Ethnic Split Grows Between Southern Dagestan and the Rest of the Republic

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 17

Many of Dagestan’s ethnic groups have repeatedly voiced concerns over living together in a republic in which each group feels “cheated” by the others. Few regions of the republic however, have as much of a chance to successfully secede as southern Dagestan, popularly known by its Russian acronym Yuzhdag (Yuzhny Dagestan—Southern Dagestan). The radical sounding views expressed by a local blogger are increasingly common: “Yuzhdag has long been turned into the backyard of Dagestan,” wrote Ramon Daliev. “It is last to receive government funding and is deprived of sensible management. The more numerous and better organized northerners, with their strong, ambitious and ruthless clans, have seized the government in Makhachkala; and the southern Dagestanis, with their gentleness, are pushed aside. We are different from each other even in our mentality. Therefore, we should be good neighbors, rather than remain poor countrymen” (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 3).

Yuzhdag is located on Dagestan’s border with Azerbaijan, and Derbent is its main city. It does not possess an official administrative designation, but rather is an amalgamation of a dozen districts and cities in southern Dagestan. Residents of Yuzhdag think of themselves as somewhat softer and less conflict-prone individuals than the “northerners”—Avars, Dargins, Kumyks and others. Yuzhdag is dominated by ethnic Lezgins, but it also has a large population of ethnic Azerbaijanis, Tabasarans and smaller ethnic groups. Dagestan’s 400,000 Lezgins comprise about 13 percent of the total population of the republic and its fourth-largest ethnic group.

They have not, however, held top-level political positions in Dagestan. The positions of the republic’s governor, prime minister and head of parliament are normally reserved for the three largest ethnic groups of the republic—the Avars, the Dargins and the Kumyks. All three groups are “northerners” from the point of view of the “southerners,” who are concentrated around Derbent.

Ramon Daliev, himself a southerner, wrote that the contrast in the levels of development between southern and northern Dagestan has become especially acute since Ramazan Abdulatipov, an ethnic Avar, was made governor. “While prior to Abdulatipov the region somehow was developing, along with other parts of Dagestan, it has clearly stagnated during his governorship,” he wrote. “The backwardness of the southern Dagestan is especially glaring, when […] compared to the sudden speedy development of the northern regions.” Southern Dagestanis complain that the north redirects the funds Dagestan receives from Moscow to benefit the northern areas, at the expense of the southern areas. According to the proponents of Yuzhdag’s separation, the northern areas have better infrastructure, receive more government grants and are less scrutinized by government inspectors. In particular, Daliev wrote that the “notorious mayor” of the northern Dagestani city of Khasavyurt, Saigidpasha Umakhanov (an ethnic Avar), has survived without difficulties for years, while the “intelligent, honest, decent, gentle, well-balanced” mayor of Derbent, Imam Yaraliev was replaced. Ramazan Abdulatipov, indeed, managed to force Yaraliev to resign last August after a lengthy battle. The analyst warned that if the situation does not change, southerners could rise up in mass protests (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 3).

Ironically, the residents of Yuzhdag may have a point. Moscow has long funded the republics of the North Caucasus according to their level of political volatility. The more volatile the republic, the more funds it has received from Moscow. This principle of financing of the republics of the North Caucasus is likely to apply at the sub-regional level as well. Yuzhdag is relatively quiet compared to the northern areas of the republic. Abdulatipov may have advocated greater government spending in the areas that are more volatile, while neglecting areas like Yuzhdag that do not cause much trouble for the government. Abdulatipov, however, seems to have antagonized the Lezgins and other ethnic groups in the south.

Still, the Lezgins are not an entirely helpless ethnic group. One of the richest ethnic Dagestanis in Russia, billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, is an ethnic Lezgin (Forbes, accessed September 9). Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, who has shown a keen interest in Yuzhdag, is also an ethnic Lezgin (Kavkazskaya Politika, March 31). Lezgins are concentrated in southern Dagestan, unlike the other large ethnic groups, which often are scattered all over the republic. If Makhachkala does not find a solution to the growing discontent among southern Dagestanis, the political demand of separation from the rest of the republic may mobilize the locals. The situation is further aggravated by the projected decrease in government expenditures, as Russia experiences a period of economic turmoil (see EDM, June 22). Abdulatipov is unlikely to find sufficient funds to satisfy the needs of all regions of Dagestan. At the same time, the governor of Dagestan appears intent on ruling the republic with an iron fist. The absence of leniency on the part of the government side and its inability to increase funding for Yuzhdag are likely to fuel separatist sentiment in the largest and the most ethnically diverse republic of the North Caucasus.