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Vladimir Vasilyev, acting leader of the North Caucasus region of Daghestan, attends his presentation ceremony in Makhachkala on October 5.

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.

Former Daghestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov
Former Daghestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov

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?

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze has categorically rejected accusations of vote-rigging.

In the run-up to the Georgian municipal elections scheduled for October 21, the ruling Georgian Dream party has been accused of resorting to the use of administrative resources and pressure to ensure victory for its own candidates.

Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze and former Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, who is running for the post of Tbilisi mayor, both categorically rejected those allegations as untrue and unfounded.

Central Election Commission (TsSK) Chairwoman Tamar Zhvania, however, has said that there have been instances of the use of administrative resources but added that the number of such complaints has declined compared with previous years.

In an as-yet-unpublished report summarized at a press conference on October 17, representatives of Transparency International Georgia said some kindergarten heads were asked (where and by whom is unclear) to draft lists of parents who would vote for Georgian Dream. The NGO also said that in the predominantly Azeri-populated district of Dmanisi, southeast of Tbilisi, Georgian Dream members forced local Muslims to swear on the Koran that they would vote for the ruling party.

Meanwhile, 14 extraparliamentary opposition parties accused Georgian Dream of seeking to engineer the election outcome to ensure that the European Georgia party, which split early this year from the former ruling United National Movement, places second, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on October 16. European Georgia rejected that allegation as “rumor and utter rubbish.”

The opposition parties also claimed that over 200 opposition candidates for local councils have withdrawn from the race under pressure from the ruling party. They further complained of restricted access to the media, resulting in what they termed “an uneven and discriminatory preelection environment.”

Independent Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili, for his part, claimed the Central Election Commission has refused to allow election observers to verify the accuracy of voter lists. He construed that alleged refusal as evidence that the supreme election body is intent on falsifying the outcome of the vote in favor of Georgian Dream. Zhvania promptly denied that Elisashvili’s supporters have been denied access to voter lists, InterPressNews.ge reported.

The swift and categorical official reactions to such accusations are understandable, for several reasons.

First, Georgian Dream is particularly vulnerable to allegations of malpractice after being consistently criticized over a period of months by opposition parties across the political spectrum for pushing through parliament constitutional amendments widely seen as designed to ensure it remains in power indefinitely.

Second, voter turnout in local elections is traditionally lower than for parliamentary ballots, and these elections are unlikely to prove an exception, given what the U.S. National Democratic Institute termed “little visible competition or contest of ideas and policies.”

And third, in light of the large number of parties registered to participate (22, plus five electoral blocs and one initiative group) and the low popularity rating of all major parties, including Georgian Dream, observers predict that a second round of voting will be needed, especially in the five cities (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Poti, and Rustavi) that are to elect a new mayor. No fewer than 13 candidates are vying for the post of Tbilisi mayor, including one representing former parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili’s new Construction Movement.

The elections are the first to take place since parliament amended the law on self-government in late June to reduce from 12 to five the number of towns and cities where the mayor is directly elected. The rationale cited for depriving seven towns of separate municipal status and merging them with the surrounding eponymous region was to save money, but opposition parties nonetheless alleged that the decision was intended to facilitate a Georgian Dream victory in the upcoming municipal elections, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on July 5.

An opinion poll conducted between mid-June and early July by the National Democratic Institute established that 59 percent of the population disapproved of the change, while only 16 percent approved it, with 45 percent predicting it will have a negative impact on the country. Whether those who disapprove will simply not bother to vote, or register their displeasure by voting for one of the opposition parties, remains to be seen.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting on October 19, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili instructed all state bodies to ensure that the actual vote on October 21 does not furnish the slightest grounds for further allegations of the unfair use of administrative resources.

“I want to appeal in the first instance to state bodies, secondly to political forces, and thirdly to society as a whole: Let’s hold these elections in such a way that it is a further step forward to strengthening truly European democracy in Georgia, so that forced elections are consigned to the past once and for all, and such terms from the past as falsified, forced elections are forgotten,” InterPressNews.ge quoted him as saying.

To Georgian Dream’s rivals, that appeal may sound like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

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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