Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Dagestan Leader Gets Third Term
The leader of Russia’s largest North Caucasian republic swept back into power on June 25 with communist-era efficiency.
Magomedali Magomedov’s emphatic re-election in an almost unanimous vote was testimony to the veteran politician’s survival skills and reward for his reputation as a loyal friend of Moscow in the turbulent region.
Magomedov won a third term as chairman of Dagestan's State Council, with an overwhelming 228 out of a possible 232 votes - the remainder going to a last-minute token candidate, the head of the regional audit chamber, Atai Aliev.
Multi-ethnic Dagestan, whose population numbers around two million, is the only region in Russia whose leader is not elected by popular vote - appointed instead by a Constitutional Assembly made up almost equally of members of the regional parliament and representatives of local administrations.
Magomedov’s nomination and election looked like a well-rehearsed formality. All proposed candidates for the assembly’s presidium were voted in unanimously without any questions asked.
The parliamentary speaker Mukhu Aliyev said, "Dagestan is the most important
republic in the northern Caucasus and it is very important that it should be
headed by people with vast political experience.
"I believe Magomedali Magomedov is the best suited candidate and, speaking
on behalf of the parliament, I call on you to support him."
The State Council, whose 14 members were also elected Tuesday, is the republic's principal executive body and functions as a sort of collegial president. Each of its
members represents one of the major ethnic groups that are entitled to hold
office under the region's 1994 constitution.
Other local ethnic groups - including Jews, Georgians, Tatars and others - are barred from the top echelons of power.
The vote took place amid high security, as police - on alert after last month's
deadly terrorist explosion in nearby Kaspiisk, which claimed 45 lives - blocked traffic and deployed elite OMON troops on the streets around the parliament and government building.
Regional political heavyweights like Makhachkala mayor Said Amirov and chief
prosecutor Imam Yaraliyev lent their support to Magomedov's bid, citing his "wisdom" and "prudence", which they said had helped ensure a decade of relative peace in a republic, flanked by volatile neighbours such as Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The nomination of Aliev as a rival candidate appeared to be an attempt to add a fig leaf of legitimacy to Magomedov’s election.
"It was just to make sure the outcome of the vote would not be challenged in court for being held without any alternatives," an official in Magomedov's administration said afterward, on condition of anonymity.
When the results were announced, the audience burst into a standing ovation and
the newly re-elected Magomedov said, “The outcome of the vote demonstrates that we managed to build up unity in our republican state machinery and among Dagestan’s multi-ethnic people.”
Sociologist Enver Kisriyev said the consensus in favour of Magomedov was understandable in the context of a clan-based system where diverse and conflicting government and business elites had already adjusted to life under the old leader and had no interest in seeing a redistribution of power and wealth.
"Here, after a ruler leaves, the pyramid he built will never remain intact," Kisriyev said.
Gadzi Abashilov, a member of the Dagestani parliament, put Magomedov’s easy return to power down to the fact that the republic’s state machinery is built on ethnic lines, which, he said, means neither parties nor the electorate can influence the political process.
The State Council chairman, 72, from the Dargin ethnic group, has headed the republic since 1991, when the newly-elected Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, took power away from Communist Party bodies and handed it to parliaments.
Magomedov, who had reached retirement age the year before and had been despatched by younger republican power brokers to occupy the decorative and toothless post of speaker of the regional parliament, suddenly found himself in charge.
In 1994, Magomedov, a former collective farm boss, was elected to head the
State Council for a probationory term of two years. Under Dagestan's 1994 constitution, representatives from different ethnic groups were supposed to rotate in the post. But in 1996, with war raging in neighbouring Chechnya, Magomedov demanded that his authority be extended for two more years.
The State Council chairman skilfully thwarted attempts by Avars, the largest ethnic group in the republic, to unseat him, by splitting the rival camp. He was voted in once more.
Magomedov was then re-elected in 1998, after his supporters in parliament axed the
requirement for ethnic rotation, saying it contradicted the Russian constitution and international law.
This led to public protests, but Makhachkala, where the Avar protesters attempted to organise their rallies, was already under control of Magomedov’s political ally and likely successor Said Amirov, who had been elected the city’s mayor a few months before.
In May 2001, Magomedov cemented his authority further, when he secured the legal right to run for a third term.
His dominance of Dagestan owes a great deal to a cosy relationship with the Kremlin. Unlike the other so-called ethnic republics, Dagestan has not called for sovereignty or special privileges in return for sharing its revenues with Moscow.
The republic has been home to federal troops and has supported the latest military campaign in Chechnya. After the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns, press reports accused Dagestani authorities of massaging the results, respectively, in favour of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
Dagestan also played a key role in Putin's rise to the presidency, allowing him to
show himself as a hard-talking and tough leader during the incursion by Islamic
militants from Chechnya into western Dagestan in August 1999.
For its part, Moscow has lent generous support to Magomedov's regime. Federal
subsidies make up as much as 85 per cent of the republic's budget and have nearly
tripled in real terms since Putin came to power.
Last month, Alexander Bespalov, a leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party,
visited the republic to campaign for Magomedov.
The public by contrast exhibited fatigue and a lack of hope that anything would change for the better. This was vividly reflected in the remarks of an old Dagestani who got stuck in a traffic jam in a bus together with this IWPR correspondent, after roads in downtown Makhachkala were blocked on election day.
“Let them give Magomedali a lifelong term in the State Council,” he said
wearily. “But they should just stop tormenting the common people with their games.”
Nabi Abdullayev is a correspondent with the Moscow Times.
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