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Is Kremlin Struggling To Pick New Daghestan Leader?


National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov (left) speaks to his newly appointed first deputy, Sergei Melikov, in Moscow in August 2016.

Five days after Ramazan Abdulatipov announced he would step down prematurely as Republic of Daghestan head, the Kremlin has still not named an acting successor.

That delay is all the more odd in that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already named temporary successors for four other federation-subject heads who resigned last week: Nikolai Merkushkin (Samara Oblast), Valery Shantsev (Nizhegorod Oblast), Igor Koshkin (Nenets Autonomous Okrug), and Viktor Tolokonsky (Krasnoyarsk Krai).

The most likely explanation for the continued uncertainty is that Abdulatipov went public with his announcement before Putin had selected a candidate to replace him. That is plausible insofar as the man whom most observers have identified as the most likely choice is rumored to have refused several times already to accept the job. Sergei Melikov, 52, made his career in the Interior Ministry Internal Forces, as did his father, who was a Lezgin (the fourth-largest ethnic group in Daghestan). In May 2014, Putin appointed Melikov presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District; two years later, he named him a first deputy director of the newly created National Guard.

Two Daghestani analysts, Khanzhan Kurbanov and Gadzhimurad Sagitov, have stressed to the news portal Regnum the importance of selecting a candidate who is not connected with or vulnerable to pressure from any of the republic's powerful "clans" or economic interest groups.

Sagitov, who is chief editor of the independent newspaper Novoye Delo, advocated appointing "a young person not connected with the clans, a good manager and organizer...not necessarily from a business background, but it's important that he should maintain an equal distance from all the republic's interest groups." In that respect, Sagitov said, Melikov might be ideal. But the power and influence wielded by those various clans, some of them believed to be headed by senior government officials, is said to be the reason Melikov has rejected the job three times.

The new republic head should also, Sagitov continued, be capable of rejuvenating the leadership, galvanizing the economy, and attracting badly needed investment.

Qualifications

There are two possible obvious factors that could influence Putin's choice. The first is the unwritten rule that the post of Daghestan leader is held alternately by representatives of the republic's two largest ethnic groups: Avars and Dargins. Abdulatipov is an Avar; his predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov, is a Dargin.

Some analysts have therefore suggested Magomedov, who since 2012 has served as a deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, may return to Makhachkala to his former post. Other Dargin candidates tipped for the post are Federation Council Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov and businessman Mukhtar Medzhidov, who served as prime minister under Abdulatipov from February to late July 2014. All three men, however, are identified with specific interest groups.

But in light of Putin's apparent indifference to the complex issue of nationality relations (on which Abdulatipov has written widely), there has been speculation that the president will ignore the informal requirement that Abdulatipov's successor be a Dargin.

Among the various non-Dargins identified as possible candidates are two representatives of the security services: Interior Minister Lieutenant General Abdurashid Magomedov (a Lezgin) and Lieutenant General Shamsutdin Dagirov (a Kumyk), who heads the Federal Fire-Fighting Service Academy. According to journalist Milrad Fatullayev, Oleg Belaventsev, who replaced Melikov as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, is actively lobbying for Dagirov. But in light of the demise of the North Caucasus insurgency over the past four to five years, Putin may consider the arguments for naming a "silovik" as republic head less compelling than the need for resolute measures to crack down on the large-scale corruption and embezzlement of budget funds for which the republic is seen by some as a byword.

If Putin's primary concern is indeed stopping the hemorrhaging of cash from Daghestan's budget, it arguably makes sense to name as republic head an outsider who is not vulnerable to pressure from the various clans. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Khloponin, who was Melikov's predecessor as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus and thus knows the region well, has been identified as a possible candidate, but the post would be a demotion for him and it is questionable whether he is ruthless enough.

Abdulatipov himself told Daghestan's parliament on September 28 that he suggested to Putin several potential successors. But Daghestani journalists have expressed doubt that Putin would be guided by Abdulatipov in making his choice. Fatullayev makes the point that "many of Putin's personnel appointments are totally unexpected and unpredictable, given that he makes decisions based on motives known only to himself."

Sagitov similarly told the news portal Caucasian Knot that without the benefit of inside information from a member of the Russian presidential administration, trying to predict whom Putin will name as Abdulatipov's successor is about as scientific as reading coffee grounds.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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