How the Kremlin’s anti-corruption agenda masks federal control in the North Caucasus

But is there room for real political subjectivity between local and national corrupt power? RU

Badma Biurchiev
18 April 2018

Vladimir Vasilyev at meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, October 3, 2017. Photo CC BY 4.0: Kremlin.ru. Some rights reserved.Should we welcome the anti-corruption campaign launched by Moscow in Russia’s regions? This question is no less ambiguous than this one: “Should we take part in the Russian presidential elections?” With both supporters and opponents of the recent election boycott armed equally with logical arguments, this is a hard one to answer. But the fact that the results were known in advance renders the discussion somewhat meaningless.

It’s a similar situation with Russia’s anti-corruption agenda. On the one hand, it’s obvious: corruption is an evil that must be eradicated by any lawful means. On the other, behind the good intentions of the Russian state lurks the ruinous prospect of a super-centralised Russian state. As with the country’s elections, Russian society is faced with the problem of its role in legitimising the methods of Kremlin rule.

Attack on the clans

Vladimir Putin’s unexpected visit to Dagestan on 13 March confirmed experts’ conjectures that the appointment of Vladimir Vasilyev as acting head of the republic last October was linked, among other things, to the forthcoming presidential elections.

Commenting on Vasilyev’s appointment, sociologist Denis Sokolov reminded us that “People Against Corruption, a party with links to the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Dagestan, and one that has united many oppositionists, was prevented from participating in the People’s Assembly elections of September 2016 on account of a precipitous rise in its popularity. Following the election, accusations of mass fraud were widely levelled at the authorities – untampered, the results would have been catastrophic both for (former head of Dagestan Ramazan) Abdulatipov and United Russia.”

“The situation there is very challenging. Perhaps we may really lose Dagestan”

As per established tradition, Vasilyev kicked things off with a strident anti-corruption campaign. The months of January and February witnessed several high-profile arrests – namely, those of Makhachkala mayor Musa Musayev, the city’s chief architect Magomedrasul Gitinov, acting Dagestani prime minister Abdusamad Gamidov, his deputies Shamil Isayev and Rayudin Yusufov, and former Education Minister Shahabas Shahov. Senior officials stand accused of machinations with property and embezzling budget funds allocated to social programmes.


Ramazan Abdulatipov. Photo CC BY 3.0: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Back in 2013, Ramazan Abdulatipov, Vasilyev’s predecessor, kicked off his own reign in no less emphatic a manner.

Abdulatipov was appointed head of the republic in late January of that year, and less than six months later a military helicopter landed in Makhachkala’s main square – a helicopter that became a symbol of the struggle being waged by Russia’s federal centre against the regional elites. On that day, the helicopter took away the Dagestani capital’s charismatic mayor Said Amirov (nicknamed “The Immortal” by virtue of having survived 15 assassination attempts throughout his 22 years in power) and flew him to Moscow. Amirov was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment on terrorism charges.

In late July 2015, the siloviki (security forces) arrested Andrey Vinogradov, head of Dagestan’s Kizlyar district, and cordoned off the dacha of Sagid Murtazaliyev, chief of the Dagestani Pension Fund. The latter managed to escape detection and fled to the UAE. Murtazaliyev, a close friend of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and an Olympic freestyle wrestling champion, was arrested in absentia for funding terrorism.

It was under Abdulatipov, too, that the criminal prosecution of Derbent mayor Imam Yaraliyev began. Meanwhile, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, mayor of Khasavyurt since 1997, was forced to quit his post and take up that of Minister of Transport, Energy and Communications in the republican government. In addition, a car accident in December 2013 claimed the life of Dagestan’s deputy prime minister Gaji Makhachev, whose journey into big politics began in the early 1990’s with the founding of the Imam Shamil Avar Popular Movement. In Abdulatipov’s own words, he “replaced 26 district heads” during his tenure in office, as well as overseeing “two changes of government”. But, as people in Dagestan believe, Makhachev was also ultimately sucked into the battle of the clans.

The untouchables

Well-known Caucasus expert Sergey Markedonov draws attention to the fact that the so-called clans “did not come into existence as a result of any particular North Caucasian backwardness”. Rather, Markendonov believes, they came to the fore when “complex socio-political processes took place in Dagestan without the oversight required from the state, and the republic’s secular courts and law enforcement officials were unable to guarantee people protection and security.”


Makhachkala on Victory Data, 2015. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.“Against a backdrop of remarks that ‘terrorists should be wasted in the toilet’, high-ranking officials in the Kremlin haven’t given a great deal of thought to where the funding for the Dagestani militiamen’s arms and supplies is actually coming from,” Markedonov points out. “Things were no better when it came to the ruling party’s results at both Dagestani and national elections. For instance, the precipitous decline in the fortunes of the Dagestani branch of the Communist Party, which once enjoyed considerable popularity in the republic, attracted little attention.”

Putin made his now-proverbial remark about “wasting terrorists in the toilet” in the wake of the bombing of Chechnya’s capital by Russian fighter planes in September 1999. Shamil Basayev and Emir Khattab’s militants had invaded Dagestan a month previously. Russian prime minister Sergey Stepashin visited the republic in August 1999 – only to tender his resignation the following day with the words: “The situation there is very challenging. Perhaps we may really lose Dagestan.” Putin was then appointed acting prime minister; he arrived in Dagestan in late August, immediately following the militants’ retreat. Fifteen years later, Ramadan Abdulatipov would say that “it was here in Botlikh that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s political formation got underway.”

“The unrestricted war over power and money metamorphosed into a contest over posts and budgets – one circumscribed by implicit rules”

Indeed, it was in the fight against militant groups that a new Dagestani “elite” was formed. The above-mentioned Gaji Makhachev, Said Amirov and Saigidpasha Umakhanov came to preside over militia detachments during these challenging times for the region. Of course, they were already ambitious political players who’d earned their prestige through an occasionally bloody struggle against numerous opponents. But in the years since the juncture described by Putin as “the beginning of the resurgence of state power [gosudarstvennost’] and the country’s authority,” the means of actualising the reputational capital of “Putin’s foot soldiers” in the North Caucasus have changed. Indeed, in the Caucasus, they have become associated with statehood itself.


Said Amirov. Source: Wikipedia.“The unrestricted war over power and money metamorphosed into a contest over posts and budgets – one circumscribed by implicit rules,” this is how Denis Sokolov describes the early 2000s in Dagestan. “‘Noble robbery’, property seizures, caviar poaching and kidnapping gave way to the management of infrastructural enterprises, pension funds, social and medical services, funds from the Russian Agricultural Bank, and administering the allocation of land for development.”

In other words, criminal entrepreneurship became legitimate and institutionalised in Dagestan.

The unbearability of Samsara

The fusion of power and criminality was happening in other republics as well. When, in September 2004, Kalmyk oppositionists occupied the central square of Elista and demanded the resignation of the republic’s president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, high-ranking law-enforcement agency representatives threatened them with reprisals at the hands of criminal groups. The protesters refused to disperse. Enter a combined detachment of riot police, special forces and interior ministry troops – the first violent dispersal of a peaceful protest in the history of contemporary Russia followed shortly after. One person was killed. Everyone else was left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the intentions of the head of state, who, in the wake of the terrorist attack in Beslan, announced measures aimed at strengthening the “power vertical”.

By that time, it must be pointed out, the existing method of choosing district heads in Kalmykia (appointment rather than selection) had already been in place for around ten years. Furthermore, the republic adopted the Steppe Code (Basic Law) at Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s instigation in 1994 and formally renounced the principles and symbols of Russian statehood, metamorphosing from a “democratic rule-of-law state” into an “equal subject of the Russian Federation”. Discontent with the vertical model of administration is precisely what prompted thousands of people to take to the streets in 2004. As it turned out, however, the window of opportunity for establishing a dialogue with the authorities had already slammed shut.


Dispersal of the demonstration “Kalmykia against Ilyumzhinov”, Lenin Square, Elista. Source: Novaya Gazeta.Putin’s unprecedented “strengthening of state structures” entailed reprisals against all levels of Russia’s political opposition. The regions came to know the utter hopelessness of Nietzschean reality as described by Milan Kundera: “In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.” Any first attempt at holding democratic elections could a priori be successful only as an exception. But, once the leadership of the republic had been entrusted to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Kalmyk public was denied the opportunity to correct the situation. Again and again, he was appointed “from above” – ​​until the Kremlin’s strategy vis-à-vis the national republics changed.

“It’s not me who’s coming to Dagestan, but the rest of Russia”

In 2010, Ilyumzhinov was replaced by Alexey Orlov, a Kalmyk who advanced up the ranks in Moscow. Appointments were made in keeping with that same principle in the majority of the southern republics. Arsen Kanokov, the former head of Kabardino-Balkaria; Yuri Kokov, his successor; Yunus-bek Evkurov, the head of Ingushetia; Boris Ebzeyev, the former head of Karachay-Cherkessia – all these regional leaders made their careers far beyond their respective birthplaces. In theory, then, these men would not have been embroiled in the clan system. In keeping with the logic of this trend, Ramadan Abdulatipov – who gained his political weight in Moscow during the 1990s – became the head of Dagestan in 2013.

Behind the new stage-set, however, lurked the same ruthlessness of the same cyclic universe. The former head of Dagestan Magomedsalam Magomedov, another Kremlin appointee, is replaced by Kremlin appointee Abdulatipov, who declares that he willl “liberate the people of Dagestan from 20 years of bondage” and kicks off his reign by instigating high-profile arrests of local “barons”. In 2017, Kremlin appointee Vasilyev entered the scene bearing a slogan: “It’s not me who’s coming to Dagestan, but the rest of Russia.” Shortly after, Abdulatipov’s associates were led away in handcuffs.

From queens to pawns

In this context, the appointment of Vladimir Vasilyev, a former Russian parliamentarian and security committee chairman, to the top post of a complex republic like Dagestan is a rather risky move on the part of the Kremlin.

If helicopters swoop down to take away his team as well, the republic’s denizens will lay responsibility for any fresh spiral of corruption directly at Moscow’s door. It must be borne in mind, however, that what Vasilyev said about “the rest of Russia” is not a metaphor. The Russian state that has come to Dagestan is one where Magomedsalam Magomedov serves as the deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, while Abdulatipov works as presidential special envoy for cooperation with the Caspian states. It is a state where investigatory films about the Russian prosecutor general and the prime minister (Chaika and He is not Dimon to you) are demonstratively ignored by the authorities.


Gimry, Dagestan. CC: Varvara Pakhomenko / International Crisis Group / Flickr. Some rights reserved.More than a quarter of a century ago, when he was still deputy governor of St Petersburg, Putin declared that “the makers of October 1917 laid a time-delay mine under the edifice of the unitary state that was called Russia.” Two years ago, the president repeated this idea almost verbatim – though he added a clarification about the negative consequences of “autonomisation”. It is hardly surprising that, in their analyses of the “defeat of the Dagestani clans” and “pacification of the Tatar elite”, experts are now arriving at the conclusion that “the national republics may soon cease to exist”.

Complete loyalty to the central government no longer serves to guarantee security for the establishments of the national republics

By and large, it matters little whether or not there’ll be a referendum on amending the Russian Constitution. The republics have long been deprived of all autonomy, and the regional political elites have become such an insignificant stratum that external control would appear to be justified from a management point of view. Only three years ago, the Kalmyk opposition expressed its indignation at the fact that half of the leading posts in the republic’s government bodies (including all security agencies) were occupied by personnel from other regions. As soon as he’d strengthened his hand, Vasilyev too brought “outsiders” to Dagestan, installing them in the posts of prime minister and prosecutor.

Complete loyalty to the central government no longer serves to guarantee security for the establishments of the national republics. And it isn’t only in Dagestan that sweeping purges have taken place, either. Thus, influential businessman and former Karachay-Cherkessia senator Vyacheslav Derev was imprisoned in early March. Last July, meanwhile, saw the arrest of Pyotr Lanzanov, first deputy prime minister of Kalmykia. But local administrations continue to ensure record election turnout, doing so by any means at their disposal. Because the regional “elites” have no other course open to them. Traitors in the people’s eyes, they’re regarded by the federal government as pawns who deceive themselves with the illusion that a promotion to queen is a realistic possibility – but generally become nothing more than bargaining chips.

The vanished resource of popular support is openly lamented only by those who already have nothing to lose – people like former acting Dagestani prime minister Abdusamad Gamidov, for instance, who tickled the internet’s funnybone by declaring that his arrest represented a “humiliation for the entire Dagestani people”. Those who remain in power either keep a low profile or tentatively suss out the lay of the land, with Umakhanov, who has explained at length why “Dagestan needs new Avar leaders”, electing the latter option. And although “yesterday’s heroes” have no chance of returning to real politics by the “back door”, the very existence of nostalgia for a unity of “party and people” – albeit one that is in many respects illusory – deserves attention.

Annihilation of politics

To conclude, let us eliminate a false dilemma. To be a critic of the federal centre’s consolidation of its positions in the regions is not to become an apologist for the complete lawlessness of the republic’s “barons”. The influence of the regional nobility was eagerly sought by the Kremlin during the initial stages of the power vertical. It was none other than Moscow that nurtured a monster that could only be fought with the aid of military helicopters and other hardware.

The problem stems from the fact that during the mutually beneficial period of cooperation between the Moscow state bureaucracy and national elites citizens were almost entirely excluded from politics. Almost, because the national minorities who cling to their ethnic and religious belonging potentially remain political subjects – and perhaps the only ones in Russia.

In the world of eternal return, dissenters will have only one alternative: the disorder of insurgency

Francis Bacon’s idols – prejudices and delusions – prevent us from grasping this fact. Received opinion holds that governability is a good thing. Hence the logical chains that lead to the conclusion that “Russia has come to Dagestan” is, generally speaking, a positive process. It follows, then, that the policy being pursued by the Russian government in this regard is correct. But such a conclusion reduces the political to the what the state does. Yet these concepts exist, if anything, in opposition to one another.

In actual fact, modern Russia’s so-called nationalities policy, predicated on the construction of a “civil-political” nation and ultimately geared toward transforming the federation into a unitary state, annihilates the political space as such. At the same time, political relations were highly likely to emerge in the national republics where, until recently, ethnic mobilisation represented “not only a political instrument for local elites but also the sole means of protecting property and contracts” for an otherwise resourceless population.

The long battle that Kumyk settlements in Dagestan have waged for their lands is more sustained and productive than the demonstrations by the Moscow “creative class”. Meanwhile, the Dagestani jamaats (rural communities) that have independently tackled issues of medical care and quality education offer ample demonstration that the peoples forgotten by the authorities also exists as a demos. In the plains, where there are no geographical obstacles to the spread of the state’s “care”, ethnic groups (including the titular ones) are more easily managed.

Local demonstrations against the authorities in the “more progressive” Russian regions don’t lead to the emergence of political relations and the materialisation of political subjects. In the North Caucasus, it is jamaats that constitute such subjects.

This kind of thing is thought to be out of step with the times. But the political unfolds with due allowance for the movements of space and time – in contrast to the state, which exists according to the laws of Euclid. The authorities, masquerading as “the rest of Russia”, are capable of offering the Russian regions nothing but dominance while forging the shortest possible path to its goal. In these conditions, governability and standardisation will destroy the very prospect of politics. In the world of eternal return, dissenters will have only one alternative: the disorder of insurgency.


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