BACKGROUND: At a republican government meeting in November, President Abdulatipov made an unexpected statement about the possible establishment of four administrative areas within Dagestan. Abdulatipov quickly followed up on his vision of the administrative changes with a decree signed on November 25, several days after his statement. The decree established the Central, Northern, Southern and Mountainous districts in Dagestan. Each of the districts will have a plenipotentiary representative of the president of Dagestan. Several observers immediately highlighted the risk that the administrative reform could provide an incentive for disintegration in this multiethnic republic.
Rasul Kadiev, a member of the human rights council before the President of Russia, told Gazeta.ru that the equal representation of ethnic groups would be a major concern for the residents of the newly created districts. “The introduction of districts and positions of plenipotentiary representatives has galvanized everyone. I have not yet heard anyone speaking positively of this idea,” Kadiev warned.
Dagestan is currently divided into 52 municipal territories, including 10 cities. The smallest municipality, Bezhtinsky Uchastok, is an area at the border between Dagestan and Georgia, with a population of slightly more than 7,000 people. The largest municipality is the republic's capital Makhachkala, with a population of over 500,000. Dagestan is the largest and ethnically most diverse republic of the North Caucasus.
Its total population, according to 2010 census, was about 3 million people. Avars, the largest ethnic group of the republic, comprise just below 30 percent of the population. Dargins come second at 17 percent, followed by Kumyks at 15 percent, Lezgins at 13 percent and so on. Similar to other North Caucasian republics, the percentage of ethnic Russians in Dagestan has dropped significantly in the past several decades and was estimated at below 4 percent in 2010. Half of Dagestan’s municipal territories are nearly mono-ethnic and the other half has a mixture of various ethnic groups.
One of the primary concerns for Dagestan's government is the high and unswerving volatility of the republic. In 2012, out of 700 estimated victims of the conflict in the North Caucasus, more than 400 people were killed in Dagestan. In the first 9 months of 2013, an estimated 239 people were killed in the republic out of the total 375 across the North Caucasus. Dagestan’s current president Abdulatipov considers clans and corruption to be the primary causes of the republic’s economic backwardness and the related radicalization of youth and insurgency. Breaking up the administrative borders and the virtual borders of clan networks is apparently the republican leadership's primary objective.
Besides the insurgency-related violence, numerous ethnic tensions are brewing on micro and macro levels in Dagestan. The tension between lowland and highland residents of is one of the best known and ongoing trends. Kumyks, a Turkic-speaking nation, traditionally inhabited much of the lowlands. However, highlanders such as Avars and Dargins have gradually carved out large areas in the Dagestan lowlands for themselves, rendering the Kumyks a minority in many of their traditional areas of settlement. At the same time, smaller ethnic groups, such as Nogais and Laks have voiced concerns of becoming sidelined by the larger ethnic groups and sought separate autonomies for themselves.
IMPLICATIONS: With Dagestan's new administrative division, some ethnic groups will become more concentrated within the four districts, while others will become more scattered. Hence, the most disadvantaged groups may revive their demands for separate ethnic autonomies. Such demands have been especially strong among Nogais settled in northern Dagestan, in the neighboring Stavropol region, Chechnya and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Some Dargins point to an attempt by the authorities to distribute their ethnic group evenly among the four newly created districts, so that they cannot form strong horizontal ties.
Abdulatipov himself explained the purpose of Dagestan's new administrative layer by the need for an improved flow of information. He also dismissed the claim that the republic's new make-up would pose a danger of disintegration. “This is one of the tools for integrating Dagestan, affirming the republic's unity through taking into account local and regional interests,” Dagestan's president defended his decision.
Enver Kisriev, a well-known Dagestani academic based in Moscow, told Gazeta.ru that the government’s objective to control every aspect of social life in the republic was misplaced and dangerous. “[The authorities’] meddling in local affairs is one of the primary factors of instability in the republic. Self-governance should be stimulated with regard to all issues that are not of concern to the entire state. But [self-governance] is impossible in a rigid, pyramid-like structure that was formed by Moscow and impinges upon the lowest [administrative] level, demanding full accountability from top to bottom. The latest decision will be yet another blow [to stability],” Kisriev concluded.
After coming to power in Dagestan at the beginning of 2013, Abdulatipov soon launched a campaign against corrupt officials in the republic. Corruption was often found at municipal level. The arrest of Said Amirov, Makhachkala’s mayor and one of the most powerful politicians in the republic, in June 2013 became the most notorious case. Many other municipal officials fell as the new head of the republic sought to implement sweeping changes. However, Abdulatipov’s decision to create another level of administrative control between the republic authorities and the municipalities indicates that his anti-corruption campaign did not reach the intended results.
Abdulatipov was hailed as the first Dagestani leader in many years that was not marred by connections to the powerful corrupt clans in the republic. However, the new leader’s disconnection from regional life also meant that he was unable to compose a team of reformers. Moscow further undermined Abdulatipov’s credibility in the republic as he was appointed by the president of Russia last September, rather than elected through popular vote. Given his relatively modest support base in such a complex republic as Dagestan and his limited mandate from the central government, Abdulatipov is now forced to improvise to maintain some visibility for his reforms and administrative efficiency.
It has been pointed out that despite Abdulatipov’s attempts to emulate Chechnya's ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, he has not been able to repeat his neighbor’s success in controlling the republic and receiving unconditional support from Moscow. Apart from Dagestan's complexity that prevents Abdulatipov from becoming Dagestan’s Kadyrov, Moscow is also disinclined to grant yet another head of a North Caucasian republic as much power as it ceded to Chechnya’s strongman.
CONCLUSIONS: Given Moscow’s reluctance to grant the North Caucasian republics the right to elect their governors through direct popular elections, administrative reshuffles remain one of the few avenues open to the republican leader for resolving existing problems in the region. In Dagestan, however, the proposed division lines may harden over time and the republic may experience another round of secessionist demands. Changes in the republican administration reflect the government’s inability to normalize the situation in Dagestan within the existing rigid political framework. Moscow neither wants to extend popular voting rights to the North Caucasian republics, nor does it want to repeat the Chechen experience of granting virtually unlimited powers to the regional governor. Haphazard measures taken by the republican government to resolve Dagestan's problem of volatility are likely to result in continuing challenges to the security situation in this republic.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.