Maksim Shevchenko, 50, is a Russian journalist and commentator on the North Caucasus who in the course of his career has twice served as a hand-picked member of Russia’s Public Chamber, a body that is periodically called upon to offer "advice" to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he unequivocally supports.
Yet Shevchenko, now a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, was refused registration to run for the September Russian State Duma elections from a Daghestan constituency.
And he is currently being subjected to savage criticism in Daghestan for comments on the socioeconomic situation in the mountain districts of that republic that he delivered to Putin at a meeting in Astrakhan on October 31 to discuss Putin’s promotion of a "Russian civic nation."
At that meeting, Shevchenko noted in particular that residents of Daghestan’s mountain districts (who account for approximately 1 million of the republic’s 2.9 million population) often have no mains gas or water supplies, which means women have to fetch water from wells up to 400 meters from their homes, and electricity supplies are at best sporadic. He also deplored what he termed "the degradation of the education system," in particular the fact that the republican Education ministry cannot supply teachers of Russian language and culture for local schools, forcing residents to try to recruit such teachers at their own expense from central Russia. He contrasted that lack of basic amenities with the "palaces" built by top officials on a scale which, he said, "any Dubai sheikh would envy."
Shevchenko argued that the chronic neglect of Daghestan’s mountain regions is all the more unfair given that the population demonstrated its Russian patriotism in the fight in 1999 against "international terrorism," meaning the successive incursions into Daghestan of Islamic militants under the command of renegade Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev.
Shevchenko did not mention in his comments to Putin those major problems plaguing the republic that had led him to declare in July that "things can’t go on like this." They include high unemployment; widespread corruption; economic stagnation; the "force" ministries’ alleged practice of abducting and then executing young men who are then passed off as armed Islamic militants; and the notorious "prophylactic register" containing the names of thousands of individuals suspected of professing Salafi Islam, and who are therefore routinely subjected to police harassment and surveillance.
Nor did he touch on recent developments in the republican capital, Makhachkala, that have made the headlines, specifically the breakdown of the garbage-collection system and the hospitalization of up to 700 people after consuming drinking water contaminated either by botched repair works at a major reservoir or burst pipes following five days of torrential rain.
That forbearance notwithstanding, the Daghestani leadership immediately launched a countercampaign with the aim of refuting (or at least playing down) Shevchenko's criticisms and denigrating his motives. On November 1, a meeting was convened in Makhachkala of representatives of public organizations at which Denga Khalidov, an adviser to Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, implied that Shevchenko had been speaking at the behest of an unnamed group out to compromise the republic's leadership.
Some other participants, however, agreed with Shevchenko's assessment; one even said he had erred on the side of leniency. And Shevchenko himself was met with scattered applause when he gate-crashed that meeting, having flown from Astrakhan to Makhachkala. He then engaged in a heated polemic with Republic of Daghestan Public Chamber head Gamzat Gamzatov that focused, among other issues, on the seemingly cold-blooded killing by security personnel in late August of two teenage brothers who eked out a living as cattle herders. They were subsequently branded as Islamic militants.
A similar meeting was convened the same day -- November 1 -- by republican Press and Information Minister Burliyat Tokbolatova, who ordered the editors of all state-controlled papers to address a statement to the republic's leadership condemning Shevchenko's remarks and affirming that they were without foundation.
Shevchenko subsequently shrugged off the ensuing wave of vilification as a throwback to the worst traditions of the "era of stagnation" in the 1970s and early 1980s when Leonid Brezhnev was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is worth noting that Shevchenko's earlier criticisms of the situation in Daghestan -- for example, his public complaint to Putin two years ago that not a single one of the 15 murders of journalists in that republic since 2000 has been solved -- did not trigger comparable outrage.
Further evidence of the Daghestani authorities' acute sensitivity to criticism followed on November 6, when a communication was sent to the personal Instagram accounts of journalists at Shevchenko's website and the independent Russian-language daily Chernovik, asking them not to publish information that could negatively affect public perceptions of the situation in Daghestan and thus damage the republic's "honor and dignity." The appeal was signed simply with the initials E.G.
Putin has since summoned Abdulatipov, whose dismissal as republic head observers have been predicting for at least the past six months, to Moscow to report on the socioeconomic situation in Daghestan. The published report of that meeting, which Abdulatipov subsequently described as "businesslike and well-intentioned," focused primarily on economic statistics; but Putin also grilled Abdulatipov about the contaminated drinking water scandal. (The federal Health Ministry has already sent 49,000 doses of hepatitis A vaccine to Makhachkala; typhoid and dysentery vaccines are to follow.)It is as yet unclear whether the flooding and subsequent epidemic will prove to be a catalyst rousing the Makhachkala population to mass protests. On October 31, the same day that Shevchenko delivered his report to Putin in Astrakhan, some 100 to 250 people congregated in front of the government building to register their displeasure. Some reportedly even demanded the resignation of city Mayor Musa Musayev and the reinstatement of Said Amirov, who occupied that post from 1999 until June 2013 and is currently serving a life prison sentence for his alleged involvement in contract killings and plotting an act of terrorism. A follow-up protest meeting is scheduled for November 15.