MOSCOW APPOINTS COMPROMISE CANDIDATE TO LEAD TROUBLED DAGESTAN
The Kremlin has sprung something of a surprise by re-embracing the influential Magomedov clan in its efforts to bring stability to the republic of Dagestan. The head of this clan, Magomedali Magomedov, steered Dagestan through a difficult post-Soviet transition phase before finally being replaced in 2006. It is not entirely clear what lies behind the Kremlin’s change of heart regarding the utility of the Magomedov clan. It seems likely, however, that this sudden volte face is related somehow to the Kremlin’s failure to convince Dagestan’s truculent political elite as to the merits of its preferred candidate: Magomed Abdullayev.
BACKGROUND: On February 8 the Kremlin took many observers by surprise by announcing Magomedsalam Magomedov as its nominee to lead the republic of Dagestan. Magomedov’s candidacy was duly confirmed by Dagestan’s People’s Assembly on February 10. Magomedsalam Magomedov is the son of Magomedali Magomedov who led the republic from 1987 until 2006. The Kremlin would appear to be gambling that the younger Magomedov will be as politically astute as his father who earned a reputation as a conciliator and a discreet behind-the-scenes operator during his near-twenty year tenure.
The decision to appoint Magomedov signalled an end to a protracted presidential vetting process in Moscow. In November 2009 President Dmitri Medvedev was presented by Boris Gryzlov, a leading figure in the United Russia party, with a list of five candidates, including Magomedsalam Magomedov. Of the five names on this list, most media attention centred on Magomed Abdullayev, a deputy prime minister in Dagestan’s government. When Abdullayev was dispatched to Makhachkala last autumn to advise President Mukhu Aliyev, numerous observers speculated that he was being groomed by Medvedev to replace Aliyev. Medvedev and Abdullayev are known to one another from their time as students in the faculty of law in St. Petersburg University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Medvedev’s chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, was reportedly a strong advocate of Abdullayev’s candidacy.
Abdullayev’s supporters highlighted his independence from the clan system that underpins Dagestan’s political structure. As an ‘outsider’, it was argued, Abdullayev would be well positioned to mediate among Dagestan’s competing clans as an honest broker. Other political commentators cast doubt on the suitability of Abdullayev’s candidacy, however, pointing out that a career spent entirely in the cloistered world of academia did not in any way prepare him for the ruthless nature of Dagestani politics.
Ultimately, it was this lack of managerial experience, not any deficit of high-level political support in Moscow, which caused him to be overlooked in favour of Magomedov. Mukhu Aliyev was also on Gryzlov’s list but was evidently not the Kremlin’s preferred choice. Aliyev, it would seem, had damaged his prospects of securing a second term by resisting Moscow’s appointment of an ethnic Russian as the republic’s chief tax inspector early last year. Aliyev had also reportedly quarrelled with a senior member of the Russian cabinet and had failed to prevent the embarrassing debacle surrounding the municipal elections in Derbent last October. Even so, there was speculation that the Kremlin, concerned about Abdullayev’s inexperience, might turn to Aliyev as a compromise candidate. Instead, Medvedev opted for another compromise candidate, Magomedsalam Magomedov, holder of a PhD in Economics and a former speaker of Dagestan’s Peoples Assembly. But how strong are Magomedov’s credentials for this post and what challenges will he face in his capacity as president?
IMPLICATIONS: Magomedov’s appointment will affect the ethno-political balance of Dagestan’s political system. Whereas Aliyev was an ethnic Avar, Dagestan’s largest ethnic group, the 45-year old Magomedov is an ethnic Dargin. Under Aliyev, the role of chairman of the People’s Assembly was given to a Dargin, while the post of prime minister was delegated to an ethnic Kumyk. Because it would be unacceptable to other ethnic constituencies to have representatives of the Dargin community occupying the two senior-most political positions in the republic, the role of parliamentary speaker will be assigned to a politician of a different ethnic heritage, most likely an Avar.
In this context, it should be noted that Magomed Abdullayev is an ethnic Avar; although managing Dagestan’s fractious, poly-ethnic parliament is arguably a more burdensome task than fulfilling the role of president. This is not to trivialize the job facing President Magomedov. Apart from Dagestan’s underperforming economy, Magomedov is faced with a rebel insurgency that is becoming increasingly assertive.
On January 6 a suicide bomber killed seven policemen and injured twenty in an attack on a traffic police station in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital city. ‘They should simply be eliminated,’ said President Medvedev, referring to the perpetrators of such attacks, ‘it [the process of elimination] should be done firmly and systematically, that is to say regularly… because underground banditry, unfortunately, still exists.’
Led by the so-called ‘Jamaat Sharia’, an organization which fights under the banner of Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, rebel forces have consistently targeted representatives of the pro-Moscow administration, including policemen and politicians. Indeed, there has been a marked escalation in rebel activity in recent months as Dagestan’s elite found itself preoccupied with the prolonged presidential contest. Magomedov will also be faced with a particularly tense situation in the Caspian port city of Derbent.
In October 2009 an election to choose the mayor of Derbent degenerated into a dangerous standoff between the supporters of two rival candidates amid accusations of intimidation and electoral fraud. The principals in this ongoing controversy are Felix Kaziahmedov, mayor of Derbent since 2000, and Imam Yaraliyev, a former prosecutor general of Dagestan. Both are etnhic Lezgins. Yaraliyev cried foul on the day of the election when electoral officials failed to turn up at fourteen of the thirty-six designated polling stations.
There were also reports of police using intimidation and violence to deter citizens from voting. Although Kaziahmedov was declared the winner, Dagestani courts have annulled the results of the election – a decision publicly welcomed by Medvedev – and fresh elections are scheduled for October 2010. Resolving this standoff will be a priority for President Magomedov. However, such is the animus between Kaziahmedov and Yaraliyev that the president will be obliged to bring all his reported powers of conciliation to bear in order to defuse this row.
CONCLUSIONS: Magomedsalam Magomedov stands at the head of one of the most powerful clans in Dagestan. His father’s legacy gives him access to an abundance of contacts that extend to representatives of every ethnic constituency at every level of Dagestani politics. These contacts will serve him well in his efforts to preserve the republic’s precarious ethno-political balance. However, it is difficult to dispel the impression that Magomedov is not the Kremlin’s ideal choice to lead the republic. The rapid political advancement of Magomed Abdullayev since his return to Dagestan in 2009, coupled with the impressive list of Moscow power-brokers reputed to be well-disposed toward him, suggest that Abdullayev’s candidacy was the subject of serious deliberation in the Kremlin.
In the final analysis, it was probably Abdullayev’s lack of political experience that militated against him; entrusting this strategically significant republic to someone so inexperienced was deemed to be too great a risk – at least for now. A spell in the speaker’s chair, or perhaps in some prominent government post, would raise Abdullayev’s profile and broaden his political experience. Come the end of Magomedov’s first term, perhaps Abdullayev, still only 48, will represent a more realistic presidential contender in the eyes of his countrymen.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.