By Mark Galeotti
The Moscow Times | Jul. 15 2014
For 15 years, Said Amirov shrugged off periodic assassination attempts — even the one in 1993 that left him in a wheelchair, with a bullet lodged in his spine — to remain the master of Makhachkala, perhaps the most unruly city in Dagestan, now the most unruly republic in the Russian Federation.
Last week, following his arrest in 2013 for plotting to shoot down a rival’s plane, Amirov was sentenced to 10 years in jail. That he was toppled from his position, and through a court rather than a Kalashnikov, says something about modern Russia.
Deputy premier of Dagestan since 1991, Amirov acquired a name as a ruthless political operator whose campaign against local gangs was characterized by many as just an attempt to supplant them with his own allies. In 1998, he was elected mayor of Makhachkala and held that position until his arrest and suspension from office in 2013.
Amirov appeared bulletproof in every sense of the word. He survived at least a dozen assassination attempts, some say 15, including rocket attacks on his offices in 1998. Just as importantly, he appeared politically unassailable. Despite continued allegations of brutality, corruption and crime links, he outlasted four Dagestani leaders and three Russian presidents.
No wonder that, as well as the nickname "Roosevelt" — because of his wheelchair — he was also known as "Said the Deathless," after Koschei, the immortal villain from Russian folklore.
When Moscow decided to move against him, it had to consider the strength of his local power base. This included not only his own private army of bodyguards but also considerable influence in the Dagestani police and, allegedly, a drug-trafficking gang known as the Kolkhozniki. As a result, his arrest was closer to a raid in hostile territory, spearheaded by Federal Security Service commandos brought in from outside the republic, backed with armored vehicles and helicopter gunships. Such was the concern about his sway over the local authorities that Amirov was immediately airlifted to Moscow, along with his nephew and nine other suspects.
If Moscow had been happy enough to let him build his fiefdom for 15 years, why did it turn against him? Part of the reason appears to have been that he fell afoul of the powerful Investigative Committee by his involvement in the 2011 murder of one of its regional heads, Arsen Gadzhibekov.
Although Amirov was to be convicted on the basis of a different case, his plot to use a surface-to-air missile to shoot down a plane carrying Sagid Murtazaliev, head of the Dagestan Pension Fund, started the process rolling.
But even the Investigative Committee cannot reach in and pluck someone like Amirov from his fortress-like home and deposit him in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison without a political decision having been made by the Kremlin.
The very reasons that once seemed to make Amirov such an admirable local proxy — his skill at managing the complex ethnic and factional politics of Dagestan, his ruthlessness, his networks within both the underworld and the elite, his industrial-scale corruption, his acquisitive ambition for himself and his family — all became liabilities.
Although the insurgency in the North Caucasus speaks the language of jihad, in the main it is a product of endemic failures of governance. Corruption has not only hindered any attempts to bring meaningful economic progress to this impoverished region, it has also deepened the divide between the handful of haves and the have-not majority.
Given that Amirov had openly been preparing a bid to become the next governor of Dagestan, his arrest was a powerful symbol of a new bid to try to master the corruption and clientelism making the North Caucasus virtually ungovernable.
It was also significant how this case was carried through. Instead of a quiet but forcible retirement, as had been offered to past figures whom the Kremlin wanted gone, Amirov was arrested, tried and convicted. The overall picture is of a case taken through the legal system properly.
Amirov was sentenced to 10 years in a maximum security prison colony and was deprived of his state awards. These included some that, ironically enough, had been given to him by the Federal Security Service. This is unprecedented for one of the Kremlin’s former local strongmen. It may even be a cautionary tale for other local kleptocrats.
Meanwhile, there are some very limited grounds for hope in Dagestan. In June, it was announced that it was third only to the Nizhny Novgorod and Sverdlovsk regions for implementing the 218 "May Orders" from the socio-economic program President Vladimir Putin outlined in his 2012 inaugural address. This may be so much eyewash, but there has certainly been some real progress on the ground. This year has seen industrial production up 24.1 percent, and as a result unemployment is slowly declining, although not quickly enough.
Some of the regional aid funds, typically devoured in orgies of embezzlement, are going to the projects they were meant to fund. Projects such as the reconstruction of the Makhachkala-Tbilisi road, which would help trade with neighboring Georgia, are at last under way. The delayed 100-megawatt Gotsatlinskaya hydroelectric power station, begun in 2007, is about to be commissioned. Dagestani billionaire Suleiman Kerimov has bought a majority stake in Makhachkala Airport and is expected to invest more than $86 million in it.
Mission accomplished, then? Hardly. Just as one can see signs of progress in the way Amirov was toppled, one can also see the limitations of the system in what has happened since then.
Dagestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov initially tried to adopt a more conciliatory and reformist style. But as disappointment grew at the slow pace of change, he responded with a more authoritarian and divisive approach. Protests have been dispersed, triggering ethnic riots. Meanwhile, the insurgency remains active and violent. Even the news about Kerimov’s investment has been greeted with caution, as it is likely less to reflect his confidence in regional air traffic and more an investment in buying favor in the Kremlin and influence in Dagestan.
The problem is that "fixing" the North Caucasus is not just about removing a few individuals but re-engineering structures of governance to create genuine legitimacy. Without political stability, guaranteed property rights and a serious and sustained campaign against predatory corruption and embezzlement, economic progress will continue to be driven either by subsidies from Moscow or investments like Kerimov’s, intended more to buy influence than kickstart a moribund economy.
Abdulatipov quickly squandered the optimism generated by Amirov’s arrest. Amirov’s conviction creates another brief opportunity, but if the Kremlin lets this one also pass, it is hard to see any real hope for the North Caucasus.
Mark Galeotti is professor of global affairs at New York University.
Lawyers For Former Makhachkala Mayor Appeal Prison Term
RFE/RL Caucasus Report | July 19, 2014
The team of lawyers representing former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, once one of the most powerful men in Daghestan, and his nephew, Yusup Dzhaparov, has appealed the prison terms handed down to the two men on July 9.
The North Caucasus District Military Court in Rostov-na-Donu found them guilty of plotting a terrorist act and sentenced them to 10 and 8 1/2 years in jail respectively. It took the three presiding judges 2 1/2 hours to pronounce the verdict which they took turns to read.
Amirov and Dzhaparov had both pleaded not guilty to the charge that they acquired a surface-to-air missile with a view to shooting down an aircraft in which Sagid Murtazaliyev, head of the Daghestan subsidiary of the Federal Pension Fund, would be travelling.
In his final address, Amirov dismissed the charge against him as utter rubbish, based on rumor, wholly unsubstantiated, and politically motivated. He stressed that he had no motive for wanting to kill Murtazaliyev.
Dzhaparov, for his part, claims he was beaten on the back of the head during the pre-trial investigation and subjected to electric shocks. He said he was warned that he would receive a life sentence if he refused to incriminate his uncle.
The half dozen defense lawyers pinpointed 108 separate procedural violations in the course of the pre-trial investigation and the two-month trial that began on April 24. They also highlighted contradictions in the indictment and in the testimony of witnesses for the prosecution. The judge dismissed those violations and discrepancies as insignificant.
The prosecution’s case was based primarily on the testimony of one man, Magomed Abdulgalimov, a former assistant to the Khasavyurt city prosecutor. Abdulgalimov (aka Kolkhoznik) is also the key witness in a second case in which Amirov and Dzhaparov are suspected of commissioning the murder in December 2011 in Kaspiisk of investigator Arsen Gadzhibekov. It was in connection with that murder that the two were first arrested in June 2013.
Abdulgalimov was arrested in October 2012 on a charge of embezzlement. According to his lawyer, Sergei Kvasov, investigators only began questioning Abdulgalimov about his links with Amirov in late January-early February 2013. It was at that time that Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Ramazan Abdulatipov as Republic of Daghestan acting President in place of Magomedsalam Magomedov.
Abdulgalimov said in court in late April that he had been tortured during the pre-trial investigation.
Abdulgalimov testified that Dzhaparov, with whom he was on friendly terms, introduced him to ‘Amirov, who asked him to procure a portable antiaircraft missile launcher, which Abdulgalimov says he eventually purchased for $150,000 from a Chechen acquaintance. Abdulgalimov says that in return for his help, Amirov promised him the post of Kaspiisk mayor. But instead of handing the weapon over to the two accused, Abdulgalimov said he buried it in Karabudakhkent Raion, just south of Makhachkala. Video footage of the missile being dug up is part of the prosecution’s case.
The prosecution further claims that – that at a second meeting, which took place at the mayor’s office in Makhachkala — Amirov asked Abdulgalimov to find someone trained to fire the missile, and disclosed that it was to be used to kill Murtazaliyev. At that juncture, according to the prosecution, Abdulgalimov got cold feet and warned Murtazaliyev of the preparations to kill him.
Amirov’s lawyers, however, produced records in court of the mobile phone calls made by Dzhaparov, Amirov and Abdulgalimov on April 26, 2012, the day Abdulgalimov claims the second meeting took place. Those records show the three men could not have met as neither Abdulgalimov nor Dzhaparov was in Makhachkala that day. (Dzhaparov was in Kaspiisk.) Those two had, however, exchanged phone calls.
The defense lawyers also summoned as witnesses Tamara Kanayeva, who was in charge of Amirov’s appointment calendar, and several persons who did meet with Amirov at his office on April 26. Kanayeva said Abdulgalimov did not have an appointment with Amirov on that day and could not have seen him without one.
Other visitors denied having seen him in the municipal offices that day. One of Amirov’s close aides similarly denied ever having seen Abdulgalimov in the mayor’s office.
Amirov pointed out that Abdulgalimov’s description of the interior of the city hall was incorrect. He said his bodyguards were permanently stationed on the fifth floor of the building, not the fourth floor as Abdulgalimov had claimed.
As for the surface-to-air Strela-2 missile that Abdulgalimov says he transported in his armored Land Cruiser to the hiding place in Karabudakhkent, Amirov’s lawyers say that two separate protocols describe the weapon as having a different size and shape. They claimed the weapon dug up was in fact an Igla missile measuring 164 x 10 cm, whereas the missile produced in court, which a Federal Security Service (FSB) specialist testified was in working order, was a Strela -2. They produced wooden mock-ups of both missiles in court, but the judge refused to allow an experiment to determine whether either would have fit into the trunk of the vehicle in question.
Equally problematic were the prosecution’s efforts to demonstrate why Amirov should have wanted to kill Murtazaliyev. Murtazaliyev testified in court that Amirov had asked him to write off billions of rubles in unpaid contributions to the Pension Fund owed by companies Amirov controlled, but witnesses for the defense said no such debts to the Pension Fund existed.
Other witnesses for the prosecution suggested that Amirov regarded Murtazaliyev as a possible rival in the event of a direct election for the post of president of the republic. Amirov, who was first elected mayor in 1999, is a Dargin, the second largest of Daghestan’s 14 titular ethnic groups. Murtazaliyev is an Avar (the largest ethnic group. Avars account for 29.4 percent of the total population of 2.9 million while Dargins account for 17 percent.). In the early 2000s, Murtazaliyev was a prominent member of the so-called Northern Alliance, a group of Avar politicians who sought to oust then President Magomedali Magomedov (a Dargin).
Half a dozen parliamentarians had appealed unsuccessfully in late 2009 to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to include Amirov’s name in a shortlist of candidates to succeed then Republic of Daghestan President Mukhu Aliyev. An opinion poll conducted in the spring of 2013 suggested that Amirov would have defeated acting President Abdulatipov in an open presidential ballot.
Amirov, however, explicitly denied in court that he had ever considered Murtazaliyev (a former Olympic wrestling champion) as a political rival.
Polarized Public Opinion
The gaping holes in the prosecution’s case against Amirov, and the fact that he was stripped on the day the verdict was announced of the various state honors he had been awarded in the course of his political career, lend credence to suspicions of a deliberate attempt to compromise and sideline him as a political figure, and possibly even bring about his untimely death in jail.
Amirov, 60, is wheelchair-bound as a result of injuries sustained in 1993 during one of a dozen attempts on his life; he also suffers from diabetes and hepatitis. One Daghestani commentator opined that, given the combined expertise of Amirov’s defense lawyers, "the devil himself would have had no trouble getting off scot-free."
What is more, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin announced on July 9 that the investigation into the involvement of Amirov and Dzhaparov in Gadzhibekov’s murder is almost complete. Markin pinpointed as the imputed motive for that murder that Gadzhibekov was investigating crimes committed by Amirov’s subordinates. The possibility remains, too, that on the basis of Murtzaliyev’s testimony, a third criminal case may be brought against Amirov for withholding mandatory contributions to the Pension Fund.
Public opinion in Daghestan is polarized. Amirov’s numerous supporters, not all of them his co-ethnics, remain convinced that he is the innocent victim of a show trial. Others, pointing to the numerous bids over the years to kill him and his nickname "Bloody Roosevelt," are inclined to believe that even if the charge of plotting to kill Murtazaliyev was indeed fabricated, Amirov nonetheless deserves to serve time for other crimes that have not come to light. Or, as blogger gumbetowsxy put it: "There is not enough water in the Caspian to wash clean his sins, and we know it."
— Liz Fuller