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When Moscow's patience runs out High-ranking state officials behind bars, outsiders taking over the government, and federal agents raiding left and right. Welcome to Dagestan this week

Vladimir Smirnov / TASS / Vida Press

On Monday, February 5, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee arrested Abdusamad Gamidov, the acting prime minister of Dagestan, and two of his deputies on charges of large-scale embezzlement. In January, law enforcement agencies also open criminal cases against the chief architect of Makhachkala and the city’s mayor, who is considered to be close to Gamidov. Sources linked these first two cases to a political campaign by the new head of Dagestan, Vladimir Vasiliev, who last December announced that he planned to order a review of the republic’s state agencies with help from Moscow, drawing on the Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, and the Federal Security Service (FSB). This week, Dagestan found out what this plan means in practice.

Federal investigators arrested Dagestan’s acting prime minister and his deputies on charges of embezzlement

On February 5, the Federal Investigative Committee opened criminal cases against several high-ranking members of the Dagestani government on charges of large-scale embezzlement. When searching acting Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov’s home, agents found a stockpile of weapons that included a golden TT pistol, a Beretta, a Makarov pistol, two Kalashnikov assault rifles, and plenty of ammunition.

Footage of federal agents raiding Dagestani officials' homes

Gamidov, who became Dagestan’s prime minister only last October, was arrested along with acting deputy prime ministers Shamil Isayev and Rayudin Yusufov, as well as former Dagestani Education Minister Shakhabas Shakhov. The men are suspected of stealing public funds allocated to local welfare programs.

The purge of the high-ranking Dagestani officials began in January

In early 2018, multiple federal security agencies opened criminal cases against the mayor of Makhachkala and the city’s former chief architect. Sources told the magazine RBC that both suspects are Gamidov’s close associates, claiming that these investigations were “a major blow” to the prime minister. Officials detained Mayor Musa Musayev on January 19, charging him with abuse of office. A year earlier he approved the sale of a piece of local real estate to a company called “ASPK” for 1.1 million rubles ($19,000) — about 73 times below the property’s market value.

A source told the publication Kavpolit that Musayev was shocked when the authorities showed up at his home at 6 a.m. to take him into custody. Sources in law enforcement told the news agency Interfax that the case against Makhachkala’s mayor is the result of a joint investigation by the FSB’s Dagestani branch and Vladimir Vasiliev’s office.

On February 2, agents also brought charges against Magomedrausul Gitinov, Makhachkala's chief architect, for allegedly abusing the powers of his office. Officials say he started building a 12-story house in Makhachkala in February 2015 that would have encroached on someone else’s land. When a court later ruled against the construction, Gitinov’s crew had already laid the foundation for the high-rise, and the city ultimately had to foot the bill to demolish what was in place. Federal investigators say this cost the public 4 million rubles ($69,000).

These arrests are connected to the new head of Dagestan, who’s promised to shake things up in the republic

Before being appointed to the top spot in the local government on October 3, 2017, Vladimir Vasiliev had no connection to Dagestan. He previously served as the head of the parliamentary faction for United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. According to Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus and Asia, Moscow turned to Vasiliev because it had grown exhausted with “all the clan rivalry.” The federal government, he says, presumably hoped that bringing in an outsider would simplify working in “this system of total corruption and constant conflict,” Malashenko says.

According to RBC, Vasiliev and Vladimir Putin decided at a face-to-face meeting in December 2017 to initiate the crackdown on Dagestani officials. Later that month, Vasiliev announced that he would invite a special commission comprising “38 prosecutors” to come to Dagestan, under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Ivan Sydoruk. Within weeks, the magazine RBC confirmed that officers from the Interior Ministry, FSB, and Attorney General’s Office were already on the ground in Makhachkala. Sources close to Dagestan’s leadership told reporters that the agents from Moscow were in town to investigate high-ranking local officials.

So far, the arrests have focused on sitting members of the Dagestani government, with the exception of former Education Minister Shakhabas Shakhov, whom Vasiliev booted out of office last December because of his “disgraceful work.”

What’s happened since the February 5 arrests?

According to the website Fontanka, Abdusamad Gamidov and his supposed accomplices were immediately shuttled to Moscow aboard the same FSB special forces aircraft used in 2015 to transport a group of state officials arrested in the Komi Republic — the only other instance in recent history when Russian federal agents have launched a comparably sweeping purge of a regional government.

Dagestan's former acting prime minister, Abdusamad Gamidov, in court in Moscow, February 6, 2018
Dagestan's former acting prime minister, Abdusamad Gamidov, in court in Moscow, February 6, 2018
Yuri Kochetkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On February 6, the suspects were formally charged with embezzling more than 100 million rubles ($1.7 million) in public funds, including money allocated to a kindergarten, a temporary detention facility for foreigners, and a hostel allegedly owned by now-former Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Isayev. The suspect deny any wrongdoing.

Federal agents raided almost every ministry and state office in Dagestan, seizing documents left and right

According to the news agency RIA Novosti, the federal authorities searched the offices of Dagestan’s ministries of health, education, and finance on February 7, though local representatives for the Health Ministry and Education Ministry later denied these reports. Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service refused to comment on news that its office in Dagestan was also raided. According to unofficial reports, all senior Dagestani officials have also been prohibited from leaving the country until the federal commission’s anti-corruption work is finished.

On Thursday, spokespeople for the Interior Ministry and National Guard denied reports that police and National Guardsmen from outside Dagestan have replaced the local personnel stationed at checkpoints throughout the republic. According to Magomed Baachilov, who heads the National Guard in Dagestan, officers from other regions of the country have actually staffed Dagestan’s traffic police since 2010, “because of terrorist threats at checkpoints.”

Dagestan’s new prime minister is a bureaucrat from Tatarstan

Vladimir Vasiliev dismissed the Dagestani government the moment Gamidov was in handcuffs. Two days later, on February 7, the People’s Assembly approved the appointment of Gamidov’s replacement: Artem Zdunov, Tatarstan’s economic minister. Even before Gamidov’s arrest, reporters considered Zdunov a candidate for Dagestan's prime minister spot as early as December, after Vasiliev visited Kazan and reportedly complained to Rustam Minnikhanov, his counterpart in Tatarstan, about the “low quality” of his personnel in Dagestan. On February 5 — the same day Gamidov and his crew were taken into custody — Zdunov and Minnikhanov were in Dagestan.

Thirty-nine years old, Artem Zdunov has a PhD in economics and won the “Scholar of the Year” award at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences in 2009. Sources told the publication Business-Online that he used to work for the FSB, but this information remains unverified. When presenting his candidacy to the Dagestani legislature, Vladimir Vasiliev said, “Mr. Zdunov is well-educated, experienced, and independent, which is very important for Dagestan.”

Text by Evgeny Berg and Viktor Davydov, translation by James Whittingham