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Dagestani Mayor Rebels

A dissident mayor and his local police force have sparked a political crisis in Dagestan.
By Magomed Isayev

Dagestani leader Magomedali Magomedov is facing a stiff challenge to his authority from the mayor of the town of Khasavyurt, with the local police force rallying behind the republic’s new political rebel.


After senior police in Khasavyurt – a town of 100,000 people in western Dagestan, close to the border with Chechnya – defied orders to resign, the interior minister in Moscow sent a team to investigate the standoff, which has the potential to destabilise the most complex region in the North Caucasus.


On August 17, Magomedov announced that a criminal lawsuit for libel had been opened against the dissident mayor, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, and said steps were being taken to remove the mayor from office and dissolve the town assembly.


The trouble began on July 29 when a large rally was held in Khasavyurt, Mayor Umakhanov, while claiming that he did not organise the event, was the main speaker. He launched a devastating attack on the veteran Dagestani president, accusing him of responsibility for systemic corruption, failing to solve the republic’s economic problems, and even of being behind the 1998 assassination of the former leader of the republic’s Muslim community, mufti Said-Mukhammad-Haji Abubakarov.


“Surely we all really know who is behind Dagestan’s problems,” Umakhanov told the crowd. “The people know everything.”


He asked the rally participants, “Who killed the mufti of Dagestan?” – receiving in reply a chorus of “Magomedali!”


“The head of the republic has declared war on his people, and he has to go,” said Umakhanov.


The organisers of the Khasavyurt rally called for a republic-wide demonstration to be held on September 10.


In response, on August 5, Magomedov, who has two years to run on his constitutional term as leader of the republic, drummed up the support of the Dagestani State Council, the government, most of the deputies in the National Assembly, and all local-level leaders, except of course Umakhanov.


All these politicians expressed support for Magomedov. “Magomedali Magomedov has been a guarantor of stability in Dagestan for all these years,” Abdulla Tagirov, deputy head of administration in the Tsunti district, told IWPR. “During the whole period when war flared up in neighbouring Chechnya, when trouble broke out in one Caucasian region after another, by a miracle our republic remained at peace. We believe Magomedali Magomedov ought to serve out his term until 2006.”


Tagirov said his local district was about to hold a rally in support of Magomedov.


Magomedov, 74, has been in power since 1994 and is the last un-elected regional leader in the Russian Federation. He has enjoyed the support of Moscow, as a figure of continuity in a republic with a population of two million and dozens of ethnic groups.


Under constitutional changes enacted last year the republic will have its first direct elections in 2006 and Magomedov may run for office for the first time.


He is from the Dargin ethnic group, while Umakhanov belongs to Dagestan’s largest ethnic community, the Avars.


Umakhanov, who is a professional wrestler – his nephew Murad was trained by him and stands a chance of winning a medal for Russia in the Athens Olympics – was elected mayor of Khasavyurt in 1997. He was credited with keeping his town from being sucked into the violence in neighbouring Chechnya.


At first, relations between Umakhanov and Magomedov were good, but they began to deteriorate. Recently Magomedov accused the mayor of turning Khasavyurt into a separatist enclave, similar to the two radical Islamist villages Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi that defied central authority for two years until they were crushed in 1999.


“If the head of administration of Khasavyurt changes his attitude, we are ready to help and support him,” Magomedov said. “If not, we will force him to do so. We will no longer tolerate new Karamakhis on the territory of Dagestan. Today Dagestan is not the same and Russia is not the same.”


What has made the standoff far more serious is that the mayor has the support of the local police force. Magomedov charged Dagestan’s interior minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov with finding out why the Khasavyurt police had allowed the July 29 demonstration to go ahead, and a commission from Makhachkala was sent to the town to investigate.


After the commission reported back, the head of the Khasavyurt police force Omar Tupaliev and a number of senior officers were formally sacked. However Tupaliev responded by saying that his force was now working autonomously from the rest of Dagestan.


The Khasavyurt police then wrote a letter to Russian interior minister Rashid Nurgaliev, who has despatched a federal commission to the town. The commission will report back at the end of this week.


Political analyst Gamid Kurbanov said that Magomedov was now facing serious political opposition with Dagestan from a number of men – not only Umakhanov, but recently elected parliamentary deputy Magomed Gajiev and businessman Suleiman Kerimov.


“Last December’s elections in Dagestan to the [Russian] State Duma showed that Magomedov does not control the situation in the region one hundred per cent,” said Kurbanov.


Magomedov has tried to consolidate his power by sacking a number of local leaders and launching a new social and economic programme planned to work until 2010, the analyst said. However the opposition is playing on the republic’s continuing economic problems and the fact that a series of murders of prominent figures are still unsolved.


Worries are already being expressed about what the new crisis means for the security of this fragile republic.


Khasavyurt police sergeant Gaidar Ibragimov shared his anxieties with IWPR, saying, “Chechen fighters, knowing about these internal Dagestani feuds, may try to repeat what they did in June in Ingushetia [when more than 90 people died in a raid by Chechen rebels]. And here they will find some local extremists who will gladly support them.


“We have to find a way out of this situation: splits in Dagestan only play into the hands of our enemies.”


Magomed Isayev is executive secretary of Molodezh Dagestana newspaper in Makhachkala.


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