A tough choice
By Sergei Markedonov, political analyst
In February 2010 the current term in office of Dagestan’s President Mukhu Aliyev expires. By then the Kremlin must decide if he is to remain in office for another four years, or resign.
Despite the fact that Mukhu Aliyev is a veteran of Dagestani politics (he has behind him experience as First Secretary of the Dagestan Regional Committee of the CPSU, and as Speaker of the Regional People's Assembly), he is the republic’s first president. This paradox has a simple explanation. Until February 2006 Dagestan was the last entity in the Russian Federation to lack a presidential form of government. The republic was governed by a collegiate structure, the State Council (which included representatives of 14 major ethnic communities), which from 1994 until 2006 was headed by Magomedali Magomedov, known as "the grandfather" for his expertise and political weight. Three and a half years ago one grandfather was replaced by another, while the main achievement of the era of the "collective presidency" – the observance of the ethnic factor in the formation of the republic’s bodies of power (with an Avarian President, a Dargin parliamentary Speaker, and a Kumyk head of state) – was retained.
Under the existing arrangement, the ruling party offers the Federal President a list of possible candidates for the post of head of the republic. In November 2009, United Russia presented to Dmitry Medvedev a list of five people, who in addition to Aliyev also included four other influential figures. It should be noted that in contrast to neighbouring Chechnya the selection of the president is not a simple process, and it is hard to make predictions or place bets. The Kremlin’s opinions tend to change. Who even a year ago could have imagined the appearance on the political scene of Yevkurov, a colonel who was almost unknown? Yet he has become a figure on a scale that is more than regional. Who now, except for a narrow group of experts, remembers a Kremlin Caucasus favourite like Zyazikov?
In Russia's North Caucasus policy, strategy has for several years now been replaced by a situational reaction to certain challenges. Dagestan’s current leader can be “put on show” (i.e. held responsible) for a great many things: the growth of terrorist activity (especially as in a recent interview for Russia’s well-known Kommersant newspaper Mukhu Aliyev himself acknowledged this phenomenon), the scandalous mayoral elections in Derbent, which stood out even against the background of other none too honest "one-day voting” campaigns, and negative social trends. Who in Moscow, after all, will attempt to unravel the intricacies of Dagestani politics? Who will understand that the problem of unemployment is only the tip of the iceberg, and that the underlying problem is the high birth rate, with labour redundancy as a consequence? Who will suppose that in a republic where the population density is seven times higher than the national average it is necessary to plan migration to the internal regions of Russia? And we should note that this problem linked with the fight against xenophobia (on both sides, mutually between Russians and Dagestanis), and the fostering of an adequate national policy in the country as a whole. In general, a strategy is required. But without one, a "scapegoat" can be found, in order to unload on him the “increased activity of the gangster underground”, the “excessive use of administrative resources" and the "poverty and corruption" (as if the Caucasus were in no way connected with the corrupt schemes that pervade the whole of Russia).
Unlike that of Chechnya (and even Ingushetia), the political space of Dagestan is diverse. This has almost nothing to do with democracy, of course, though we cannot ignore the phenomenon of the high level of freedom of speech in this Caucasian republic. If one wants to, one can read articles that are critical of Russia's foreign policy with regard to Azerbaijan and accuse Moscow of failing to understand the problems of "divided nations". In fact, this pluralism is easily explained. In Dagestan there is no "vertical" of the Kadyrov or Yevkurov type. Here political and socio-economic consensus is reached by the most complex combinations and configurations of various clans and elites, which are not only ethnic but may also have a bureaucratic or religious base.
In Chechnya during the 1990s everything was clear: the main opponents of the federal authorities were the separatists, whose actions, motivations and slogans were thoroughly studied. But Dagestan never suffered from the "separatist disease." On the contrary, in many respects it was the position of the republic’s inhabitants in 1999 that protected the North Caucasus from the proliferation of the "Ichkerian tumour”.
Much is talked about Dagestan’s polyethnicity and its accompanying proneness to conflict. However, these are not enough to explain the republic’s problems and conflicts, and even less the bombings and assassinations. Here loyalty to the republic frequently meant much more (both in relations with the federal authorities and with neighbouring Chechnya and Stavropol Krai). In addition, from the mid-1990s onwards another important factor – the Islamic religious revival – came into play. It was this revival that became the new line of division in Dagestan, ousting the "national question" from first place on the republic’s political agenda. Now those who adhere to the “new Islam” (Salafism, or “Wahhabism” as this trend is incorrectly called in Russian media) may be representatives of different ethnic groups. Their main opponents, representing Sufi Islam, may also belong to different ethnic communities.
But the problems and lines of demarcation do not stop there. In recent years another division has arisen – that between the so-called "Moscow" Dagestanis and the republic’s multi-ethnic bureaucracy. The ambitions of the "internal emigrants” often come into conflict with the Dagestani power elite at all levels. This elite was formed in the days of the CPSU (in contrast to the elites of the neighbouring republics, it has changed much less) and was used in order to obtain carte blanche from Moscow – and not in order to compete with anyone.
In such a republic the president (and formerly also the chairman of the State Council) is not an authoritarian dictator but a moderator and mediator – a “diluter”, if you like (the term is used today in top Russian government circles). It is therefore not surprising that many of the most influential Dagestanis have their own interests, not only within their own republic, but also outside it, and also their own points of access to the Kremlin, the White House (the Federal Government machine) and Staraya Ploshchad (the President’s administration ). One of these Dagestanis is the jurist Dr.Magomed Abdullayev. Recently appointed vice-premier of the republic’s government, he once studied at Leningrad University almost at the same time as Dmitry Medvedev. Another official with Moscow access is the businessman Magomed Magomedov, an adviser to the speaker of the Federation Council. Magomedsalam Magomedov (the son of Aliyev’s predecessor, Magomedali Magomedov, and parliamentary speaker from 1994-2006) has close connections with Suleyman Kerimov, the well-known millionaire businessman who lives in Moscow and has serious disagreements with Mukhu Aliyev. Saygidguseyn Magomedov is now on his second attempt to claim the role of leader of the republic. Although he is not too well known as a public politician, he is regarded as a good lobbyist for his interests in the Russian capital. On the United Russia list submitted to Medvedev for consideration, there were no other influential names. First among the missing we should note the ambitious mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov. Even though United Russia voted for him and he enjoys the vigorous support of media loyal to him, Amirov has not been part of the federal selection process. Other influential Dagestanis with strong positions far beyond their municipalities are Khasvyurt’s mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov and the head of Kizlyarsky district, Saygida Murtazaliyev.
Dagestan’s peculiarities are also particularly evident in the government’s presentation of the of the current presidential selection process. The Kremlin is not very keen on doing its politics in public. As everyone knows, the parliament of today’s Russia today is not a place for discussions, and the same is even more true of the presidential administration. And yet, in Dagestan the absence of a Kadyrov-style power vertical inevitably brings to the surface contradictions within the ruling elite. In this context we may consider two statements by the republic’s People's Assembly which appeared in late November 2009. One of these said that not all the nominations proposed by United Russia are at the level of presidential selection. The second, in contrast, embodies a spirit of loyalty to the will of Dmitry Medvedev. It says that its signatories are prepared to accept any decision of the Federal President. Another manifestation of public politics was the legal precedent in Derbent. The city court of a municipality large by Dagestani standards (and also one of considerable strategic importance) reversed the outcome of the mayoral election that was held on October 11 this year. The critical nature of the situation is underlined by the fact that prior to this legal verdict the acknowledged winner of the election race was Mukhu Aliyev’s associate Felix Kaziakhmedov (who according to official figures received 66,95% of the vote). The probability of a judgement by a higher court (the Republican Court or the Supreme Court of Russia) is extremely high (and the possibility of appeal proceedings has already been announced both by Aliyev and by Magomed Dibirov, head of the republic’s Central Electoral Commission). However, if such a scenario does come about, it will put some serious question marks over the legitimacy of the old/new mayor of Derbent’s residents (and of all Dagestan’s, as well). At all events it will establish substantial resource opportunities for the Dagestan President’s opponents, whom in his keynote interview with Kommersant called "Moscow Dagestanis who want destabilization.”
Thus, Moscow faces some difficult choices. Dagestan is Russia’s largest (50.3,000 square kilometres) North Caucasus republic, and it also has the largest population in that region (2.5 million). Moreover, its strategic importance cannot be underestimated. The Caspian port of Makhachkala has access to four foreign countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It is Russia's only ice-free port on the Caspian Sea. Dagestan also occupies a leading position in the North Caucasus with regard to the availability of hydropower resources. What matters in the end, however, is not strategic centres and resources but the region’s inhabitants themselves. It is they who throughout the long years of the Kremlin’s "silence" were able to stop Dagestan’s slide into open conflict. Unlike South Ossetia, Dagestan did not experience an upsurge of the problem of "divided ethnicities” (Avars and Lezgins). It was thanks to the support of Dagestani volunteers that the raid of Basayev and Khattab failed. For along time Makhachkala managed to contain Islamic radicalism. But everything has its price. In the case of Dagestan it is a certain degree of autonomy from Moscow.
Whoever replaces Mukhu Aliyev will be forced try to find a solution to Dagestan’s complex problems. But no matter how the tensions between the republic’s various elites and interest groups are resolved, one thing is clear: without a coherent programme from the federal centre, the largest North Caucasian republic will not be able to overcome its existing difficulties. Consequently, under any candidate supported by the Kremlin the federal government will ultimately need to become a more active player in Dagestan. All the more so as many people expect this, perceiving Moscow (so far, at any rate) to be an objective arbiter and guarantor. It is not for nothing that the semi-official slogan of the largest North Caucasian republic is now a line by the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov: "Dagestan did not become a part of Russia voluntarily, and will not leave it voluntarily.”
(Translation by DM)
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