The continuing, radical and apparently irreversible decline in the size of the ethnic-Russian community in Dagestan, the poorest and most heavily Muslim republic in the North Caucasus, is creating serious problems for both Moscow and Makhachkala. And these concerns threaten to lead to the destabilization of that republic and possibly to the re-ignition of a major conflict across the entire region. At the very least, the continuing collapse of the Russian component of the population there will make it increasingly difficult for Moscow’s new man on the scene to navigate through the thicket of challenges he faces from other national groups.
Since the end of Soviet times, the number of Russians in Dagestan has fallen from nearly 200,000 to under 100,000 today. The demographic shift has been driven by a continuing exodus of ethnic Russians as well as due to the excess deaths over births among this aging group. Dagestani Russians’ share of the republic’s overall population has declined from 15 percent in the 1979 census and 9.2 percent in the 1989 census to only 3.6 percent in the 2010 census. Those numbers reflect both the ethnic Russians’ own demographic dynamics as well as the far higher birthrates and longer life expectancies among the non-drinking Muslim nations living there (, January 22; , November 10).
Not surprisingly, both the Dagestani authorities—especially under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newly installed head, Vladimir Vasilyev (see , October 13)—and many in Moscow are worried about the consequences of this exodus of ethnic Russians. Officials believe this trend will continue to the point where there will be almost no ethnic Russians left in Dagestan in the coming decades. Such a development would radically change the ethnic balance there because the Russian community has long served as a useful tool for Dagestani elites to resist the demands of other groups. Moreover, the ethnic Russians’ exodus will likely depress the economic situation in the republic given that they still form a disproportionate share of the more educated strata of the workforce. But far more ominously, the appearance of a Dagestan without Russians could trigger a rebellion even more threatening to Moscow than Chechnya ever had been. This is due not only to Dagestan’s location astride major north–south trade routes and on the Caspian coast—neither of which Chechnya has—but also because most of Dagestan’s other national groups are in fact far more Islamic than the Chechens. Dagestanis have formed a vastly greater share of all hajis from Russia than any other group, and they are also reported to have sent more fighters to fight for the Islamic State in the Middle East.
All these threats are generating serious concerns in Moscow. But they are also having an impact closer to home, which may complicate the situation in the North Caucasus republic still further. In particular, the demographic trends are prompting ethnic-Russian and Cossack communities in Dagestan to mobilize to oppose the republic government in the name of protecting their communities. Moreover, these groups are appealing to the central Russian government to back them if it wants to avoid disaster. In an article posted online yesterday, November 13, Moscow-based commentator Yury Soshin describes this congeries of threats and says that ever more Russians in Dagestan and ever more officials in Moscow view the situation in Dagestan as having reached “a critical stage,” one that must be addressed immediately before things deteriorate further (, November 13).
Soshin begins by acknowledging that on the surface the situation of ethnic Russians in Dagestan is not as dire as it was a decade ago, because “acts of direct terror and force” against them “have disappeared […] but behind this attractive façade is a different and far from happy picture.” He continues, “Yes, Russians now, in contrast to recent times, are not being attacked or driven from their homes, but those leaving the region are not returning, and for those who remain, life in their native land is far from happy.” That is why the ethnic Russians and Cossacks who used to form three-quarters of the population in villages in the north of the republic, now make up only “about 40 percent”—and most of them are elderly who are simply waiting to die. Their situation is ignored by Makhachkala and Moscow as well, Soshin asserts.
The Russians of Dagestan engaged in serious protests in 2012–2013, and both capitals said all the right things, making all kinds of promises that the situation would improve; but in fact it has grown worse, as the number of Russians in that North Caucasus republic continues to fall. Several months ago, the leadership of the Cossack community in the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan issued what can only be described as “a cry of despair” in the form of “An Analytic Report on the Effectiveness of Measures for Reducing the Outflow of the Ethnic Russian and Cossack Population from Dagestan” (, November 13).
That report acknowledges that laws have been changed in positive ways, but it goes on to say that the actions of the authorities remain the same. One indication of that: since 1970, the share of the ethnic Russians in the population of northern Dagestan has declined from 74 percent to 19.7 percent. The new majority, which has cut the number of ethnic Russians in official posts almost to zero, the report continues, is actively hostile to both ethnic Russians and Cossacks and uses its power over school programs to promote negative attitudes toward both. As a result, tensions in Dagestan are rising, with more Russians and Cossacks ready to leave but others ready to fight.
The report concludes with this warning: “The transformation of Dagestan into an ethnocratic Muslim state represents great dangers not only for Russia but for the local Muslim population.” And these “contradictions,” it continues, include many of “a religious, inter-religious, inter-ethnic and social character.” Neither Moscow nor Makhachkala seems ready to respond, because each is caught in a trap: If officials defend the Russians, they will offend the non-Russians still more; but if they do not, the Russians will leave, and the report’s warning may prove prophetic.