At one end of the spectrum is Chechnya, where the function of the media has been reduced to promoting the cult of personality surrounding republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and promulgating his frequently outrageous and illogical pronouncements. At the other is Daghestan, where the Russian-language weekly newspapers “Chernovik” and “Nastoyashchee vremya” provide insightful and objective analysis for which both publications have been taken to court, and “Chernovik” founder Khadjimurad Kamalov was murdered in December 2011.
Among the initiatives “Chernovik” has launched over the past few years is an annual poll to determine the “People’s President.” That title is misleading insofar as the objective 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.
Daghestan and Ingushetia were the first North Caucasus republics to amend their respective constitutions to abolish direct elections for the post of republic head, which were reinstated across the Russian Federation last year. Instead, the parliament elects the republic head from among three candidacies approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin. North Ossetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria have since followed suit.
The logistics of the “Chernovik” 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 “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.
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). Across the North Caucasus, the mere perception of enjoying strong popular support can serve to engender even greater support, given that undecided voters are more likely to play safe and cast their ballots for the candidate who appears to stand the best chance of winning than for one whose chances are minimal. By the same token, as “Chernovik” points out, the perception of enjoying popular support can influence the Kremlin.
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.
“Chernovik” nonetheless maintains that the poll serves a useful purpose, for two reasons. First, it stimulates debate about the merits and shortcomings of the most likely candidates to aspire to the post of republic head. (The paper notes that no new candidates are likely to emerge in the near future. As one blogger put it, “the gulf between the people and the authorities has become so great that the path to power is closed to any normal, educated, intelligent and worthy young person, which is depressing”).
And second, it encourages individual voters to make a rational and objective choice “between the bad and the even worse,” and by doing so gradually squeeze blatantly corrupt figures out of local politics.
This year, “Chernovik” listed 12 candidates for the post of “People’s President,” compared with 10 last year and 15 in 2012. They were incumbent republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov; his predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov; Deputy Prime Minister Abusupyan Kharkharov (said to enjoy the backing of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan); acting Makhachkala Mayor Murtazali Rabadanov; Khasavyurt Mayor Saygidpasha Umakhanov; Saygidguseyn Magomedov (no relation to the former president), who heads the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Treasury; Anti-Extremist Center head and Interior Ministry Colonel Akhmed Bataliyev; plus five candidates currently based outside Daghestan: Shamsutdin Bagirov, who heads the North-West regional center of the federal Emergency Situations Ministry; Federation Council First Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov (no relation to Saygidpasha); former Daghestan First Deputy Premier Rizvan Kurbanov, now a State Duma deputy; and two Moscow-based oligarchs of Daghestani origin, Suleiman Kerimov and Summa Group President Ziavudin Magomedov (no relation to either Magomedsalam or Saygidguseyn).
The most notable change in the composition of this year’s list was the absence of former Makhachkala mayor Said Amirov, who was the clear winner of the poll in both 2012 and 2013.
Amirov was arrested in June 2013. His trial on a charge of plotting a terrorist attack is due to begin in Rostov-na-Donu next week.
A second figure from last year’s list, Kumtorkala district head Ruslan Toturbiyev, has likewise since been arrested. He is suspected of master-minding the embezzlement of more than 160 million rubles in budget funds.
Six candidates have figured on the list every year: Abdulatipov, Magomedsalam Magomedov, Saygidguseyn Magomedov, Saygidpasha Umakhanov, Kerimov, and Kurbanov.
This year’s clear winner was Saygidguseyn Magomedov, followed by Saygidpasha Umakhanov, Ilyas Umakhanov, Magomedsalam Magomedov, and Kurbanov.
Abdulatipov, who had commented shortly after the poll was launched in February that he saw “no need to stage cockroach races,” placed ninth. Just a few weeks later, Abdulatipov was jeered and catcalled when he appeared at a soccer match in Makhachkala, a further indication of just how far his popularity had plummeted in the 13 months since President Putin named him acting president.
Saygidguseyn Magomedov, 53, aka “The Treasurer,” had ranked second in the 2013 poll and third in 2012 after Amirov and Saygidpasha Umakhanov. He had been shortlisted as a candidate to succeed Magomedsalam Magomedov’s father Magomedali as Republic of Daghestan president in 2006 and Mukhu Aliyev in 2010.
Like Abdulatipov, he is an Avar (the largest of the republic’s 14 titular ethnic groups).
“Chernovik” describes Saygidguseyn Magomedov as an eminence grise who avoids contact with the media, but who is well-known and respected within the political “beau monde.” He is said to have excellent ties with the “power ministries” and to enjoy the support of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, whom he has known since their student days. Magomedov might therefore stand a chance of succeeding Abdulatipov if the security situation in Daghestan threatens to deteriorate into total chaos, but so too might Kurbanov, a master in promoting himself as both tough and just. Granted, Kurbanov’s nationality (he is a Lak) might prove a disadvantage, but on the other hand, he is known to be close to Kadyrov.
-- Liz Fuller