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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dagestani Elections: Rehearsal for Chechnya?

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There are currently two Russian regions that do not have an elected head -- Chechnya and Dagestan. Soon, however, Dagestan may find itself on its own.

Last Sunday, a week before the referendum in Chechnya -- which alongside confirming a new constitution should also pave the way for presidential elections -- legislative elections were held in Dagestan.

For Moscow, these elections in the most ethnically diverse and a potentially explosive region of Russia were important for a number of reasons.

First, they served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the upcoming votes in neighboring Chechnya. It is well-known that the rebels have vowed to wreck the referendum in Chechnya and have been stepping up actions against the federal forces. Inter alia, Dagestan carries symbolic importance: In the Caucasus war of the nineteenth century, the main centers of resistance to the Russian onslaught were in Dagestan; and in 1999, the current Chechen war began with an incursion by Chechen field commanders into Dagestan. So where better to try out an election model for use in "battle conditions" and with a major federal military presence?

The elections to Dagestan parliament demonstrated that the situation in the republic is under the control both of Moscow and the republican authorities. Serious provocations and inter-ethnic clashes were avoided, although the situation remains extremely difficult.

Order was maintained by a 20,000 police force -- and this was in addition to the motorized rifle brigade, marine and border guard units based on the territory of the republic.

Second, the ethnic and clan diversity of the Dagestani population is extremely broad -- counting just the titular ethnicities, there are 14 groups. As a result it is very difficult to reach consensus among the different ethnic groups.

In Soviet times, a "natural" balance was found between the main groups when the "triangle of power" (the first party secretary, the chairman of the government, and the chairman of the Supreme Soviet) was divided up between the three largest ethnic groups: Avars, Dargins and Kumyks.

This tradition is observed today, with the chairman of the State Council a Dargin, the head of government a Kumyk and the speaker of the parliament an Avar.

In fact, it is this ethnic "separation of powers" that makes it so difficult to adopt a presidential model of governance.

Currently, the republic's top executive body, the State Council -- a sort of collective presidency -- consists of representatives of the 14 titular ethnicities. Since 1994, the republic has been ruled in its name by Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin, who was re-elected to a new four-year term last June by a Constitutional Assembly. Under Dagestan's 1994 Constitution, representatives of the 14 different ethnic groups represented in the State Council were supposed to rotate in the top job every two years. Something along these lined used to operate in Yugoslavia. However, in Dagestan the mechanism got jammed at the first hurdle -- and Magomedov has been chairman of the State Council for nine unbroken years.

Dagestan is a sort of federation in a federation. It is very difficult to establish a system of legislative elections that produces a parliament reflecting the republic's ethnic composition, while preventing an election contest from escalating into inter-ethnic conflict.

Until last weekend's elections, an ethnicity-based quota system existed, with a number of electoral districts being allotted to specific ethnic groups.

In Khasavyurt district, for example, where there are Avars, Kumyks and Chechens, two of the electoral districts were "Avar" where only Avar candidates could compete; likewise two were "Kumyk" and two "Chechen." Everyone resident in a particular district had the right to vote, but had to choose between candidates from one ethnic group.

However, you did not have to be resident in a specific electoral district in order to stand for election -- so, for example, a Kumyk from an "Avar" district could run in a neighboring "Kumyk" district or in an electoral district without ethnic-based restrictions.

Last fall, the electoral system was substantially "corrected" under pressure from Moscow. Thus one might have expected problems in last Sunday's elections: either as a result of shortcomings in the new system or due to opposition from those that are those who do not support the existing regime in the republic.

The representation of different ethnic groups has remained more or less unchanged in the newly elected republican parliament (made up of 121 deputies as before).

The ethnic-based quota system is now ensured by means of multi-mandate districts, of which there are 19: 10 double-mandate, six triple-mandate and three quintuple-mandate districts. In these districts, voters vote for several candidates simultaneously; some of the mandates are allotted to particular ethnic groups, while some of them are open to all ethnic groups.

The new republican parliament together with the representatives of local governments and legislatures will elect the new State Council.

The replacement of the incumbent 72-year-old Magomedov as chairman of the State Council, when it comes, may significantly alter the balance of power between the various ethnic and clan groups. Because with Magomedov's departure, it is unlikely that the Dargins -- the second largest ethnic group after the Avars -- will be able to maintain control of the top post. Most experts are of the opinion that there will be an "Avar revanche."

Redistribution of the key posts will likely start at the first session of the new republican parliament, when the speaker of the parliament (a traditionally Avar post) and prime minster (a traditionally Kumyk post) are to be confirmed.

From Moscow's perspective, the parliamentary elections have been a success. First of all, the turnout was sufficient for the vote to be legitimate (voter turnout was around 40 percent, which is low by Dagestani standards, but well above the minimum established by law). And there were some minor incidents (a few polling stations were trashed and several hundred ballot papers destroyed) but nothing more.

Furthermore, we can now expect that Dagestani electoral know-how will be put to use in other parts of the country -- recently Siyabshakh Shapiyev, head of Dagestan's election commission, was appointed to the Central Election Commission.

Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographical Research, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.