An estimated 10,000 people participated in a rally in the Novolak district of Dagestan on February 23, to commemorate the victims of Stalinist-era repressions and mark the 76th anniversary of the forced deportation of Chechens and Ingush during World War II. Chechen activists at the gathering, however, also called for the restoration of a former Chechen-majority district in Dagestan (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 23). The proposal echoed the proceedings from an earlier, February 15, conference in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, where ethnic-Chechen activists discussed completing the restoration of such a district in Dagestan. The authorities in the neighboring North Caucasus republic of Chechnya appear to support their ethnic kin across the border, but many Dagestanis feel that broaching this issue might jeopardize the security situation in the area (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 17).
The former Chechen district (Aukhovsky Rayon) in Dagestan was abolished following Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens from the North Caucasus in 1944. Soviet authorities resettled other ethnic groups in the abandoned Chechen houses; and the rayon was renamed Novolak (“New Lak”), with small parts transferred to the neighboring Kazbekovsky and Khasavyurtovsky districts When Chechens were finally allowed to return after Stalin’s death, in 1953, their district in Soviet Dagestan was not restored, however, and their homes remained occupied by the new settlers. Since coming back to the area, the Chechens in Novolak have lived alongside the mainly ethnic-Lak (and Avar) newcomers (see EDM, March 16, 2015).
Chechen activists at the conference in Khasavyurt announced that they would further push their demands in a preliminary public demonstration in March. Subsequently, an all-Chechen protest action will take place on April 15; and if the authorities do not respond to it, it will turn into a “permanent rally,” the activists said. The Dagestani newspaper Novoye Delo noted that Dagestan’s authorities turned a blind eye to the conference. Moreover, its organizers pointedly did not invite Dagestani journalists, while the state TV station in Chechnya aired a program covering the meeting (Novoye Delo, February 17).
Chechen activists claim that while they demand the restoration of their mono-ethnic district within Dagestan, they do not seek secession from the republic. That said, many non-Chechen Dagestanis specifically fear that after a Chechen district is restored, it will, in fact, secede and join Chechnya (Kavkazskaya Politika, May 13, 2014). Critics also assert that the former Aukhov district had existed for only a few months before it was abolished at the time of the Chechen deportation in 1944.
Moscow pledged to recreate a Chechen Aukh district in 1991, and the Lak population currently living there agreed to be resettled contingent on fair compensation from the central government. According to the official plan, over 13,000 non-Chechen residents of Novolak Rayon will be resettled to other areas of Dagestan. More than 3,000 houses, 10 schools, 3 kindergartens, hospitals, as well as administrative buildings and infrastructure have already been constructed for this purpose as of 2017. And currently, the construction of houses and infrastructure is underway in nine newly established villages. However, the resettled former residents of Novolak complain that there are no employment opportunities, no conditions for engaging in agriculture, and no paved roads in their new villages. The primary funds earmarked for the state program of resettling ethnic Laks from Novolak will not be spent until 2023–2025. According to republican officials, the resettlement program constantly changes, and it is unclear when it will finally conclude (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 20). Russia’s federal government has frequently made promises that require substantial funding and kept postponing their implementation. Restoring Aukhov district increasingly appears to be one of these large-scale, never-ending projects.
The relationship between Chechens and non-Chechen Dagestanis occasionally turns sour. In the most recent incident, three residents of the Dagestani town of Derbent disappeared in Grozny (the administrative capital of neighboring Chechnya). Soon, they were found at a local police station. Reportedly, they were detained after one of the men published a video on the Internet criticizing Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov. Chechen authorities may also have disliked the fact that the Dagestanis took photos of themselves smoking cigarettes in front of the Heart of Chechnya mosque, in Grozny (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 20).
The republics of Chechnya and Dagestan saw multiple border disagreements recently, which have contributed to the uneasy relations between their populations. In 2018, the two sides began the process of delimiting their shared administrative border. But in March 2019, Dagestani activists raised the alarm after discovering that part of what they considered to be Dagestani land near the town of Kizlyar was registered in the Russian government electronic system as part of Chechnya (Novoye Delo, March 30, 2019). Then, in June 2019, Chechen authorities installed traffic signs in the disputed area. Unidentified people demolished the signs, which were reinstalled but later destroyed again. The unfriendly exchange persisted for weeks (RIA Novosti, June 12, 2019). The notorious speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, traveled to this site with dozens of armed vehicles and men and publicly reprimanded the head of the Kizlyar district in Dagestan. The Dagestani authorities, in turn, made bold statements about never giving this land away (Budni Kavkaza, June 11, 2019). Eventually, the Chechen government took the case to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation (Chernovik, December 11, 2019). Whatever the court ultimately decides, it is unlikely to smooth over all the outstanding border issues between the two republics or satisfy both sides on the ground.
Chechen-Dagestani relations are likely to remain strained for the foreseeable future. The traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution are broken, and the official mechanisms within the Russian system are not trusted by locals in the North Caucasus. Local administrative border issues have long been contentious in this region. It appears that once the armed insurgency is entirely eradicated across the North Caucasus, territorial control can be expected to once more rise to the top of the most politically fraught and important issues in this strategic corner of Russia.