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Dagestan: Magomedov's Days Numbered?

As speculation mounts over fate of republic’s ruler, trouble brews on border with Chechnya.
By Magomed Isayev

Dagestan’s leader Magomedali Magomedov, who has ruled for almost two decades, is to step down, according to top Dagestani officials and reports in the Russian media.

The reported development in the autonomous Russian republic comes as tensions with neighbouring Chechnya rise following a number of border incidents.

"I have irrefutable information that Magomedali Magomedov's days as chairman of the Dagestan State Council are numbered," a high-ranking source in the Dagestani government told IWPR. "The Kremlin has declined his request to grant him one more term in office.”

“In order to finally stabilise the situation in Dagestan, the decision was made to end Mr Magomedov's term and appoint another leader no later than this summer,” added the official. Magomedov’s term is slated to end in 2006.

According to the source, different candidates are currently being considered, including billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, local parliamentary speaker Mukhu Aliyev, and Russian Duma deputy Gaji Makhachev.

Some analysts have named Russian deputy general prosecutor Sabir Kekhlerov, who comes from Dagestan, as a possible contender, citing his apparent loyalty to the Kremlin and reputation for probity.

The IWPR source’s remarks are supported by persistent reports in the Russian media that Moscow does indeed plan to replace Magomedov, who has ruled Dagestan since 1988. An article in the Russian newspaper Gazeta claimed that the Dagestani leader’s resignation would take place on his 75th birthday, June 15 – though the day came and went without any announcement.

If Magomedov does step down, he’ll be second North Caucasian leader to do so in a matter of weeks. North Ossetia’s Alexander Dzasokhov resigned in early June.

Officials originally planned Dagestan’s first presidential elections for 2006, replacing a system where a collective authority - the State Council - elected the republic’s leader. Russian president Vladimir Putin last year cancelled all elections of regional leaders and effectively names them himself.

Since the beginning of the year, Russian newspapers have reported that the Kremlin is undecided about who should run Dagestan. The candidates’ ethnic background - Dagestan has more than 40 different ethnic groups - is said to be an important factor in discussions on the subject.

Magomedov is of Dargin origin, and many members of this community occupy senior government positions, while Avars - the largest ethnic group in the republic - have long lobbied for more political influence.

"State Council chairman Magomedali Magomedov is actively trying to prolong his time in office," Hamid Kurbanov, head of the Dagestani Centre for Political and Social Studies, told IWPR.

"He has certain trump cards, including his long experience, the fact that the republic's political system has been created to suit him personally, and the fact that he is the figure that most of the political, financial, and national elite unite around.”

According to the analyst, the Dagestani leader is a skilful politician who has been able to turn a number of conflicts in the republic to his advantage. Also, Magomedov's team succeeded in placing a large number of their own people in the municipal and regional administrations.

But it is clear that the final decision over who will lead the republic will be made not in Dagestan but in Moscow – and this may in the end hinge on the attitude of President Putin himself.

Ultimately, any discussion of Dagestani politics must take into account the role of the Northern Alliance, a recently-formed and apparently well-funded opposition movement based in Dagestan’s two main northern cities, Kizlyar and Khazavyurt.

The alliance is led by Saigid Murtazaliev, an Olympic wrestling champion in Sydney in 2000, and Saigidpasha Umakhanov, currently mayor of the northern town of Khasavyurt, which borders Chechnya. Both men are extremely popular and have launched an open campaign against Magomedov’s government.

Russian parliamentary deputy Suleyman Kerimov, believed to be Dagestan’s richest man, is said to be a key player in the alliance, and is strongly tipped to take over as the republic’s leader.

Magomedov appears to have come under pressure to resign because of the republic’s continuing economic woes - unemployment is put at 32 per cent and corruption is rife at all levels of power - which are causing growing social tensions.

Magomedov seems to have fared better at preserving regional peace, but that image is changing. Tensions with neighbouring Chechnya have been rising. Twenty-eight policemen and two village administration heads have been murdered since the beginning of this year.

Last week, Chechen police rounded up several people from the ethnic Dagestani village of Borozdinovskaya, located within Chechnya. One ethnic Dagestani was killed during the operation. Chechen officials claimed those detained were militants. Borozdinovskaya’s residents, however, claim that they have no interest in the conflict between the Russian government and Chechen rebels.

In Dagestan, groups twice blocked the federal Makhachkala-Astrakhan highway in protest. Demonstrators demanded a meeting with top military officials in order to free their ethnic kin. Both Chechen and Dagestani officials recognise that the situation could easily spin out of control.

"The situation is indeed explosive," Said Aliyev, senior Dagestani police official told IWPR. “If there is a conflict between the two key republics in the North Caucasus - Chechnya and Dagestan, the situation in the region will become uncontrollable.”

Around 4,000 members of the security forces from adjoining Russian regions have been brought in to help local police deal with Chechen insurgents, say officials. But there have been unconfirmed reports that the reinforcements have been deployed to prevent unrest in the event of Magomedov resigning.

Magomed Isayev is an IWPR contributor.