Following months of speculation, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a leadership change in the Republic of North Ossetia that could prove counterproductive.
Putin dismissed Taymuraz Mamsurov as head of North Ossetia when his second five-year term ended last week and named as acting republic head Russian State Duma deputy Tamerlan Aguzarov.
Putin first named Mamsurov, then North Ossetian parliament speaker, to head the republic in 2005, nine months after the Beslan school hostage taking in which some 334 people died and over 700 more, including two of Mamsurov's four children, were injured.
Over the next decade, Mamsurov succeeded in restoring and maintaining stability in the mainly Christian republic, where some feared the North Caucasus insurgency might seek to establish a presence. But he has proven unable to kick-start the region's moribund economy, and state debt has skyrocketed from 2 billion rubles ($37 million) in 2007 to almost 9 billion in late 2014, while unemployment has remained stable at around 6 percent, according to official statistics.
Possibly for that reason, Mamsurov has been consistently rated among the less effective federation subject heads, and over the past couple of years his imminent replacement has been predicted more than once. Yet he became one of very few North Caucasus republic heads to serve two complete terms. Murat Zyazikov in Ingushetia, Boris Ebzeyev in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Arsen Kanokov in Kabardino-Balkaria were all removed from office prematurely during their second terms (in 2008, 2011, and 2013, respectively).
Aguzarov, who turns 52 on June 14, was only recently identified as a possible successor to Mamsurov. According to the Russian daily Kommersant, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika lobbied for Aguzarov's appointment.
A lawyer by profession, Aguzarov began his career in the republican prosecutor's office and served from 1999-2011 as Supreme Court chairman. His appointment is likely to reopen many wounds, insofar as in that latter capacity he was presiding judge at the trial in 2005-06 of Nurpasha Kulayev, the only one of the Beslan hostage takers to be captured alive. (According to British journalist Oliver Bullough, who was present at the trial, Kulayev's involvement was purely fortuitous.)
Kulayev was nonetheless sentenced to life imprisonment. But the public organization Voice of Beslan that represented the relatives of the children and teaching personnel who died when Russian security forces stormed the school building appealed that sentence, protesting that senior officials whose alleged negligence facilitated the hostage taking escaped blame.
Commenting on Aguzarov's new appointment, Susanna Dudiyeva, who heads Mothers of Beslan, a similar group, argued that "North Ossetia should be headed not by someone who is familiar with the Criminal Code, but by someone who is familiar with the economy and cares about people."
The extent of Aguzarov's concern for his fellow men is reflected in comments he made as a member of the Russian State Duma delegation that took part in a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) discussion in January 2014 of the circumstances surrounding the death in pretrial detention in 2009 of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Aguzarov was quoted as saying that "we are all mortal. Sometimes people die -- that's life. ... We are not able at present to provide different conditions for prisoners. Yes, people die, and not only in prisons, but while on vacation. We can't blame Russia for this. I agree it's sad, but what does it have to do with us?"
If past practice is any guide, Aguzarov will nonetheless duly be confirmed in his new post by the North Ossetian parliament, as were Yury Kokov in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria and Ramazan Abdulatipov in Daghestan. Mamsurov, 61, is likely to be named to represent his home republic in the Federation Council.
Aguzarov faces a daunting task, especially in light of his lack of economic expertise. The North Ossetian economy continues to stagnate, with many industrial enterprises standing idle and others incapable of functioning at optimum capacity due to obsolete equipment. The agricultural sector, although heavily subsidized, barely makes a profit.
During his first meeting with the republic's lawmakers, Aguzarov listed among his immediate priorities attracting investment as the precondition for resolving social problems. His chances of doing so in the present economic climate are minimal, however, in light of the budget cuts necessitated by the international sanctions imposed on Russia for its support of separatist forces in Ukraine.