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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dagestani Leader Suddenly Resigns

Itar-TassMagomedov with Putin Wednesday
Russia's oldest and longest-serving regional leader, Magomedali Magomedov, who has ruled volatile and clannish Dagestan since 1991, unexpectedly announced Thursday that he was stepping down, after meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin the day before.

"I decided voluntarily to resign from the post of chairman of the State Council of Dagestan before my term expires," Magomedov said at a hastily called news conference at the Makhachkala airport Thursday afternoon, minutes after his plane arrived from Moscow.

"I told the president I was getting old and asked him to accept my resignation," the 75-year-old Dagestani leader told shocked journalists. "The president agreed."

Magomedov said he had brought with him the name of the Kremlin's candidate to succeed him, but he refused to disclose it. The State Council, a body symbolizing a collective presidency for representatives of the 14 biggest ethnic groups living in Dagestan, convened late Thursday to discuss the candidate.

Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy in the Southern Federal District, was to visit Makhachkala on Friday and was expected to announce the candidate, a spokesman for Magomedov, Eduard Urazayev, told Interfax. The news agency, citing "unofficial information," said Magomedov had proposed Mukhu Aliyev, who has been the speaker of the Dagestani legislature since 1994.

Aliyev, 65, is an ethnic Avar, representing the largest ethnic group in Dagestan, which has long been in competition for power with the second-largest group, the Dargins, to which Magomedov belongs.

Dagestan's legislature, the People's Assembly, would have to vote on the Kremlin's nomination.

Under a law pushed through by the Kremlin following the terrorist attack on the Beslan school in September 2004, regional heads are no longer popularly elected but nominated by the president and formally approved by regional legislatures. Under the law, presidential envoys recommend candidates to the president three months before an incumbent's term expires.

Magomedov is the third veteran regional leader in the North Caucasus to be replaced after the Beslan tragedy. The other two were Alexander Dzasokhov of North Ossetia and Valery Kokov of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Expectations were strong in Dagestan and Moscow that Magomedov would be ousted from his post in June 2005, when he celebrated his 75th birthday. Earlier that month, a report from Kozak to Putin that was leaked to the press singled out the Dagestani leadership for corruption that was so entrenched as to threaten the republic's stability and security.

In the past two years, Dagestan has surpassed Chechnya in the number of deadly attacks carried out on local law enforcement officers and other officials by resilient networks of religious extremists.

Dagestan has also been one of the largest recipients of federal budget funds, with no less than 80 percent of its budget in the past decade funded by the federal government.

"If Putin has a bit of common sense he should replace Magomedov. Otherwise Dagestan will explode," Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the southern region at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said last June.

Magomedov's biggest asset as a leader was seen as his ability to maintain a balance between the local clans and, using his strength at home, to dictate relations with the Kremlin. In return for guaranteeing his republic's loyalty to the Kremlin, he was given a free hand to run Dagestan. Contrary to expectations last summer, though, Kozak awarded Magomedov a high order and announced that the Kremlin had no other man in mind to rule the republic.

Political experts and Dagestani insiders said Thursday that Magomedov's resignation had been held in such secrecy in order to forestall infighting between entrenched and power-hungry clans that could engulf the already-turbulent region in even more violence.

"Until the local players, who were taken aback, sharpen their daggers and collect cash, the Kremlin has some time to maneuver and to install the man it wants," said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies.

A new Dagestani ruler will need to be strong enough to keep local players in check and have strong ties to Moscow.

Aliyev, who led the republic's Communist Party in the late 1980s, has generally been seen as an intellectual. He has stood aside from clan infighting and has never figured in corruption scandals.

Enver Kisriyev, a Dagestani sociologist and the head of the Caucasus department at the Center of Regional and Civilization Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said a new leader would likely adopt a different way of governing. Instead of playing the role of mediator, like Magomedov, a new leader would likely be a commander.

"If anyone attempted to rebel, a new leader could easily turn to Moscow and enjoy its help, be it in replacing unruly officials or dispatching federal prosecutors to launch criminal investigations into them and their relatives," he said.

Other possible successors are Saidgusein Magomedov, head of the Dagestani branch of the Federal Treasury, and Suleiman Kerimov, a Moscow billionaire and head of the Nafta-Moskva company.