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National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov (left) speaks to his newly appointed first deputy, Sergei Melikov, in Moscow in August 2016.

Five days after Ramazan Abdulatipov announced he would step down prematurely as Republic of Daghestan head, the Kremlin has still not named an acting successor.

That delay is all the more odd in that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already named temporary successors for four other federation-subject heads who resigned last week: Nikolai Merkushkin (Samara Oblast), Valery Shantsev (Nizhegorod Oblast), Igor Koshkin (Nenets Autonomous Okrug), and Viktor Tolokonsky (Krasnoyarsk Krai).

The most likely explanation for the continued uncertainty is that Abdulatipov went public with his announcement before Putin had selected a candidate to replace him. That is plausible insofar as the man whom most observers have identified as the most likely choice is rumored to have refused several times already to accept the job. Sergei Melikov, 52, made his career in the Interior Ministry Internal Forces, as did his father, who was a Lezgin (the fourth-largest ethnic group in Daghestan). In May 2014, Putin appointed Melikov presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District; two years later, he named him a first deputy director of the newly created National Guard.

Two Daghestani analysts, Khanzhan Kurbanov and Gadzhimurad Sagitov, have stressed to the news portal Regnum the importance of selecting a candidate who is not connected with or vulnerable to pressure from any of the republic's powerful "clans" or economic interest groups.

Sagitov, who is chief editor of the independent newspaper Novoye Delo, advocated appointing "a young person not connected with the clans, a good manager and organizer...not necessarily from a business background, but it's important that he should maintain an equal distance from all the republic's interest groups." In that respect, Sagitov said, Melikov might be ideal. But the power and influence wielded by those various clans, some of them believed to be headed by senior government officials, is said to be the reason Melikov has rejected the job three times.

The new republic head should also, Sagitov continued, be capable of rejuvenating the leadership, galvanizing the economy, and attracting badly needed investment.


There are two possible obvious factors that could influence Putin's choice. The first is the unwritten rule that the post of Daghestan leader is held alternately by representatives of the republic's two largest ethnic groups: Avars and Dargins. Abdulatipov is an Avar; his predecessor, Magomedsalam Magomedov, is a Dargin.

Some analysts have therefore suggested Magomedov, who since 2012 has served as a deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, may return to Makhachkala to his former post. Other Dargin candidates tipped for the post are Federation Council Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov and businessman Mukhtar Medzhidov, who served as prime minister under Abdulatipov from February to late July 2014. All three men, however, are identified with specific interest groups.

But in light of Putin's apparent indifference to the complex issue of nationality relations (on which Abdulatipov has written widely), there has been speculation that the president will ignore the informal requirement that Abdulatipov's successor be a Dargin.

Among the various non-Dargins identified as possible candidates are two representatives of the security services: Interior Minister Lieutenant General Abdurashid Magomedov (a Lezgin) and Lieutenant General Shamsutdin Dagirov (a Kumyk), who heads the Federal Fire-Fighting Service Academy. According to journalist Milrad Fatullayev, Oleg Belaventsev, who replaced Melikov as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, is actively lobbying for Dagirov. But in light of the demise of the North Caucasus insurgency over the past four to five years, Putin may consider the arguments for naming a "silovik" as republic head less compelling than the need for resolute measures to crack down on the large-scale corruption and embezzlement of budget funds for which the republic is seen by some as a byword.

If Putin's primary concern is indeed stopping the hemorrhaging of cash from Daghestan's budget, it arguably makes sense to name as republic head an outsider who is not vulnerable to pressure from the various clans. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Khloponin, who was Melikov's predecessor as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus and thus knows the region well, has been identified as a possible candidate, but the post would be a demotion for him and it is questionable whether he is ruthless enough.

Abdulatipov himself told Daghestan's parliament on September 28 that he suggested to Putin several potential successors. But Daghestani journalists have expressed doubt that Putin would be guided by Abdulatipov in making his choice. Fatullayev makes the point that "many of Putin's personnel appointments are totally unexpected and unpredictable, given that he makes decisions based on motives known only to himself."

Sagitov similarly told the news portal Caucasian Knot that without the benefit of inside information from a member of the Russian presidential administration, trying to predict whom Putin will name as Abdulatipov's successor is about as scientific as reading coffee grounds.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Ramazan Abdulatipov's mistakes in Daghestan seem to have finally been too much.

On September 27, one day after members of his administration had rejected rumors of his imminent resignation as unfounded, Ramazan Abdulatipov told a Moscow radio station that he had decided to step down as Republic of Daghestan head on account of his age. (He turned 71 last month.)

A medic by training, Abdulatipov is a former academic, State Duma deputy, and Russian deputy prime minister who also served from 2005-09 as Russian ambassador to Tajikistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin first named him as acting head of his native Daghestan in January 2013 following the preterm resignation of Magomedsalam Magomedov, who was subsequently offered a senior post in Moscow as a deputy presidential administration head. Abdulatipov was confirmed as republic head by Daghestan's parliament in September 2013 with 86 of a possible 90 votes.

Although Abdulatipov explained his decision to step down in terms of his age, in light of misfortunes that have dogged his tenure it might be that Putin simply lost patience with him.

What is puzzling is why Putin waited so long -- unless National Guard first deputy head Sergei Melikov, who has long been regarded as the most likely successor to Abdulatipov but has reportedly refused the post three times, has now been prevailed upon to change his mind.

Fighting The 'Ministate'

Abdulatipov initially defined his remit as republic head as transforming what he described as a feudal ministate in which powerful clans or interest groups vied with each other for control of potential sources of revenue and local administrators milked their fiefdoms for personal gain for years on end while ignoring the needs and grievances of the local population.

From the outset, those powerful interest groups appear to have systematically sought to block or sabotage any major initiative launched by Abdulatipov -- such as cracking down on the shadow economy -- that they perceived as a direct threat. It was reportedly the influence they wield that Melikov cited as the reason for not wanting Abdulatipov's job.

Abdulatipov argued in 2013 that as a result of that lethal combination of corruption, indifference, and personal greed, entire sectors of the economy -- specifically agriculture and industry -- had collapsed to the point that they needed rebuilding from scratch. Meanwhile, the shadow economy reportedly had expanded to account for 40-60 percent of all economic activity, while tax revenues were the lowest in Russia. In 2010, they stood at just 5.4 percent of GDP, compared with the all-Russian average of 13.4 percent.

Abdulatipov hoped to revitalize the republic's government by bringing in new people brimming with energy and new ideas but found himself constrained, partly by the unwritten law on the fair distribution of ministerial posts among the region's various ethnic groups, to rely primarily on rotating existing personnel. Consequently, although he has replaced most local administration heads, in most cases economic performance has not improved and corruption levels have not fallen.

'Catastrophic' Situation

Scarcely a week goes by without a new case of embezzlement surfacing. But the Russian-language publication Novoye Delo reported last week that of 83 corruption trials so far this year, only two ended with the accused being sentenced to a prison term.

As for the republic's economy, the independent daily Chernovik regularly highlights the discrepancy between actual economic data and the glowing progress vaunted by Abdulatipov and members of the republic's government. In February 2017, a session in Moscow of the NGO Caucasus Civil Forum adopted a resolution declaring that "the social, economic, and political situation in Daghestan is close to catastrophic...[and] the people are getting poorer and the bosses richer," and appealing to Putin to fire the republic's entire leadership and bring back direct elections for the post of republic head.

Corruption was said to be a major contributing factor to one of the most serious political scandals of Abdulatipov's tenure as republic head -- the government's failure, despite repeated injunctions from Moscow and massive subsidies, to complete on schedule the restoration of the southern town of Derbent to mark the 2,000th anniversary of its foundation.

Arguably even more serious from Moscow's point of view was the Daghestani leadership's purportedly heavy-handed efforts to influence the outcome of the September 2016 elections to the Russian State Duma and the new Daghestani parliament.

A new political party, The People Against Corruption, was said to have been pressured into withdrawing its candidates, and an audio clip was posted online in which a speaker tentatively identified as first deputy presidential-administration head Aleksei Gasanov (others present addressed him as Aleksei Petrovich) impressed on local mayors the need to do everything in their power to ensure that the opposition party Rodina's candidates did likewise.

The actual vote was reportedly marred by egregious procedural violations such as ballot stuffing and the theft of ballot boxes, apparently resulting in a far higher proportion of the vote being cast for the ruling United Russia party than in most of the other 855 federation subjects. Dispatched by Putin in January to evaluate numerous complaints of blatant malpractice, Russian Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova was quoted as asking Abdulatipov to his face, "Does the president really need some obsequious fool to inflate [Unified Russia's] percentage [of the vote] for him?"

No Successes Here

Despite his extensive publications on the hot-button issue of relations between Russia's various ethnic groups, Abdulatipov has shown remarkably little sensitivity to or sympathy for the justifiable grievances expressed by some of Daghestan's smaller nationalities. His indifference to mass protests in June in the predominantly Nogai-populated northern Kizlyar district at a government directive that would have deprived many villagers of access to agricultural land so outraged the Nogais that they convened a pan-national congress and adopted a formal appeal to Putin to intervene.

Critics say Abdulatipov has shown himself equally indifferent to pressing social issues, including the nationwide campaign to resettle families living in derelict housing in line with a directive Putin issued personally. Visiting Daghestan in late May, presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Oleg Belaventsev warned Abdulatipov that he would be held personally responsible if the deadline for completion of that resettlement was not met.

Citing lack of budget funds, the Daghestani leadership was constrained in August to beg Moscow to extend from September 1 to October 16 the date for completion of resettling 502 households in Derbent.

Finally, Abdulatipov cannot even take personal credit for what might be the lone positive trend in Daghestan over the past four years: the demise of the North Caucasus insurgency. Fatalities in clashes between the insurgency and the law enforcement bodies have fallen from 341 in 2013 to 127 in 2016. That decline might well be primarily due to the exodus, starting in late 2013, of many fighters to Syria, and partly also to the killing in 2015 of the last two identified commanders of the virtual North Caucasus Emirate, Aliaskhab Kebekov and Magomed Suleymanov, both Avars from Daghestan.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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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