Dagestan’s Government Celebrates Anniversary of Republic’s ‘Voluntary Accession’ into Russia

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 20

It appears that Moscow views appointing people in the regions who constantly declare loyalty to the Kremlin the best strategy to combat extremism, separatism and terrorism. At the same time, the region’s problems are regarded as a matter of secondary importance compared to the declarations of Moscow’s protégés. Having become head of Dagestan only in September (www.mk.ru/politics/article/2013/09/08/912057-ramazan-abdulatipov-stal-glavoy-dagestana.html), Ramazan Abdulatipov decided to follow in the footsteps of his neighbors and reject the title of “president” in favor of the “head” of the republic (http://ria.ru/valdaiclub_tenth_anniversary/20130919/964227679.html). It was no accident that a Russian newspaper that publishes official government documents hastened to announce on September 19, two weeks before Abdulatipov’s own statement on the matter, that Dagestan had elected not a president, but a head of the republic (http://www.rg.ru/2013/09/08/reg-skfo/abdulatipov.html). While some might have thought it was a typo, it was not: the official news agency ITAR-TASS announced the election of the head of the republic, not the president (http://www.itar-tass.com/c1/869116.html). The republic’s parliament ruled that as of January 1, 2014, Ramazan Abdulatipov will officially be deprived of the presidential title and become the head of the republic along with the leaders of the other republics in the North Caucasus (www.riadagestan.ru/news/president/s_novogo_goda_prezident_dagestana_stanet_nazyvatsya_glavoy_respubliki/). “While the issue of which title will be used may not seem important, the title of president was used in the republics of the Russian Federation, which distinguished them from the rest of the country’s regions, which are majority ethnic Russian.” Now, the status of the republics has been downgraded to that of an ordinary Russian oblast or krai. Meanwhile, for the time being, the leaders of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan still retain their special status, but it is only matter of time before they also are forced to give it up.
Rewriting history is becoming a more troublesome symptom than a renaming of titles. In October 2013, Dagestanis were surprised to learn that Dagestan had voluntarily joined the Russian Empire 200 years earlier. This information came from several banners that were hung on three main streets of the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala, a short distance from Abdulatipov’s official residence. Incidentally, the current leader of the republic used to repeat the catchphrase of the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov: “Dagestan did not join Russia voluntarily and will not voluntarily leave it” (http://kavpolit.com/glava-est-a-respubliki-net/). So what happened in the thinking of, Ramazan Abdulatipov, a philosopher by profession?

The Treaty of Gulistan, which was signed by Russia and Iran in 1813, was taken as the basis for the “friendship” between Russia and Dagestan. According to the treaty, Iran gave up its claim to land in what is now Azerbaijan and Georgia, while Dagestan was incorporated into the Russian Empire (http://www.hrono.ru/dokum/1800dok/18131012ru_per.php). By the time the treaty was signed, Iran had had no authority over Dagestan for several centuries. So, in reality, the inclusion of Dagestan in the treaty allowed Russia to launch large-scale military operations in this part of the North Caucasus to colonize it. The Treaty of Gulistan did not give either the people of Dagestan or its rulers the right to make a “historical choice” (http://wordyou.ru/v-rossii/zlaya-volya-dobrovolnosti.html). In addition, in the 19th century, there was no such entity as Dagestan. Instead, there were dozens of minuscule feudal states that were not part of Iran, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire or any other country. One of these was led by the ethnic Kumyk leader Shamkhal Tarkovsky who Russian sources cite as the reason for Dagestan’s voluntary accession to Russia. All references to Tarkovsky are unfounded in the Russian interpretation of events because he could only represent the Kumyks, a small fraction of Dagestani society at the time. Dagestani scholars have been outraged by this turn in the official interpretation of history. On the Facebook page dedicated to the Caucasian War, historians fiercely attacked this concept as completely out of place (https://www.facebook.com/groups/113084795485744/396890167105204/?comment_id=397755027018718&notif_t=group_comment_reply). The celebration of Dagestan’s putative voluntary accession to Russia also evoked a wave of indignation and hatred among the Dagestani intelligentsia. These intellectuals wonder how then Dagestanis ended up fighting against the Russian Empire under Sheikh Mansur, Sheikh Tashu-haji, Imam Gazi-mulla, Imam Gamzat-bek and Imam Shamil and more importantly how then this will be interpreted. It seems these men apparently did not realize that they were already incorporated into Russia.

Dagestan’s first deputy minister for national policies, Zikrula Ilyasov, awkwardly offered an explanation for the celebrations that was in the spirit of the Soviet period, claiming that Russia had introduced civilization to the mountainous country (http://www.riadagestan.ru/news/interview/zikrula_ilyasov_gyulistanskiy_mirnyy_dogovor_sposobstvoval_ukrepleniyu_istoricheski_slozhivshegosya_edinstva_vsekh_narodov/). “From a backward periphery, with a patriarchal way of life, Dagestan turned into a mighty agricultural-industrial region that has multiple ties at the regional and national level,” Ilyasov said. This is the age-old argument of the pseudo patriots of the North Caucasus—that if Russia had not occupied the North Caucasus, it would have remained at the level of development of the 18th–19th century. The celebrations were concluded with a Congress of the Peoples of Russia in Makhachkala on October 18, which was attended by Dagestan’s pro-Russian political elites (http://azerros.ru/maintheme/15834-v-mahachkale-nachinaet-rabotu-kongress-narodov-rossii.html).

A similar story about Chechnya’s putative voluntary accession into Russia was prepared for the Chechens in 2006 (http://newsland.com/news/detail/id/541135/), but the authors of this spectacle forgot that the Chechens already “celebrated” 200 years of voluntary accession into the empire back in 1981 (http://www.sovietznak.ru/badge/10674). The problems of Chechnya at the time were very different, of course, so the celebrations received little attention. In 2010, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s Ingushetia celebrated the 240th anniversary of the Ingush people’s “voluntary accession” into Russia (http://i-r-p.ru/page/stream-document/index-25796.html). Kabardino-Balkaria celebrated the 450th anniversary of its accession into Russia in 2007 (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/123133/). Thus today, in Putin’s Russia, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party still appears to be hard at work as they work toward recreating the image of voluntary accessions to the Russian Empire.

The fact that Dagestan has been downgraded to the same category as all the other republics of the North Caucasus shows that the Kremlin has decided to treat all regions equally and resolve all their problems in the same way. This trend is a great miscalculation on Moscow’s part with regard to this easternmost North Caucasian republic. Further, it will only provide additional motivation for those who think that the North Caucasus has no positive prospects as a part of Russia.