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Ramzan Kadyrov's Trojan Horse

  • Liz Fuller

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and former wrestler Buivaisar Saitiyev watch a boxing match in Grozny in March.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and former wrestler Buivaisar Saitiyev watch a boxing match in Grozny in March.

It is no secret that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has long considered Daghestan's Khasavyurt district that borders on Chechnya part of his bailiwick. Two recent interlinked moves are clearly intended to strengthen his influence not only in Khasavyurt, but elsewhere in Daghestan.

Both involve Buvaisar Saitiyev, 41, a Khasavyurt-born Chechen and three-time Olympic freestyle-wrestling champion who for many years was regarded as a possible candidate for the post of mayor of the town of Khasavyurt. Khasavyurt is the second-largest town in Daghestan, with a population of 140,000, of whom some 40,000 are Chechens. Chechens are the ninth-largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups; at the time of the 2010 federal census they numbered 93,658.

Saitiyev is already an adviser to Kadyrov, whom he described in an extensive interview four years ago as "a genuine Muslim" and "one of the few regional leaders who sincerely loves his people and does all he can to promote their well-being." Kadyrov has been equally unstinting in his praise of Saitiyev, whom he characterized as "an exceptionally devout and decent person with a pure soul and intentions."

Saitiyev has now also been named an adviser to Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov -- even though it is not clear, as one blogger has pointed out, whether Russian law permits one person to serve simultaneously as adviser to two federation-subject heads.

In addition, Saitiyev is seventh on the list of candidates from the ruling United Russia party seeking to represent Daghestan in the Russian State Duma elections in September.

Saitiyev retired from wrestling in 2009, and subsequently served from 2010-11 as an adviser on sport and youth affairs to Aleksandr Khloponin, whom then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had named in January 2010 as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. The two men were already acquainted: Khloponin had previously served for eight years as governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, where Saitiyev had lived since 1992.

Saitiyev has hinted that he found his role on Khloponin's staff frustrating, given that its duties were primarily to monitor and make recommendations; it had no executive power. He admitted that "I realized clearly that I'm not cut out to be a state functionary," and that he did not enjoy having to spend nine hours a day sitting at a desk.

It is thus unclear what kind of leverage or incentives underpin Kadyrov's installation of Saitiyev as what amounts to his personal lobbyist within the Republic of Daghestan leadership.

Unlucky Laks

Saitiyev's initial tasks in that capacity will center on defending the interests of Daghestan's Chechen community.

The first is expediting the resettlement from the Novolak district in the extreme northwest of Daghestan of the Laks who were forcibly relocated there following the deportation to Central Asia in 1944 of the district's Chechen population. In 1991, following the adoption by the Russian parliament of legislation on the rehabilitation of those ethnic groups deported or otherwise repressed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the Daghestani leadership launched plans to move the unfortunate Laks once again, this time to swampy coastal lowlands north of Makhachkala.

That program is way behind schedule, for a combination of reasons, including lack of funding, the abysmal quality of the new housing, and the lack of infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities, and the reluctance of many Laks to abandon a region where they have put down roots and currently derive a decent livelihood from agriculture. The tract of land earmarked for building new homes for the Laks is unsuitable for agriculture and there is no alternative employment. What is more, the Kumyks, Daghestan's third-most-numerous ethnic group, have staked a rival claim to that territory.

Rayudin Yusufov, a Daghestani deputy prime minister and himself a Lak, has said the resettlement of the Laks must be completed by 2018. But the 3,341 Chechen families impatient to move into the Laks' vacated homes are increasingly unwilling to wait any longer. In recent years, they have staged repeated mass demonstrations to demand the swifter and more effective implementation by the Daghestani government of the proposed measures to enable them to return to Novolak, which will ultimately revert to its former Chechen name of Aukhovsky district.

The Chechens have also successfully demanded the creation of a special working group to investigate their complaints that land plots in four formerly Chechen-populated villages are being sold off illegally.

The second priority is to engineer the election as Khasavyurt town mayor of a candidate acceptable to Kadyrov. Longtime Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov, whom Kadyrov in 2014 publicly branded "a bandit" and accused of colluding with the North Caucasus insurgency, was forced to step down in August but managed to install Zaynudin Okmazov, one of his loyal supporters, as his successor. Initially Saitiyev was identified as Kadyrov's preferred candidate, but his election as mayor was technically impossible given that he was not a member of the municipal council.

Kadyrov's agenda in Daghestan may in addition include a more far-reaching and controversial issue, to which Saitiyev alluded in his interview four years ago. He claimed that in 1991, Avar, Chechen, and Lak clerics had reached agreement that the border between Chechnya and Daghestan's Novolak/Aukhovsky district should be moved to where it ran in the 19th century under Imam Shamil, who spearheaded the Caucasians' resistance to the Tsarist Russian conquest. That would entail handing over a tract of what is currently Daghestani territory to Chechnya.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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