Eleven of Russia’s regional leaders have been replaced in the last few weeks, but the most interesting reshuffle is undoubtedly that in Dagestan, where Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the United Russia faction in the State Duma, has replaced Ramazan Abdulatipov, meaning that a politician who wasn’t born in Dagestan and has never lived there has been put in charge of an extremely complex region.

Dagestan is the largest republic in the North Caucasus, and Russia’s most multiethnic region: its 3 million people represent several dozen ethnic groups, ranging from relatively large ones to very small ones living in just a few villages, or even in just one. The republic has numerous socioeconomic and ethnopolitical problems, and serves as a base for terrorist groups, primarily Vilayat Kavkaz, a local affiliate of the Islamic State.

Vasilyev has already made a number of notable statements, including promising Dagestan generous financial support and a staffing policy that won’t involve ethnic quotas. And yet the similarities are striking to when Abdulatipov was appointed head of the republic in January 2013.

Although Abdulatipov was born in Dagestan, he also reached his career heights outside of the region, having served as a State Duma deputy, deputy prime minister and minister in the federal government, and the Russian ambassador to Tajikistan, among other positions.

The Kremlin billed Abdulatipov’s appointment as part of a new path directed at instilling order and combating clan rule and the privatization of state functions in the republic. The new leader was seen as a unifying figure for those tired of informal rule and shadow politics.

Abdulatipov did indeed try to reform the republic’s elite, and removed several previously untouchable heavyweights from power, including Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, Derbent Mayor Imam Yaraliyev, and the head of the Russian Pension Fund in Dagestan, Sagid Murtazaliyev. They were all removed from their posts amid high-profile criminal cases.

But clan rule, nepotism, corruption, and the threat of terrorism are still there four years on, and it’s Abdulatipov’s associates who are now accused of being nepotistic and corrupt. Hopes for a quick fix with the help of a carpetbagger, therefore, look naïve at the very least.

It is actually largely incorrect to assume that Dagestan’s central problem is clans. This belief stems from an unjustified view of the republic as a backward ethnic periphery, where all issues are resolved by omnipotent clans. It’s also believed that only a strong outside figure with no ties to local elites can put the clans in their place.

Such perceptions are clearly flawed. Members of these “clans” have participated in both regional and national politics for years, and in the executive and legislative branches at a federal level. The impenetrable barrier between the “backward” North Caucasus region and “progressive” Moscow simply doesn’t exist.

Moreover, before invoking the popular term“clan rule,” one should understand what precipitated this type of behavior. Extralegal and informal governing principles in the region resulted from the complex transformations of our times rather than from the region’s ethnographic specifics.

Complex sociopolitical 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. This hands-off approach elevated various power groups that have constructed social relations and political order the way they saw fit. They also managed to establish independent dialogue with federal structures, and on numerous occasions helped the Russian state, for instance, in repelling Chechen Islamist Shamil Basayev’s attempted invasion of Dagestan in 1999, as well as in many other less high-profile cases. For some reason, no one talked about the archaic social structure of the North Caucasus and the need to combat clan rule on those occasions.

It’s true that Dagestan has far more terrorist attacks and criminal incidents than other regions. It replaced Chechnya as Russia’s most violent region back in 2005. The Caucasian Knot news website, which has studied armed violence in the North Caucasus for many years, reports a 12 percent increase in the number of incidents in Dagestan in 2016. The number of casualties went up 28 percent in the same period.

Dagestan’s conflicts are the most complex and tangled in the North Caucasus. Ethnic strife persists, but those conflicts are less pronounced than they were in the 1990s, when political liberalization and the rehabilitation of repressed ethnic groups reignited a lot of mutual grievances. The shortage of available land and the ongoing process of migration from the mountains to the plains and from the villages to the cities has eroded Dagestan’s traditional ethnic communities.

While the first post-Soviet conflicts stemmed from past problems, the current ones are new and revolve around land. The main issue discussed at the All-Russian Congress of the Nogai People held in the village of Terekli-Mekteb on July 14, 2017, concerned the right to municipal lands for distant-pasture cattle rearing.

On the other hand, ethnic problems are now supplemented by conflicts between Islamic religious groups. The number of mosques in Dagestan has grown sixty times in the twenty years since the Soviet collapse, and Islam has become an important factor, both in public and in the republic’s everyday life. Dagestan’s re-Islamization has divided its relatively religiously homogenous society into Sufi Islam supporters, moderate Salafis (those who don’t recognize the jurisdiction of the spiritual administration of Dagestani Muslims), and radical jihadists.

Instead of acting as an arbiter in such cases, the authorities often fall back on administrative pressure and the use of force. Abdulatipov gave up on attempts to establish a dialogue between the republic’s spiritual administration and moderate Salafis that started in 2012.

The current situation would be tough for any leader. Entering into a dialogue with unofficial Islam is seen as making a concession to radicals and even terrorists.  But it’s impossible to resolve the issue with special operations alone when dealing with a republic whose population is 90 percent Muslim and increasingly religious. While marginalizing the extremists, the republic’s leadership should try to engage moderate forces, even those that are critical of the government and religious establishment.
Finally, there are conflicts between the local elites and the so-called “Moscow Dagestanis,” some of whom, having achieved success in the Russian capital, would now like to have an impact on events back home.

The notorious clans are not going anywhere: they have been part of government all over Russia for quite a while. While there could be an attempt to minimize their informal influence on important state issues, it would be naïve to think that “correcting” and modernizing Dagestan can happen without fundamental changes in the Russian system of government as a whole.

  • Sergei Markedonov