Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 18

Dagestan: A Seething National Cauldron

By Igor Rotar

"After the signing of the Khasavyurt agreements, the Kremlinmay have succeeded in settling the Chechen crisis. But for ourrepublic, the main problems are just beginning. I don’t wish tosay that the Chechen resistance fighters have an interest in destabilizingthe situation in Dagestan — the bandits who are appearing onour territory have nothing to do with them — but certain forcesare clearly trying to blow our republic apart," the chairmanof Dagestan’s parliament, Mukhu Aliev, told Prism.

Dagestan is the largest republic in the Northern Caucasus, interms of both population and territory. What makes Dagestan uniqueis its multicolored mosaic of ethnic groups. Nowhere else in theformer Soviet Union is there so much ethnic diversity on so littleterritory. There are about 30 ethnic groups native to Dagestan.The peoples of Dagestan may be divided into two large groups:mountain peoples, and lowland peoples. Dagestan’s mountain peoples(which belong to the Dagestani branch of the Ibero-Caucasian familyof languages) include the Avars, the Dargins, the Lezgins, theLaks, the Tabasari, the Rutuls, the Aguls, the Tsakhurs and others.The Nogai, the Kumyks (which belong to the Turkic family of languages)and, of course, the Russians, live in the lowlands. In Dagestan,a unique institution of supreme executive power, the State Council,has been created, which includes representatives of Dagestan’s14 largest ethnic groups.

Strategic Significance

The strategic significance of this region for Russia is obvious.The republic’s east coast is washed by the Caspian Sea, and afterthe dissolution of the Soviet Union, Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala,has become Russia’s southernmost port. On the west, the republicborders de facto independent Chechnya, and consequently, if thesituation in Dagestan becomes destabilized, the whole easternpart of the Northern Caucasus could slip out of Moscow’s control,after which, even keeping control over its western part wouldbe extremely problematic.

In the opinion of the Dagestani authorities, the situation inthe districts of Dagestan bordering Chechnya has become much moretense since the signing of the Khasavyurt agreements. Thus, inthe opinion of Dagestan’s deputy minister for nationalities andexternal relations, Magomed Kurbanov, who just visited the districtsbordering Chechnya, "The federal troops deployed in Dagestanare preoccupied, thinking about how they will be going home soon,and just go through the motions of carrying out their functionsof guarding the border and manning checkpoints. Taking advantageof this, many armed people are able to cross over freely fromChechnya to Dagestan, and some of them take part in various sortsof ‘vengeance raids’ or crimes, which has made the situation inthese regions much worse."

"Hostage-taking and robbery committed by armed ‘guests’ fromChechnya has already become a common phenomenon in Dagestan. Andafter the end of military operations in Chechnya ‘raids’ ontoDagestani territory have become more frequent and even more audacious– the ‘victors’ syndrome’ is at work. We are simply in no conditionto cover the border completely, and therefore, it is simply naiveto think that these bandit raids will stop in the near future,"said militia colonel Sergei Kucheruk, chairman of the MVD detachmentguarding the Chechen-Dagestani border.

"Soldiers of the army of Chechnya-Ichkeria are not attackingfriendly, neighborly Dagestan. This is being done by ‘wild Indians,’rogue fighters under no one’s control, and run-of-the mill bandits.We are taking measures to cut off these bandit raids," Chechenprime minister Aslan Maskhadov told Prism.

One can hardly doubt the sincerity of the words of the Chechenresistance leader: the destabilization of the situation in theneighboring North Caucasus republics would not benefit the Chechenleadership now. On the other hand, there are too many people inthat republic, armed to the teeth, for whom war is the normalway of life. In half-destroyed Chechnya, for a long time to come,banditism will remain virtually the only trade which makes itpossible for a man to keep his family fed. The influence of theChechen radicals, who are not satisfied with the present peaceagreements, also cannot be discounted. It is worth noting thatthis May, one of the most influential Chechen field commanders,Shamil Basayev, told Prism that military operations against Russiantroops can only be stopped after the Kremlin pays damages forthe destruction caused. Basayev sees as his ultimate goal thecreation of a confederative mountain state, uniting the presentNorth Caucasus republics.

According to one version of the story, the bombing of the apartmentbuilding in Kaspiisk (in November 1996, an apartment buildingwhich housed families of border guards in the Dagestani city ofKaspiisk was blown up by unknown persons. As a result, 67 peoplewere killed, almost a third of them children) was also the workof Chechen fighters who wanted to deflect Moscow’s attention awayfrom Ichkeria to Dagestan. The Chechen leaders denied any involvementin the terrorist act. But Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbievadmitted that rogue field commanders could have been responsiblefor the blast.

A Bundle of Contradictions

It is the Khasavyurt raion, where, by the way, the village ofPervomaiskoye is located, (1) that "guests" from Chechnyavisit most often.

For those who want to "blow Dagestan apart," it is hardto come up with a better place to try. This raion has been theancestral home of the Akin Chechens. In their opinion, it is Chechenland. This opinion is shared by their countrymen on the otherside of the border. "Khasavyurt is holy ground for the Vainakhi(Chechens — I.R.)," proclaimed Chechen chief of staff AslanMaskhadov, according to the Dagestani newspaper Novoye delo.

In 1944, the local Chechens were forcibly deported from theirlands to Kazakhstan. Laks, Avars, and Kumyks began to settle intheir villages, which were vacated in a single night. When theyreturned home after their exile, the Chechens discovered thatother people were living in their homes.

Under the Communist dictatorship, open confrontation between theChechens and Dagestan’s other ethnic groups was impossible, butas soon as the grip of the totalitarian machine began to weakenslightly, the hatred, which had accumulated over long years ofenforced silence, burst out. In 1991, the Akin Chechens demandedthe restoration of the Aukhovsky raion, which had existed beforethe deportation of the Akin Chechens in 1944. According to theAkin Chechens, Chechen villages in this "traditionally Chechen"region ought to be restored to the deported Chechens, and thediscriminatory laws limiting their entry into the region oughtto be repealed. Although the restored raion was seen as an ethnicterritory, the Akin Chechens did not demand that this status bereflected in law. The Akin Chechens’ demand elicited sharp resistancefrom other ethnic groups in Dagestan: bloody fights between localChechens and Avars and Laks broke out in the Khasavyurt raion.MVD and spetsnaz units had to be called out to put an endto the conflict.

In the first days after the hostage-taking in Kizlyar, calls forreprisals against the Akin Chechens rang out in meetings in Makhachkalaand other cities, and Hadji Makhachev, the leader of the AvarPopular Front, called on people to take local Chechens hostage.About two hundred well-armed Avars lay in wait for the columnof terrorists and hostages near the Chechen-Dagestani border,intending to annihilate Raduyev’s men at any price. At that time,they managed to avoid a confrontation, but no one can guaranteethat reason will prevail after the next such excess.

What makes multi-ethnic Dagestan unique is that unrest anywherewill inevitably lead to a chain reaction: the disease will instantlyspread throughout the republic.

A People Divided by a Border

About 200,000 Lezgins live in southern Dagestan, and approximatelythe same number of Lezgins live on the adjoining territory ofAzerbaijan. While the USSR still existed, the problem of the unityof the Lezgin people was simply not a factor: the border betweenthe two republics existed only on the map. But after the disintegrationof the USSR, and the creation of the national border between Russiaand Azerbaijan which was its consequence, the problem of the divisionof the Lezgin people became quite pressing. In 1992, the Lezginnational movement "Sadval" organized massive demonstrationsof Lezgins on both sides of the border, demanding the creationof a single republic of Lezginstan within the framework of theRussian Federation.

According to "Sadval" activists, the Lezginsin Azerbaijan are subjected to open discrimination: it is veryhard for them to find prestigious jobs, and often Lezgins areforced to write down "Azeri" as their ethnic group ontheir passports. While military operations were going on againstNagorno-Karabakh, mass meetings were held in Azerbaijani Lezginstan,protesting the sending of Lezgin youth to the front. "Thisis an interethnic conflict and the participation of a third side– the Lezgins — in it is unacceptable," one of "Sadval’s"leaders, Nariman Ramazanov, said, in a conversation with Prism,expressing his organization’s official position.

Naturally, the "Sadval" activists’ position annoysthe Azerbaijani authorities. Several "Sadval" activistshave been arrested on charges of preparing the terrorist actsin the Baku metro (the activists, of course, deny the charges).Today, "Sadval" is banned in Azerbaijan becauseof its alleged involvement in terrorist activities, and has beenforced to go underground. In the opinion of the Azerbaijani authorities,citizens of Russia — "Sadval" activists fromDagestan — are responsible for the destabilization of the situationin Azerbaijani Dagestan. In the Azerbaijani press, which is virtuallyunder the complete control of the government, one popular explanationis that that the Lezgin problem is being exploited by Russiannationalists who are trying to use it to exert their influenceon independent Azerbaijan. In the middle of June 1996, NarimanRamazanov, a Russian citizen, was detained in Azerbaijan and accusedof creating camps in Dagestan to train people intending to committerrorist acts on Azerbaijani territory. Granted, Ramazanov wasreleased in a few days to representatives of Dagestan’s law enforcementagencies, who immediately set him free. But the very fact thata citizen of Russia was arrested, and the nature of the chargesagainst him may be seen as a sign of Baku’s concealed dissatisfactionwith Russian policy (or the absence of such a policy) towardsthe regions bordering Azerbaijan.

An additional factor which contributed to the destabilizationof the situation in Dagestani and Azerbaijani Lezginstan was thedecision, made soon after the incursion of Russian troops intoChechnya, to close the Dagestani-Azerbaijani border along theriver Samur completely. The Kremlin explained its decision bysaying that it was trying to cut off any possible aid to the Chechenresistance from Azerbaijan. But in practice, it has been unableto close the border completely, and the Chechen resistance continuedto receive arms from Azerbaijan through its own channels.

As a result of the war in Chechnya, the railroad uniting Dagestanand Azerbaijan with Russia has ceased functioning. The Makhachkala-Bakumainline was the main transportation artery both for Dagestanand for Azerbaijan. Its closing was a great loss to both republics.The border closing led to a sharp increase in the activity ofLezgin "unionists" on both sides of the border.

Soon after the signing of the Khasavyurt agreements, the Russiangovernment decided to unblock the Azerbaijani-Russian border.The tension in the region has started to decrease. But it is stilltoo early to say with any confidence that the situation on theborder has stabilized.

For example, investigators have not yet ruled out that the explosionin Kaspiisk was committed by the mafia, which specializes in smugglingarms and narcotics from Azerbaijan — a business which was hinderedby the border guards. According to these investigators, the bombingin Kaspiisk was not simply the work of professionals, but of peopleso expert at their work that in all of Russia they are numbered,not in the hundreds, but in the dozens. And if there is reallya criminal group powerful enough to pull off such an operation,the fight of the border guards against the mafia could grow intoa real war, comparable in scale with the military operations onthe Tajik-Afghan border.

The "Cossack Factor"

One out of every three people who leaves the republic today isan ethnic Russian, and this, in a republic in which Slavs makeup only a little over seven percent of the republic’s population.

In the Titov Street raion in Makhachkala, the majority of theinhabitants were once Russian. But in recent years, this cornerof the city has caught the eye of the Dagestani nouveau-riche.They have begun to build opulent palaces here; they call the newly-prestigiousregion "Santa Barbara." The result is plain: there arealmost no Slavs left here. For the most part, the matter is resolvedamicably: the Russian owner is given money, his little house istorn down, and on the freed lot, a villa is built. But sometimes,if the owner turns out to be stubborn and does not want to sellout, a grenade could fly towards his house, or the fence aroundhis house could "accidentally" burn down.

By the way, such cases do not at all show hostility on the partof the Dagestanis towards the Russians. It is simply that behindeach native Dagestani stands a powerful tukhum — a clanalong the patriarchal line, which, if something happens, willstand up in defense of one of its members. Therefore, local criminalelements prefer to have dealings with Russians, who do not havesuch a network of connections, and are hence, defenseless.

What is most interesting is that Slavs do not feel all that comfortableeven in northern Dagestan, where ethnic Russians have traditionally,for the last few centuries at least, been the most numerous ethnicgroup. There have been Cossack settlements in the Terek rivervalley (including in the northern districts of present-day Dagestan)ever since Russia began to colonize the Northern Caucasus. TheTerek became the border on which the Cossack settlements stoodas outposts, dividing the Russian Empire from the mountain tribesof the Caucasus.

But literally in the last ten years, the region’s ethnic map hasbegun to change sharply. Back in 1979, in the city of Kizlyar(which was founded by the Cossacks in 1567), ethnic Russians madeup 80 percent of the population, and now, Slavs make up abouthalf of the city’s population. The change in the ethnic makeupis explained by two factors: the active migration of the inhabitantsof mountain regions to the fertile lands of the Terek river valley,and the continuing exodus of the ethnic Russian population. "Forthe most part, it is the Slavs who are leaving our region. Manyof those who are leaving fear a new attack from the Chechen rebels.They have no confidence that the situation in Dagestan will remainstable in the future. And the difficult situation with respectto crime in our region has also had an influence on them. Sixof the biggest businessmen in the region, ethnic Russians andArmenians, have had grenades thrown at their houses, and havereceived threatening notes," Aleksandr Shevtsov, the deputychairman of the coordinating council for northern Dagestan andthe deputy chief of administration of Kizlyar, told Prism.

The drop in the percentage of Slavs in the region has been resistedsharply by local Cossack organizations. At their assemblies, onnumerous occasions, the Cossacks have called for the secessionof the raion from Dagestan. It must be noted that before the revolution,the lands of the Terek Cossack Host constituted a single territorial-administrativeunit which is now divided up among Stavropol, Dagestan, Chechnya(the area of that republic north of the Terek), Kabardino-Balkariaand North Ossetia. After perestroika, the Terek Cossacksunited into an organization called the "Terek Cossack Host,"(which is part of the Union of Cossack Hosts of Russia) and demandedthat Cossack lands be set apart from the national republics.

But Cossack separatism does not present a serious threat to theDagestani government. Today, even in the traditionally Cossackregions of the republic, the Russian-speaking population doesnot exceed 50 percent. Moreover, as stated above, the Russianpopulation is less concentrated than Dagestan’s other peoples.Therefore, one may say with confidence that there is nothing moreto Cossack separatist sentiments than purely declarative statementsat Cossack assemblies. "The proposals which sometimes ringout at Cossack assemblies, on how the northern region ought tosecede from Dagestan, are nothing more than emotional statements.The Cossacks themselves know quite well that they simply don’thave the strength to do that. Such statements are simply a defensivereaction," Shevtsov said. The Chechen fighters’ new terroristacts present a much more serious potential threat to northernDagestan.

In January 1996, the provincial city of Kizlyar became the centerof world attention, thanks to the raid on that city and the seizureof numerous hostages there by Chechen field commander Salman Raduyev.It cannot be ruled out that the choice of Kizlyar as a targetwas no accident.

Relations between the Cossacks and the Chechens have always beenrather strained. The point of establishing Cossack settlementson the river Terek was, after all, to suppress the mountain tribes.Skirmishes between Cossacks and Chechens broke out from time totime even in Soviet days, but they became especially frequentafter Djohar Dudaev came to power in Chechnya. Chechens beganto make raids on Cossack villages: to steal cattle and cars. Itmust be noted that the Council of Atamans of the Terek CossackHost welcomed the intervention of Russian troops in Chechnya andeven expressed willingness to send Cossack volunteers to thatrepublic. In March-May 1996, the "General Yermolov"(2) Cossack Battalion fought in Chechnya, and there were TerekCossacks, including some from Kizlyar, among his troops.

The situation got worse after Russian troops began to withdrawfrom Chechnya. In December 1996, Terek Cossacks blocked the railroadto the city of Mineralnye Vody, demanding that the Cossack regionsof Chechnya (the Naursky and Shelkovsky districts) become partof Stavropol krai.

Therefore, it is entirely possible that the Chechens were tryingto take revenge on their opponents from the Cossack movement.Taking this into account, the fact that Kizlyar is located twokilometers from the Chechen border, and the fact that this borderis virtually undefended, made it easy to carry out such a terroristact.

Instead of an Epilogue

"The Kremlin does not understand Dagestan. We did not willinglybecome a part of Russia, but we don’t intend to secede. We knowquite well that we simply can’t survive on our own. But when youanalyze Moscow’s policy in Dagestan, the impression is createdthat someone is intentionally trying to blow our republic apart,"says Aliev. "Russia spent a sum roughly equal to five timesour annual budget on the reconstruction of Chechnya, and we, onthe other hand, have not received a third of the money comingto us. If Russia continues not to pay us, it will be very hardfor us to avert a social explosion."

It is possible to agree or disagree with Aliev on the questionof whether infusions of money will be enough to normalize thesituation in the republic. What is interesting here is somethingelse: the situation here is so critical that even the traditionalDagestani authorities, who are known for their loyalty to thecenter, are "sounding the alarm."


1) This January, Chechen fighters from Raduyev’s detachment dugin, together with the hostages they had taken, in this village.A triple ring of federal troops surrounded the village and begana massive bombardment which virtually leveled the village. ButRaduyev’s detachment still managed to break through the encirclementand flee to Chechnya, together with their hostages.

2) Gen. Yermolov was the commander of the Cossack Corps from 1816to 1827. He was renowned for his brutality in his battles withCaucasus mountain tribes.

Translated by Mark Eckert