One of former Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov's stated priorities following his appointment in January 2013 as acting president of the Republic of Daghestan was winning back the trust of a population alienated by cronyism, endemic corruption, and blatant violations of the law on the part of government officials. But many of his actions since then appear to have compounded the frustration and alienation of the republic's 2.9 million people.
In late 2014, for example, representatives of the opposition A Just Russia party, backed by local NGOs, launched a hunger strike to demand Abdulatipov's resignation. They argued that the Daghestani public has been stripped of its constitutional and civil rights and been reduced to "a gray mass of slaves" who risk losing their identity if Abdulatipov remains in his post much longer. They further warned that "the authoritarian regime established in Daghestan is being smoothly transformed into a dictatorship, and this could lead to fascism."
The perceived erosion of civic and constitutional rights that A Just Russia deplored was twofold. In May 2013, Daghestan's parliament voted against holding direct elections for the post of republic head.
Then the following year it enacted a new law abolishing direct elections for the heads of municipalities, who instead are now elected from a short list of several candidates by the municipal council.
That law has been central to a six-month standoff between the republican leadership and the population of the mountain town of Buynaksk, southwest of Makhachkala, a standoff that was finally resolved on April 4 with the installation as mayor of Abdulatipov's hand-picked candidate in disregard of the seemingly legitimate claims to the post of two other claimants. One of those two, former Mayor Guseyn Gamzatov, has declared his intention of challenging the election in court. At least seven (some reports say nine) of the 21 members of the municipal council have reportedly resigned their mandates, protesting that the vote was illegal.
Gamzatov was first elected Buynaksk mayor in 2007; his second term in office was due to expire in late September 2015. Fearing he might not be confirmed for a further term by the new municipal council to be elected earlier that month, he engineered his reelection for a further term by outgoing council members loyal to him just days before the September 13 municipal elections.
Abdulatipov reportedly gave his approval for Gamzatov's reelection, despite Gamzatov's failure over the previous two years to turn around the town's stagnating economy or improve local infrastructure. Buynaksk residents subsequently told journalists that during his tenure as mayor, Gamzatov focused primarily on dubious business deals and "did nothing for the town."
Gamzatov's fears for his political future proved justified. In the early summer, Buynaksk residents had approached Osman Osmanov, a native of Buynaksk who had served as town mayor from 1997-2001, and urged him to participate in the municipal council elections with the aim of succeeding Gamzatov as mayor. Osmanov finally agreed to that proposal, even though he was in ill favor with Abdulatipov because of his earlier friendship and cordial working relationship with now-disgraced former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov. Amirov was removed just months after Abdulatipov's appointment as republic head in early 2013 and was sentenced last year to life imprisonment for his imputed role in two political contract killings.
Osmanov ran in the September municipal election on the ticket of the Party of Veterans of Russia (PVR), which garnered an unprecedented 68.8 percent of the vote, or 17 of the 21 municipal council seats. The remaining four mandates went to Russia's ruling Unified Russia party, which placed second with 18.6 percent of the vote.
Osmanov's supporters, understandably, demanded that Gamzatov resign so the new Party of Veterans-dominated council could elect Osmanov in his place.
Gamzatov, however, refused to step down, and the outgoing council members refused to vacate their offices to allow the newly elected officials to set about discharging their duties. When the Party of Veterans council members tried in mid-October to convene a public meeting with residents on the town square, they were forcibly dispersed by the police.
The Party of Veterans council members then sought a meeting with Abdulatipov, who had reportedly taken Unified Russia's resounding defeat in the Buynaksk ballot as a personal insult. Abdulatipov reportedly assured the Party of Veterans faction that Gamzatov would be removed, but he refused point-blank to condone Osmanov's election as mayor, proposing instead a choice of four candidates, including Zakarya Amirov (no relation to Said), a former senior Customs Service official who had once served as Buynaksk prosecutor. All four were Avars, as are Gamzatov, Osmanov, and Abdulatipov. This was not a dispute among the republic's 14 titular ethnic groups, but between rival Avar "clans" or interest groups.
Addressing Daghestan's National Assembly in early November, Abdulatipov reportedly described Osmanov's election campaign as "a bid by bandits to return to power."
Gamzatov was finally pressured into taking extended sick leave, and former Health Minister Ilyas Mamayev was swiftly named first deputy mayor and then acting mayor without the participation of the Party of Veterans council members, in violation of council statutes.
Magomed Magomedov, a commentator for the independent weekly Chernovik, predicted that Mamayev was intended simply as an interim figure, which indeed proved to be the case. On December 30, members of Abdulatipov's administration, reportedly including first deputy administration head Aleksei Gasanov, traveled to Buynaksk, and at the third attempt succeeded in convening a session of the municipal council attended by 12 Party of Veterans representatives who had withdrawn their support for Osmanov.
Those 12 deputies elected Zakarya Amirov as first deputy mayor, in violation of the council statues: only Gamzatov as mayor was empowered to nominate his first deputy. Mamayev then submitted his resignation and proposed Amirov as acting mayor.
The Party of Veterans councilors who backed Amirov subsequently convened a press conference in Makhachkala at which they characterized him as "intelligent, savvy, courageous.... He's not afraid and he's nobody's stooge."
Two Party of Veterans council members who refused to vote for Amirov subsequently said they were stripped of their mandates a few days later.
In mid-January, it was announced that Gamzatov had finally submitted his resignation and proposed Amirov as acting mayor.
The following day, however, first municipal council member Zairbek Valiyev and then Gamzatov himself both claimed that Gamzatov's purported letter of resignation and the signature appended to it were forged, and that Gamzatov had signed a different document announcing his resumption of his official duties. Daghestani media have published what appear to be scanned copies of those documents.
Valiyev asked Daghestan's prosecutor-general and the Daghestan Directorate of the Federal Investigative Committee to investigate the alleged forgery. Gamzatov, for his part, explicitly requested that the evaluation of the forged document with his apparent signature be entrusted to experts located outside Daghestan. A Stavropol-based specialist subsequently confirmed in late March that both the resignation letter and Gamzatov's signature on it were counterfeit.
Gamzatov also filed an appeal with the Buynaksk municipal court to designate invalid the decision by the municipal council to launch the procedure for formally electing Amirov mayor, to which the court acceded on February 18 pending a ruling on whether or not Gamzatov's letter of resignation was genuine.
Meanwhile, some 1,500 Osmanov supporters gathered in early February to call for Amirov's resignation and demand that those Party of Veterans council members who had switched their support from Osmanov to Amirov be stripped of their mandates.
They also adopted a one-line message to Republic head Abdulatipov: "Ramazan, you're in the wrong!"
One of the participants was quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot as saying, "We want to defend the rule of law and democracy that we've lost. They say we have democracy here, but we can't see it. If it does exist, then it's the people who should exercise power, and not selected representatives of the [republic's] leadership."
On March 31, Daghestan's Supreme Court overruled the Buynaksk court decision to suspend the preparations for formally electing Amirov mayor, which the municipal council duly did four days later behind closed doors, from a short list of three candidates. That fait accompli leaves Gamzatov with no option but to contest the legality of Amirov's election in court. He claims municipal council members were pressured and blackmailed into voting for Amirov.
Commenting on the denouement, Chernovik opined that the protracted maneuvering to install Amirov as mayor does not reflect well on Abdulatipov, who some observers believe has already forfeited Russian President Vladimir Putin's trust.
It also leaves unanswered questions about the role played by parliament speaker Khizri Shikhsaidov, whom former Daghestan Nationalities Minister Eduard Urazayev identified as one of just a handful of associates capable of influencing Abdulatipov's decisions. Shikhsaidov is said to have considerable financial interests in Buynaksk. His son Daniyal served as district head there until his dismissal last August on suspicion of large-scale embezzlement.
Urazayev in late February quoted unnamed bloggers and journalists as suspecting Shikhsaidov of having schemed to have elected as Buynaksk mayor a candidate who would do his bidding.
Shikhsaidov's office issued a statement denying he had played any role in the mayoral election.