Tamerlan Aguzarov died last week in a Moscow clinic at the age of 52, having served just five months as head of his native Republic of North Ossetia (RSO). The cause of death was officially given as pneumonia, but unnamed local officials were quoted as saying variously that Aguzarov had suffered for years from leukaemia, or that he had succumbed to a heart attack.
Residents of Vladikavkaz, the republic's capital, were quoted as expressing shock and regret at the passing of a man whose pledges to end years of economic stagnation and mismanagement had engendered tentative hopes that living conditions might finally improve. Whether those hopes would have come to fruition if Aguzarov had, in the words of one commentator, "had time to become a reformer" is debatable, however.
A former republican Supreme Court judge who subsequently represented North Ossetia for three years in the State Duma, Aguzarov was not the most obvious candidate to succeed Taymuraz Mamsurov, who was appointed republic head shortly after the Beslan hostage-taking in September 2004.
Russian President Vladimir Putin nonetheless named him acting republic head in June 2015. He was confirmed in that post by the republic's parliament three months later, having secured the approval and support of the influential opposition Patriots of Russia parliament faction headed by former wrestling champion Arsen Fadzayev, who observers believe would himself easily win a popular ballot for the post of republic head.
In his first address to parliament as acting republic head, Aguzarov identified the economy as his most pressing priority, pledging to attract badly needed investment, given that "there is no way to implement social projects if the economy is not developing dynamically."
The small, mountainous republic with a population of approximately 700,000 is less dependent (52.6 percent) than its North Caucasus neighbors on subsidies from the federal center for its annual budget. But, although primarily agricultural, it is not self-sufficient in food: the main crop is maize which, together with crystal-clear natural spring water, constitutes the basis of the vodka-distilling for which North Ossetia is a byword. In recent years, however, several major distilleries have either been stripped of their licenses or gone bankrupt.
Other industrial enterprises are obsolescent, some stand idle; as a result, industrial output has fallen by 24 percent in the past couple of years, the largest such decline in the whole North Caucasus Federal District.
Unemployment is a major problem. Although the officially registered level is just 2 percent, the true figure is closer to 8-10 percent, and there are eight applicants for every vacancy.
In light of those economic problems, it is puzzling and illogical that one of Aguzarov's first moves was to expand the government, increasing the number of ministries from 13 to 14 and of state committees from five to eight.
At the same time, he complained that the state debt had risen from 9 billion rubles ($119.59 million at today’s exchange rate) in late 2014 to 10 billion rubles in October 2015, which was almost equal to planned annual budget revenues.
On the plus side, Aguzarov won respect for expediting the completion of longstanding construction and renovation projects, and for his handling of the controversial death in police custody in late October of Vladikavkaz resident Vladimir Tskayev, who had been arrested on suspicion of an attack on a police officer to which one of his friends subsequently confessed.
The Interior Ministry claimed the injuries Tskayev died of were self-inflicted; his family believe he was beaten to death. Aguzarov met with relatives of the dead man and promised to monitor the investigation into what happened. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently dismissed RSO Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Artur Akhmetkhanov (a Bashkir).
In accordance with the RSO constitution, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Bitarov will serve as acting republic head until President Putin names his own candidate for that post. The RSO parliament will then formally elect a new republic head on September 18, concurrently with the elections to the State Duma.
Bitarov, who made his fortune from the Bavariya brewery chain, is not seen as a likely candidate in light of his limited state experience (Aguzarov named him first deputy premier in June and prime minister in mid-September). Possible contenders are businessman Taymuraz Bolloyev, RSO Public Chamber secretary Elbrus Bokoyev, and parliament speaker Aleksei Machnev.