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Russia: Dagestan Gears Up For Parliamentary Elections

Prague, 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Dagestan's electorate will vote this Sunday (March 7) for the third time in seven years on whether it approves the introduction of the post of popularly-elected president.

That option was rejected in previous referenda in 1992 and 1993. At present, the head of state in Dagestan is the chairman of the 14-man State Council.

Under the terms of a constitution which some observers have charged was tailored specifically to ensure the political longevity of the incumbent leadership, the State Council chairman is elected by the 242 members of the Constitutional Assembly, on which all of Dagestan's 34 ethnic groups are represented.

In March of 1998, the People's Assembly (parliament) amended the constitution, abolishing the article that stipulated that a member of one and the same ethnic group may not be elected chairman of the State Council in two consecutive polls.

That decision paved the way for 68-year-old incumbent Magomedali Magomedov's reelection three months later for a further term.

Visiting Makhachkala last week, Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin expressed satisfaction that the energetic crackdown on crime in Dagestan launched last fall by his first deputy, Vladimir Kolesnikov, has resulted in political stability, although he admits it is tenuous. Stepashin predicted that this stability is unlikely to be endangered in the runup to the 7 March parliamentary poll.

That is not to say that the crime situation has not affected the election campaign: "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 February quoted State Council press secretary Eduard Urazaev as saying that 33 of the 480 registered parliamentary candidates are either the subject of a criminal investigation or wanted by police, and 17 have a previous criminal conviction.

The republic's police have recommended that the media should publicize the criminal past of would-be deputies in an attempt to prevent the election of dubious elements to the new parliament. That preventive publicity may, however, have little effect, given the clout wielded by some senior economic officials with political ambitions.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" has drawn attention to the campaign activity of Russian, as opposed to local, political parties, in particular the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the National-Patriotic Union of Russia. The paper also notes that local political forces have been competing for affiliation with the local branch of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's Otechestvo.

Finally, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggests that the eclipse of the Union of Muslims of Russia -- its leader Nadirshakh Khachilaev is sought on an arrest warrant -- has created an opportunity for the pan-Russian Muslim movement "Nur" to carve out a niche for itself in Dagestan's political landscape, possibly with the backing of Dagestan's Muslim clergy.