Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin took his time in selecting a successor to Ramazan Abdulatipov following the latter’s resignation in late September as Republic of Daghestan head, so the man Putin finally nominated is seemingly in no hurry to name a new republican government.
But Vladimir Vasilyev’s statements and actions during the three weeks since his appointment as acting republic head suggest a clear understanding of the problems confronting him, and a determination to resolve them.
What is more, his low-key, unostentatious leadership style is in stark contrast to Abdulatipov’s.
Like National Guard first deputy commander Sergei Melikov, whom most analysts had identified as the most likely successor to Abdulatipov, Vasilyev is a “silovik” -- a veteran of the military or law enforcement. Now 68, he is a police colonel general who worked his way up through the ranks to serve as Russia’s deputy interior minister from 1997-99 and from 2001-03, and from 1999-2001 as a deputy secretary of the Security Council. In May 1998, he commanded the operation to quash an insurrection by the Khachilayev brothers, who had seized the government building in Makhachkala. Four years later, he was deputy head of the team deployed to secure the release of the audience taken hostage by Chechen fighters in Moscow’s Dubrovka theater.
Vasilyev was first elected to the State Duma from the ruling United Russia party in 2003 and selected to chair the Duma committee on security; he was subsequently reelected in 2007, 2011, and 2016.
Journalist and Kremlin insider Maksim Shevchenko, who takes a close interest in developments in Daghestan, has characterized Vasilyev as level-headed, not corrupt, someone who speaks his mind and with whom it’s possible to talk as one human being to another. He opined that the primary task Putin set Vasilyev is to crack down on economic crime.
Even though Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova claims “to have had a hand” in Abdulatipov’s dismissal, given the egregious procedural violations across Daghestan during the campaign for parliamentary elections and the Russian State Duma elections last year, many analysts presume that Abdulatipov was replaced primarily because of his total failure to reduce corruption, in particular the embezzlement of subsidies and budget funds by competing economic interest groups, most (but not all) of which comprise members of just one of Daghestan’s 14 titular ethnic groups. It is, therefore, logical that Putin should have entrusted temporary control of Daghestan to a man with no ties to the region and who therefore might not be vulnerable to pressure from those groups.
The son of a Kazakh father and a Russian mother, Vasilyev made clear when first presented on October 5 to the Daghestani government that he will not be constrained by the long-standing unwritten rules governing the division of leading positions among the various ethnic groups -- rules that have essentially barred members of the smaller nationalities from advancement and which they resent. Instead, Vasilyev said, he will be guided solely by the talent and capabilities of candidates for any given position.
I am prepared to report to you on a regular basis…on how every ruble is spent. This is public money and we shall answer for it."-- Vladimir Vasilyev, acting head of the Republic of Daghestan
“It is important to me that personnel policy should be open. I shall try to proceed on the basis of what has been accomplished, to rely on those who work hard, and to seek out new competent people,” the online daily Novoye Delo quoted him as saying.
Meeting on October 17 with Daghestani lawmakers, Vasilyev said that at Putin’s behest, he will proceed from the need to ensure that the organs of state power revert to living within the framework of the law. Doing so, he said, “is extremely important, and what the population wants.”
Meanwhile, Vasilyev has reviewed with senior Moscow functionaries the existing programs for Daghestan’s economic development and the controversial plans for construction of a new port at Kaspiisk, southeast of Makhachkala. That project is being energetically lobbied by First Deputy Minister for the North Caucasus Odes Baysultanov, a Chechen who is close to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.
Vasilyev has also formally asked the State Duma to consider increasing in 2018 the amount Daghestan receives in subsidies from the federal budget, pointing out that currently the republic receives less per capita in subsidies than any other federal subject. Vasilyev further pledged that “if you consider it necessary, I am prepared to report to you on a regular basis…on how every ruble is spent. This is public money and we shall answer for it.”
The independent daily Chernovik argued that none of Daghestan’s Duma deputies has ever made such a request for an increase in funding. Andrey Makarov, who heads the Duma’s Budget Committee, assured Vasilyev that “we shall consider all possible approaches to helping the republic.”
The one key thing Vasilyev has not yet done is to select a new prime minister. While the Republic of Daghestan's constitution requires that, after being elected by parliament, a new republic head must dissolve the cabinet and name a new premier, that requirement does not extend to an acting republic head named by the Russian president. Initially, Vasilyev declared (on October 5) that he would not dissolve the cabinet. Then, the following day, he issued an edict declaring that henceforth all cabinet members are “acting” but not specifying that they have, in fact, been dismissed.
If the cabinet had indeed been dissolved, then in line with the constitution Vasilyev should have named a new prime minister within two weeks, by October 19, but he has still not done so.
The ambiguity of their status, and the uncertainty about their future prospects, has impelled the acting ministers to a flurry of activity and public statements intended to showcase their abilities and their readiness to tackle the problems the region faces. It has also led to much speculation about which members of the outgoing government are likely to lose their posts or whether, as an alternative, Vasliyev might simply provide them with “aides” and “advisers” from Moscow who would, in effect, control their actions.
Several journalists have singled out acting Prime Minister Abdusamid Gamidov, an ethnic Dargin, as one of those least likely to retain his post. Vasilyev and Gamidov have not once been seen together during any of Vasilyev’s official engagements thus far. Instead, he has been accompanied by either acting First Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Djafarov or acting Deputy Premier Shamil Isayev.
It has been suggested that Gamidov may be shunted into the post of Makhachkala mayor, which has traditionally been “reserved” for members of that ethnic group -- but that would go against Vasilyev’s declared intention not to be constrained by such unwritten rules.
And Vasilyev so far has seemingly conformed to the image of him as immune to blandishments and bribes. Asking them “not to take offense,” he told ministers outright not to put him in an awkward position by offering him gifts on his birthday or other ceremonial occasions.
He has also demonstrated an apparent lack of pretentiousness rare among senior Russian officials. When introduced to the republican parliament on October 5 in Abdulatipov’s presence, he insisted that Abdulatipov should speak first. And when a group of officials gathered in the VIP lounge at Makhachkala airport to wish him a pleasant flight to Moscow, they were astounded to find out that he was traveling economy class, and without a bodyguard, Chernovik reported on October 20.
It is as yet unclear whether Vasliyev’s appointment is temporary and Putin plans to replace him at some point next year after the March presidential election. Gadjimurad Omarov, former head of the Daghestan chapter of the opposition A Just Russia party, has adduced Vasilyev’s age as an indication he will not be confirmed as republic head for a five-year term (although Abdulatipov would have been 72 if he had served until the end of his term).
On the other hand, if Vasilyev proves capable of implementing the crackdown on corruption and embezzlement that Putin wants, why change horses midstream?