Dagestan and the art of government

Sergei Markedonov
20 February 2009

At the beginning of February, attention in Dagestan, the largest republic in the North Caucasus, was riveted on a story that unfolds like a political detective novel.It takes place against the unlikely setting of Dagestan's tax department (FTSD).

It began on 17 November 2008 when the head of the FRSD, Nazim Apaev, resigned. The position stood vacant for several months. Traditionally, the position of head tax-collector is held by a Lezgin (the dominant ethnic group in the southern part of the republic). However, on 2 February it transpired that the new incumbent would be a Russian called Vladimir Radchenko.

He was not a public figure. He had risen through the ranks, from being an ordinary tax inspector to the head of the FTSD office in Karachevo-Cherkesia. After that, he took a break from service and worked as a businessman. The appointment did not prove a happy one.

As soon as word got out that an "outsider" had got the job, mass protests began. Radchenko was warned that his office had been mined. The department building was picketed, and in Makhachkala the city's roads were blocked. On the day of his appointment Radchenko could not even reach his own office. 

A few days later Radchenko was kidnapped. He was not held hostage for long, as the purpose of the kidnapping was to prove a point. Later, Radchenko himself claimed that the son of the republic president Gadzhimurad Aliev, who is deputy head of the FTSD, was involved. This theory was not officially confirmed. Kasumbek Amirbekov, who heads the department leading the investigation, said that one theory they were  examining was that the kidnapping had been staged. It is unclear who could have done this though, as Radchenko lacked the considerable resources required to carry out such a scheme in Dagestan.

Once mooted, theories take on a life of their own. There were those who wanted to believe in the kidnapping, there were others who wanted to believe it was staged. Ten days after Radchenko was appointed, the appointment was annulled (Radchenko himself said that his dismissal had been "backdated").

The president's explanation

The finale of this story (perhaps only a temporary finale) came when Dagestan's president Mukhu Aliev announced on 16 February 2009 that the problems with Dagestan tax service department were the fault of the "irresponsible and unprincipled behavior" of the head of the tax service of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mokretsov.

According to the president, Mr. Mokretsov was a hostage "to certain Dagestani Muscovites lobbying for their interests in the republic". The Radchenko case was part of a larger power battle in Dagestan, he said. Radchenko's lobbyists were "destructive forces who will use any means necessary in their battle for power. They are after money, and they are prepared to use the media, criminal connections and other ties in federal power structures". Aliev refrained from making direct accusations and giving specific names of the leaders of these "destructive forces". Perhaps these names will soon be forthcoming.

However that may be, a representative of the structure that governs the Russian Federation, a structure based on the principles of the "vertical of power", was unable to start work in the position to which he was appointed. "Of course it looks bad when a federal official in Dagestan is not allowed to start work in his post," said Dagestan's president: "But what kind of a federal official was this? Who appointed him? He was actually an imposter. Such appointments have to be made by the Russian Finance Minister in agreement with the head of the republic. This, the minister did not do".

Let us assume that the federal structures did make serious procedural errors;  that they overestimated their status; that they did not agree the candidacy in the proper way but took the infamous "vertical of power" for granted, believing that now the "terrible '90s" were over the regional establishment did not need to be handled with kid gloves.

Perhaps the "Lezgian protest" does not offer a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the theory of a conspiracy of "clans" within Dagestan doesn't either. But nor in fact does the president's theory. It can't have been the deciding factor in the "Radchenko case". For it does not really explain why it happened.

Could it just have been a case of lack of professionalism, at the least, on the part of the federal structures, for having tried to impose a "technocratic" solution without any understanding of local sensibilities? Hardly, for if you lack the resources to impose your will, you just have to negotiate. 

The Lezgian theory

 Let's examine the "Lezgian theory" a little more closely. During the first days, this was the explanation that was being offered for local resistance to the appointment of an outsider. Here we are dealing with a deep-rooted stereotype. Dagestan is a multi-ethnic community, and ensuring harmonious inter-ethnic relations is the basis of stability within the republic. So the key positions are divided between ethnic elites. Violating this balance will lead to serious problems, if not to an explosion.

While this is all true, it is also not quite true. Until 2006 no one occupied the presidential post in Dagestan, and the head of the State Council (a body that includes representatives of the republic's 14 major ethnic groups) was Magomedali Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin. In 2006, Mukhu Aliev, an ethnic Avar became the first president of Dagestan. This led to a certain redistribution of powers and the ethnic balance. But the republic did not collapse.

As for the instability we have seen in recent years, there was plenty of that in the years when Dagestan was ruled by the State Council. We may be going through a ninth wave of acts of terrorism and sabotage right now, and the anti-terrorist operation in the famous aul of Gimry is fresh in our minds. But in the 1990s there was the rebellion in Makhachkala, the creation of the "Special Islamic territory" in the "Kadar zone", and a series of ethnic conflicts.

Both then and now, the informal approach to these problems worked much better than the imposition of law and order. In our opinion, Konstantin Kazenin, a serious scholar of Dagestan,  is right when he concluded that: "The average Lezgian Dagestani in full control of his mental powers is not remotely interested in the ethnicity of the head tax-collector, not even in his native town or region, let alone on the level of the republic. What is more, there were plenty of influential Lezgins who supported Mr. Radchenko's appointment." It is no accident that the media mentioned possible links between Radchenko and Suleiman Kerimov (an influential entrepreneur, a "Moscow Dagestani" of Lezgian ethnicity).

Nor was the resistance to Radchenko's appointment confined to Lezgians. People of Avar ethnicity also appear to have been involved in expelling Radchenko - he himself implicated the president's son, an ethnic Avar. The president too did not approve of Radchenko's appointment. So the theory about the disruption of the ethnic balance being the basis for "expelling the outsider" is unconvincing. 

Non-ethnic dividing lines

In Dagestan ethnic boundaries are not the only "dividing lines". Fidelity to the republic has always been far more important than the "blood principle". For example, the Chechen-Akkins of Dagestan value their Dagestani identity higher than the notion of "solidarity" with the Ichkeria of Dudaev and Maskhadov.

The republic is also riven with confrontations between different schools of Islam. There is the Tariqah school, versus the so-called "renewed" school, which itself can be very approximately divided into the unofficial and the radical (Salafid) which our journalists call "Wahhabi". Within this mosaic, a Lezgin, Avar and Dargin (if they are Tariqah followers) may find themselves pitted against a Lezgin, Avar and Dargin who are Salafid followers.

The Russian Dagestani factor

Even this does not exhaust the complexity of Dagestan's fractured allegiances. In the post-Soviet period many natives of Dagestan settled elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Despite all the difficulties (from the so-called ‘face control' of the Moscow police to administrative barriers), many were able to make a career, receive prestigious education, open their own business, earn money and become successful managers, intellectuals and businessmen. Now some of them would like return home and "pay their debts" to the republic, using their material and moral capital. During their years of self-imposed exile, the identity of "Dagestani" became no less important for many of them than their ethnic origin.

So we also have the rivalry between Russian Dagestanis of different ethnicities and the republic's own multi-ethnic bureaucracy. We might, for instance, find a Lezgin from the FTSD becoming an ally of the Avars in the president's circle to stop the interests of (so far?) unnamed "Moscow Dagestanis" from entering the republic. Their ambitions might have come into conflict with those of Dagestan's power elite of Dagestan at other levels.

Dagestan's power elite

This elite formed during the time of the Communist Party, and it has not changed nearly as much as that of neighbouring republics. It is used to having carte blanche from Moscow to stabilize the situation. It does not expect to have competition.  Makhachkala may know how to deal with ethno-nationalists or religious radicals, but it is less clear about how to deal with this new wave of internal emigrants. Some may be easy to co-opt into Dagestan's own power structure, and some not. But few have given much strategic thought as to how to deal with this issue.

Unfortunately, Moscow prefers to observe the situation from afar, without involving itself too much in the local specifics. One need not look far to find examples. For instance, on 10 February, when the "Radchenko case" had already been going on for a week, Russian President Medvedev met with Dagestan's president. And what was the outcome? Were those who violated the principles for selecting the candidate for the head of the republic's tax service punished? Did the president criticize the republic's elites for their treatment of the "outsider from Moscow"? Rather than looking for the culprit of an incident which surely reflects badly on government, Medvedev merely "instructed" Aliev to "pay more attention to issues relating to security and fighting crime. Rather than  a substantial discussion of the republic's problems (which are serious enough without Radchenko), our newspapers and television were once again treat to a sort of ceremonial Caucasian toast. Well, that's government for you.

Sergei Markedonov is Head of the Department for the Study of Inter-ethnic Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, and a Candidate of Historical Science.




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