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Daghestan's Derbent Debacle


The city of Derbent has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and may be 5,000 years old.

The city of Derbent has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and may be 5,000 years old.

The ongoing preparations to celebrate in September 2015 the 2,000th anniversary of the Caspian town of Derbent constitute a classic example of the late Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's aphorism: "We wanted the best possible, but it turned out the way it always does."

Not only is the work of restoring and renovating the oldest parts of the town, which UNESCO has designated a World Heritage Site, and upgrading infrastructure so far behind schedule that the Russian government has decided to stagger the celebrations over a period of three years; the Republic of Daghestan leadership is on collision course with Derbent's Council of Elders over its efforts to oust Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliyev.

Caucasus Knot quoted unnamed analysts as suspecting the efforts to discredit and replace Yaraliyev, a trained lawyer who served as Daghestan's prosecutor-general from 1995-2006, are part of a struggle, presumably between rival groups within the government, to wrest control of the funds allocated by Moscow for the jubilee celebration.

The planned jubilee has proven controversial from the outset. According to UNESCO, the site of the present-day town (population 120,000) has been inhabited for 5,000 years, and in 2010, Yaraliyev first proposed celebrating Derbent's 5,000th anniversary. But local scholars who adduced archaeological evidence substantiating that proposal were sidelined by a rival clique who persuaded the Russian Academy of Sciences that the figure of 2,000 years was more accurate.

On the basis of what one of the scholars involved called that "political decision," dictated in all likelihood by the fact that Derbent -- the oldest town in the Russian Federation -- was not founded by proto-Slavs, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree in November 2012 scheduling the 2,000th-anniversary celebration.

Who Will Pay?

Very little appears to have been done in the way of preparations for the jubilee prior to early 2014, possibly because it was only in September 2013 that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree allocating 1.7 billion rubles ($25.59 million) in funding to finance the jubilee celebrations. Of that total, 1.2 billion rubles was to come from the federal budget, with the Republic of Daghestan providing the balance. In addition, several major Daghestani or Daghestani-owned companies undertook to finance improvements to infrastructure, as did one company from neighboring Azerbaijan.

The lion's share of the funding, 616 million rubles, was earmarked for the restoration of historic buildings, including the Naryn-Kala fortress and citadel and the parallel defense walls enclosing the old town that are believed to date from the fifth-sixth century A.D.

Little has been done to repair the walls of the Naryn-Kala citadel.

Little has been done to repair the walls of the Naryn-Kala citadel.

During the first seven months of 2014, Daghestan's Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov travelled six times to Derbent to review the preparations. He acknowledged in January 2014 that none of the federal funds allocated for funding the jubilee had yet been received in Makhachkala, but urged local officials to start work using money from the republican budget. But during Gamidov's next visit in March, Mayor Yaraliyev warned him that the situation was "critical," as "numerous pressing issues have not been addressed."

In mid-April, Daghestan's young and energetic economy and regional development minister, Rayuddin Yusufov, admitted the federal funding had still not been disbursed. Yusufov nonetheless expressed confidence that the work would be completed on time.

But independent journalist Magomed Khanmagomedov warned in July 2014 that so little had been done that it might prove necessary to postpone the jubilee celebrations.

And What Will It Be Spent On?

It was only after visits to Derbent by federal Minister for the North Caucasus Lev Kuznetsov in mid-August and presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Sergei Melikov in late September, however, that work really began in earnest. A working group including members of Melikov's staff was established to monitor progress, and identified the most problematic sticking points at its first session, in September. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decree allocating 600 million rubles to be spent by the end of the year. Deciding how those funds were to be spent was the exclusive preserve of the republican government; the municipal authorities simply complied with orders from Makhachkala.

But as before, work was apparently hampered by a lack of consensus over which should take priority: renovating the historic citadel and defense walls, on the one hand, or urgently needed infrastructure projects. The latter include construction of an additional school building, given that some of Derbent's schools still function in three shifts, and providing the population with round-the-clock water supplies.

At some point in late fall, the Daghestani leadership proposed to Moscow extending the jubilee celebration, and the planned construction projects, by a period of over two years, until the end of 2017. Addressing a meeting of federal and Daghestani officials in Moscow on February 3, Melikov cited as the rationale for that decision the fact that the funds made available so far were not adequate, and the Daghestani leadership "is not ready to spend those funds rationally." Kuznetsov announced at that meeting that his ministry and Melikov's staff had assumed responsibility for coordinating the jubilee preparations.

Baku Butts In

Other factors too, however, may have been in play. The first concerns the contribution by neighboring Azerbaijan, which according to Khanmagomedov offered to invest up to 20 billion rubles in Derbent (i.e. more than 10 times the amount originally allocated by Moscow for financing the jubilee celebrations). Specifically, Azerbaijan's Ata Holding Group undertook to finance reconstruction of a street in Derbent controversially renamed in 2013 after Azerbaijan's late president, Heidar Aliyev, and the building of an Olympic sports complex, a shopping center, and a museum.

Milrad Fatullayev, editor of the weekly "Nastoyashchee vremya," told the news agency Caucasus Knot the Daghestani leadership wanted the sports facilities built in Makhachkala and Izberbash, rather than Derbent. Both the Azerbaijani side and the Derbent authorities protested, however, and work was suspended.

A second account claims that the site selected for the sports complex was the Nizami park in the old town, which is subject to a conservation order that precludes any such redevelopment. After a bulldozer brought in to clear the site damaged an ancient burial place, Ata Holding Group demanded from the Daghestani leadership written permission to continue construction that the latter was reluctant to supply. As a result, work was suspended, and the offer of funding was withdrawn.

Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliev

Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliev

Work on restoring the historic fortress and walls has proven similarly problematic. The fortifications have reportedly been damaged over the years by the systematic theft of the original stonework for construction purposes.

Visiting Derbent in August, Minister for the North Caucasus Kuznetsov stressed the need to "preserve the architectural style of the town." For that reason, Kuznetsov continued, "all new construction should be carried out strictly within the framework of the law and in accordance with the existing unique architecture."

Khanmagomedov nonetheless claims that rather than use local sand and other construction materials, the Daghestani authorities are purchasing them at inflated prices from firms owned by their cronies and splitting the profit. That the republic's leadership is indeed using substandard and inappropriate materials for reconstruction work is implied by Melikov's comment late last month about "numerous complaints that the work being carried out with the materials at hand could seriously damage historic monuments."

Yaraliyev Under Fire

Over the past month, the tensions generated by the need to complete at least the most important building work by mid-September have been compounded by a standoff between Yaraliyev and the republic's leadership. Availing himself of legislation passed by Daghestan's National Assembly in September 2014 abolishing direct elections for the heads of municipalities, Yaraliyev resigned as mayor in mid-January and immediately contrived his reelection by the municipal council for a further five-year term. Visiting Derbent with fellow North Caucasus republic heads the following day, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov reportedly made clear his displeasure at Yaraliyev's reelection.

Officials from the Interior Ministry's Economic Security Division and the Federal Security Service (FSB) responded by conducting a search of the town hall and confiscating papers. Two weeks later, the republican prosecutor's office announced that the municipal authorities had violated legislation on the sale of state-owned land, inflicting 36 million rubles' worth of damage to the republic's budget. A criminal case has since been opened against Yaraliyev on suspicion of exceeding his authority, but he has not yet been formally charged.

A second senior municipal official, municipal council Chairman Mavsum Ragimov, an Azerbaijani who supports Yaraliyev, was summoned to Makhachkala last week and pressured to resign. Former Justice Minister Azadi Ragimov (no relation), also an Azerbaijani, has been named acting chairman in his place. Abdulatipov tried unsuccessfully last year to engineer Azadi Ragimov's appointment as head of Derbent Raion in place of incumbent Kurban Kurbanov.

Meanwhile, meeting on February 11, some 200 members of the Councils of Elders of Derbent's three largest ethnic groups (Lezgins, Azerbaijanis and Tabasarans) decided to address a formal request to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, and North Caucasus Federal District head Melikov to rule on the legality of the criminal case opened against Yaraliyev.

Melikov, like Yaraliyev, is a Lezgin. Whether he would stand up for his co-ethnic against unwarranted persecution by the Daghestani authorities is questionable, however. Although some analysts say relations between Melikov and Abdulatipov are strained, Melikov has dismissed as risible and without foundation persistent rumors that Moscow views him as a possible replacement for Abdulatipov.

-- Liz Fuller

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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