Lezgin Areas in Southern Dagestan Seem on a Path Toward Radicalization

By Valery Dzutsev
Until recently, the Lezgin-populated areas of Dagestan—the most violent republic of the North Caucasus—were relatively quiet. However, the situation has recently reached greater volatility. For the past month, a special operation has been ongoing in previously calm Kurakhsky and Suleiman-Stalsky districts of southern Dagestan. In May, a large concentration of heavy military equipment and servicemen (estimated at 1,500) in Kurakhsky district was reported. The population of the affected area is about 60,000. The counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced there and the Suleiman-Stalsky district—both Lezgin-populated areas—immediately after the killing of a forester in southern Dagestan on May 17 (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 18). During the course of the counter-terrorism regime, several suspected rebels have reportedly been killed and a number of hidden workshops for manufacturing of explosives have been found (Onkavkaz.com, June 15).
Lezgins are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the most ethnically diverse region of Russia, Dagestan. The majority of Lezgins reside in southern areas of the republic, in and around the city of Derbent. Northern Azerbaijan is adjacent to Lezgin areas in Dagestan and this Azerbaijani territory is another traditional place of residence for Lezgins. So, if the population of Lezgins in Dagestan were to radicalize, this could have a spillover effect in neighboring Azerbaijan.
To many Lezgins, the counter-terrorism operation in the Lezgin heartland came as a shock. People in the area are now debating “what kind of Islam do we, Lezgins, need?” It appears that similarly to the situation in the Northwest Caucasus, Lezgin activists are now divided into nationalists and supporters of radical Islam. Some Lezgins, for example say, “We should support those religious activists who preach Islam native to Lezgin soil, not the one that is indifferent or even hostile to it.” But some Lezgin Salafis respond: “Why do you only bring up your customs when the conversation is about religion?” The Salafis say that Islam only contests ethnic customs that are incompatible with the religion, and so the Muslim faith does not undermine the ethnic identity of the Lezgins, as such (Onkavkaz.com, June 15).

In the absence of robust political mechanisms for resolving inevitable social conflicts, the land of the Lezgins, called informally Lezgistan, is likely to continue on a path toward radicalization. Along with Islamists, Lezgin nationalists are likely to become more active. But unlike the radicalization present in other areas of Dagestan, southern Dagestan’s growing extremism may have regional implications because of its proximity to Azerbaijan, the Lezgins’ cross-border ties, as well as the substantial population of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the area.