Failure of Government Institutions Mobilizes North Caucasian Ethnic Groups

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 214


On November 8, ethnic Nogai in Dagestan held a rally calling on President Vladimir Putin to consider creating a Nogai autonomous republic within Russia. The new republic would presumably include parts of Dagestan, Chechnya and Stavropolregion where Nogais have resided traditionally. The activists declared: “Only separation from Dagestan and the creation of an [separate] autonomy can give the Nogais a chance to preserve themselves as an ethnic group and retain their land for the future generations.” The rally took place in the village of Terekli-Mekteb in Dagestan’s Nogai district, where 200 delegates arrived from Dagestan, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Chechnya, and the Stavropol and Astrakhan regions, where Nogais have resided historically for generations. This was the fourth conference Nogais have held with the same demands. “Nogais are patient people, but patience has its limits,” the activists said in their appeal. According to the statement, the creation of a Nogai autonomy would increase Russia’s security in the North Caucasus but not adversely affect anyone else’s interests (

The Nogais are a Turkic-speaking people sometimes referred to as Western Kazakhs because of the similarity of their language to Kazakh. Overall, there are about 100,000 ethnic Nogais in Russia, 40,000 of whom live in Dagestan, mostly in the northern part of the republic. Over 20,000 live in the Stavropol region. Karachaevo-Cherkessia hosts over 15,000 Nogais and Chechnya about 3,000, while Astrakhan region, which is in the northern Caspian Sea area, has over 7,000 Nogais (Russian state statistical service, In 2007, the Nogais in Karachaevo-Cherkessia formed a special Nogai district in the north of the republic.

The Nogai community in Chechnya is unlikely to recover from the two devastating Russian-Chechen wars. Nogais in Dagestan and Stavropol region appear to be particularly concerned about the inflow of migrants from the mountainous areas of Dagestan, in particular ethnic Dargins and Avars. In their appeal to President Putin, the Nogais complained that the incoming migrants overgraze Nogai pastures and contribute to the desertification of the traditional Nogai habitat. Seeking to play on the Kremlin’s sensitivities, the Nogais also pointed out that the migrants “bring in with them types of Islam that are not traditional for this area” ( Thus, by alleging that other Dagestanis are Islamists even if they are not, the Nogais are trying to win support from the Kremlin.

The Nogai demands are unlikely to be satisfied by Moscow, partly because Moscow is not in a position to give more rights to ethnic minorities, partly because it is pursuing regional amalgamation plans and partly because the existing administrative entities will not like seeing their territories being transferred to others. Still, Nogai demands constitute an important development, because they indicate a revival of national movements in Dagestan and, possibly, elsewhere in the North Caucasus and Russia. Nogai demands vividly exhibit why nationalism is on the rise. Ethnic groups feel they cannot rely on the state institutions to protect their individual and collective rights, so they resort to political activism in order to defend their rights.

The eastern areas of Stavropol region that are adjacent to Dagestan have also experienced an inflow of Dagestani migrants who are changing the demographic makeup of the region, which affects both ethnic Nogais and ethnic Russians. For example, there is the Stavropol region’s Neftekumsky district, which borders northwestern Dagestan. Neftekumsky district is 3,800 square kilometers in size, which is slightly bigger than the area of Ingushetia. At the same time, the district’s population is under 100,000, compared to over 400,000 in Ingushetia. Naturally, Neftekumsky district attracts migrants, especially agricultural workers from neighboring Dagestan, where arable land is scarce and population growth is significant. Officially, ethnic Dargins make up less than 10 percent of Neftekumsk district’s population, or about 7,000 residents in absolute numbers ( However, the reality may be very different, since official figures are unlikely to reflect the true ethnic makeup of the district because of the issue’s political sensitivity.

The increasing influence of migrants and their Islamic background is illuminated in a case highlighted by Neftekumsky district’s website. After a school principal, Marina Savchenko, banned the wearing of hijabs at her school in the Neftekumsky district village of Kara-Tyube, a number of girls stopped attending the school. Eventually, Stavropol region officially introduced a ban on any headwear and the situation was resolved. Yet the school principal Savchenko sold her house in the village and moved to the city of Stavropol, which is about 300 kilometers away from the district. Allegedly, she received threats from the Muslim community. Despite Nogais’ allegations about newcomers from Dagestan bringing an outlandish type of Islam with them, Kara-Tyube is a Russian-Nogai village with few migrants in it (

The Nogai protest indicates the remarkable persistence of ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus. It also shows that individual and group insecurity is on the rise not only in such an ethnically diverse republic as Dagestan, but also in the Russian-speaking Stavropol region. Apart from the rise of ethnic solidarity, demands for autonomy largely reflect the inability of the government to establish and enforce laws that would make members of the communities feel safe. Protests in Dagestan by Nogais—like similar protests earlier by another group of lowlanders, the Kumyks—are indicative of the continuing trend of the migration of highlanders into the lowlands of Dagestan and beyond.