Robert Bruce WARE

Robert Bruce Ware, Associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (U.S.A.)

Enver Kisriev, Senior sociologist, Russian Academy of Sciences Daghestan Scientific Center (Makhachkala, Russian Federation)

A prophetic wave of graffiti hit Russiaís southernmost Republic of Daghestan a month prior to the election of its executive body in June 2002. The streets of Makhachkala, the capital city, were covered, in early May, with posters announcing an upcoming concert of ethnic Avar folk songs. In Makhachkala printed posters and banners, stretching across the avenues, frequently announce performances of ethnic folklore, including drama, dance and song. This time the concert was called ďAvars at Rest.Ē Handwritten graffiti lent a spontaneous political note to many of these posters when anonymous wits added ďFor another 4 years.Ē Many were amused by the obvious reference to the upcoming election.

As the largest of Daghestanís 14 major ethnolinguistic groups, with just under 28 percent of the Republicís 2.2 million people, Avars naturally expect to play a leading political role. These expectations are heightened by honor traditions in Avar culture. Yet since the ratification of Daghestanís democratic constitution in July 1994, no Avar has ever served as Chair of the republicís collegial executive body, known as the Gosudarstvenniy Sovet or State Council. Instead the Republicís chief executive position has been controlled without interruption by Magomedali Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin.

The humor in the graffiti was its public recognition that the election of Magomedov to yet another four-year term had been effectively decided beforehand. In their sometimes-bitter competition to control the highest post in Daghestan, the Avars once again had lost to the Dargins. This is all the more remarkable since Daghestanís constitution had originally required that the Chair of the State Council should rotate among the representatives of Daghestanís 14 principal ethnic groups, with no group able to control the Chair for more than a single term at a time. However, since his 1994 appointment to an initial two-year interim term, Magomedov has, with greater ingenuity than democratic zeal, engaged in a regular series of constitutional contortions designed to retain his incumbency. When members of the State Council were elected in June 2002 this result was once again achieved. It is indicative of Daghestanís political balance that the inevitability of this outcome was met neither with violence nor with protest, but with public humor.

The fourteen members of the State Council are elected by the 242 members of Daghestanís Constitutional Assembly (Konstitutsionnoe Sobranie). These 242 delegates include the 121 representatives elected by popular vote to Daghestanís Peopleís Assembly (Narodnoye Sobranie), plus a second representative from each of the same 121 Assembly districts elected specifically as a delegate to the Constitutional Assembly.

Each member of the Constitutional Assembly can nominate one candidate for the State Council, and the three individuals from each ethnic group with the greatest number of nominations are then placed on a ballot for the State Council. Any member of the Constitutional Assembly may vote for any State Council candidate regardless of ethnicity. This system of selection promotes political integration and stability insofar as it favors individuals with cross-national support. Due to the extent of Daghestanís ethnic diversity, candidates with support from several nationalities are likely to receive more nominations than those whose support is concentrated within a single group. Single group candidates are even less likely to triumph in the Assemblyís final vote. It is significant that no leader of a national (mono-ethnic) movement has been elected to the State Council. Those who are elected are regarded as the most influential members of their ethnic groups, but they do not attain that position through ethnic chauvinism. This process is intended to ensure that the government is made up of individuals and interests that favor stability and seek moderate and conciliatory solutions to conflicts occurring between segments of the population.

In the 2002 election, as in 1998, Magomedali Magomedov was nominated for the Chair of the State Council by Mukhu Aliyev, Chair of the Peopleís Assembly and a long-time rival of Magomedov. The nomination was seconded by Imam Yaraliyev (ethnic Lezghian General Prosecutor and sometimes antagonist of Magomedov), Said Amirov (ethnic Dargin Mayor of Makhachkala and sometimes rival of Magomedov), Serazhudin Ilyasov (ethnic Lakh CentroBank Chair), and by Hizri Shikhsaidov (ethnic Kumyk Prime Minister and frequent ally of Magomedov). In essence, each of these seconds represented the endorsement of the leaders of their respective ethnic groups, some of the larger groups in Daghestan. It is also significant that some of the seconds come from ethnic leaders who have opposed Magomedov at one point or another, thereby indicating the strength of his current coalition. The passivity of most Avar leaders reflected their frustrations at their inability to prevent Magomedovís reelection.

Then Khanum Aliyeva, an ethnic Kumyk member of the Peopleís Assembly and Deputy Mayor of Makhachkala stepped forward. With evident hesitation Aliyeva nominated Atay Aliyev (a Kumyk, but no relation to Aliyeva) as an alternative candidate for the Chair of the State Council. Aliyeva declared that Aliyev is ďfrom Magomedovís team and will carry out his policy,Ē but added that it is necessary to prepare the next generation of politicians. Aliyevís ďalternativeĒ candidacy was proposed in a transparently perfunctory manner to create the barest appearance of electoral competition. While representatives commented in muffled and disapproving tones, Atay Aliyev stoically played his part, declining somberly to make an election speech.

At its meeting in June 2002 the Constitutional Assembly was represented by 233 of its 242 members.

Table 1

Ethnic Representation in Daghestanís 2002 Constitutional Assembly

No Ethnicity Representatives

Percent of Assembly

Percent of Present

1. Aguls 3 1.2 0.8 3
2. Avars 65 26.8 27.0 57 (-8)**
3. Azeris 11 4.5 4.0 11
4. Chechens 8 3.3 8.0*** 8  
5. Dargins 40 16.5 15.5 39 (-1)**
6. Kumyks 32 13.2 13.0 32
7. Lakhs 12 4.9 5.0 12
8. Lezghians 29 12 11.5 29
9. Nogays 4 1.6 1.5 4

* According to most recent figures, 1996.

** Not present were Sharapudin Musaev, a Dargin, Saygidpasha Umakhanov, the Avar mayor of Khasaviurt, and seven of his supporters. After his defeat by Magomedov in the 1998 election, Musaev was charged with corruption and removed from his post as director of the Republicís pension fund, which he had manipulated in order to amass a personal fortune.

*** The Chechen population in Daghestan has fluctuated with regional instabilities. While Chechen-Akhins are indigenous to Daghestan, Daghestani officials have sought to curb migration from Chechnia since the mid-1990s. For example, Daghestani law prevents the sale of apartments to Chechens, leading some Chechens to disguise their ethnic identity through falsified documents. Since 1999 Daghestani officials have restricted the flow of Chechen refugees, who have thereby been discouraged from declaring themselves. These and other factors make it difficult to determine the actual Chechen population at any given time. Officially there are currently 65 thousand Chechen citizens of Daghestan, but there are probably about 90 thousand Chechens residing in the Republic.

**** For purposes of presentation, ethnic percentages were rounded to a single decimal point. The figures in the former column actually total 99.6, while those in the latter column actually total 100.6.

An Enduring Incumbent

The seventy-one-year-old Magomedov has spent considerable time in the upper echelon of Daghestanís political hierarchy. He gained notice in 1983 when a Dargin named Magomed-Salem Umakhanov retired from his position as Communist Party Secretary. Umakhanov was replaced by an Avar named Magomed Yusupov, who was, up to that point, the Prime Minister. Magomedali Magomedov then assumed Yusupovís position as Prime Minister, where his leadership was competent if undistinguished.

In 1987, Magomedov relinquished this position to a young Kumyk named Abdurazak Mirzabekov, who was promoted by Yusupov. In exchange, Magomedov accepted a somewhat ceremonial position as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, popularly described by Daghestanis in those days as the ďpre-retirement position.Ē Thus, at the age of 57, Magomedov was preparing to step aside. As he was then the eldest and most obscure of Daghestanís leaders, there was nothing that foreshadowed his further ascent.

During perestroika, however, Magomedov began to display previously unrecognized political talents. In March 1990, the election of the representatives of the Supreme Soviet took place. At that time, the key position of the First Secretary of the Communist Party had just been taken by a young Avar named Mukhu Aliyev. Abdurazak Mirzabekov remained the Prime Minister. The sixty-year-old Magomedov was allowed to retain his position at the head of the Supreme Soviet until the political situation in Russia could be clarified. In April 1990 he was elected to this position during the First Convention of the Peopleís Representatives.

Throughout the preceding year, actual political power had been gradually shifting from the offices of the Committee of the Communist Party to executive officials, and especially to the Cabinet headed by Mirzabekov. However, Daghestanís slow drift toward political crisis produced additional adjustments in the balance of power. Increasingly, the threat of mass protests, the potential for ethnic clashes, and threats of destabilization placed the focus on representative bodies. Under these conditions there gradually emerged a new spirit of discussion, negotiation, and open compromise, all of which tended to enhance the authority of the Supreme Soviet.

Magomedovís position at the head of the Supreme Soviet provided increased influence with which he artfully maneuvered himself toward the center of events. A year later, when the Communist Party was abolished, Magomedovís position was strengthened once again. Mukhu Aliyev, who was then the Communist Party leader in Daghestan, managed to obtain a position as Magomedovís First Deputy. He accomplished this transfer with great difficulty, and in defiance of Magomedovís wishes. Thus, at the time of the regime transition, ethnic parity had prevailed and power was again distributed among the triumvirate of Magomedov, Aliyev, and Mirzabekov. Yet this had occurred to the unexpected advantage of Magomedov.

In June 1994, Daghestanís new Constitution was ratified by the Daghestani Constitutional Assembly. By that time the balance of individual power was such that Magomedov managed to secure the chief executive position as Chair of the State Council. He was elected by the Constitutional Assembly over a young and ambitious Avar test pilot named Magomed Tolboev. Mirzabekov retained his position as Prime Minister and therefore served as a member of the State Council and as Magomedovís deputy. Mukhu Aliyev became the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and later of the Peopleís Assembly of Daghestan.

Magomedovís promotion depended upon the support of Mirzabekov and Aliyev, which was given only on condition of his agreement to retire after two years. That agreement was ostensibly guaranteed by articles of the Constitution that stipulated Magomedovís retirement after a two-year transitional period. Art 93 stated that ďa representative of the same ethnicity cannot be elected to consecutive terms as Chair of the State Council.Ē Art 89 stated that State Council representatives are elected for a four year term, but Art 10 of Chapter 11 of the Constitution, dealing with matters of regime transition, stipulated that ďthe first State Council of the Republic of Daghestan is elected for two years.Ē

However, Article 92 stated that the Chair of the State Council is ďthe Head of State,Ē and this authority was to prove crucial. Magomedov used his two-year term to strengthen his position, securing the backing of influential leaders in the second and third echelons of the political hierarchy. With their support he maneuvered to eliminate the tenth article of Chapter 11, limiting the initial term of the State Council to two years. These efforts encountered strong opposition. Magomedov succeeded in part because the other thirteen members of the State Council, including Mirzabekov, also wanted to extend their terms.

Opposition to the extension of Magomedovís term was led my Mukhu Aliyev with the support of many Avar leaders, including Avar representatives in the Peopleís Assembly. At one point during the confrontation, violence erupted on the Assembly floor, but in the end the Assembly voted to amend the Constitution by a significant majority. When the amendment was subsequently upheld by Daghestanís Constitutional Court the initial term of the State Council was extended by two years to a full four-year term. Mirzabekov suddenly was ďtaken illĒ and departed for Moscow.

When his extended term expired in 1998, Magomedov was prohibited from seeking reelection by Art 93 of the Constitution, which prevented the Chair from being held in consecutive terms by representatives of the same ethnicity. By then, however, he had consolidated sufficient power to arrange for a further amendment to the Constitution. In March, 1998, Art 93 was changed to require that ďthe same person cannot be elected for more than two terms in a row.Ē That meant that the 68-year-old Magomedov could be reelected since the previous four years counted only as his first term. Three months later, in June, Magomedov won the support of seventy percent of the electors at the Constitutional Assembly to defeat a second ambitious young challenger by the name of Sharapudin Musaev.

Yet three years after that, on 17 May, 2001, the Russian State Duma enacted legislation prohibiting republic heads from seeking third terms unless it was specifically permitted by local law. Since Magomedali Magomedov would reach the end of his second term in 2002, it seemed to be impossible for him to seek reelection. Nevertheless, the Council of the Russian Federation subsequently canceled the Dumaís decision and permitted regional heads to be seated for a third term. While this removed federal restrictions from Magomedov, he still had to contend with Daghestanís constitution.

Initially, it appeared that Article 93 would prevent Magomedov from reelection following the expiration of his second term in June 2002. Moreover, it appeared that it might be more difficult for Magomedov to obtain a favorable amendment of the Daghestani Constitution due to increased federal scrutiny of Daghestanís constitutional arrangements intended to bring the latter into alignment with that of the Federation. Yet Magomedov, once again, found a way to evade the Daghestani constitution.

On 31 May 2001, at the end of the session of Daghestanís Peopleís Assembly new legislation was hastily distributed and pressed to a vote. It stated: ďThe restriction established in Article 1 of the Law of the Republic of Daghestan ĎOn the Changes of Article 93 of the Constitution of the Republic of Daghestan,í according to which the same person cannot be elected to the position of Chairman of the State Council for more than two terms, does not apply retroactively, and applies only to events occurring after the introduction of the lawĒ (Daghestanskaia Pravda, 1 June, 2001). In other words, Daghestanís law now states that the same person cannot be elected to this position more than twice during or after 1998. Since Magomedov was only elected to the position once during this period he was eligible for reelection. Throughout the following year he consolidated support, discouraged serious competition, and effectively ensured that result.

Presidential Expedient

Magomedali Magomedov serves as Daghestanís Head of State and acts if he were its president. Yet Daghestanís constitution stipulates a collegial executive, in the form of the State Council, and its citizens have thrice rejected referenda to introduce a presidential system. Ironically, if not unpredictably, this constitutional issue has also served as a means for the extension of Magomedovís power.

Magomedov sought to undermine his rivals by means of a referendum on the establishment of a presidential system as early as 1991, when he was locked in a power struggle with Prime Minister Abdurazak Mirzabekov and Mukhu Aliyev, then the leader of Daghestanís Communist Party. Magomedov threw his support behind the pro-presidential initiative with the hope that its referendum victory would not only be the first step in establishing the institution, but also would indicate Magomedovís capacity to win the office in a general election. Magomedov gambled that voters would support the institution of a presidency, and was certain that he would defeat Aliyev and Mirzabekov in a race for the office. Thus Daghestanís first referendum on a presidential system took place under conditions of tense political rivalry in June 1992.

On the ballot the initiative appeared as follows: ďDo you think it necessary to establish the position of the President of Daghestan elected in a general election.Ē The percentage results for the 1992 referendum, and the two following referenda (discussed below) on the same issue are displayed in Table 2.

Table 2

Results of Three Referenda on the Establishment of an Office of President of Daghestan

Date of Referendum



28 June, 1992



12 December, 1993



7 March, 1999



During the election of the Russian State Duma in December 1993, there was another attempt to ask the Daghestani people about an office of the presidency. This time the wording of the proposition was slightly altered: ďDo you think that it is necessary to establish a position of a Head of State of Daghestan, to be elected in a general election?Ē After the October 1993 assault upon the Russian legislature, when President Yeltsinís popularity in Daghestan dropped, it was decided not to ask people about a ďpresidentĒ, but to replace this wording with ďhead of state.Ē

Later, in the fall of 1998, the political situation in Daghestan was aggravated by the assassination of Said Muhamad Abakhrov, the Islamic spiritual leader, or Mufti, of Daghestan. The Convention of Muslims of Daghestan issued a resolution demanding that Magomedov resign as the Chairman of the State Council, and that there should an election of a president of Daghestan. This appeal for a presidency was made by predominantly Avar Muslim leaders in their efforts to overthrow Magomedov. Being the largest ethnic group in Daghestan, the Avars hoped that their man would win a general election.

Following the Convention, this confrontation was resolved by compromise. Magomedov could remain if he agreed to a referendum on the presidency of Daghestan. If the referendum favored a presidency then a general presidential election would be scheduled. This third referendum was held simultaneously with the election of Daghestanís second Peopleís Assembly on 7 March, 1999.

The results of the third referendum in the different regions of the Republic served to indicate ethnic preferences on this issue. Predictably, there were many supporters of the presidency among Avars, and Lakhs were more supportive than most other groups.

But in predominantly Lezghian regions of southern Daghestan, over 90 percent of voters opposed the presidency. Though Lezghians are Daghestanís fourth largest ethnic group, they tend to believe, perhaps with some reason, that they have been at a political disadvantage and do not wish to see Avars receive further opportunities. Opposition was nearly as strong in predominantly Dargin regions, since Dargins stood to lose control of Daghestanís most powerful office.

What accounts for the enduring popularity of Daghestanís collegial executive? It is important to Daghestanis that each of them has an ethnic representative in the Council. For them, ethnic representation means that one of their own has information about events at the highest level, that their representative can participate directly in the discussion and solution of problems, and can act, equally and in concert with other ethnic representatives, to determine the course of the Republic. Virtually any Daghestani is capable of direct contact with his/her State Council representative concerning difficulties or requests. Most importantly, Daghestanís collegial executive prevents the monopolization of political power by any one of the numerous political groupings that are based ultimately upon local connections. Yet, at least during Magomedovís extended tenure, it would be a mistake to regard this collegial organ as ethnically fragmented or as otherwise ineffectual. In short, the State Council combines an adequate degree of executive efficacy with representative features that have contributed to the maintenance of ethnic parity and political stability.

For all the same reasons, the adoption of a presidential form of government would pose at least a minimal threat to Daghestanís stability. It cannot be assumed either that the general election of a president would be accepted by most Daghestanis as producing a legitimate government, or that the losers of such an election would be willing to endorse the results. Moreover, it is likely that such an event would initiate a range of complex adjustments that would detract from the unity of the Republic, and while it is unlikely that the consequences of such processes would be immediately visible, they would eventually transform Daghestanís political scene. Daghestan would be likely to lose the self-sustaining features of its stability, which result from a dynamic balancing among its numerous groups. Instead stability would depend upon administrative and bureaucratic controls exerted from the federal center. Rather than attending to the parity of internal powers, the popular mood, and the internal significance of events, local elites would focus increasingly upon Moscowís preferences. This would result in the further alienation of ruling elites from the actual needs of the society. At the same time, those elites who found their powers diminished by a federally imposed system would seek other bases of support. These would be likely to include ethnic nationalism, Islamist extremism, and an exploitation of anti-Russian sentiments.

Further complications result from the fact that Daghestanís political system is particularly vulnerable during constitutionally mandated replacements of its highest officials. Such replacements are precarious in that they must inevitably disturb the delicate balance among Daghestanís numerous ethnic groups, requiring further adjustments throughout the political structure. Under the present system, for example, if Magomedali Magomedov were replaced as State Council Chair by Hizri Shikhsaidov, the Kumyk Prime Minister, then it would be necessary to select a new Prime Minister. He might be a Dargin, or an Avar, or a Lezghian, or a Lakh, but he could not be a Kumyk since this would upset the ethnic balance. Moreover, the selection of his ethnicity would also depend upon that of other high level leaders, such as the Chair of the Peopleís Assembly. If an Avar, such as the incumbent Mukhu Aliyev, remains as Chair of the Assembly, then an Avar could not serve as Chair of the State Council. Thus, the problem produces ripples throughout the government hierarchy. Since the highest government positions are at stake it is impossible to execute any multilevel readjustment to the complete satisfaction of all parties involved. At such junctures, a political crisis is therefore inevitable. A presidential system would seem likely to exacerbate such tensions on a regular basis.

Conversely, the extension of a high level incumbency might provide a relatively simple, if temporary, solution to such problems. Notwithstanding his personal motivations, it is partly for these reasons that Magomedovís efforts to extend his terms of office have met the enthusiasm of his friends and the acquiescence of his enemies. Those who have seen only ďauthoritarianĒ or ďEasternĒ tendencies in these maneuvers may have missed this fundamental point.

In Daghestan, as elsewhere, there is an implicit reciprocity between constitutional authority and political stability. Each sustains the other, and each is jeopardized when the other is diminished. Yet social and political stresses may interfere with this reciprocity and place the two in competition with each other, such that one is preserved at the otherís expense.

Magomedovís rule has spanned a period of social stress. With a total of 34 ethnolinguistic groups, Daghestan is Russiaís most heterogeneous republic, and along with neighboring Chechnia it is chronically the poorest. Neighboring republics of Chechnia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have been mired in ethnic wars that have swamped Daghestan with as many as 400,000 refugees at a time. Yet from the end of 1997 to the end of 2000 all major international relief agencies pulled out of the region due to the hostage industry based in Chechnia. From 1996 to 1999 Daghestan was invaded three times from Chechnia, displacing more than 32,000 people. During the first Chechen conflict from 1994 to 1996, Russia closed Daghestanís southern border with Azerbaijan. Since all of its major road and rail links to Russia passed through the center of Chechnia these were also closed, and Daghestanis found themselves virtually blockaded. Soviet industries shut down and the economy almost completely collapsed, leading to unemployment as high at 80 percent. Meanwhile Islamist extremism first entered the Russian Federation in the early 1990s through Daghestan. In 1996, the Egyptian al-QaĎeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri spent six months in a Daghestani prison, violent confrontations erupted, and by 1998 Daghestani officials were accusing Persian Gulf organizations of waging jihad against Daghestanís traditionally moderate Muslims. Through all of this Daghestan has remained politically stable and has avoided protracted conflict.

On the one hand, Magomedovís extended incumbency has been a vehicle for his personal interests and for those of his supporters. Yet at the same time, it has been an extra-constitutional expedient by which Daghestanis have, in stressful times, sought to minimize instability without entirely undermining their constitution. However unseemly, Magomedovís constitutional patchwork has enabled Daghestanis to maintain the ethnic assurances of their collegial executive while avoiding the ethnic issues and potential ethnic confrontations that might result from a high-level transition.

Hence it is difficult to decide whether Magomedov has undermined or preserved Daghestanís constitutional democracy. Whatever inequities may have occurred behind the scenes, Magomedov has maneuvered openly through institutional channels. And despite increased grumbling about Dargin hegemony in general and Magomedovís incumbency in particular, he is not without popular support. On the whole, Magomedov has been an effective administrator who has maintained the Republicís stability in highly precarious circumstances while increasing economic support from Moscow. Recent years have seen decreases in crime along with economic and infrastructural development in some localities. He is also far from being an ethnic chauvinist and has broad interethnic appeal. There is a general sense that he holds power because there is no better man for the job. Many Daghestanis fear that his departure from office may lead to violent competition for his replacement and may precipitate increased instability.

Of course, Magomedov eventually must depart, and given the air of autocracy in the 2002 election his departure is probably overdue. Yet if he departs at the end of this term in 2006, when he will be 76 years old, then he will leave in his wake a republic that is somewhat stronger economically, somewhat better integrated ethnically, and somewhat more practiced democratically, than that which he otherwise might have left in 1996. It will be at least another ten years before it is clear whether Magomedovís constitutional detours have done more to help or to hurt Daghestanís constitutional democracy.

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