The 16th Assassination Attempt

We are seeing something close to a revolt in the streets of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. This is the first display of public disorder after a series of electricity blackouts in the city. Protesters blocked off streets and gathered in spontaneous demonstrations.

The unrest began on Dec. 30, but in the last few days it has intensified after temperatures hit minus 15 degrees Celsius. The people are calling for the ouster of Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, and the police are doing nothing to quell the protests because they have no heat in their homes either.

Two organizations are responsible for electricity in Makhachkala: Dagenergosbyt maintains the city's electrical grid, while GERTS, which answers to Amirov, collects the payments.

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The problem is that although GERTS has been collecting the payments, the money has not been reaching Dagenergosbyt. Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev has called several meetings over the last couple of months to demand that GERTS hand over the money to Dagenergosbyt so that electricity can be restored to all homes. But the president's efforts have amounted to nothing.

City officials have not dared to join the protests. Amirov, who is a legendary figure in Dagestan, is sometimes referred to as the "one-man al-Qaida." Amirov has survived 15 assassination attempts, one of which left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Those who have opposed Amirov have fared the worst. For example, former Dagestani Finance Minister Gamid Gamidov was killed. Relatives of former pension fund chief Sharaputdin Musayev were convicted of trying to kill Amirov by detonating a truck loaded with a half ton of explosives. The blast leveled nearby apartment buildings and killed people who only moments before had been drinking tea in their homes. Amirov escaped without a scratch, while Musayev was later gunned down in Moscow. Under such circumstances, few people -- including the head of Dagenergosbyt -- are willing to oppose the mayor.

But there is a larger factor behind the disorder in Makhachkala. The city is an appalling example of how the corruption that is endemic in infill construction -- which is the development of vacant or underused land plots in areas of the city that are already largely developed -- can lead to a total breakdown of a municipality's infrastructure.

For all practical purposes, the city known as Makhachkala no longer exists. It has collapsed under its own weight. The electrical, sewage and heating systems, which haven't been repaired for 15 to 20 years, are terribly overloaded as new buildings are feverishly built. As a result, blackouts are now common occurrences, and water isn't available to apartments above the fourth floor in some buildings. Wealthier residents long ago started placing diesel generators on their rooftops, and city streets that were once free-moving and green with landscaping are now choked with endless traffic jams.

The sort of breakdown that we are seeing in Makhachkala may very well be repeated in Moscow, Sochi, Samara, Yekaterinburg and a host of other cities where authorities greedily look at every undeveloped plot of land in the city center as a profit-making opportunity without investing anything in the infrastructure.

It is hard to say whether the current unrest would end with the departure of Makhachkala's mayor. What's certain, however, is that the city's collapse no longer depends on the conscious decisions of a single individual. A municipal infrastructure is a very complex system. It is not a Kalashnikov automatic rifle; there is no magic trigger to pull or button to push that will suddenly put an end to the blackouts.

The current effort to push Makhachkala's mayor out of office constitutes the 16th attempt on his authority -- perhaps the most serious of them all. And there is not much the mayor can do about it. After all, shooting the protesters is not an option.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.