1992 only intervention by clerics put a stop to large-scale confrontations between Kumyks and Avars living in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt) prompted the development of a system of ethnic quotas for the state apparatus in Dagestan.

This cannot be described as a new policy: In Soviet times, too, the state structure in the republic was structured along ethnic lines, albeit unofficially. Back then there were successful “national” ministries and departments, and every large nationality had its own “slice of the pie.”

Since 1994, when the republic’s constitution was adopted, the situation has arisen whereby only fourteen of Dagestan’s sixty-plus nationalities are viewed as “titular” nationalities whose members may be elected to the republic’s parliament and state council, which acts as a sort of collective president. Representative of other nationalities are simply refused registration as candidates for election as local legislators. In 1995 the head of the local branch of Russia’s Democratic Choice, Vasily Baronchuk, a Belarusan by nationality, was barred from running as a candidate for the Dagestani People’s Assembly for that very reason.

The way in which power is currently distributed in Dagestan is a cause of endless protest, both by human rights groups and by those who suffer as a consequence. Nevertheless, until recently Russia’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Court regularly rejected complaints from citizens about the many infringements of their electoral rights. In May 2000 the Constitutional Court dismissed a case brought by Ali Aliev and Isalmagomed Nabiev, whose registration as candidates for election to the local legislature was rejected for the reason that their nationality did not correspond to the nationalities officially ascribed to the okrugs where they planned to run for election.

Meanwhile, Ibragim Gadzhimuradov, who was refused registration as a candidate for election to the Makhachkala city council in April 1998 because his nationality did not conform (clause 18 paragraph 34 of the Dagestan Law “On the election of deputies to local government organs”), won his case after three years, but is not at all convinced that the decision taken by the Makhachkala Supreme Court on February 9, 2001 to annul the results of the 1998 elections will be respected.

Reluctance to change this convenient way in which power is distributed led, among other things, to the fact that back in June 1998 the Dagestani parliament passed a resolution making it compulsory to add a fifth entry–nationality–to people’s passport details. Every Dagestani is supposed to carry a special insert indicating their nationality. (The new Russian passport does not carry this information.) Otherwise all sorts of problems would arise: If the registration of candidates is done on the basis of nationality, this nationality has to be recorded somewhere!

The arguments the Dagestani authorities cite to defend the need to preserve this illegal system have not changed over the years. Dagestan’s leaders believe that without ethnic quotas it will be impossible either to maintain some semblance of stability or to “protect” this or that ethnic group. The feeble protests of local human rights groups that this amendment to the law on elections infringes the rights of members of the eighty-eight nontitular nationalities living in the republic are countered by the argument that the relative weight of this entire marginal group is negligible: They make up just 4 percent of the entire population of Dagestan. And those malcontents who think that the rights of the individual are more important than the rights of the state are reminded via the official media of the notorious realities of life in Dagestan.

As has already been stressed, the reality of the local state structure is that the state controls everything. This is why one of the crucial elements of the Russian version of the law on local government–the right of the governor to appoint and dismiss local government representatives, from local council leaders to the heads of regional administrations–is entirely unrealistic for Dagestan.

A similar law was passed in Dagestan in 1996 (though there has not been one case of a local leader being removed). Apart from this, as the head of Dagestan’s State Council Magomedali Magomedov stressed in a recent speech, given that the organs of local government are economically dependent, the question is a moot one.

Serious objections from Moscow may well lead to a situation where the method of electing administration heads is proposed by the republic’s State Council and endorsed by the People’s Assembly. Magomedali Magomedov believes that this method produces positive results: Elections are held in a proper democratic manner. Three years ago the elections for the mayor of Makhachkala which brought the independent and influential political figure of Said Amirov to power were universal in nature and were held without any notable violations. But the recent election for the head of the administration of Akhtyn district prompted a major scandal highlighted by the local press.

Meanwhile, the heads of the administrations of Akusha and Novolak districts and the town of Kaspiisk are appointed by order of the State Council, the reason being the complex criminal situation in these areas. Two years ago two successive mayors were murdered in the large local capital of Akusha, and the decision was taken from above to appoint Khamis Shakhbanova, who had previously been deputy to one of the mayors.

In the border district of Novolak one of the main reasons is the unstable situation in the region–the 50-year-old confrontation between Laks and Chechens plus the consequences of the military action of autumn 1999. The situation in Kaspiisk is rather different: Here there is a tussle between different groups, and the republic’s leaders do not want one of them in particular to come to power.

It appears that Moscow is still concerned at the limitless potential for political instability in this republic, which borders Chechnya. Hence the tolerant attitude to the gravest of violations of the constitution in Dagestan (apart from the issue of ethnic quotas, which in no way conforms to Russian law, it is also permitted to carry weapons in Dagestan, there is a highly draconian law on freedom of conscience, and there are endless amendments to the law proscribing Wahhabism). Increasing the level of subsidies (this year more than 90% of Dagestan’s budget consists of funds allocated from Moscow) also serves to illustrate that the political situation in Moscow, which wants Dagestan to be loyal, continues to take precedence over the judicial reforms announced by Moscow itself to strengthen its own position in this particular region.

Zaira Magomedova a correspondent of the Novoye Delo weekly in Makhachkala, Dagestan.