Dagestan Hit by Wave of Protests

Demonstrations are nothing new in Dagestan, but this year they have increased in number and scale.

Dagestan Hit by Wave of Protests

Demonstrations are nothing new in Dagestan, but this year they have increased in number and scale.

Thursday, 11 January, 2007
A series of protest rallies across Dagestan are a test for the North Caucasian republic’s new president.

On December 13, around 2,000 people rallied in the village of Khuchni in Tabasaran, a district in the foothills of the southern Dagestani mountains.

The district, where the Tabasaran ethnic group lives, was considered a peaceful place until recently. The area is famous for the traditional carpet weaving performed by its women, for its gardens and favourable climate.

Another demonstration was held there on November 27. Organised by the local opposition, it was disrupted by relatives and friends of head of the administration, with the son of the latter snatching the microphone from the hands of those who made speeches at the rally. On the same day, supporters of the local administration gathered for a celebration to mark the naming of several streets in Khuchni after local Soviet-era party bosses.

Abdulvagaba Abdulov, business manager in the Tabasaran district’s administration, justified the break-up of the rally by saying that notification of the demonstration had been sent to the wrong address - not to the Khuchni village administration, as required by the law, but to the district’s administration.

Abdulov told IWPR, “The district authorities have nothing to do with the fight. Some young people were provoked by something and brawled with one another. The festivities commemorating Tabasaran’s prominent figures were planned long ago. The organisers of the protests are no kind of opposition, but just resentful people, who were in power once and did nothing good.”

One of the organisers of the rally, a local teacher named Migdat Hajiev, said unemployment was so high in the district that entire villages were emptying as their residents left to find work in other regions. “People are outraged by the complete disappearance of funds to solve the district’s social-economic problems,” he said.

Hajiev said that sums earmarked for a hazelnut- growing programme had been misspent and the land allocated for it was now being burned and ploughed up.

Protests are nothing new in Dagestan, but this year they have increased in number and scale and have been held throughout the autonomous republic.

Residents of the Kazbek district that borders with Chechnya have held several anti-corruption rallies in Makhachkala during the past months. The district is home to ethnic Chechens and Avars. On November 13 and 22, they rallied in front of the prosecutor’s office and tried to march to the presidential and government offices, but were blocked by the police. A scuffle followed, that resulted in several people, including journalists, being injured.

Having received no response, residents of Kazbek district took their complaints to the prosecutor’s office of the Southern Federal District in Rostov-on-Don. A commission of enquiry arrived in the district in early in December, and a number of legal cases were opened into economic and criminal offences.

Abdulnasyr Dibirov, rector of Dagestan’s Institute of Economics and Politics, explains the turmoil as a clash between the new political elite and the old administrative one in the provinces.

“The political power - the president and his team - enjoys a high level of legitimacy with the population, while the administrative system - above all, personified by heads of district administrations - arouses hatred among the public,” he said.

Mukhu Aliev, the president of Dagestan, is 66 and a former Soviet-era official but is popular and has a generally honest reputation. He was appointed to his post in February this year.

Dibirov said most chiefs of district and town administrations were corrupt and illegitimate, but Aliev had little power to move against them.

“The president of the republic has no legitimate leverage to dismantle this old administrative system,” said Dibirov. “Even formally, it’s not an easy thing to do. They are all elected either by a popular vote, or by representative bodies of the local self-government. The president cannot dismiss them, unless there’s an appropriate court ruling.”

“Many of the allegations by protesters, such as, for instance, about embezzlement of budgetary funds or squandering of lands, can be confirmed. But since the republic’s law-enforcement system is no less corrupted and clan-based, criminal cases are never instigated. Demonstrations do happen, and more are likely to come. The people are using the simplest and most readily available method to defend its rights.”

Shamil Murtazaliev, a lawyer and one of the opposition leaders in the Kazbek region, told IWPR that Aliev was in a difficult position when confronted with what he called the “spider’s web” of the municipal authorities.

“He can’t give empty promises to people which is why he avoids meeting representatives of the demonstrators,” said Murtazaliev. “The public supports him but if he wages a tough fight against heads of regional administrations then he will alienate a lot of influential people and lose control over parliament.”

Parliamentary elections are due in Dagestan in March next year, and are raising the political temperature in the republic.

Experts say a number of specific issues are motivating the protests. “Illegal or unfair distribution of lands is at the heart of most social conflicts in Dagestan,” said sociologist Hajimurat Kamalov. “Peasants are losing lands, on which they have been working up ‘till now.”

Another strong grievance is the alleged embezzlement of budgetary funds, which is what drove demonstrators in the southern mountainous Dokuzpar district, to clash with police in May, causing one death and two injuries.

Miyasat Sheikhova, head of the information and analysis department of the presidential administration, said claims about increasing grievances were exaggerated. There are 52 municipal entities in the republic, and protests have happened only in four or five of them, she said.

“This does not fit with the notion of mass protests,” she said. “At the same time, grievances do exist and they are justified. Human rights and laws are being violated, and the problems have been accumulating for a long time. After Mukhu Aliev was appointed president of the republic, people have become more optimistic and able to talk openly about these problems.”

Sheikhova said a special governmental commission had been set up to deal with the conflicts. In one such conflict, the president, after listening to both sides, recommended that head of that district’s administration should resign

Musa Musayev is a freelance journalist working in Makhachkala, Dagestan.

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