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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Moscow’s Frequent Replacement of Leaders in Makhachkala has Done Little to Decriminalize Daghestan, Experts Say

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Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Moscow is on its fourth leader in Daghestan in the past decade, something that highlights the growing importance of that North Caucasus republic in the center but that has done little or nothing to decriminalize the situation or put the republic on the path to economic growth, Sergey Zharkov says, summarizing the views of experts.

            The analyst for the Prague-based Caucasus Times says this reflects both the specific nature of Daghestani society and politics and problems beyond its borders, including the ways in which the strength of clan-based criminality there is linked into and protected by criminal authorities in Moscow (

            As a result, Zharkov suggests, Moscow’s constant seeking out of new republic heads reminds one of “a change in the decorations in a theater where most of the actors remain the same.” Republic heads change, but despite some high profile moves by them, political and social arrangements below them continue much as they did before this last decade.

            “None of the last three leaders of Daghestan, including Magomedsalam Magomedov, Ramazan Abdulatipov, and Vladimir Vasiliyev, served to the end of their terms,” he says; but despite that, the council of ministers consists mostly of the same people in the same positions they occupied when these changes began.

            This is likely a general problem with Moscow’s approach to regions: it changes the person at the top at will but can or chooses to do little to ensure that the new leadership really addresses local problems and introduces change. But at the same time, Daghestan because of its nature may present an extreme case of this.

            It is the largest, most densely populated, and most multi-ethnic federal subject in the country, and it is the only one that does not have a single titular nation but rather four large and several dozen smaller ethnic groups. As a result, each governor faces the same problem as his predecessors: “the struggle with clans” based on these communities.

            What each governor has done is to go after one or two high profile individuals but then to allow the system to continue more or less unchanged.  But now, as a result of the pandemic and the Karabakh war and its aftermath, that may not be enough because Daghestan’s importance has grown as port on the Caspian and oil processing center has increased dramatically.

            According to Eduard Urazayev, former nationalities minister in the republic, the new governor Sergey Melikov may feel pressure to do something more but so far more than half of his senior aides are people who have been in power since Abdulatipov’s time, raising questions about his intentions and even ability to act.

            Melikov has made one declaration that suggests he will adopt a new approach soon, Murtuz Durgichilov, former head of the Daghestani service at Radio Liberty. The republic head said that under him, “the popular assembly will be structured according to the ethnic pattern of the republic, but the government of Daghestan will be formed by professional standards.”

            The former will preserve the ethnic balance in the republic, while the latter, if in fact Melikov acts on it, will mean an entirely new approach, one that could destabilize the situation and make Daghestan more of a problem for Moscow than it now is. And there is a larger problem as well.

            If Melikov does challenge the ethnic balance in the republic government – and as the first Lezgin in the top job there in more than a century, his own person represents a threat to many – then instability is likely. And more than that, because the republic’s ethnic clans have protectors in Moscow, it could unbalance political relationships there.

            History suggests that the new governor may take some high-profile actions but won’t go too far lest he come into conflict not only with forces in his own republic but in Moscow as well. If he steps over the line, some at the center will likely work to remove him, actions that will only continue the kaleidoscope of power in Daghestan.

            And while yet another new leader may arrive, he too will find himself far more constrained than he could have imagined. As a result, Daghestan is likely to continue to live its own life, no matter how much some in Makhachkala or Moscow would like to see significant change.

Window on Eurasia — New Series