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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Seemingly Untouchable Leader

Itar-TassDagestan's Magomedov, the country's longest-serving regional leader, meeting with Putin in the Kremlin in January.
The Kremlin was widely expected to ask Magomedali Magomedov, who has run Dagestan since 1991, to step down on the eve of his 75th birthday. But the June birthday has come and gone, and Russia's oldest and longest-serving regional leader remains at the helm despite insurgency and economic woes that increasingly destabilize the mountainous republic.

Magomedov's position seems unshakeable even in the face of recent headline-grabbing turmoil such as last week's bombing that killed 10 federal troops in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, and the recent flight of more than 1,000 Chechen residents to the region in a vain attempt to appeal to Dagestan's leadership for protection from extrajudicial violence at home.

The murder of police officers and politicians are common, and three officers were killed in a bomb blast Tuesday on a Makhachkala street. On Monday night, regional legislator Zubair Tatayev and his uncle were killed by unknown attackers as they sat in a Mercedes car in an eastern part of the region.

Political analysts believe that Moscow has become hostage to a deeply entrenched Dagestani leadership that readily exploits local grievances and the Kremlin's readiness to tolerate corruption and abuse of power in exchange for loyalty.

"The Kremlin's inaction in Dagestan is only postponing an imminent crisis there," said Mikhail Roshchin, a Caucasus analyst with the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Russian Academy of Science. "But in the meantime, it is clear to everyone that a domino effect will work in Dagestan. If you touch one piece, everything will fall down."

Dagestan, which had the most ethnic groups of any region in the Soviet Union and now in Russia, has seen a lot of bloodshed in rivalries among clans. In the 1990s, it also became a hotbed of Muslim extremism, with full-fledged combat operations being carried out by federal troops and radical Islamic Wahhabis on its soil.

Once a donor to the Soviet budget, Dagestan now receives 85 percent of its local budget from Moscow. The official incomes of ordinary residents are among the lowest in the country.

Having Chechnya next door galvanizes local Muslim extremists, while Dagestani police mimic the sometimes brutal and arbitrary practices of their Chechen and federal peers in Chechnya to crack down on the extremists. About 80 police officers -- mostly from units investigating extremists -- have been killed over the past two years in what Chechen and Dagestani warlords call acts of retribution for the persecution of "true believers."

When Magomedov took the reins in 1991, he was the head of Dagestan's Supreme Council, a legislative and representative body that ruled Dagestan until a regional constitution drafted in 1993 replaced it with the State Council, a 14-member body designed to serve as a collective presidential office.

The State Council was initially elected by members of the regional government and delegations from local administrations. The constitution originally demanded that the chairman's seat be rotated among representatives of the 14 largest ethnic groups living in Dagestan.

Magomedov, who represents the Dargins, the largest ethnic group after the Avars, was elected as the first chairman in 1994 for a term of two years. He has not relinquished the position since.

Magomedov demanded a two-year extension of his term in 1996, prompting a furious outcry from the opposition and the public. Then in 1998, loyalists in the legislature amended the constitution to remove the requirement to rotate representatives of various ethnic groups as chairman, thus allowing Magomedov to secure re-election in 1998 and 2002.

With an apparent eye on the 2006 election, Magomedov's supporters again changed the constitution in early 2004, introducing popular elections for the seat. Magomedov's re-election appears to be virtually ensured given the tight control that he and his supporters have taken over all regional agencies during his four terms in office.

During that time, though, Dagestan's economy has languished and the gap between the rich and the poor has drastically widened. The wealthiest residents are mostly regional officials, which analysts said was a sign of an absence of vertical mobility in a society where powerful clans remain entrenched at the helm.

Dagestan's poverty, corruption and proximity to Chechnya have helped lead to a rise in resilient anti-government insurgency. With attacks against police and politicians escalating in recent months and the leadership apparently unable to curb extremism and address its root causes, expectations ran high in the spring that Putin would replace Magomedov soon. Every major national newspaper speculated about who might be named successor.

Adding to the speculation, President Alexander Dzasokhov of nearby North Ossetia resigned in late May, citing his age, and in early June a critical report by Dmitry Kozak, Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, accused regional leaders of rampant corruption and privatizing state assets.

Instead, at the celebration of the Magomedov's 75th birthday in Makhachkala on June 15, Kozak insisted that Magomedov would remain the chairman of the State Council and that Kremlin was not planning to replace him. He spoke after reporters asked him about a possible change in Dagestan's leadership.

The birthday party took place on the second day of the Borozdinovskaya crisis, during which 1,000 people fled the Chechen village for Dagestan. During the two-week crisis, Magomedov never visited the tent camp set by Borozdinovskaya villagers or made any public statement about the situation.

Caucasus analysts are divided over the fate of Dagestan's leadership and the republic.

"If Putin has a bit of common sense he should replace Magomedov. Otherwise Dagestan will explode," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "What has saved Dagestan over the years is a common understanding that a rebellion in the republic ... would have a devastating effect on everyone."

Malashenko said the Borozdinovskaya crisis was the latest sign that Moscow lacked a political strategy for the Northern Caucasus. "Moscow does not know how to intervene and lulls itself with the thought that locals will settle their conflicts themselves," he said. "In fact, it means that Moscow has become a hostage to figures such as Magomedov."

Enver Kisriyev, the head of the Caucasus department at the Center of Regional and Civilization Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the Kremlin was facing a leadership stalemate in Dagestan due to its long support for Magomedov over weaker political parties built along ethnic lines that represent the interests of wider segments of the population.

"The existence of many ethnic parties in Dagestan saved the republic in the tough 1990s because Magomedov had to seek a balance between many interests," Kisriyev said. "Now the number of decision-makers was dropped dramatically, and this is fueling discontent in the groups that had been pushed away."

In the late 1990s, Magomedov skillfully used Moscow to quash many opposition figures and groups, accusing them of threatening to destabilize the region. A group of investigators led by then-Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov came to Dagestan and opened criminal investigations into virtually every opposition figure. None of Magomedov's loyalists were targeted in the crackdown.

For his part, Magomedov has helped Putin and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party secure overwhelming victories in Dagestan during national elections. Reports about massive vote-rigging in the region also make the headlines during every national election.

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said Magomedov's days were numbered despite Moscow's assurances.

"The indirect hint is the unusually high order that Putin awarded Magomedov on his birthday. That could have been done to sweeten his future retirement," Makarkin said.

Putin honored Magomedov with the "For Merits Before the Fatherland, First Class" order, which has been awarded to former President Boris Yeltsin, former Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev and several other dignitaries.