Dagestani experts are sounding the alarm about a rise in ethnic tensions in the republic. Some analysts see Dagestan’s current governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, as the culprit in the rising tensions because the republic’s Avar majority is receiving preferential treatment. The irony is that Moscow has long considered Abdulatipov to be an expert on ethnic issues in the Russian Federation.
Abdulatipov’s career was tightly tied to inter-ethnic relations, which were always closely monitored in the Soviet Union. In 1988, Abdulatipov moved to Moscow from Dagestan and became a consultant with the Department for Ethnic Relations at the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee. Abdulatipov was then elected to lead the Nationalities Council of the Supreme Council of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In 1997, Abdulatipov became Russia’s deputy prime minister for nationalities affairs. Abdulatipov’s career in the Russian federal government rose further the following year, when he was appointed minister for nationalities policies. However, soon after Vladimir Putin came to power, Abdulatipov’s career tumbled as Moscow opted to use crude force to subdue the North Caucasus and, at the same time, excluded the North Caucasians from power at the federal level (Onkavkaz.com, December 10).
Abdulatipov’s triumphant return to politics took place in 2013, albeit at the regional level, when Moscow unexpectedly sent him to govern his native Dagestan. However, soon after his appointment, relations among Dagestan’s myriad ethnic groups started to deteriorate, with land disputes between Kumyks, Avars and Laks in the republic’s lowlands becoming particularly sharp. Southern Dagestan (a.k.a. Yuzhdag—i.e. Yuzhny Dagestan), where Lezgins make up the majority of the population and have been unhappy about various moves by the republic’s leadership, has also become a hotspot. Republican authorities symbolically changed the official estimate of the age of the central city in Yuzhdag, Derbent, from 5,000 years to 2,000 years, and the celebrations of Derbent’s anniversary in 2015 turned into celebrations of Avar culture and Abdulatipov personally, according to Lezgin activists (onkavkaz.com, December 10).
The rising national consciousness of the Lezgins, in particular, was manifested in the adoption of a Lezgin flag this past October (Lezgi-yar.ru, October 22). Although, a national flag does not endow Dagestan’s Lezgins with political power, it provides them with a kind of symbolic unit and distances them from the rest of the republic.
Ramazan Abdulatipov is an ethnic Avar, and since the Avars are Dagestan’s largest ethnic group, smaller ethnic groups regard him with suspicion. Moreover, some analysts accuse Abdulatipov of cronyism in connection with one of the Avar-dominated districts in the republic. Abdulatipov comes from the mountainous district of Tlyarata in southwest Dagestan, which borders both Azerbaijan and Georgia to the south. Previous leaders of Dagestan, who were also often Avars, came from the republic’s Khunzakh and Gunib districts of the republic. Thus, Abdulatipov’s ascent marks a significant power shift not only among Dagestanis, but also among the Avar elites. For example, Ramazan Aliev also comes from Tlyarata and leads the administration of the republican governor. Abdulatipov’s younger brother Rajab heads the republican branch of the Federal Migration Service. Abdulatipov’s son Jamal is deputy mayor of the city of Kaspiisk. In recent weeks, Abdulatipov reportedly appointed his nephew, Abdulmuslim Khanipov, to a senior position in his administration. Abdulatipov has also appointed Magomed Abdurakhmanov, who also comes from Tlyarata, to lead the republican government’s committee for religion (Onkavkaz.com, December 6).
Abdulatipov’s tendency to lean on close relatives and those from his home district is not surprising, given that the Kremlin dispatched him from Moscow to Dagestan. The Russian authorities’ intention was to appoint someone who would be perceived as a Dagestani by the locals, but would not have a significant social base in the republic and thus remain completely dependent on Moscow. The Russian authorities’ expectation was that Abdulatipov would in some mysterious way be able to govern a multi-ethnic republic like Dagestan simply by relying on Russian money and soldiers. In the end, however, Abdulatipov ended up being dependent not only on Moscow’s money, but also on a narrow circle of relatives and friends. Since Moscow’s finances are projected to decline rapidly in the coming years, Abdulatipov may find himself on increasingly shaky ground, as he appears to have alienated most of the republic’s ethnic groups. Although Avars comprise the plurality in Dagestan, they are not omnipotent and are quite divided along district, ethnic and religious lines. Moscow’s continuing and failing efforts to control Dagestan is a spectacular example of how political moves can yield results diametrically opposed to what the Kremlin intended.