BACKGROUND: Moscow’s new envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, was appointed in May, 2014. Though Melikov’s responsibilities included seven territories in the North Caucasian Federal District, it was clear from the outset that the new official would focus primarily on Dagestan. This easternmost republic in the Russian North Caucasus has been the most volatile in the past years, accounting for the majority of casualties in insurgency-related violence. Dagestan with its population of about 3 million is the largest territory in the North Caucasus. The republic is made up of numerous ethnic groups and is predominantly Muslim.
Dagestan’s deteriorating security situation forced Moscow to replace the republic’s Head, Magomedsalam Magomedov, with the Moscow-based politician of Dagestani origin and Soviet era functionary Abdulatipov in January 2013. Magomedov managed to survive in office only for three years from February 2010 to January 2013, when he unexpectedly resigned. Abdulatipov proclaimed fighting corruption in Dagestan as one of his primary goals. The flamboyant leader sacked and sidelined numerous officials, including the Dagestani heavyweight politician and mayor of Makhachkala Said Amirov. However, it appeared over time that Abdulatipov either replaced the old corrupt elites with new corrupt officials or simply shuffled the same cohort of bureaucrats.
Dagestan’s complex ethnic composition gives an ethnic color to all political moves in the republic. For example, Abdulatipov is an ethnic Avar, the largest ethnic group in the republic and his predecessor Magomedov was an ethnic Dargin, the second largest ethnic group in Dagestan. Incidentally, Moscow’s new envoy Melikov is an ethnic Lezgin, the fourth largest ethnic group of Dagestan, numbering close to 400,000 in the republic. Lezgins reside in the southern part of Dagestan, in the city of Derbent and surrounding territories. A significant number of Lezgins also reside across the border, in northern Azerbaijan.
Ongoing frictions between Dagestan’s different ethnic groups have likely affected the relations between Melikov and Abdulatipov. Melikov has publicly criticized the Moscow-appointed Dagestani government for failing to contain the insurgency, which is unusual for Russian officials. Melikov’s statements indicate that the Russian government is losing patience with Abdulatipov’s experiments in Dagestan.
IMPLICATIONS: Domestically in the republic, the Dagestani branch of the Just Russia party (Spravedlivaya Rossiya) held a conference in Makhachkala in late September and called for drastic steps to oust Abdulatipov from office. The party members considered mass protests and hunger strikes, but eventually settled on sending a letter to Moscow, demanding to dismiss Abdulatipov. If the Russian leadership does not provide a “satisfactory” response within a month, the participants of the conference said, they would “start taking measures of their own.” While the Just Russia party is normally considered to constitute a puppet party created by the Kremlin, in unstable and polarized Dagestan the local party branch fiercely opposes the governor and is considered to be one of the most flamboyant opposition forces.
Dissatisfaction with the security situation and abuses by government forces have spread across Dagestan’s political spectrum. The village of Gimry in Dagestan’s Untsukul district is perhaps the epitome of the republic’s persistent instability. The village with a population of about 4,500 has seen multiple counterterrorist operations in the past several years and even a partial relocation to the new shantytown Vremenny (Temporary). On occasion, the authorities have forgotten to cancel counterterrorism operation regimes already in force before reintroducing new ones. The government has used both collective punishment tactics and offered material incentives to locals in the area, but with few results so far. On October 19, government forces started to install barbed wire around the rebellious village. On October 22, the village was sealed off and no journalists are allowed into the area.
The Gimry tunnel was shut down on September 18, officially for five days in connection with a counterterrorist operation, but has not yet been reopened. The four kilometer tunnel is the longest road tunnel in Russia, connecting Dagestan’s mountainous areas and lowlands. It appears that the tunnel was closed not for preventing infiltration of militants, but rather to collectively punish the residents of Gimry and surrounding villages. Between October 2 and 8, government forces boasted of killing a total of ten militants in the village of Vremenny and the Shamilsky district.
Despite eliminating a numbers of suspected militants within just one week, no expert hails this as a great achievement that will have a lasting positive effect on the security situation in Dagestan. The reason for such pessimism is that there is very little information on who exactly was killed or what their role in the insurgency was. The killed individuals may not even have been members of the insurgency. On October 16, government forces killed Ramis Mirzakhanov, a deputy of the local district council in Tabasaran district in southern Dagestan, initially claiming that Mirzakhanov attacked the government forces. Independent investigators, however, said his death was unprovoked.
The government forces’ violence against suspected insurgents in Dagestan is not targeted, but rather designed to instill terror in the population. Hence, even the elimination of dozens of suspects does little to improve the situation in the republic. The organizer of Just Russia’s conference in Dagestan, Ruslan Rasulov said, “despite the fact that the police has intensified its fight against the extremist underground, the situation does not improve. Regular mass arrests of Muslims, closure of [Muslim] daycares and schools, restricted access to mosques and compiling secret lists of Salafis have the opposite effect.”
CONCLUSIONS: As the Dagestani population and elites become increasingly disappointed with governor Abdulatipov, they have started to seek an intervention from Moscow to change the regime in the republic. Abdulatipov has been in office for less than two years and the Russian leadership probably does not want to give the impression of haphazard decision-making by removing him now. Moscow’s reluctance to replace Abdulatipov is already causing some Dagestani activists to blame the situation in the republic on the central government. Instead of dismissing its protégé in Makhachkala, Moscow appears to have created a parallel power center by appointing Melikov to correct and counterbalance Abdulatipov. The bureaucratic balancing, however, is already producing friction between the two men and does little to resolve the republic’s problems. Given the blurred boundaries between the responsibilities of the officials and ethnic rivalry, the conflict between the two overseers of Moscow’s policy in Dagestan will likely intensify over time.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.
(Image Attribution: the Presidential Press and Information Office, via kremlin.ru)