Staunton, October 6 – Sergey Melikov, whom Vladimir Putin has named head of Daghestan to replace Vladimir Vasilyev, combines in himself three qualities. He is a longtime member of the Russian force structures, he is a Lezgin, and he is known to be close to the Kremlin leader. And that combination raises questions as to how he can and will act.
Unlike in many cases, the position became open not because the Kremlin was unhappy with the incumbent: Putin made clear in a video conference that he was pleased with what Vasilyev who appears to have left for health reasons, a conclusion reinforced by Putin’s appointment of him as an advisor (kavkazr.com/a/30877773.html).
But the new man is not only younger, 55 rather than 71, but very different in other respects. Melikov is a Lezgin and thus a member of one of the four largest nationalities in the republic he is to supervise rather than being the complete outsider that Vasilyev was. He is thus less likely to make mistakes or generate opposition on those grounds.
At the same time, Melikov served most of his career as an interior ministry forces officer, rising to the rank of colonel general and supervising counter-terrorist actions in the North Caucasus from 2011 to 2014. Then he was presidential plenipotentiary there until 2016. More recently, he was deputy head of the Russian Guards and then senator from Stavropol Kray.
Perhaps especially important given the nature of Russian politics in the North Caucasus as can be seen with Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, Melikov is known to be close to Putin and earlier was rumored to be in line to head not only Daghestan but Ingushetia. Just how close he is, of course, is difficult to say (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/354977/
Melikov has not tipped his hand as to how he will act in his new position, prompting many people to explain it by the most immediate of conjunctions: the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Because Daghestan is on the border, some in Makhachkala think, he is to ensure that the conflict doesn’t spread into the Russian Federation.
The new man is likely to reflect the three parts of his biography, however, and that raises as many questions now as it does answers. As a military man with extensive experience in counter-terrorist actions, Melikov may be expected to crack down on the restive population of Daghestan.
As a Lezgin and longtime specialist on the region, he knows the local situation from the outset far better than Vasilyev ever has and can be expected to avoid some of the mistakes the latter committed. But at the same time, the Lezgins are both opponents of the dominant Avars in Daghestan and have an important community in Azerbaijan.
That could lead to an intensification of ethnic conflicts within the republic and to more Russian involvement with the Lezgins in Azerbaijan. There are at least 180,000 of them, and Melikov could use them as leverage against Baku if Moscow decides that is what it needs and wants to do.
And as a friend of Putin, Melikov may have far more freedom of action in his new post than his predecessor did, thus reducing the powers of the North Caucasus plenipotentiary and creating someone who may rival Chechnya’s Kadyrov as a far more independent actor, yet another possibility that the new appointment may open the way to.