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Daghestan: Anatomy Of A Permanent Crisis

  • Liz Fuller --> Of all the latent crises engendered by Moscow's failure over the past 13 years to craft a long-term comprehensive strategy for the North Caucasus, the one now threatening to erupt in Daghestan is arguably both the most complex and the most intractable. Even though Daghestan has been a byword for instability and political violence ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in recent months bomb attacks and political killings have become almost a daily occurrence.

Nor is there a single overriding cause for the spiraling violence. On the contrary, it is fuelled partly by interethnic rivalries that are reflected in competition for political power and economic resources, partly by corruption, high unemployment, and low living standards, and partly by the subversive antigovernment activities of groups of militants, some of whom operate in the name of radical Islam, and who are believed to act in collaboration with the Chechen resistance.

Part of the problem derives from Daghestan's complex ethnic makeup. With a total population of 2,149,000, Daghestan is home to some 50 different nationalities, of which 14 have the status of titular nationalities. They are the Avars (28 percent), Dargins (15.5 percent), Kumyks (12.9 percent), Lezgins (11.5 percent), Russians, Laks, Tabasarans, Azeris, Chechens, Nogais, Tats, Rutuls, Agurs, and Tsakhurs.

In an attempt to ensure the broadest possible representation of those ethnic groups in government, and to preclude the concentration of political power in the hands of one single ethnic group, the post-Soviet constitution adopted in 1993 provided for a collective presidency in the form of the State Council. That body comprises 14 members, one from each of the 14 titular nationalities, and was initially elected by the 242-member Constitutional Assembly.

When the State Council was elected in 1994, it was intended that the chairmanship should rotate among the 14 members. In practice, however, Magomedali Magomedov, the last Soviet-era chairman of the Daghestan Oblast Soviet, was elected State Council chairman in 1994 and has occupied that post ever since.

The article of Daghestan's constitution stipulating that members of one and the same ethnic group may not serve two successive terms as State Council chairman was abolished in 1998 to permit Magomedov, who is a Dargin, to be reelected. To counter the influence of the Dargins in the person of Magomedov, a Kumyk was named prime minister and an Avar parliament speaker.

As part of the campaign to iron out contradictions between federal and republican legislation, Daghestan's constitution was amended in July 2003 to provide for direct presidential elections on the expiry in June 2006 of Magomedov's third presidential term. But that provision has now been rendered obsolete by the passage late last year at Russian President Vladimir Putin's behest of a constitutional amendment abolishing elections for the heads of federation subjects.

It was rumored that Magomedov might announce his early retirement last month on the occasion of his 75th birthday, but presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak, who attended the birthday celebrations, dismissed those rumors as misplaced and assured journalists that Magomedov will serve out his complete term, according to "Izvestiya" on 1 July.

Some observers, however, have interpreted Kozak's disclaimer as meaning that either Moscow is reluctant to risk compounding tensions by removing Magomedov at this juncture, or that the Kremlin has not yet decided who should replace him. That choice is complicated by the need to decide whether to risk exacerbating the resentment of other ethnic groups by appointing another Dargin, in which case the front-runner would appear to be Makhachkala Mayor and former Deputy Prime Minister Said Amirov, or whether to opt for a member of another nationality.

"Gazeta" on 9 June listed as the most likely candidates People's Assembly Chairman Mukhu Aliev; Makhachkala port authority head Abusupyan Kharkharov; former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov (who was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 14 August 2004 as saying that he would "definitely" run for the post, but is now out of the running by virtue of his recent appointment as Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan); and Duma Deputy Akhmed Bilarov (all of whom are Avars), together with Deputy Prosecutor-General Sabir Kekhlerov (a Lezgin). "Gazeta" ruled out Duma Deputy and Daghneft head Gadzhi Makhachev (an Avar) as a dyed-in-the-wool populist and quoted Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center as having identified Aliev as the most probable choice, given that he is both "loyal to Moscow and acceptable to Magomedov."

"Izvestiya" on 15 June published a very similar list of possible presidential candidates, but rated Makhachev's chances more highly, and also included Dagenergo CEO Gamzat Gamzatov and Nikolai Gryaznov, head of the Daghestan branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 10 June identified Kekhlerov as "the only acceptable candidate" by virtue of his imputed ability to launch a sweeping and effective crackdown on crime and corruption.

Selecting Aliev as president could conceivably split the Avar community by sidelining prominent Avar oppositionist Saidpasha Umakhanov, the mayor of Khasavyurt, Daghestan's second-largest town. Umakhanov narrowly escaped dismissal last summer after thousands of people attended a protest demonstration in Khasavyurt to call for Magomedov's resignation. He has since emerged as head of the so-called Northern Alliance, which is the most cohesive Avar opposition to the Dargin political elite, and with which Makhachev too has aligned himself, according to "Izvestiya" on 1 July.

As elsewhere in the former USSR, the struggle for political power in Daghestan is not an end in itself but viewed as the key to personal enrichment. "Izvestiya" on 1 July and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 7 July both quoted parliament Chairman Aliev as admitting that any official position in Daghestan can be purchased if one is prepared to pay the appropriate bribe. According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 7 July, a job as a rank-and-file policeman costs between $3,000-$5,000, the post of head of a raion administration $150,000, and a ministerial portfolio between $450,000-$500,000.

Insofar as the population of Daghestan identify themselves first and foremost in terms of ethnicity, rivalries between the various ethnic groups have led to the emergence of ethnic-based economic mafia interest groups engaged in a bitter competition for political power and economic gain -- both in the form of money from the federal budget and a share in extracting and exporting such lucrative commodities as oil and caviar. Then Russian First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov sounded the alarm over such economically motivated inter-clan fighting as early as November 1998.

Even though violence and political assassinations in Daghestan are by no means a recent phenomenon, the incidence of such attacks has risen sharply over the past 18 months, from 40 in the whole of 2003 to 40 in the first six months of 2004 and 80 in the first six months of 2005.

While mafia warfare may be the cause of some of the high-profile political killings of government officials in Daghestan over the past decade, other killings do not fit that pattern. Of the 80 killings or attempted killings reported so far this year, approximately half took place in Makhachkala, with Khasavyurt in second place, and almost 30 of the victims were police officers, predominantly members of the Interior Ministry subdivision tasked with countering religious extremism, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 12 May.

The perpetrators of those killings may be members of the various militant djamaats, such as the Shariat Djamaat targeted in a police operation in Makhachkala last week. Those groupings reportedly have little problem in recruiting new members from among the republic's tens of thousands of unemployed young men. But in light of rumors that Umakhanov is sympathetic to "Wahhabism," it is not inconceivable that his political enemies might deliberately target anti-religious-extremist police in Khasavyurt to discredit him by seemingly fuelling those rumors.

Senior officials in Moscow and Makhachkala have offered diverging opinions on the nature and causes of the growing wave of violence. Mukhu Aliev was quoted by "Izvestiya" on 1 July as blaming it on "external forces," meaning the Islamic radicals grouped around Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev who launched the incursion into Daghestan in August 1999 that led to the current war in Chechnya. Aliev said those "external forces" operate in conjunction with unnamed people in Daghestan "with huge ambitions and a lot of money, [who] are striving to seize power."

Anatolii Safonov, who is President Putin's special representative for the struggle with terrorism and organized crime, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in an interview published on 16 June that while the situation in Daghestan is complex, the main destabilizing factor is external, in the form of a putative alliance between Chechen militant groups and "international terrorism." At the same time, Safonov conceded that a differentiated approach is needed to tackling the problems Daghestan poses.

But Dmitrii Oreshkin of the Mercator Group told the same paper on 30 June, apropos of the killing two days earlier of political analyst and Magomedov supporter Zagid Varisov, that he is "not convinced" that the recent wave of killings "is 'terrorism' in the traditional sense of the word." Oreshkin added that the killing of Varisov is part of an ongoing trend of violence that "plays into the hands" of those who seek to combat violence with more violence.

That is something that Moscow appears unwilling to do -- yet. But hesitation to act swiftly and decisively either in the political sphere (by expediting the appointment of a new leader) or by deploying more Interior Ministry forces to the republic to restore order could embolden either the djamaats or one of the ethnic-based political forces to try to force a solution -- as the Khachilaev brothers did by mobilizing their predominantly Lak supporters to storm the government building in Makhachkala seven years ago.

Former FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, now a State Duma deputy, commented on 7 July that the deteriorating situation in Daghestan, which he attributed to unspecified "mistakes in political decision making," requires "fundamental and radical efforts at the federal level," rather than the dismissal of several Makhachkala police chiefs, which was how the city responded to the bomb attack on 1 July that killed 10 of the Russian special forces deployed to Daghestan in June in a bid to stem the ongoing violence. (The Shariat Djamaat claimed responsibility for that bombing.)

Failure by Moscow to take decisive action also raises the possibility -- which has already been registered with alarm in Baku -- of "spillover" into Azerbaijan. Widespread destabilization and the concomitant breakdown of law and order in Daghestan could fuel a resurgence of irredentism among the Lezgins of Daghestan, who in the early 1990s campaigned for the creation of a separate republic on their traditional territory, which straddles the frontier between Daghestan and Azerbaijan.