Moscow Overhauls Governance Model for the Caucasus

June 10, 2013
Said Amirov

[In this article, Yulia Latynina argues that arrest last week of the powerful Mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, has signaled the FSB’s assertion of direct control in the republic of Dagestan. Latynina speculates that this is partly motivated by the desire to stem the growing power of salafists in the region.—Ed.]

In a Hollywood movie-type, lightning-fast operation, with special forces, helicopters and all, the authorities arrested the Mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov—the most powerful man in Dagestan.

Amirov’s clout dates back to the period when the republic was ruled by its first post-soviet leader, Magomedali Magomedov, who entrusted Amirov to resolve “issues” with force in a republic where pretty much everything is decided in that way, and it was difficult to find someone who could be powerful without killing someone.

Mukhu Aliev, the next ruler of Dagestan, who was appointed from above and never had the two main resources necessary to rule the republic—money and killers— tried to stand his ground for some time, but in the end had to give up, and was seen more than once walking through the central square to meetings with the Mayor. The successive presidents of the republic also tried not to defy the powerful Mayor.

Amirov survived fifteen assassination attempts. As the result of one of those attempts, he was paralyzed below the waist, and has been wheeled around town with security measures similar to those that would surround transportation of a nuclear warhead.

After the Finance Minister, Gamid Gamidov, was assassinated, the Mayor’s office was shot at using a grenade launcher. One grenade exploded right under the window, and another hit the wall of the office, just over the Mayor’s head, but did not explode. Obviously the killers purchased defective merchandise.

In 1998 assassins parked a truck loaded with half a ton of explosives in the street where the Mayor lived. The explosion blew away half of that street, killing seventeen people. The Mayor, who at that time lived in a bunker, wasn’t hurt. That assassination attempt was traced back to the relatives of the then Chairman of the Pension Fund, Sharapuddin Mussaev.

After several attempts to blow up Mussaev (one just outside of Moscow, in cooperation with the FSB officers Mussaev had hired for protection) they eventually managed to pay his trusted bodyguard enough money to kill his boss. (The bodyguard was Hattab’s father-in-law).

The formal reason for the Mayor’s arrest was the murder of Arsen Gadjibekov, the Chief of a local Investigation Department. Gadjibekov was not a big fish; he was killed because his appointment was never cleared with the Mayor, and he disregarded one of the Mayor’s requests while in charge of an investigation.

It appears that the murder was a big mistake. Ruslan Gadjibekov, the slain police officer’s brother, vowed revenge. Alexander Bastrykin, the increasingly powerful Head of the Investigative Department of the Russian Federation, who also knew the murdered officer, treated his killing as a personal affront. He visited Ruslan Gadjibekov, who actively participated in the investigation of the murder and worked in close contact with Moscow investigators and the FSB officers.

Although these circumstances that cannot be underestimated (that is, Ruslan Gadjibekov’s personal motivation and the growing clout of Bastrykin, who wouldn’t put up with anyone killing his people), it took quite a while to prepare the arrest of the Mayor. The decision was made at the very top about a year and a half ago, with a large-scale operation to gradually replace local FSB personnel with security officers from Moscow.

Another part of those preparatory activities was arguably the appointment of Ramazan Abdulatipov as the new Acting President of the republic. According to some, at a meeting in the Kremlin, Bortnikov, the FSB Chief, told Putin, that Abdulatipov’s appointment didn’t make any sense because he wouldn’t be able to control the republic unless the Makhachkala Mayor is arrested.

In other words, the Mayor’s arrest marks a dramatic overhaul of the way in which Dagestan is governed. In Moscow they finally realized that the total lawlessness of the local elites is the main reason of growing salafist sentiments, and that the only way to improve the situation is to replace that government of the local elites with direct control, not just by the Kremlin, but directly from Lubyanka [the FSB headquarters—Ed.].

If such a direct form of governance by the strongmen from Lubyanka proves successful, it will mark a reversal of Moscow’s policies towards the Caucasus, and will serve as a serious warning that neighboring Chechnya should heed. However, most likely it won’t be much more successful than the previous model, under which the Makhachkala Mayor was awarded the title of “Best Russian Mayor,” and, on behalf of United Russia, called on everyone to vote for Vladimir Putin.

In this case, it will be salafists who will benefit from Said Amirov’s arrest, because in a republic where money decides everything, guns and risk-taking is the only alternative to control by Moscow, and is an approach that becomes more powerful every year.