Dagestan: Russia’s eternal problem

15_1.jpgDuring the last few years, all of the ethnic republics of the Northern Caucasus – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeia – have undergone changes in their leadership.The Kremlin officials responsible for the region, such as Vladislav Surkov [1] (apparently the region is not particularly interesting for Igor Sechin [2], the banker being more interested in Siberia and the Far East), expected this tactic to change the local political situation and strengthen the hand of the Federal authorities. A completely opposite result is evident, with the entire region mired in corruption, interethnic conflict, and crime, while attacks and bombings organized by the resistance movement occur almost daily. 

Dagestan, along with Ingushetia, clearly stands out from among the other supposedly peaceful republics of the region. It is the largest republic, both territorially and in population (with 50,300 square kilometers of territory and 2.5 million inhabitants), and has created the most problems for Moscow despite the rosy picture that the Dagestani leadership has always tried to present to the outside world. The leaders of the republic are fond of mentioning the astonishingly good interethnic relations within the republic, even though the most superficial glance clearly shows that no other region of the Russian Federation has as many problems in this regard.


The intellectual elite of the republic greeted the selection of Mukhu Aliev as the new president with great enthusiasm, but today finds it necessary to concede that despite the change in leaders, no real change in the life of the republic has occurred. This is to be expected, partially because most of the important positions within the republic are not controlled locally. The republic’s attorney general, the judges, the head of the local FSB division and the republic’s minister of Internal Affairs may only be appointed by presidential decree from Moscow. This practice is a vestige of the Soviet system, when the Communist party appointed its own people to act as the faithful eyes and ears within the ethnic republics.


The internal opposition to the authorities in Makhachkala is very uneven, having no real authoritative leader (the mayor of Khasavyurt, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, often functions as an opposition figure), and instead are united by occasional common interests. A so-called “northern alliance” composed of the social and business leaders and political representatives of the northern districts of the republic does exist and often criticizes the way in which Makhachkala deals with the various regions of Dagestan (Mosvoski Novisti, March 3, 2006).


Despite the fact that Makhachkala tries hard to hide its problems with Moscow’s appointees and the local opposition, they are hard to ignore. The key relationship between President Mukhu Aliev and Dagestan’s minister of Internal Affairs Adilgirei Magomedtagirov clearly reflects the overarching problems in the relationship between Russia’s central and regional authorities. In fact, Mukhu Aliev has been a massive disappointment for the people of Dagestan.


Yesterday’s Communists (Aliev was once the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Republic of Dagestan) have found religion these days. Both the head of the republic and the minister of Internal Affairs offer their protection to Sheikh Said Efendi Chirkeiskii, one of the many Sufi sheikhs of the republic. By becoming a murid (pupil or follower) of Said Efendi, the interior minister has essentially made it impossible for all other sheikhs in Dagestan to spread their teachings. Television, radio, newspapers, and magazines are open to Chirkeiskii, his writings on Sufism are used for instruction in schools, and mosque imams are chosen on the basis of belonging to his school (vird). Interest in Said Efendi is stirred up in the media and claims that 400,000 people belong to his school are bandied about. These figures are nonsensical, with numerous other sheiks teaching across the republic, being both genuinely popular among the people and also more learned in Islamic teaching and Sufi practice. Nonetheless, a sort of cult of Said Efendi has been created, despite the fact that much of his fame and respect is due to one of his high-ranking followers. Things have gotten so bad that opponents of the sheikh can be accused of Wahhabism en masse.


In trying to please the Kremlin, Adilgirei Magomedtagirov has stopped merely irritating Mukhu Aliev; instead, he has antagonized Aliev so much as to cause the Dagestani president to openly criticize the security services (www.svobodanews.ru, May 16, 2006). In order to keep from being accused of attacking Moscow’s appointees directly Aliev started purging members of his own staff and in late August replaced some of the cabinet ministers and the Chairman of the Council for Republican Security. This past week, along with news of some important resignations in the republic’s government, information about the removal of Dagestani FSB chief Nikolai Griaznov has surfaced (Kavkazky Uzel, August 29). The most eagerly awaited resignation, however, the one over which a tense struggle has been fought for two years, has not been announced, with Magomedtagirov still considering himself to be untouchable.


Even Moscow cannot be unaware of the fact that alongside the problems of corruption and criminality in Dagestan lies the security operations conducted against the insurgents, operations that the interior minister of the republic is responsible for and the results of which have been very disappointing. With the anti-guerrilla effort flagging here, just as it had in Chechnya, the authorities have learned to present every slain insurgent as “one of the most important enemy commanders,” despite the fact that no reduction in insurgent activity is evident. The resistance movement now conducts its operations across the whole republic and the frequency of their attacks is on the upswing.


The resignation of the interior minister of Ingushetia two months ago was due to the same lack of success as that of his Dagestani colleague, giving Mukhu Aliev hope that he will eventually be rid of Magomedtagirov’s oversight (Kavkazky Uzel, June 28). Given the complex situation, it is probable that the Kremlin will favor Aliev, since the replacement of a republic’s leader is much more complicated than the replacement of a security boss, especially since Magomedtagirov’s resignation will only enhance Moscow’s position. This is particularly true because in trying to replace Aliev, the Kremlin will be forced to deal with the many interethnic rivalries found among Dagestan’s native populace (Dagestan is customarily listed as having several dozen native ethnic groups). The replacement of the current interior minister could be a signal that the political and security environments in the republic are about to be changed, providing some breathing room for Moscow to select a man that is independent of the local elites. It is probable that these changes will occur shortly ahead of the Duma elections in December 2007, or the Russian presidential elections of March 2008. The current relationship between the president and interior minister of Dagestan simply cannot go on for much longer, making it imperative for Moscow to change its policies in the republic.




1. Surkov, Vladislav Yurievich (original name – Dudaev, Aslanbek Andarbekovich), Deputy Chief of Staff of the President of the Russian Federation, chairman of the board of directors of THP. One of the provincial politicians in Putin’s immediate circle.

2. Sechin, Igor Ivanovich, Deputy Chief of Staff of the President of the Russian Federation, chairman of the board of directors of Rosneft, part of the “St. Petersburg faction” in Putin’s circle.

Mayrbek Vachagaev

Source: The Jamestown Foundation

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