Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rise of Northern Alliance in Dagestan

Fears of political instability grow after two powerful regional leaders challenge the head of the republic.
By Magomed Isayev

The leadership in Russia’s southernmost republic, Dagestan, is under intense pressure after two of its regional leaders showed open dissent.


The leaders of the northern towns Kizlyar and Khasavyurt signalled their new-found confidence when a group of their supporters made a surprise high-profile trip to the south of Dagestan earlier this month, where they met an influential cleric said to command tens of thousands of supporters in the region.


The first signs of a new challenge to the Dagestani leadership began in April in Kizlyar. The head of the region is elected by the deputies of the local regional parliament (the council of deputies). For some time, the acting head, Valentin Yeremeev, who is supported by Dagestan’s leader Magomedali Magomedov, has been the main candidate.


However, this time Yeremeyev faced a challenge from Saigid Murtazaliev, Olympic wrestling champion in Sydney in 2000. Murtazaliev holds great sway, particularly amongst the Dagestanis who come from the mountains, which encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring in the race for the post of regional head.


Almost immediately, Murtazaliev was accused of nationalism in a region that has a large ethnic Russian population and where there has long been an unwritten rule that it should be governed by a Russian. At the last minute, Murtazaliev stood aside and threw his weight behind a relatively unknown Russian candidate named Vyacheslav Burov.


Burov easily won the vote on April 8, but Yeremeyev and his supporters complained that the election had been held without a necessary quorum of voters. So fresh elections were held two weeks later, this time with the necessary quorum, and Burov was again the winner. Soon afterwards, Murtazaliev was named head of government in the region.


After this setback, Magomedov announced, “We recognise this victory - it was won with a quorum of voting deputies - but there was no need to inflame tensions in Dagestan. It was perfectly possible to resolve this issue peacefully.”


An anonymous source from the State Council of Dagestan told IWPR that, before voting began, deputies were offered huge sums of money - up to 100,000 US dollars and more – to vote for one or other candidate. No one will comment on this allegation, and the source did not say whether anyone took the money.


The election of Burov made a second wing in what has been dubbed Dagestan’s “Northern Alliance”, strengthening the republic’s leading rebel politician, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, currently mayor of the northern town of Khasavyurt, which borders Chechnya.


“The rebels have gained another strategic outpost – Kizlyar region,” said Hamid Kurbanov, head of Dagestan’s local centre for political and social research. “As a result, Magomedov and his team do not control almost 15 per cent of the territory of the republic.


“And if three years ago a public show of resistance by the mayor of Khasavyurt to the leadership of the republic was considered a wild exception, today the opposition has significantly expanded.”


Last summer, Umakhanov threatened to withdraw his local police force from the Dagestani interior ministry, but both sides backed down from outright confrontation. Umakhanov is believed to have received support from powerful Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, and still has 2,000 armed supporters and control of the second largest town in Dagestan.


On April 28 of this year, a scandal erupted when Umakhanov complained of harassment as he made his way to a special tenth anniversary session of Dagestan’s parliament, the People’s Assembly.


Parliamentary deputy Gazimagomed Gimrinsky told IWPR that Murtazaliev, State Duma deputy Haji Makhachev and others became involved in an argument with the head of the republic when Umakhanov did not make it to the session. When he and his entourage finally entered Makhachkala, members of the local police wanted to search him and his supporters.


Umakhanov told IWPR, “Oddly, no one else who came to take part in the anniversary session was submitted to such meticulous inspection.


“As for the issue of my bodyguards carrying weapons, considering the huge number of threats I receive, this is a necessary measure. This was an attempt to humiliate me publicly and make me the laughing stock of the whole republic. But I have no intention of helping them play games like that.”


Inside the parliament, the majority of deputies supported Magomedov, and around 200 opposition supporters left the hall.


On May 2 the situation became still more fraught, when the Northern Alliance sought to make new allies in the south, mounting a 52-car expedition to the southern town of Derbent.


Kaflan Khanbabaev, a representative of the committee for religious affairs of the government of Dagestan, told IWPR, “They went to Derbent where they met the influential sheikh Sirazhudin Khurigsky, who has as many as 40,000 active supporters in the southern regions.”


The sheikh’s supporters were at the centre of an unprecedented fight between different groups of parishioners in Dagestan’s oldest mosque in April. He is also an independent-minded figure showing increasing disrespect for the authorities in Makhachkala. (See Dagestan: Muslim Factions Clash, CRS 282, April 15, 2005, http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/cau/cau_200504_282_2_eng.txt)


Magomedov has been head of the republic for 14 years and in that time has acquired the reputation of being a guarantor of stability. However, he is now 75-years-old, and stands accused of failing to solve Dagestan’s social problems. There is increasing uncertainty about his future, now that the Kremlin has decided to appoint regional leaders.


The two leaders of the Northern Alliance, Umakhanov and Murtazaliev, are both young, energetic, have plenty of financial resources, and a team of devoted supporters. They are also both Avars, the largest ethnic group in the republic, whose elite has long been calling for a change of leadership. Magomedov is a Dargin, which is the second largest ethnic group.


The uncertainty is deepened by the fact that the Kremlin has so far not spoken out on the political feud and also because there is an ongoing crisis on another front - the fight between the law enforcement agencies and Islamic extremists. This has led some local political analysts to cautiously predict that Dagestan is on the brink of a wide-scale political crisis.


“At the same time, it is clear that the representatives of the Northern Alliance are by no means political opportunists. On the contrary, they are very sober players in the republic’s political scene,” said Kurbanov.


Kurbanov predicts that the two men will lobby Moscow for its support in the coming leadership struggle for Dagestan. Magomedov’s term as leader runs out next summer, but reports from Moscow suggest that the Kremlin wants to make its decision this November.


Magomed Isayev is a journalist with Molodezh Dagestana newspaper in Makhachkala.