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The Fall of Dagestan's 'Bloody Roosevelt'

The once-powerful mayor of Dagestan’s capital city receives the longest prison term of any official in modern-day Russia.

by Nikolay Protsenko 17 July 2014

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia | On 1 June 2013, security forces took Said Amirov from his home in Makhachkala and flew him out of Dagestan in a helicopter. In Moscow, he was imprisoned and accused of organizing the contract murder of Arsen Gadzhibekov, a criminal investigator, in December 2011.

 

In the following weeks, another charge was levied against Amirov, the mayor of the Dagestani capital, and his nephew, Yusup Dzhaparov, deputy mayor of a satellite town of the capital.  


Said Amirov. Image from a video by Russia 1 Television.

 

According to the Russian Investigative Committee, the pair planned to kill Sagid Murtazaliev, head of the Dagestan department of the Federal Pension Fund, by the rather exotic means of a Strela anti-aircraft missile. Found guilty after a four-month trial in Rostov-on-Don’s military court, the pair were handed harsh sentences 9 July: Dzhaparov, 32, received 8.5 years, and 60-year-old Amirov got 10 years in a maximum security prison. It is a punishment without parallel for an official in contemporary Russia, made all the more shocking as Amirov was once widely thought to be untouchable.  

 

BLOODY ROOSEVELT OR MIGHTY ADMINISTRATOR?

 

Amirov was a typical self-made man of the Soviet era. Born into a peasant family of Dargins, one of the region’s native ethnic groups, he started his career in the state cooperatives, working his way up through the personal networks, based on informal obligations, that made the system work. By 1991, when he was appointed deputy prime minister of Dagestan, he already enjoyed considerable clout as a director of Dagpotrebsoyuz, the headquarters of the state cooperative in Dagestan. The office of Dagpotrebsoyuz on 26 Baku Commissaries street in Makhachkala remained the heart of his “empire” – a network of businesses that included banking, construction, housing, utilities, factories, and markets, held not by him but by those around him.

 

After the Soviet Union’s collapse Amirov’s influence grew dramatically. On his way up, he made numerous enemies, who by his own account tried to kill him more than 15 times. The first attempt in 1993 left him in a wheelchair, prompting fawning comparisons among his supporters to the U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt. It is an image they still embrace, even with Amirov behind bars. In a local newspaper’s 60th-birthday tribute to Amirov in March, a medical school professor hailed him as “the man, the creator, the mighty administrator.”

 

To his opponents, who accuse him of having connections with criminals and Islamist guerrilla groups, he is “Bloody Roosevelt.”

 

They insist he had a hand in the assassinations of Gamid Gamidov, the Dagestani finance minister killed in 1996; Interior Minister Adilgerey Magomedtagirov, killed in 2009; journalist Hadjimurad Kamalov, killed in 2011; and other public figures. But those accusations remain unproved.   

 

What is inarguable is that Amirov was an ambitious mayor of Makhachkala. The city was an industrial center during the Soviet era, but after the USSR’s demise major factories, mainly defense-related, stopped or dramatically reduced production, and many of the capital’s ethnic Russians drifted away. In their wake waves of villagers moved from the countryside to the city in search of work in the uncertain new economy.

 

From the time Amirov took office in 1998, the city’s population more than doubled from 337,000 to around 700,000 in 2011, although some analysts say the real number, including outlying areas, is closer to 1 million. By either count, Makhachkala is the fastest-growing Russian city, and Amirov made no secret of his grand plans for it.

 

The influx overwhelmed the roads, sewer systems, housing, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure. In effect Makhachkala, especially its outskirts, came to resemble the notorious favelas of Brazil. “This is not a city – it’s just a big urbanized territory,” Vyacheslav Glazychev, a renowned Russian urbanist, said in a 2011 interview.

 

To relieve the overcrowding, several years ago Amirov promoted a new satellite town called Lazurny Bereg (Cote d’Azur), with a price tag of about $5 billion. Construction began shortly before his arrest, but the future of the project is in limbo.

 

On the other hand, unlike other cities in the North Caucasus, unemployment was not a major problem in the Dagestani capital.

 

Mikhail Grudinin, general director of the Giprogor urban planning institute in Moscow who has discussed the city’s development with Amirov, said the jobless rate in Makhachkala is 0.3 percent, though far higher in Dagestan in general. “Men and women go to Makhachkala because there are jobs for them,” he said.

 

Those jobs, however, tend to be in petty trade, food services, car repair, construction work (often illegal), and similar low-skilled trades, frequently bordering on the criminal. In the meantime the most profitable sectors such as housing, utilities, public transportation, and markets were under the control of Amirov’s people. Amirov’s position also put him in control of the lucrative privatization of public land and the issuance of building and trade permits.

 

After Amirov’s arrest, journalist Maxim Shevchenko, an expert on politics in the Caucasus, told the online Dozhd television channel that Amirov was simply an adept at a game widely played in Dagestan.

 

“The mafia is a community of honor, you know? … Said Amirov, and a large part of the Dagestani elite as well, is like a mafioso with a very important position, with linkages to the federal center. Now some people are glad: the Bloody Roosevelt has been punished. But bloody is quite a recent adjective. He was called just ‘Roosevelt’ when he was powerful. Roosevelt waged war, and Said Amirov waged war.”  

 

Amirov had received several awards from the government, including a medal from the Federal Security Service, all of which he forfeited upon his conviction. 

 

SENDING A HELICOPTER

 

Since Amirov’s dramatic arrest, in Dagestan the phrase “to send a helicopter” after someone has come to mean “to take down even the most powerful and corrupt officials.” Few could have anticipated that Amirov would be dethroned, and his arrest was perceived by many as a kind of deus ex machina engineered in Moscow.

 

The end may already have been in sight for the mayor six months earlier, when Ramazan Abdulatipov replaced Magomedsalam Magomedov as president of Dagestan. Magomedov, an appointee of then-President Dmitri Medvedev, had emphasized conflict resolution and economic development in the restive republic. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to install Abdulatipov, a former member of the State Duma, in place of Magomedov signaled a new approach to the region – underscored by the recent appointment of Sergei Melikov, a police commander, to replace former businessman Alexander Khloponin as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus.

 

Abdulatipov declared his intention to “to renovate Dagestan, to clean up Dagestan, to lustrate Dagestan.” Amirov’s was not the only head to roll. About 20 local administration heads have been replaced so far, with some accused of wrongdoing including shady land deals, violations of land-use laws, and financial fraud.

 

Amirov, however, was a major target and his removal became more urgent to the Kremlin as it tried to cement Abdulatipov’s place atop the republic’s political ladder. Abdulatipov was appointed as an acting president, but in order to take the post permanently he needed the approval of the republic’s legislature – where many Amirov allies held seats, including his son as a committee chairman. Amirov was in a position to put forward his own candidate or at least bring Abdulatipov’s approval to a standstill. During his trial, prosecutors said Amirov even had ambitions of becoming president himself.

 

According to some media reports, the Kremlin tried to bargain with Amirov, offering him the post of deputy prime minister of Dagestan, which he refused.

 

From the first day of the trial, the political nature of Amirov’s case was underlined by the state prosecutor, who said during his earlier stint as deputy prime minster and then as Makhachkala mayor, Amirov “expanded his influence over all spheres of political and social life in Dagestan.”

 

Standing in his way, prosecutors said, was the so-called Northern Alliance – a group of local politicians and officials who were not happy about Amirov’s growing reach. Among them was Sagid Murtazaliev, who was appointed director of the regional pension fund without Amirov’s approval and then tried to collect arrears from companies under Amirov’s control.

 

According to the prosecution, that was Amirov’s motive in arranging Murtazaliev’s death. But the attempt failed, as the key intermediary, Magomed Abdulgalimov – a functionary in a local prosecutor’s office – who reportedly procured the cumbersome murder weapon was unexpectedly arrested on unrelated charges. It was Abdulgalimov’s jailhouse accusation that Amirov had tried to involve him in the assassination attempt that spurred the investigation into Amirov and his nephew.       

 

Amirov’s lawyer, Vladimir Postanyuk, rejected the prosecution’s arguments. He said the case lacked evidence and that Abdulgalimov’s account was not reliable. Abdulgalimov himself said he had been tortured in custody but did not say that his accusations had been extracted under torture. In any event, it was a possibility that the judge disregarded.

 

Amirov’s legal team raised other inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case, trying for instance to poke holes in Abdulgalimov’s claim to have visited Amirov’s office. No other witness could confirm the meeting, they said, and Abdulgalimov could not give a plausible description of the office’s interior.

 

In handing down the verdict, the judge called the prosecution’s mistakes “not essential.” Amirov’s lawyers say they will appeal and will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

 

Postanyuk said the trial did not touch on the real issues around his client’s downfall.

 

“In the course of the trial Amirov mentioned repeatedly the several murder attempts on him. He considers this trial just a new attempt to eliminate him,” Postanyuk said. “The main thing is that the subject matter of the trial is beyond criminal law – let the political analysts comment on the reasons why.” 

 

If Amirov’s arrest was a shot across the bow of Dagestan’s culture of clientelism and nepotism, the shooting seems to have died down.

 

“People expected that this would be the start of a real struggle with corruption and clan networks,” the International Crisis Group’s Varvara Parkhomenko told the Regnum news agency. “Several arrests and retirements followed, but then the process slowed down. Now there’s neither any serious progress in anti-corruption investigations, nor principal improvements in the operations of the state apparatus.” 

Nikolay Protsenko is a writer for Expert South magazine in Rostov-on-Don.

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