On the night of June 10, around two hundred young Dagestanis gathered to protest at a road sign that had been installed on the outskirts of the city of Kizlyar, Dagestan, only several hours before. The signpost, which the demonstrators ultimately dismantled, read “Chechen Republic, Shelkovskoi District,” thus seeming to indicate a unilateral changing of borders that extended this Chechen administrative territory onto Dagestani land (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 10; YouTube, June 11). The issue has increased disaffection among the local population in Dagestan. In part, such regional territorial disputes stem from damaging Soviet policies in the Caucasus. But at the same time, the latest protests partially reflect public frustration with the Kremlin-appointed republic head Vladimir Vasiliev’s maladministration and with Moscow’s own policies toward Dagestan.
Land disputes like those between Dagestan and Chechnya are prevalent across the entire North Caucasus—particularly in some of the region’s multinational republics—and are rooted in the legacy of the Soviet period. A number of specific cases arose as a result of the forced deportations (on Joseph Stalin’s orders) of certain North Caucasus ethnic groups to Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1943–1944 and their subsequent organized resettlements. These still not-entirely resolved processes have generated multiple conflicts at various levels: between individual republics, within a single administrative district, or even in one village (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 22).
Chechens were among the most affected of any North Caucasus nationality by those brutal Soviet wartime policies. In their forced absence, other Caucasus peoples settled the suddenly empty Chechen territories. Thus, when the Chechens were finally allowed to return in 1957–1958, they found new neighbors in their homeland, and in some cases they simply could not resettle in their own homes. A typical conflict of this sort involves Dagestan’s Novolaksky district, located on the border with Chechnya. This region, which was previously mainly populated by Chechens and called Aukh, was conferred by Moscow authorities to the newly established Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1922 (Cyberleninika.ru, 2009, accessed June 21, 2019). Starting in 1944, when Chechens were deported from the territory, about 5,000 Laks, who lived in the mountains, were forcibly resettled in the deserted Chechen villages. Then, nearly fifteen years later, the authorities prevented the returning Chechens from again settling in the Novolaksky district. In 1991, the third Congress of the Peoples of Dagestan adopted a resolution on the reestablishment of the Aukhovski region and on moving the Novolaksky district to a new territory. However, this project has not yet been completed and is further exacerbated by non-realized land reforms as well as unclear state policies or a strategy coming out of Moscow regarding the North Caucasus (Polit.ru, January 14, 2014).
In January 2019, the authorities of Chechnya and Dagestan agreed to demarcate the borders between the two republics. But on April 16, the speakers of the local parliaments of both republics announced they were “suspending” any further demarcation activities. This move was prompted by Chechnya, a month earlier, unilaterally claiming for itself a disputed piece of land on the border with the Kizlyar district of Dagestan, near the village of Novomonastyrsky. The representative of the staff of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov explained that Grozny would not wait for the reaction from Makhachkala. The Dagestani commission on demarcation of the border did not visit the village, because they found themselves unwelcome by local residents (Riadagestan.ru, June 11; Kavkazsky Uzel, April 19, June 10). On April 2, the People’s Assembly of Dagestan (republican parliament) published a statement on its website declaring the “inadmissibility of the unilateral determination of borders.” However, less than a day later, this message disappeared from the site (Kavkazr.com, April 3).
The recent, June 10 confrontation in Kizlyar is also partly rooted in the Soviet past, but it should mainly be understood as a consequence of Moscow’s uncertain regional land policies as well as motivated by the weak level of dialogue between the Dagestani government and the public. During the Soviet period, Kizlyar and adjacent territories served as an important crossroads linking several key regional cities; however, the administrative borders that crisscrossed this area were never carefully defined, including on the ground. This situation has persisted under the Russian Federation. In fact, the road sign that caused such ire among local Dagestanis had been installed correctly, as confirmed by Regional Geographical Society chairperson Zurab Hajiyev, who also serves as a member of the Dagestan Public Commission for the Establishment of the Borderline Between Chechnya and Dagestan (Yoldash.ru, June 11). This fact is further supported by a majority of local public figures and also by legal documents published by the Russian state (Chernovik, June 14).
The head of Dagestan, Vladimir Vasiliev, ended up issuing a statement regarding the border issue, in which he declared that “not one meter of Dagestani territory will be given to anyone.” Yet, his and his government’s actions nevertheless raised public charges of hesitation and ignorance (Riadagestan.ru, June 11). The popular local media outlet Chernovik noted, “Vasiliev, for the first time, showed uncertainty as head of Dagestan” (Chernovik, June 11).
Dagestanis criticize their local government’s handling of the border demarcation process far more than any statements by Chechen officials and even Chechnya’s unilateral installation of signposts in the border areas (Groznyi TV, June 12). The public seems to be most angered by Makhachkala’s hesitation on the land issue. And that negative mood is exacerbated by public perceptions of Vasiliev’s government being dominated by “outsiders.” Increasingly, voices in the local media complain of the “artificial alienation of indigenous peoples” from the political elite or that “no one defends Dagestanis’ interests” (YouTube, April 19; Kavkazsky Uzel, June 13). In recent months, public trust in the Vasiliev government’s ability to implement reforms and improve local economic and social conditions has decreased precipitously. A recent (April) survey by the Institute of Regional Examination ranks Dagestan 23rd among Russian federal subjects in terms of local protest activities, thus falling into the “orange group” of regions with “relatively high levels” of demonstrations (Riaderbend.ru, June 1). Moreover, information on looming leadership reshuffles by Moscow in both Chechnya and Dagestan is increasing in the media (Chernovik, June 11). For now, the growing public dissatisfaction and distrust in Vasiliev’s government as well as the conflict around the demarcation of borders near Kizlyar are mainly driven by internal Dagestani politics rather than ethnic confrontations. However, Makhachkala’s mismanagement of this situation or ignorance regarding the demands of the local population could easily allow explosive ethnic factors to come to the surface.