The Russian opposition sets its electoral sights on…Dagestan

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July 19, 2016 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

The Moscow journalist and public figure Maxim Shevchenko has announced his intention to run for the State Duma of Russia from Dagestan. This famous journalist “specializes” in religious and ethnic conflicts as well as the “Caucasian” and “Islamic” questions. Many call him the “lawyer of the forest” (the Islamic underground) and his website “Caucasian Policy” is full of materials criticizing Moscow’s policies in the Northern Caucasus. Yet this has not prevented him from occupying high positions in the official hierarchy. Just recently, he was appointed head of the commission for resolving land conflicts under the governor of the Stavropol Kray (a region part of the Northern Caucasian Federal District). This appointment has caused much bewilderment as Shevchenko is by no means an expert in this very specific field. As a journalist and conflict analyst, he is interested in searching for conflicts, but not solving them.

On July 11th, Shevchenko submitted a notification letter to the Electoral Commission on his nomination as a candidate for deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation for the southern one-mandate district of Dagestan. Several circumstances allow him the chance to win in this district. Firstly, he is popular among Islamist circles that are influential in Southern Dagestan and, secondly, he is also running from a one-mandate district, which means that he will participate in public debates with his competitors. Maxim Shevchenko deserves some credit, as finding a worthy opponent to debate him will be difficult if not impossible. He is the type of polemicist ideal for today’s popular political talk-shows. 

It is quite characteristic that another opposition journalist, Yulia Yuzik, also ran from this same district earlier. Yuzik is the author of the quite scandalous book Brides of Allah, a work full of criticism of Moscow complete with conspiracy theories and sensationalisms. The campaign of this Rostov journalist is financed by the Mikhail Khodorkovsky Foundation “Open Russia.” Shevchenko’s site has published materials in support of Yuzik, but the question begs: is it a coincidence or a conscious decision that these two candidates with more or less the same views have run for the same district?

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Publications have appeared in expert circles which have offered sharply critical evaluations of Shevchenko’s activism. The famous expert on Caucasian issues and journalist from Eurasia Daily, Artur Priymak, wrote on his Facebook page: 

“What kind of deputy from Dagestan is this who has only passed through the republic without even visiting all of its districts?…Has anyone seen Maxim L. Shevchenko visiting a Kizlyar Cossack, a rural teacher from a mountain village, a Sufi Imam, an Orthodox priest from Makhachkala, or an Azerbaijani smuggler? I haven’t. There’s no dragging the head editor of ‘Caucasian Policy’ away from Salafis and Wahhabis. Why? Because the lives of ordinary people are simple and boring – everyday work, life, and mundane concerns of feeding one’s family, getting one’s son into college, and getting your daughter married off…The ordinary people of Dagestan prefer to solve their problems like their grandfathers bequeathed, through hard work, peace, and harmony without conflicts. And wherever there is no conflict, Maxim has nothing to do.” 

Another author has expressed their opinion even more sharply: “Maxim Shevchenko and Yulia Yuzik are going to the State Duma from Dagestan. If Anzor Astemirov were alive, he would have gone to the Duma from Kabardino-Balkaria, and Alexander Tikhomirov from Ingushetia.” This anecdote refers to the famous terrorists who were killed during special operations. Shevchenko is thus put on par with terrorists. 

Some authors, however, delve into the problem more deeply and see Shevchenko’s nomination as a consequence of the systemic crisis of power in the Republic of Dagestan: “The fact that such ‘vikings’ are running from Dagestan is a logical result of 25 years of tribal mayhem. They are now running for what they once had to fight for. The people there are no longer the same. They are tired of old thieves and bribe-takers who don’t protect their interests in the State Duma and Federation Council but sleep during meetings and busy themselves dealing with personal issues.”

Unfortunately, the latter comment contains the bitter truth: Shevchenko and Yuzik’s nominations are the consequences of the systemic crisis of political authority in the Republic of Dagestan and all of the Northern Caucasus. The level of corruption in this region is the highest in all of Russia while economic and social indices are the lowest of all. This gives ground for Maxim Shevchenko and Yulia Yuzik to count on, even if they don’t win, interest in themselves as candidates and their electoral campaigns. The cure which they offer, however, might be worse than the disease. 

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