Dagestan Plots New Future

Wide-ranging constitutional changes will alter the way Dagestan is governed - and strengthen its current leader.

Dagestan Plots New Future

Wide-ranging constitutional changes will alter the way Dagestan is governed - and strengthen its current leader.

Dagestan's celebrations last month of Constitution Day, a little-noticed date in the local calendar, suddenly turned into a real event - the autonomous republic on the Caspian Sea had just adopted a new body of laws, which gives it a fundamentally new political structure.

For the first time, the southern mountainous republic will acquire a president elected by popular vote. It will gain a new one-chamber parliament with fewer members. And many of the complicated balancing measures which have been in force in Russia's most ethnically diverse region will disappear.

Pressure to make changes in Dagestan - which with a population of two million is the largest republic in the Russian North Caucasus - have come from both inside and outside.

Soon after he was elected Russian president in 2000, Vladimir Putin made it a priority to centralise power in the country. In June of that year, under pressure from Moscow, the local parliament in Dagestan made changes to twelve points in the constitution, which formally deprived it of the claims to sovereignty it had asserted for the previous decade.

There it seemed to end, and there was no suggestion that the centre would demand more changes to the political structure of the republic.

Since 1994, Dagestan has had a carefully devised political system, which reflects its extraordinary ethnic diversity. The supreme organ is the state council, which has 14 representatives from each of the republic's main ethnic groups - Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Russians, Chechens, Azerbaijanis, Tabasarans, Nogais, Rutuls, Aguls, Tsakhurs and Tats.

Parliament was elected by a specially devised procedure, which guaranteed a certain level of representation for all the ethnic groups, proportional to their size.

At the top of the pyramid was the veteran Communist-era politician Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin, who skilfully managed to secure his election and re-election to the post of chairman of the state council, by a constitutional assembly, not a popular vote. That meant Dagestan remained the last region in Russia not to have a leader elected by voters.

This system was designed to guarantee not only internal stability for the republic, but also that the loyalty of its political elite would lie with Moscow - a status quo that few were interested in changing. Indeed, elections to the state council took place last summer, and in March this year for election to the assembly.

But only six weeks after the parliamentary elections, it was announced that a 2001 federal law required Dagestan to make urgent changes to its system - namely that no less than half the number of deputies be elected by party lists as of June 14, 2003.

Things began to move with great speed. On May 30, the republic's main newspaper Dagestanskaya Pravda appeared with a big front-page headline proclaiming, "Constitutional Reform is Beginning".

The paper told its readers that the state council had met the day before and discussed the need for legislative amendments, under which at least half of the parliamentary deputies would have to be elected by proportional representation. "This brings with it the need for constitutional reform, including the reform of the organs of executive power in the republic," they concluded.

The paper also said that the state council had decided that the council itself "no longer met the new political challenges" of Dagestan and that it should be abolished and replaced by a new body with a single elected leader.

Aware that the population was worried about the possible loss of proportional ethnic representation, Dagestan's leaders initially proposed the creation of a two-chamber parliament.

At the next meeting of the state council on June 4, this idea was the main focus of discussion. Opening it, Magomedov declared, "Dagestan has entered a responsible phase in the reform of the structure of its organs of state power." The leadership now said that it preferred the idea of a one-chamber parliament, but many present disagreed, and no final decision was taken.

Six days later, parliament passed a draft constitution and the first reading of a new electoral law. These envisaged Dagestan having a popularly-elected leader serving out a four-year term, and a new one-chamber 60-member parliament replacing the current 121-member chamber.

Finally, on July 1, the constitutional commission settled all the outstanding issues. The new head of the republic would be called president and the parliament would have 72 members, of whom half would be elected from party lists and the other half from twelve regional three-member constituencies in which ethnic quotas would be introduced.

On July 10, the new constitution was adopted in a little over an hour so that it could come into force in two weeks' time - just in time for Constitution Day on July 26.

However, this does not mean that the new constitution will take effect soon. Theoretically, the existing state council and parliament can serve out their terms until 2006 and 2007 respectively.

The new arrangements play into Magomedov's hands, as he was not allowed to run for head of the state council in 2006, but will now be entitled to join the race for president under the new constitution - even though he will be 76 years of age.

Magomedov's main rival will probably be the mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, who is - like him - a Dargin. The main political result of these dramatic changes is that Dagestan is gearing up for new elections, when the old ones have only just finished.

Enver Kisriev is a senior researcher at Dagestan's Institute of History, Archaeology and History

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