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What Lies Behind Daghestani Mufti's Sudden Popularity?

Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev is seen here on the left with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.
Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev is seen here on the left with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.

For the past several years, the independent Daghestani weekly Chernovik has conducted an annual poll in which readers are encouraged to vote by SMS for whomever from a short list of 10-15 political figures they would like to see as "People's President."

This year's surprise winner was Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev, chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan (DUMD). In second place was last year's winner, Saygidguseyn Magomedov, who heads the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Treasury, followed by former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov.

Chernovik admits the title "People's President" is misleading insofar as the objective of the poll is not so much to try to measure relative popular support for potential presidential candidates as to identify which political figures possess the political and economic resources, and the requisite support from Moscow, to influence the outcome of a popular election, should such a ballot take place.

The logistics of the poll are as follows. The weekly enumerates those political figures whom it considers potential presidential material and invites readers to vote for them over a five-week period by sending a text message to a specific phone number. The number of text votes each candidate receives is tallied separately each week. The total number of votes each candidate receives is then divided by five to give the "average" rating. Any anomalies (disproportionately high or low numbers within a given time period) are factored out. If more than one vote is sent from the same phone number, the second and any subsequent votes are automatically rejected. The exercise is predicated on the assumption that the politicians in question will issue orders to their respective entourages to ensure they receive the optimum number of votes (in addition to bona fide votes from Chernovik readers).

The paper freely admits that its methodology is not scientific and is open to abuse. It also acknowledges that in a genuinely free and fair ballot, none of its candidates would stand much chance of winning, given that the population at large has a negative perception of politics and politicians.

Abdulayev, 55, was born into a religious Avar family (his grandfather was a venerated Sufi sheikh) and began studying Islamic theology at an early age. After serving as an imam in Kizilyurt and as rector of Daghestan's Islamic Institute, he was elected mufti in 1998. But despite (or possibly because of) the cozy relationship between the DUMD and the Republic of Daghestan leadership, Abdulayev never enjoyed the veneration and respect accorded to some of those Sufi sheikhs who do not fall under the board's jurisdiction.

Abdulayev has nonetheless improved his rating in a second Chernovik informal poll, this one to identify those political figures perceived as most influential. In 2013, Abdulayev ranked 20th. A year later, by which time his fellow Avar Ramazan Abdulatipov had been named republican head in place of Magomedsalam Magomedov (no relation to Saygidguseyn), a Dargin, he had risen to 15th place; this year he ranked 10th.

Chernovik attributes that upward trend to the "hothouse" conditions created for the DUMD by the republican leadership, including some key members of the police and security forces keen to bolster its standing as a counterweight to the Islamic insurgency. That policy may have helped Abdulayev become "People's President" the first year he figured on the short list.

The poll was launched on April 10. At the end of the first week, former Makhachkala Mayor Amirov was in first place, followed by Saygidguseyn Magomedov and Sagid Murtazaliyev, head of the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Pension Fund. Abdulayev was fourth. By the end of the second week, Magomedov was in first place, closely followed by Abdulayev, Amirov, and Khasavyurt Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov.

During the third week of voting, however, Aliasakhab Kebekov, the erudite and articulate Avar theologian chosen last year as head of the Caucasus Emirate proclaimed in 2007 by then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov, was killed in a counterterror operation on the outskirts of Buynaksk.

Within days, Abdulayev had shot into the lead of the race and remained there for the duration. Sheer happenstance? Or did Daghestan's siloviki simply avail themselves of a heaven-sent opportunity to enhance the perception of Abdulayev as the republic's unchallenged and respected religious leader?

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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