Last week, however, Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev argued that rivalry between the republic's numerous ethnic groups is a major threat, and he called for legislative amendments to allay it.
In 1993, faced by a fierce struggle for political and economic influence among the largest of its dozens of ethnic groups, Daghestan crafted a unique political framework intended 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. But that initial liberal legislative framework has since been abolished, fuelling the perception among smaller nationalities that the four largest ethnic groups -- the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, and Lezgins -- between them monopolize the most influential political posts and sectors of the economy.
The post-Soviet constitution adopted in 1993 provided for a collective presidency in the form of the State Council. That body, which was elected by the parliament, comprised 14 members, one from each of the 14 titular nationalities (Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Russians, Azeris, Tabasarans, Chechens, Nogais, Rutuls, Aguls, Tsakhurs, and Tats). Daghestan's election law similarly guaranteed parliamentary representation for each of the 14 titular nationalities.
When the State Council was first elected in 1994, it was intended that the chairmanship should rotate among the 14 members. Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin and the last Soviet-era chairman of the Daghestan Oblast Soviet, was duly elected to that post in 1994. But the constitution was subsequently amended in March 1998, several months before the expiry of his first term, to abolish the article stipulating that a representative of one and the same ethnic group should not serve two consecutive terms, and Magomedov was reelected for a second term in 1998 and a third in June 2002. In 1998, a Kumyk, Khizri Shikhsaidov, was named prime minister and an Avar, Mukhu Aliyev, parliament speaker. Shikhsaidov resigned in 2004, but another Kumyk, Atay Aliyev, was named his successor.
When Magomedov finally stepped down in February 2006, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed parliament speaker Aliyev to succeed him, in line with his 2004 decree that the heads of federation subjects should in future be named by the Russian president and endorsed by the local legislature.
The equitable representation of the 14 titular nationalities was further complicated by the need to bring Daghestan's legislation into line with federal law. In line with that requirement, Daghestan opted to abolish single-mandate constituencies entirely in favor of proportional representation, even though, as Aleksandr Kynev of the Fund for Development of Information Policy has pointed out, federal law makes provision for up to 50 percent of legislators to regional parliaments to be elected in single-mandate constituencies. Daghestan could therefore legally revert to a mixed proportional-majoritarian system that would incorporate election districts in which a given ethnic group constituted the majority of voters.
One of Mukhu Aliyev's first moves as president was to decree the drafting of a Complex Program for the Development of Nationality Relations for the period 2007-2010. A preliminary version of that program was submitted to the government in late 2006. The republic's parliament approved it in the first reading in May 2007, but called for additional changes.
The second reading in September 2007 degenerated into a heated debate, with some speakers insisting on preserving equitable representation within the government and parliament for the 14 ethnic groups, while others rejected that paradigm as "archaic" and a barrier to selecting the most competent applicant for any given post.
Summarizing the debate in an article posted online in late October 2007, Nationalities Minister Eduard Urazayev insisted that "no one is insisting that specific posts should be reserved for a specific nationality." He referred in that context to President Aliyev's insistence that a candidate's moral and professional qualities, not his ethnicity, should be the decisive factor.
But in an interview last week with the website kavkaz-uzel.ru, Aliyev implicitly questioned the wisdom of disregarding totally the ethnicity of candidates for leading posts. He acknowledged that the four largest ethnic groups have "traditionally" been represented in the government, and argued that "there will never be stability" if all three top posts -- president, prime minister, and parliament speaker -- were monopolized by one ethnic group.
Aliyev also argued that the changes to the election law that abolished guarantees of parliamentary representations for the various ethnic groups have had a pernicious effect. For that reason, he continued, he has drafted amendments to the election law that would restore some semblance of balance. At the same time, he stressed that "we are not returning to the past, that is impossible. We are talking about amendments that are in line with current Russian legislation."
Again, Aliyev attributed those proposed amendments to the need to maintain political stability. "What kind of democracy is it if the peoples who live here are not represented in the organ that they elect? I'm telling you straight, they will devise their own [alternative] parliament," Aliyev warned.
Yet as recently as March, Aliyev was quoted as assuring visiting members of the Public Chamber's Commission for Interethnic Relations that a recent polled conducted in Daghestan by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion failed to yield any evidence of interethnic tensions. He said that the majority of respondents assessed interethnic relations as calm. (Whether the poll findings accurately reflect public perceptions is of course debatable.) What occasioned his recent alarmist statements can only be guessed at.