The Kremlin’s anti-corruption campaign comes to the Caucasus

The Kremlin’s anti-corruption campaign comes to the Caucasus

In recent years, anti-corruption campaigns in Russia have led to multiple arrests and trials of high-level officials, including several regional governors. In early 2018, they came to the republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus, the stability of which depends on a fine-tuned power bargain between the federal center and local leaders. Could the Kremlin use the anti-corruption campaign to tighten its grip on the Caucasus?

Total crackdown

The first troubling signs for incumbent Dagestani authorities came in September 2017 when the head of the republic Ramazan Abdulatipov abruptly announced his resignation. While he cited his age as a reason, Russian media reported that the Kremlin was not satisfied with Abdulatipov, particularly because of his inability to stop factional infighting in Dagestan.

Sergey Melikov, a high-ranking federal security official, quickly emerged as a main candidate for the interim regional head. Curiously, after the initial reports about Melikov’s possible appointment, the mayor of Dagestan’s capital city Musa Musaev was spotted binge-liking the candidate’s Instagram posts. Observers interpreted this as a sign of anxiety among the Dagestani elites.

A few days later, the name of the new acting head of Dagestan was announced – and it was not Sergey Melikov.

Instead, the President appointed Vladimir Vasilyev, who previously served as the leader of the United Russia party in the State Duma. This decision was met with universal surprise. Crucially, unlike Melikov who is of Dagestani origin, Vasilyev is a complete outsider not only to Dagestan but to the entire Caucasus region. It seemed that the Kremlin needed someone without any local ties to enter the crisis management mode.

Immediately following Vasilyev’s appointment, the Russian Federal Security Service launched a comprehensive investigation into local officials that culminated in a series of arrests in January.

Those apprehended included former Dagestani Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov, two of his deputies, and the abovementioned mayor Musa Musaev. All of them were flown to Moscow blindfolded (claiming top news slots on national TV) and eventually charged with graft, while the checks into lower-level officials in Dagestan are still ongoing, sending shockwaves through local elites.

Part of electoral campaign

The show-like nature of anti-corruption campaigns in Russia has been long noted by observers, and the Dagestan case does not seem to be an exception. However, given that the Russian authorities are well aware of the tensions within elites in the Caucasus and the complicated legacy of the two Chechen wars, it is important to acknowledge that bringing this show to Dagestan was a very bold move that could potentially complicate the situation in the entire North Caucasus. What could convince the Kremlin that such measures would be appropriate?

In contrast to Chechnya, Dagestan appears to be an easier ground to exercise direct rule from Moscow. While there is significant ongoing competition for influence between different local groups – traditionally dubbed clans – none of them are able to claim total power in the republic and challenge federal authority.

Moreover, as Moscow Carnegie Center expert Konstantin Kazenin points out, the clan system in the North Caucasus appears to be in a deep crisis with more new players entering the field as the old leaders cling to their spheres of influence. Therefore, the Kremlin seems to have seized the opportunity to take the control over building the new power structure in the republic.

Another major victory over corruption also lets President Putin score additional points in an electoral campaign that is approaching its end. By targeting Dagestan, the Kremlin is appeasing the right-wing ethnic Russian voters who tend to disapprove the large subsidies that the republics in North Caucasus get from the state budget. The current crackdown also undermines the argument by Russian opposition leaders who claim that the anti-corruption campaign is not targeting the main culprits. By taking a risk and going into Dagestan, the Kremlin can signal its decisiveness – or something that appears to be decisiveness.

Could Chechnya be next?

Dagestan’s neighbour Chechnya could be the next target for the campaign. Some observers, in particular the independent journalist Yulia Latynina, already believe that by targeting Dagestan, the Kremlin is essentially preparing to address the issue in Chechnya which – at least anecdotally – is known to be rife with corruption.

However, this scenario seems quite unlikely. While Moscow has been ostensibly frustrated with the Chechen administration under the strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, in particular with his alleged ties to people involved in the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the stability of Chechnya depends too much on the integrity of the bargain between the Kremlin and Kadyrov. Meanwhile, the latter has been sending clear reminders of his potential influence. For example, Kadyrov  gathered a 1 million-strong rally in Grozny in support Rohingya Muslim minority persecuted in Myanmar after openly criticizing Moscow’s failure to address the issue diplomatically. The risks of a showdown with Chechen authorities, therefore, might be too high for an anti-corruption drive.

Still, a successful federal-led overhaul of Dagestan would  serve as a strong signal to Chechnya that the Kremlin is determined to enforce its power at the regional level and no region should feel exempted from this. The first post-election months will likely show if the North Caucasus power bargain evolves.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Yaroslav Makarov

Yaroslav Makarov has worked as a political and economics reporter for two leading Russian news agencies and spent five years as a foreign correspondent in Japan. Yaroslav is a candidate for a master's in international affairs at University of California, San Diego, and is a fellow at the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.