An estimated 10,000 people gathered in the Novolaksky district of Dagestan, on February 23, to commemorate the anniversary of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens in 1944. The deputy speaker of the Chechen parliament, Shaid Zhamaldaev, attended the event, but no high-ranking Dagestani officials were present for the occasion. Experts noted that Chechnya’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, strives to position himself as the defender and leader of all Chechens, regardless of their location or citizenship. This might potentially put Kadyrov on a collision course with Sergei Melikov, the acting governor of the neighboring republic of Dagestan. Contemporary tensions between these two Northeastern Caucasus regions stem from the divergent historical narratives of Chechens and Dagestanis, which, crucially, have also translated into heated and sometimes violent territorial disputes (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 25).
The legacy of the Soviet mass repressions in Dagestan has a distinct political dimension today, besides its historical and humanitarian importance. When Stalin deported the Chechens and the closely-related Ingush to Central Asia, their political autonomy inside the Soviet Union—the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic—was also abolished. Chechen and Ingush lands and houses were handed over to individuals from other ethnic groups in the region. In 1957, the Soviet regime allowed Chechens and Ingush to return to their homeland and officially restored the Chechen-Ingush Republic, though with some changes to its territory. For example, part of the Ingush-populated Prigorodny district remained within the administrative boundaries of North Ossetia, to the west. To the north, predominantly Russian-populated Naursky and Shelkovskoy districts were added to the original lands of Checheno-Ingushetia. To the east, the Chechen-populated Aukhov district, adjoined to Dagestan, was not restored.
Chechens began to raise the issue of the Aukhov district’s restoration when the Soviet Union broke apart. The Russian-Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s stalled the resolution of the dispute; but eventually, it again started to receive considerable attention, at least locally. Dagestani authorities repeatedly promised to settle the Aukhov issue. In 2014, the then-governor of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, reassured the public that the district would be administratively recreated within two to three years (Molodyozh Dagestana, July 23, 2014). The plan never materialized.
Restoration of the Aukhov district involves resettling ethnic Laks who presently live there to other parts of Dagestan. This process has proven to be a thorny issue despite considerable government investment into the resettlement program (an estimated 12 billion rubles, or $161 million, to date). The borders of the district to be reinstated are also unclear, as the ethnic makeup of some villages outside Novolaksky is disputed (Iep.ru, 2014). The population of ethnic Chechens in Dagestan was estimated at about 94,000 during the 2010 Russian census. Practical considerations aside, there are also political dimensions. Some Dagestani analysts fear that the Chechen authorities will demand the handover of the Aukhov district to Chechnya once it is restored. The would-be district is adjacent to Chechnya. Others, however, argue that Kadyrov will have abundant influence in the Chechen-populated district in any case, even if it is not formally merged with his republic (mbk-news.com, January 23, 2019).
The Aukhov district problem is evolving against the backdrop of the uneasy relationship between the two neighboring federal regions. The demarcation of the administrative border between Chechnya and Dagestan was suspended in spring 2019, after riots broke out near Kizlyar, in Dagestan. In June 2020, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, called on the Dagestani authorities to resume border demarcation works. “The Chechen Republic does not claim the territory of the brotherly republic [of Dagestan] but will defend its own territory by all legal means,” stated the Chechen official. He warned that inaction would further jeopardize stability in the North Caucasus (Novaya Gazeta, June 4, 2020).
It is unclear if the border demarcation between Chechnya and Dagestan can be accomplished without offending one side or the other. Territorial swaps between Chechnya and Ingushetia in the fall of 2018 caused mass protests in the latter republic and the eventual imprisonment of dozens of Ingushetian activists. Now, the Union of the Repressed Peoples of Russia has appealed to President Vladimir Putin, saying that the release of the activists arrested after protests in Magas would help defuse the tense social and political situation in the region (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 24).
Chechen opposition activist Ruslan Kutaev regards the multiple territorial disputes across the North Caucasus with suspicion. According to Kutaev, the pro-Kremlin Chechen authorities never act on their own but always do the bidding of their masters in Moscow. Russian authorities are trying to fuel new ethnic conflicts in the area, he argued (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 25).
In the recent past, the Kremlin used ethnic conflicts in the North Caucasus to increase the dependence of regional elites on Moscow. Under the current circumstances, republican politicians and business leaders are already highly dependent on the benevolence of the Russian authorities, which makes the creation of new conflicts unnecessary. However, if economic and political troubles become salient again, there are certainly ample opportunities for Moscow to exploit the existing tensions. Conflicts also might acquire their own independent dynamic if the central authorities prove incapable of providing reinforcement and financial backing to regional governments, as happened in the past. Neither the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, nor the newly appointed governor of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, will want to demonstrate their weakness in territorial disputes with each other, which increases the likelihood of further conflict breaking out.