But despite having delivered a trenchant analysis of the problems facing the region and drafting detailed plans for resolving them, Abdulatipov has achieved only limited success to balance against what he termed the “thousands of disappointments” of just his first few months in office. And analysts have challenged some of his most controversial decisions, such as that in December to divide the republic into four administrative zones, each headed by a governor with the rank of minister or deputy premier.
Abdulatipov, 67, is an Avar, the largest of Daghestan’s 14 titular ethnic groups. He has had a long and varied career, mostly outside his native republic, as an academic, State Duma deputy, deputy prime minister, and Russian ambassador to Tajikistan (May 2005-June 2009). He is the author of dozens of monographs and several books on interethnic relations and the problems afflicting Russia’s smaller ethnic groups. He has a penchant for military metaphors (“I operate on the principle that ‘you don’t fall before you’re shot’” and frequently adopts a hectoring tone.
In one of his first public addresses in February-March 2013, Abdulatipov declared that “we should all be ashamed” of the current state of affairs. He has consistently drawn a bleak picture of a feudal ministate in which powerful interest groups vie with each other for control of potential sources of revenue and local administrators milk their fiefdoms for personal gain for years on end while ignoring the needs and grievances of the local population.
As a result of that lethal combination of corruption, indifference, and personal greed, Abdulatipov argues, entire sectors of the economy -- specifically agriculture and industry -- have collapsed to the point that they need rebuilding from scratch.
Meanwhile, the shadow economy has expanded to account for between 40-60 percent of all economic activity, while tax revenues are the lowest in Russia. In 2010, they stood at just 5.4 percent of GDP, compared with the all-Russian average of 13.4 percent.
Abdulatipov hoped to revitalize the republic’s government by bringing in new people brimming with energy and new ideas, but found himself constrained, partly by the unwritten law on the fair distribution of ministerial posts among the various ethnic groups, to rely primarily on rotating existing personnel. Just days after naming a new government, he bawled ministers out in February 2013 for having failed to compile a list of their main priorities for the next three years. He warned that he expected them to work around the clock: “If you want to spend time with your family, you can submit your resignation."
In order to galvanize the republic’s moribund economy and transform the widely held perception of Daghestan as unstable, corrupt, wholly dependent on subsidies from the federal budget, and a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, Abdulatipov enumerated 10 priority projects ranging from effective management and security to reindustrialization. He adduced the government’s alleged slowness in implementing those priorities as the grounds for dismissing the entire cabinet in late July and naming Finance Minister Abdusamad Gamidov as prime minister in place of Mukhtar Medjidov, whom he had praised less than two months earlier as “quite an effective manager."
It could be argued that Abdulatipov’s personnel policy has in fact proven to be his Achilles’ heel. One of his hitherto staunchest supporters, Public Chamber member Magomed Abdulkhabirov, addressed an open letter to him in late October expressing concern that Abdulatipov has surrounded himself with flatterers and slanderers. “I do not yet see in your cadre policy clarity, balance, competitiveness, openness, consistency, and thoughtfulness,” Abdulkhabirov was quoted as writing, to which Abdulatipov reportedly responded with an SMS to the effect that “with friends like you, who needs enemies?"
At the same time, Abdulatipov admitted in an interview he gave to “Rossiiskaya gazeta” that some of the young officials to whom he gave jobs proved to be “energetic” only in the sense that they focused exclusively on getting rich quick.
Abdulkhabirov’s perception is shared by other analysts, including former Nationalities Minister (2006-08) Eduard Urazayev. Uruzayev recently commented that Abdulatipov not only failed to deliver on his promise to rejuvenate the government, he passed over for promotion the “many” qualified and experienced officials in the second tier of the government bureaucracy.
Abdulatipov identified as further priorities winning back the approval of a population alienated by endemic corruption and widespread human rights violations, and cracking down on the Islamic insurgency. But here, too, little has changed. True, as North Caucasus Institute for Islamic Research Director Ruslan Gereyev recently pointed out, Abdulatipov dismissed 10 municipal administrators suspected of corruption. None of them has been brought to trial, however, and Gereyev says “people are waiting for more decisive actions” to improve living standards.
The two high-profile arrests of senior officials over the past year (Makhachkala mayor Said Amirov in June on charges of commissioning a contract killing and Deputy Prime Minister Magomedgusen Nasrutdinov in January 2014 on suspicion of fraud) were initiated by the federal authorities in Moscow, not in Makhachkala.
As for the equally painful issue of human rights violations, Abdulatipov has admitted more than once that in most cases it is the police and security service who are responsible. He further complained that the dozens of police and security agencies “are incapable of ensuring the security of the population at large.” But in a seeming contradiction, he has also argued that “the security of the republic is too serious an issue to entrust it to the ‘siloviki.’”
Specifically, he has warned that the heads of districts where an increase in “terrorist activity” is registered risk being fired.
On a different occasion, Abdulatipov made the point that one of the obstacles to a complete purge of corrupt officials is their contacts and cooperation with the insurgency. He has singled out the Interior Ministry for criticism and welcomed the dispatch from Moscow last spring of a team of investigators tasked with assessing allegations of corruption and malpractice voiced by former Daghestan Interior Ministry staff. But that probe did not lead to any major dismissals, and Abdulatipov’s hands are tied insofar as it is Moscow’s prerogative to appoint and dismiss the interior ministers of the various federation subjects.
What is more, as Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center pointed out three years ago, Daghestan’s Interior Ministry is not so much a part of the government as an independent actor with its own agenda that seeks in the first instance to defend "its own corporate interests."
Consequently, parallel to the regular counterterror operations in which 171 suspected insurgents were killed in 2013 and a further 17 in January 2014, there has been an upswing in the harassment of and reprisals against persons suspected of colluding or even sympathizing with the Islamic insurgency. That harassment targets primarily the Salafi minority, of whom Abdulatipov observed that “not all of them resort to firearms and are out to overthrow the government.” But apart from one meeting he chaired in August, Abdulatipov has done nothing to further the dialogue between the Salafi minority and the official Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan that got underway in April 2012.
Abdulatipov seemingly harbors no illusions about the magnitude of the task he has undertaken. In an interview in June 2013 with Russian talk-show host Vladimir Pozner, he affirmed that “I have to be boldest, most far-sighted, most courageous, and wisest – or at least try to be.” But even that may not be enough to guarantee his victory over the numerous enemies and rivals with a vested interest in seeing him fail.