The recent unprecedented arrests of top officials in Daghestan have served to corroborate the widely held perception that the Russian republic in the Caucasus is a hot-bed of corruption.
Acting Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov, his deputies Rayuddin Yusufov and Shamil Isayev, and former Education Minister Shakhabas Shakhov were taken into custody following a search of their homes and offices on February 5 by Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel dispatched from Moscow.
They are suspected of large-scale embezzlement of budget funds allocated for social programs. The sum in question has been variously estimated at between 95 million and more than 100 million rubles ($1.62 million-$1.71 million).
As the independent daily Chernovik pointed out, it was the first time in the history of the Russian Federation that the prime minister of a federation subject and two of his deputies were arrested simultaneously on such serious charges.
The four may also, according to a federal Interior Ministry official, be charged with forming an organized crime group, the members of which purportedly also include law enforcement officials.
As in the case of former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, who was apprehended in a similar operation five years ago, the four men were transported the same day to Moscow, where a district court remanded them in pretrial detention for two months.
All have denied the charges against them. Gamidov, who previously served for 13 years as Daghestan's finance minister, was quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot as claiming the case against him was clearly fabricated and that the figures don't add up.
Acting Republic of Daghestan head Vladimir Vasilyev, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named four months ago to succeed Ramazan Abdulatipov, dismissed the entire cabinet late on February 5 and the following day nominated Tatarstan’s economy minister, Artyom Zdunov, as Daghestan’s new prime minister.
During a visit to Makhachkala later in the week, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika announced that 38 prosecutors sent from Moscow three weeks earlier had already identified some 2,400 violations of the law and opened 71 separate criminal cases, Chernovik reported on February 10.
Sensational though they may have been, last week's arrests were not unexpected, especially in light of Vasilyev's declaration in early October that President Vladimir Putin had tasked him with ensuring that henceforth senior officials act strictly within the framework of the law.
Indeed, as the Russian daily Kommersant commented on February 12, the visiting prosecutors merely confirmed what has long been common knowledge to Daghestan’s population, namely, the existence of small cliques of high-ranking officials who have accumulated fabulous wealth through dubious business deals and/or creaming off funds made available by Moscow to augment the region's budget. In the case of Daghestan, such subsidies currently account for at least 70 percent of budget spending.
Chaika is said to have been astonished by the palatial residences of Gamidov and his subordinates, and to have ordered a probe into how their construction was financed. Chaika also publicly condemned the widespread practice whereby ministers and senior officials select their subordinates either from within their own extended family or from the same ethnic group.
Named prime minister by Abdulatipov in July 2013, Gamidov, 51, was widely regarded as the head of the Mekegi "clan" or economic interest group, named after the eponymous village where he was born.
Other prominent members include the Suleymanov brothers, former Makhachkala Mayor Magomed and Izberbash Mayor Abdulmedjid, to whom Gamidov is related by marriage, and former Makhachkala Mayor Musa Musayev, who was arrested on corruption charges last month.
All are Dargins, the second-largest of Daghestan's ethnic groups after the Avars. (Isayevand Shakhov are Avars, while Yusufov is a Lak.)
Yusufov, 50, is an economist who has spent most of his career within the Daghestani government. Abdulatipov appointed him economy and regional development minister in February 2013 and promoted him late the following year to deputy prime minister. Chernovik observed of him last year that "he has a gift for saying precisely what Abdulatipov wants to hear."
Isayev, 55, is a businessman and former long-time member of Daghestan’s parliament; Abdulatipov appointed him a deputy premier in December 2015. He took Russian journalist Orkhan Djemal to court in 2013 for implicating him in the murder of Gadjimurat Kamalov, then editor of Chernovik, and another journalist.
Shakhov, 56, is a former rector of the Daghestan State Pedagogical University whom Abdulatipov named minister of education in September 2013.
In early 2017, a search of his home yielded a firearm for which he did not have a license; he was dismissed in December after investigators began probing the embezzlement of some 88 million rubles ($1.6 million) allocated for the construction of a school in the town of Kaspiisk. He currently faces nine separate charges of embezzlement, Chernovik reported.
Presenting Zdunov to the republican parliament on February 7, Vasiliyev said he very much hopes that the list of arrested officials will not grow. But the figures subsequently cited by Chaika and by Ivan Sydoruk, one of Chaika’s deputies, suggest otherwise.
According to Sydoruk, the visiting prosecutors have uncovered more than 350 violations of anticorruption legislation, with seven deputy ministers, six senior aides, and 14 other government officials having failed to disclose their business interests.
In addition, searches were reported last week in the ministries of health and finance. The daily Kommersant predicted that dozens of officials are likely to be investigated.
Meanwhile an intense debate continues about the Kremlin's rationale for finally cracking down on corruption in Daghestan after decades of pretending the problem did not exist, and about the rationale for appointing a man with no ties to Daghestan as Gamidov's successor.
Former Republic of Daghestan First Deputy Prime Minister Rizvan Kurbanov, who currently represents the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in the State Duma, laid the blame for the delay on Daghestan’s law enforcement agencies.
Kommersant quoted him as arguing that the ongoing investigation and crackdown should target not just members of the government but those law enforcement officials who for years turned a blind eye to the embezzlement of millions of rubles and are thus guilty, at the very least, of negligence.
Kurbanov did not mention Abdulatipov, who on first being named Daghestan’s president in early 2013 declared zero tolerance of corruption. (The financial irregularities that form the basis for the charges against Gamidov and his deputies were reportedly perpetrated in 2013-2014.) When the arrest of Gamidov and his deputies was first announced, Abdulatipov immediately criticized it as politically inappropriate during the run-up to next month's Russian presidential election, an argument that Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov firmly rejected.
It is therefore not inconceivable that investigators will at some point address the question of whether Abdulatipov was aware of the extent of corruption within the republican government. On February 13, the website RBK cited a dossier compiled by the FSB that reportedly linked Abdulatipov to one or more of the arrested former officials.
Moscow-based economist Mikhail Delyagin suggested that the reason for the high-profile arrests is that the Kremlin has realized it can no longer afford to condone the systematic and blatant embezzlement of the billions of rubles it provides in subsidies to Daghestan and other federation subjects. But analysts differ over the likelihood of an analogous crackdown on corruption elsewhere in Russia, while agreeing that even if it takes place, Chechnya will be exempted.
As for the choice of Zdunov, who is 39, as Daghestan's new prime minister, an article on the website Onkavkaz.com sees it as part of a broader bid to strengthen the "power vertical" by installing young and capable managers from Putin's "reserve list" of reliable cadres in key posts in Russia's various regions.
Recent appointees from that list include the new governors of Tula Oblast (Aleksei Dyumin), Yaroslav Oblast (Dmitry Mirovnoy) and Kirov Oblast (Igor Vasiliyev, no relation to Vladimir). All three men served their apprenticeship in the FSB, as did Zdunov, the website Kavpolit reports.
In addition, during his four years heading Tatarstan’s Economy Ministry, Zdunov acquired a reputation for efficiency, innovative thinking, and the ability to attract investment (to the tune of $2 million per day, according to Vasilyev.) But for all his organizational talents, there is no guarantee that Zdunov will prove able to replicate in Daghestan the success he achieved in Tatarstan, especially given the latter's far more developed industrial base.
By the same token, it is not a given that the long-awaited crackdown on corruption in Daghestan will translate into a gratifyingly large number of votes for Putin in next month's presidential election.
Many Daghestanis have been offended by Vasilyev’s selection of Russians from outside the republic to occupy the key posts of presidential administration head (his former State Duma colleague Vlaldimir Ivanov), his personal advisor (Galina Emelyanova, also from the State Duma), and republican prosecutor (former Republic of Khakasia prosecutor Denis Popov).
The news of Zdunov's appointment as prime minister only compounded that sense of outrage.
One Makhachkala native staged a lone picket outside the republican parliament building, appealing to lawmakers not to endorse Zdunov's candidacy. (Just five out of a total of 80 voted against it while two abstained.) A video of his protest garnered over 145,000 page views in 24 hours.
Osman Kadiyev, who owns Daghestan’s Anzhi soccer club, issued a similar appeal to parliamentarians to "act like men" and either come up with an alternative local candidate or surrender their mandates, given that "even under the Communists Daghestan's leader was a Daghestani."
In a bid to allay that dissatisfaction, Vasilyev and Zdunov have both pledged that the new mayor of Makhachkala and the new government will be selected from local cadres.
Chernovik quoted Zdunov as saying that there are numerous "clever, enterprising, [and] talented" candidates to choose from. At the same time, he reserved the right to bring to Makhachkala economists with whom he had worked in Kazan, but only after consultations with his new Daghestani colleagues.