Dzasokhov said the decision was motivated by his belief that North Ossetia needs a younger leader.
“I’m pretty sure I've made the right decision," Dzasokhov said. "It is extremely important that we open the way to a younger generation. We should sometimes look at ourselves with hindsight. We would then see that following us is a generation of politically mature and well-prepared people.”
Under Russian law, Putin has 14 days to nominate a replacement from among the three candidates Kozak identified by name on 31 May. The most prominent prospect is 54-year-old parliamentary speaker Taimuraz Mamsurov, a longtime ally of Dzasokhov and the leader of the regional branch of Unified Russia, Putin’s power base.
Officially, North Ossetia’s lawmakers can reject the Russian president’s choice, but that is considered unlikely.
A longtime Communist leader, Dzasokhov first became North Ossetia’s president in 1998. He was reelected three years ago. His current mandate was due to expire at the end of this year.
Dzasokhov claimed he first thought about stepping down well before the September 2004 Beslan hostage crisis that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people, many of whom were schoolchildren.
Accusing Dzasokhov of mishandling the crisis, Beslan residents and regional opposition parties staged street rallies for months, demanding his resignation. In January, protesters blockaded the main highway linking southern Russia to Azerbaijan.
Despite his earlier criticism of Dzasokhov, Putin yesterday denied he had anything to do with the departure of the North Ossetian leader.
But most political commentators believe Dzasokhov did not decide to step down on his own. Russia’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” and “Kommersant” newspapers yesterday quoted unidentified government officials as saying Dzasokhov resigned under direct pressure from Kremlin envoy Kozak.
Both dailies suggested the final decision to dismiss Dzasokhov was reached two months ago after he refused to sign an agreement to facilitate the return to North Ossetia’s Prigorodny district of ethnic Ingush displaced by the 1992 Ossetian-Ingush conflict.
But analysts argue that the Kremlin had many other reasons to replace Dzasokhov -- who was considered loyal but no longer able to manage his small republic.
Vakha Petrov is editor in chief of yufo.ru, an information website specializing in regional affairs based in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. He told RFE/RL that years of economic mismanagement, corruption, and clan politics had long undermined Dzasokhov’s popularity.
“Dzasokhov had long stopped suiting the Kremlin, even before the Beslan events," Petrov said. "His position within the republic had already been weakened, and with Beslan he lost all remnants of legitimacy. His rating then dropped down to 7 percent. You can imagine what this means for the head of a republic, especially in the North Caucasus region, where the situation can explode at any moment. Dzasokhov had lost all legitimacy, and it seems that this is why it had been decided to dismiss him long ago. Simply, the implementation of this decision had been delayed.”
Petrov said he believes the main reason that federal authorities refrained from dismissing Dzasokhov immediately after Beslan is that they did not want to give the impression they were yielding to pressure from the public. He said Kremlin officials feared this might trigger a wave of similar protests in neighboring republics.
Grigorii Shvedov, the editor in chief of Russia’s “Caucasian Knot” information website, said he believes other unpopular regional leaders -- such as Kabardino-Balkariya’s Valerii Kokov, Daghestan’s State Council Chairman Magomedali Magomedov, or Ingushetia’s Murat Zyazikov -- might soon meet a fate similar to Dzasokhov's.
“I believe the [North Ossetian] model will be applied elsewhere," Shvedov said. "The only question is whether the Kremlin has a real plan. The actions of the federal authorities show that they have no strategic development plan for either the North Caucasus or the Southern Federal District as a whole. There is a Russian policy toward Georgia. There are Russian policies toward Armenia and Azerbaijan -- even if they contradict each other. But, aside from a vague idea that we need to combat Wahabbism -- which allegedly embodies terrorism -- we don't know of any clear-cut policy toward the North Caucasus.”
Putin has long indicated he is unhappy with the leaders of the North Caucasus republics.
In a televised interview in 2004, the Russian president castigated the region's leaders, citing as an example a multiple-murder case involving the son-in-law of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s President Mustafa Batdyev and the street protests it had triggered.
“What we have there are regional clans that are vying for influence and trying to use power leverage to settle economic problems and divide up property,” Putin said.
Regional experts appear to support the idea that the decision to replace Dzasokhov stems from Putin’s plans to reinforce the so-called power vertical throughout the North Caucasus area.
Petrov of yufo.ru warned that any attempt at disrupting the balance of power that exists, for example, in Daghestan -- where the regional leader is chosen under a delicate ethnicity-based rotating system -- could foster further destabilization.
“If the head of this republic were to be appointed [by the Kremlin], that would signal the end of the existing system and could create serious problems," Petrov said. "One can even say with a great deal of certainty that that would trigger political tensions that could in turn degenerate into full-scale interethnic unrest. The same thing goes for all republics in the region -- even though it is less of a problem in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, or, to an even lesser extent, in Ingushetia.”
Petrov said the Kremlin, which is reportedly aware of those risks, might play for time and “decide not to decide” -- that is, to not replace other regional leaders in the immediate future.
In the meantime, Dzasokhov suggested a possible way out. The outgoing North Ossetian leader voiced comments on 31 May that sounded like a thinly veiled recommendation to his regional counterparts.
“I am setting a precedent,” he told journalists in Vladikavkaz, adding, “While everyone else is trying to have his mandate extended, I decided to shorten mine.”