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Makhachkala Bombing Highlights Daghestani Leader's Herculean Task

Acting Daghestan leader Ramazan Abdulatipov in the People's Assembly in January, when he was named acting president by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Acting Daghestan leader Ramazan Abdulatipov in the People's Assembly in January, when he was named acting president by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The four victims of the May 20 double car bombing in Machakhkala bring the number of people killed since Russian President Vladimir Putin named Ramazan Abdulatipov acting president of Daghestan in late January to 96 -- an average of almost one per day. That compares with a total of 405 fatalities in insurgency-related violence in 2012. But the North Caucasus insurgency is only one of many intractable problems that Putin has tasked Abdulatipov with solving. Others include endemic corruption, an ongoing battle for influence between powerful interest groups, a stagnating economy, dilapidated infrastructure, and high unemployment.

Abdulatipov, 66, is a former academic and diplomat who served in the mid-1990s under then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin as nationalities minister. He is generally regarded as affable, energetic, forthright, and resolute.

Abdulatipov has wasted no time in identifying his priorities. They include rendering the government more effective and accountable; attracting federal investment; revamping the economy, in particular the moribund industrial sector; reducing Daghestan's financial dependence on subsidies from the federal budget and encouraging small and medium-sized business; cracking down on corruption and cronyism; and improving the security situation.

But when Abdulatipov set about selecting officials capable of tackling those tasks, he found himself unable to deliver on his pledge to fire all ministers who had held cabinet posts for over a decade and bring in young blood. Constrained by the unwritten requirement to guarantee that all the republic's 14 titular nationalities are represented in the government, Abdulatipov ended up appointing some ministers who had served under his predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov, to posts for which some analysts suggested they were not ideally qualified.

Abdulatipov made clear to the new cabinet from the outset that he expected them to produce a detailed assessment of the sector for which they are responsible, together with a list of priorities for the next three months, one year, and three years, and to work around the clock to achieve them ("you can forget about taking weekends off"). Few cabinet members complied with that demand to produce a coherent plan of action within the time frame allowed. Abdulatipov similarly warned he would show no mercy to any government official who tried to have embezzle government funds or demand bribes or kickbacks.

Abdulatipov issued a similar injunction to local government heads to work more efficiently and conscientiously, especially in the allocation of budget funds. He also warned they face dismissal if they fail to curtail insurgency activity.

He acknowledged openly what journalists and the public have been saying for years, namely that arbitrary and gratuitous reprisals by the police and security services are the primary cause of the uninterrupted flow of recruits to the Islamic insurgency. He described the "power" agencies and bureaucrats as "the main violators of human rights in Daghestan."

The negative role played by Daghestan's Interior Ministry goes far beyond the abduction and torture of men suspected of abetting the insurgency. In an interview two years ago, Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center suggested the Daghestani Interior Ministry is not a part of the government called on to protect the state system but rather an independent actor, a "fortress under siege" that seeks in the first instance to defend "its own corporate interests."

The Russian daily "Izvestia" reported that investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the republic's police were behind the May 20 Makhachkala bombings. If that is indeed the case, their motive was presumably to discredit Abdulatipov at a point when the statutory press conference to showcase his accomplishments during his first 100 days in office has inexplicably been postponed indefinitely. Ironically, Abdulatipov affirmed in one of his first interviews after his appointment as acting president that "one of my principles is 'you don't fall down before you're shot,'" which is the title of a classic study of the Interior Ministry special-purpose troops (ONOM).

Possibly as a result of revelations by a group of current and former Daghestani police officers of the extent and seriousness of corruption within the republic's Interior Ministry, the federal Interior Ministry dispatched to Makhachkala last month a team of 25-30 investigators to probe the suspected complicity of Daghestani police officers in a number of high-profile crimes. Abdulatipov has told "Komsomolskaya pravda" that some Interior Ministry personnel are believed to have protected a drug-trafficking ring.

Whether that probe will culminate in the replacement of Abdurashid Magomedov (no relation to Magomedsalam), who was named interior minister in August 2010, is unclear. The appointment of the interior ministers of the various federation subjects is the prerogative of the Russian president.

Abdulatipov has taken a tougher line on the insurgency than Magomedov did. Specifically, he has questioned the relevance and effectiveness of the government commission established in 2011 by his predecessor to help young insurgents who want to lay down their arms and return to civilian life. That commission has not met once since Abdulatipov's appointment as acting president.

Abdulatipov says nonetheless he is promoting low-profile talks with adherents of the Salafism espoused by the insurgency.

In a recent interview, Abdulatipov deplored the existence within the republic's political elite of what he termed "a toxic milieu that perpetuates corruption, fanaticism, and banditry," and which "devoured" his predecessors as president. At the same time, Abdulatipov said he does not plan to investigate the alleged theft and embezzlement of billions of rubles by former senior officials, although he did not rule out the possibility they could use those funds to try to undermine him. Yet if he fails to identify and punish the most egregious cases of corruption, Abdulatipov is unlikely to succeed in his stated aim of restoring the population's faith in the republic's leadership.

True, the Daghestani parliament's vote last month to amend the republic's constitution to abolish direct elections for the post of republican head means voters will not have the opportunity to register their disenchantment with Abdulatipov at the ballot box. But his rivals for that post, even those who are fellow members of the ruling United Russia party, can be counted on to spin any and all of his perceived failings to their own advantage.

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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