The Kumyks are the third largest ethnic group in Dagestan. According to official data for 2010, an estimated 422,000 Kumyks lived in the mountainous republic (www.webcitation.org/616BvJEEv), ranking third after the Avars, with a population of 814,000, and Dargins, with a population of 510,000 in the republic. Historically, the Turkic-speaking Kumyks controlled almost all of Dagestan’s lowlands along the Caspian Sea coast. As the highlanders moved down to populate the lowlands, relations between the Kumyks and other ethnic groups of Dagestan deteriorated. Land disputes are the most acute issues in Dagestan.
The leaders of the Kumyk national movement have constantly tried to shield their land from encroachment by the highlanders, above all the Avars, Dargins and Laks, who have descended on land that the Kumyks consider their own (https://kumukia.ru/article-9400.html). The Kumyks have also been dissatisfied with the way that top government positions are distributed among ethnic groups in Dagestan, viewing themselves as being at a disadvantage in comparison to the overrepresented Avars.
The Kumyks have had this land ownership dispute with the other ethnic groups in Dagestan for the past several decades. Hence, the murder of the Kumyk public figure Yusup Ajiev on April 19, 2013, near Khasavyurt was seen by the Kumyks as an attack against the entire Kumyk movement. Ajiev was killed in broad daylight in front of his seven-year-old child and nine-year-old nephew. Moreover, the perpetrator of the crime did not even try to hide his face. After quickly approaching the victim, the killer said something to Ajiev, fired 17 shots at him and managed to leave the scene unimpeded (https://kavpolit.com/komu-nuzhna-smert-yusupa-adzhieva/). Everybody seems to be curious about the fact that Ajiev’s bodyguard had previously been detained by the police, thus the victim appeared without security protection at a local mosque.
Yusup Ajiev was considered the informal leader of the Kumyks in Khasavyurt district. The Kumyks there expected he would run for the leadership of the district, which is considered one of the most troubled in Dagestan. Ajiev’s public image was controversial. His younger brother Sultan was suspected by the law enforcement agencies of membership in the Sharia Jamaat (www.ng.ru/regions/2005-04-21/1_dagestan.html) and was killed earlier. Yusup himself barely survived when Chechen law enforcement agents fired shots at him on September 17, 2004 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/61744/). Six months later, on April 20, 2005, Chechen law enforcement agents attacked Ajiev again, but the attacker once more failed to kill Ajiev, and a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer was killed in the clash (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/223127/). On April 28, 2010, Ajiev was arrested in Makhachkala and was released only under pressure by the Kumyks, who staged a protest in reaction to his arrest. Ajiev was considered a viable candidate for the leadership of the Khasavyurt district and planned to run for the position.
Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district borders Chechnya and draws much attention from the authorities because of its potential for conflict. The district is rife with territorial disputes between Chechens, Kumyks, Laks, Avars and Andys (www.bigcaucasus.com/review/interview/23-04-2013/83117-Gereev_Adjiev_ubiistvo-0/). Many everyday conflicts in this part of the republic transform themselves into ethnic standoffs, and the killing of Ajiev in April was not the first high-profile crime against Kumyks in the republic. On September 27, 2009, Alimsoltan Alkhamatov, the head of Khasavyurt district, was killed in Moscow (https://kumukia.ru/author?q=1185). Alkhamatov had been the district’s head since 2005.
Absalidin Mirzaev, a member of the Dagestani Public Chamber and the head of the Council of Elders of the Kumyk people, was recently beaten up. Four assailants attacked him in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala and fled after the incident. Mirzaev was known for his militant statements on issues related to land disputes and had led Kumyk protests (https://tvrain.ru/articles/v_dagestane_izbit_lider_kumykov_zaschischavshih_svoi_zemli-337916/). He fiercely opposed a government plan to relocate Laks to the Kumyk lands near Makhachkala and antagonized republican authorities. Even the recently appointed head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, commented on this issue, saying that land has no ethnicity (www.riadagestan.ru/news/2013/2/6/150510/). This remark certainly made many enemies for Abdulatipov among the Kumyks. Many observers regarded the beating of the leader of the Kumyk protest movement as an alarming signal from Ramazan Abdulatipov’s team (https://nazaccent.ru/content/7032-politolog-napadenie-na-kumykskogo-lidera-mozhet.html) and an attempt to scare the Kumyks and force them to renounce their public protests.
Mirzaev was one of the organizers of the extraordinary conference of the Kumyk people that took place on February 10 in Pyatigorsk. The very fact this conference was being held, and being organized in Pyatigorsk, made a conflict between the Kumyk leaders and the Dagestani authorities nearly inevitable. At the conference, the Kumyks complained that they were sidelined again when government positions were distributed in the republic and that they had the right to traditional Kumyk territory. In order to retain control over such land, the Kumyks proposed establishing a new district near Makhachkala called Tarkinsky (https://flnka.ru/digest-analytics/1346-kumyki-poydut-za-zemley-k-hloponinu.html). Kumyk conferences, congresses and rallies have periodically taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the problems that were voiced 22 years ago are still at the same stage of resolution as they were back then (https://kumukia.ru/article-101.html).
Therefore, the attacks on the Kumyk leaders are not entirely mysterious and inexplicable. Usually, as the Kumyks ramp up their demands in regard to land distribution, the attacks against Kumyk leaders also intensify as well. Multiple complaints by Kumyk public figures on lawlessness in the republic addressed to the president of Russia, the State Duma and the Federation Council have gone without a response (https://kumukia.ru/article-9400.html). Moscow directs those complaints back to Makhachkala—to the same people the Kumyks complain about.
This dismissive approach by the government results in young people increasingly adopting Salafist ideas as a form of social protest, which they perceive to be a way of resolving all problems based upon Sharia law (www.arhiv.ndelo.ru/one_stat.php?id=2471#). This in turn creates another layer of conflict, in which armed resistance groups fighting the Dagestani government try to impose their own radical ideology onto the entire republic.
Arguably, the murder of Yusup Ajiev showed that the Dagestani government largely failed to resolve the Kumyks’ problems in Dagestan. If anything, it will only intensify Kumyk desperation. However, Ajiev’s death is unlikely to result in an open confrontation between the Kumyks and the Dagestani authorities. Rather, the Kumyks will search for other forms of protest, and will likely intensify their turn to religion as one such form. It has become a situation in which it is hard to draw a line between the philosophy of Islam and its interpretation by some Islamic scholars, especially those who spread the ideas of Salafism. This is a result of Moscow’s policies in Dagestan, which like everywhere else in the North Caucasus end up being largely counter-productive and only intensify problems that could be resolved peacefully.