Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 17

Dagestan on the brink of war: Moscow and Grozny fight for influence in the republic

By Igor Rotar

Ominous reports from Dagestan appear constantly in the Russian press. News from the republic (especially from the districts bordering Chechnya) resembles battlefield dispatches: armed raids, kidnappings and bombings are everyday occurrences here.

Dagestan is the largest republic in the Northern Caucasus, both in population (about 2 million people) and in territory (50,300 sq. km). The strategic importance of this region for Russia is enormous. On the east, the republic’s shores are washed by the Caspian Sea and, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, has become Russia’s southernmost port. On the west, the republic borders on de facto independent Chechnya. If the situation in Dagestan were to be destabilized, Moscow would risk losing control of the entire eastern part of the northern Caucasus.

A "Mini-USSR"

Because of its enormous ethnic diversity, Dagestan has been called a miniature of the former USSR. According to official statistics, thirty peoples live in the republic. These statistics are not precise, however, since an ethnic group may include several related peoples. In the mountains, each village speaks its own language and considers itself a separate ethnic group. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that there is no other region in the world with a more diverse ethnic mosaic.

Fourteen nationalities are officially designated as indigenous to Dagestan. These are the Avars (who make up 30 percent of the republic’s population), Dargins (17 percent), Kumyks (13 percent), Lezgins (12 percent), Russians (7.5 percent), Laks (5 percent), Tabasarans (5 percent), Chechens (3.5 percent), Aguls (3 percent), Rutuls (3 percent), Tats (3 percent), Tsakhurs (3 percent), and Nogais (2.5 percent).

Politics in Dagestan is closely intertwined with ethnicity. Although political parties formally exist in the republic, their influence is small; the officially registered ethnic movements, on the other hand, are a real force.

The republic’s ethnic diversity has given rise to a unique system of government. The republic is governed by a collegial body, the State Council, which includes representatives of the 14 indigenous peoples, on the basis of parity.

Magomed Magomedali, an ethnic Dargin, has been chairman of the State Council since 1994. His term runs out in the summer of 1998, but influential politicians of other ethnic groups have warned that Magomedov may try to introduce constitutional amendments permitting him to stay on for a new term. The newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta recently reported that "There is evidence of a possible attempt to introduce the office of president, to be elected either by a Constitutional Assembly or by a republic-wide referendum." Such an arrangement might, the newspaper pointed out, give Magomedov the chance to remain at the head of the republic for another term. Nezavisimaya gazeta interpreted the ouster of Prime Minister Abdurazak Mirzabekov, an ethnic Kumyk, which took place at the end of August, as an attempt to sideline one of Magomedov’s rivals. Mirzabekov’s successor, Khizri Shikhsaidov, is also a Kumyk but is considered a member of "Magomedov’s team." (1)

The present escalation of the power struggle is exacerbated by purely local considerations. Dagestan leads all other regions of Russia in the number of acts of political terrorism. In the last few years alone, 58 political murders were committed in Dagestan; not one has been solved.

At the beginning of perestroika, the Dagestani intelligentsia plunged into politics, only to find itself pushed aside by a more enterprising competitor — organized crime. According to the magazine Novoe vremya, some 40 percent of the Dagestani parliament in its present composition is made up of people from the criminal world. (2) In today’s Dagestan, there are two categories of politician: members of the former nomenklatura who have managed to stay in power, and leaders of mafia gangs.

At the head of virtually all of the ethnic movements stand people who are closely linked with the criminal world. Each of the registered ethnic movements has its own well-armed detachment of fighters who serve as bodyguards.

The mafia is experiencing no shortage in new recruits from the ranks of the young. Dagestan is one of Russia’s poorest republics — federal subsidies make up 85 percent of the local budget. A Dagestani’s average wage is only a third of the national average. About one-quarter of the republic’s population is unemployed and, in remote mountain regions, this figure reaches 80 percent.

Divided by the Border

In the south of Dagestan live about 200,000 Lezgins, and approximately the same number of Lezgins live across the border in Azerbaijan. Since the collapse of the USSR and the establishment of the state border between Russia and Azerbaijan along the river Samur, the problem of the division of the Lezgin people has become acute. In 1992, the Lezgin national movement "Sadval" organized mass demonstrations of Lezgins on both sides of the border, demanding the creation of a united republic of Lezginstan within the Russian Federation.

The next outbreak of tension in the Lezgin regions was caused by Moscow’s decision, after the beginning of military operations in Chechnya, to seal off the Azerbaijani-Russian border. This led to a sharp increase in the activity of Lezgin "unionists" on both sides of the border. Soon after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, the border was reopened, and the situation gradually stabilized. In recent weeks, however, the situation in the south of Dagestan has become uneasy once again. At the beginning of October, the head of the "Makhachkala" unit of the Caucasus Special Border Guards District, Sergei Bondarev, warned the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council of possible complications on the Russian-Azerbaijani border and armed provocations by "Sadval" fighters. According to Bondarev, fighters had begun to concentrate in the border regions, but the border guards were prepared to make "an adequate response" to any attempt at armed provocation.

Chechen "Unionists"

"Although Grozny has not made any formal demand for Dagestani territory to be transferred to Chechnya, there is little doubt that, in reality, the Chechen leadership sees our republic as potentially its own territory. Grozny is working purposefully to achieve this goal," the secretary of Dagestan’s Security Council, Magomet Tolboev, told Prism.

There is at least indirect confirmation of Tolboev’s view. At the end of August, in Grozny, under the chairmanship of Chechen first deputy premier Movladi Udugov, 35 parties and movements of Islamic orientation from Chechnya and Dagestan founded a new movement called the "Islamic Nation." The goal of the new organization is to create an "Imamate" — a state formation analogous to the Imamate of Shamil. According to the chairman of the new movement, Movladi Udugov, "the Islamic Nation intends to orient itself toward restoring Dagestan to its historical boundaries," i.e., union with Chechnya.

The Chechen unionists are making their pitch primarily to Dagestan’s mountain peoples who, under the leadership of the Imam Shamil (an ethnic Avar), put up the strongest resistance to Russian troops during the Caucasian Wars of the 19th century. The leader of the Avar National Front, Hadji Makhachev, and the chairman of the Lak movement "Kazi Kumukh," Magomed Khachalaev, visited the Chechen village Vedeno (which was the capital of Shamil’s imamate) for celebrations marking Imam Shamil’s 200th anniversary. The slogans that dominated at the celebrations spoke for themselves: "Chechnya and Dagestan — forever together and free," "Freedom is not given; it must be won."

But the unionists in Grozny have their closest ties to their fellow Chechens (the Akkin Chechens) who live in the Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district, which borders Chechnya. It is significant that, although from the point of view of Chechen historiography this region is "the traditional land of the Vainakhs," today, according to Basyr Dadaev, the leader of the Akkin Chechens, annexation of this territory to Chechnya is not the main issue. "Dagestan, in translation from the Chechen language, means ‘the land of our ancestors.’ Dagestan and Chechnya should become a single Islamic state," Dadaev told Prism. Tolboev, secretary of Dagestan’s Security Council, told Prism’s correspondent that "Grozny has created a bridgehead in the Khasavyurt district for seizing all of Dagestan. The local Chechens have been assigned the role of the fifth column!"

At the same time, all indications suggest that Grozny has a fall-back plan, in case the idea of unification fails. The sharpest conflicts in multi-ethnic Dagestan are between the mountain peoples and the peoples of the lowlands. The massive resettlement of mountain peoples to the lowlands, which began under Soviet rule, was and remains deeply resented by the native lowland peoples — the Kumyks and the Nogais. In Khasavyurt district — which the Kumyks, like the Akkin Chechens, consider their native land — Kumyks are being gradually squeezed out of leading posts by Avars (Dagestan’s largest ethnic group). In last April’s elections, the incumbent chief of administration, a Kumyk, was defeated by an Avar. Kumyks barricaded themselves in the town hall to protest the election results. The Kumyks also lost the post of local chief of police. At times this has led to situations in which Chechen fighters making raids from neighboring Chechnya have been resisted by Avars alone, while the Kumyks have remained neutral.

At the same time, the prospect of a union between the Akkin Chechens and other peoples of Dagestan who feel themselves "cheated" cannot be ruled out. This summer, the Kumyks, Nogais, Lezgins and Akkin Chechens held a joint congress of native peoples who are in the minority in their own homelands. The congress demanded the creation of ethnic-based autonomous regions on the territory of Dagestan. This demand was ignored by the republican authorities. According to Nogai delegates, however, Grozny has offered to create a Nogai autonomous district, if the Nogais agree to put themselves under Chechnya’s jurisdiction.

The Battle for Influence

From all indications, the Russian authorities understand the potentially explosive nature of the situation in Dagestan. Six months ago, Moscow did not single Dagestan out from the other subjects of the Russian Federation, but now the Kremlin is paying close attention to the situation in the republic. It is perhaps not by chance that a native of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, has been appointed deputy prime minister for national issues and regional policy. On July 30, there was a special session of the Russian government devoted to the situation in Dagestan. President Boris Yeltsin also discussed the situation in Dagestan at the August Security Council session.

Grozny may not be the only capital applying the principle "divide and rule." In fact, the Chechen authorities accuse Moscow of provoking ethnic conflicts in Dagestan. Grozny charges that, during the latest unrest in Khasavyurt (when, at the beginning of September, local Chechens tried to storm the city police headquarters) the Akkin Chechens succumbed to a Kremlin provocation designed to play the local Chechens off against the other peoples of Dagestan. In principle, this theory is not without internal logic. The Kremlin, as in other "hot spots" on the territory of the former Soviet Union, could be deliberately trying to keep interethnic tension in the republic at boiling point in order to keep the weakened republic, which is being eaten away by internal feuds, within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

True, such tactics have unwanted side-effects. A deliberately-provoked "local" conflict could, against the will of its initiators, grow into an unmanageable large-scale conflict. And as experience shows (the most vivid example being the war in Chechnya), the Kremlin does not always accurately calculate the possible consequences of its actions.



1. Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 19, 1997

2. Novoe vremya, No. 33, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.


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