An opinion poll conducted last month by an influential Russian think tank registered a marked increase in the rating of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. Abdulatipov rose from 20th to 16th place among the 85 federation subject heads to land in the group of local leaders wielding “a very strong influence.”
Not all Daghestanis share that perception of Abdulatipov’s efficiency, however. Albert Esedov, a political commentator and one of the leaders of the Lezgin national movement Sadval, told the news agency Regnum he thinks Abdulatipov’s adroit use of PR was the primary reason for Russians’ enhanced perception of his abilities.
Even less impressed were eight representatives of the opposition party A Just Russia who with the support of NGOs from across Daghestan launched a hunger strike in Makhachkala late last month to demand Abdulatipov’s resignation and measures to combat endemic corruption.
In a press release quoted by the independent weekly “Chernovik,” they argued that in the 18 months since Russian President Vladimir Putin first named Abdulatipov acting republic head, the population of Daghestan has been stripped of its constitutional and civil rights and been reduced to “a grey mass of slaves” who risk losing their identity if Abdulatipov remains in his post much longer. They further warn that “the authoritarian regime established in Daghestan is being smoothly transformed into a dictatorship, and this could lead to fascism.”
Senior Daghestani officials, including Denga Khalidov, one of Abdulatipov’s aides, met with the hunger strikers on November 9. But instead of agreeing to the broad measures that the protesters were demanding, including ratification of Article 20 (on “Illicit Enrichment”) of the UN Convention against Corruption, they offered to set up working groups to address the hunger strikers’ individual grievances -- in other words, to buy them off. Khalidov pointed out in an interview that those grievances date back five, seven or in some cases 10 years, implying that they should not be blamed on Abdulatipov. He claimed the hunger strike was orchestrated by former Daghestani officials now based in Moscow with the aim of “destabilizing” the situation but did not identify them by name.
Khalidov’s rhetoric complements Abdulatipov’s personal tactic of claiming the credit for any and all positive achievements while off-loading onto the relevant government agency responsibility for whatever goes wrong. Certainly the argument that it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect Abdulatipov to resolve in 18 months all the myriad problems that have accumulated over the past two decades is a valid one, especially given the existence of powerful political and economic interest groups whose members perceive Abdulatipov’s policies as a threat to their own, diverging agendas and thus seek constantly to undermine him.
But that argument would carry greater weight with the population at large were it not for the way senior officials seemingly continue to bend the rules and turn a blind eye to, or even engage in, blatant violations of the law. That approach is characteristic of the Daghestani leadership’s efforts both to contain the Islamic insurgency and to engineer the dismissal and prosecution of powerful local barons who have ruled their respective regions with an iron hand for years with little regard for orders from the central government and accumulated a fortune in the process.
That perceived cavalier disregard for the law is evident in a string of highly publicized incidents over the past two months.
In mid-September, the entire population (213 households, a total of some 900 people) of the settlement of Vremenny near Gimri were forced to vacate their homes due to the imposition of counter-terror restrictions. The village has since been cordoned off with barbed wire, enabling the military to engage in looting and wanton destruction.
The villagers’ appeal to be allowed to return, even briefly, to collect warm winter clothing for their children, fell on deaf ears, as did an open letter of protest addressed to President Putin in which they charged that the Russian military personnel enforcing the restrictions “have been trained only to rob, to plunder, and to insult and humiliate the civilian population.” They are now demanding that the republic’s leadership provide alternative accommodation, possibly in the form of a tent camp, until the counterterror restrictions are lifted and the military personnel withdrawn.
The situation in Vremenny calls into question the effectiveness of Abdulatipov’s scheme for depriving the militants of popular support by concluding agreements with individual municipalities to provide infrastructure improvements and other material benefits in return for an undertaking to help local police locate and disarm insurgents. The first such agreement, with the local authorities of the Untsukul district that encompasses Vremenny, was signed with great fanfare in February.
In a second counterterror operation, Patimat Nasibova, 34, was apprehended early on October 6 in her home village of Kirovaul in Kizilyurt district after going to drive out stray cattle grazing in the yard of her grandfather’s abandoned house in which security personnel suspected a militant was hiding. She was taken to Makhachkala, placed in solitary confinement, and subjected to electric shocks to induce her to “confess” to abetting the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the head and deputy head of the Daghestan presidential administration were dispatched late last month to the southern Derbent district, whose long-time leader Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani, had been formally charged in September with exceeding his authority and suspended from office after he declined to comply with Abdulatipov’s orders that he should resign his post prematurely.
The senior officials sought for two days to pressure acting Derbent district head Ali Khazbulatov first, to name as his acting first deputy Yakhya Gadjiyev, and then to step down and appoint Gadjiyev his successor as acting district head in violation of the relevant legislation. Khazbulatov caved in and complied with that demand only after having been summoned to Makhachkala (and presumably bawled out by Abdulatipov personally). He was further induced to deny publicly that any pressure had been brought to bear on him or any of his colleagues, even though police were sent to round up municipal council members who failed to show up for an emergency session to endorse Gadjiyev’s appointment.
However eloquently and persistently Abdulatipov’s spokesmen seek to rationalize such injustices in the name of eradicating corruption, inefficiency, and Islamic extremism, such behavior is seemingly bound to deepen the rift between the republic’s leaders and the mistrustful and alienated population. As long as Abdulatipov can count on President Putin’s unswerving support, however, his “official” approval rating is unlikely to suffer.