In April 2012, ethnic Nogais held three rallies in the North Caucasus to pave the way for the creation of the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Nogai people. On April 21, Nogai activists held a conference in Stavropol region, which is part of the North Caucasus federal district. The activists’ preliminary plans are to declare the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy that is allowed by Russian law at the founding conference no later than September 2012. The autonomy’s headquarters will be located in Moscow (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/205472/, April 24).
The proliferation of National-Cultural Autonomies in the Russian Federation is a relatively new phenomenon. Normally, ethnicities that do not have their “own” autonomous region pursue the goal of creating a “surrogate” – a National-Cultural Autonomy. For some ethnicities, such as the Nogais, this is probably the only path to follow because of their territorial dispersion. Ethnic Nogais reside natively in Dagestan, Stavropol region and Karachay-Cherkessia, and the newly created autonomy is meant to unite mainly these three groups. Smaller numbers of Nogais live in the northern part of Chechnya and in the Astrakhan region. In Dagestan, the Nogais occupy the northern districts of the republic where they comprise about 40,000 people. In Stavropol region, where ethnic Nogais number up to 20,000 persons, they live in the eastern districts that are adjacent to northern Dagestan. In Karachay-Cherkessia, Nogais comprise over 17,000 people (2002 census, http://www.perepis2002.ru/). Nogais are one of the Turkic-speaking native inhabitants of the steppes of the North Caucasus and southern Russia. Their language is closely related to Kazakh and they are sometimes referred to as the Western Kazakhs.
The Nogais’ attempt to acquire an administrative structure of their own is interesting for several reasons. First, it indicates that the existing legal protections are not enough for a minority group to feel safe in Russia, unless there is an administrative organization. Second, it signals a potential crisis for Dagestan, where the Nogais launched their quest for autonomy in 2011. Third, Moscow may be tempted to use the National-Cultural Autonomies as a precedent for “minorization” of the North Caucasian ethnicities, eventually eliminating the political structures of the national republics entirely by replacing them with National-Cultural Autonomy administrative structures.
In May 2011, an estimated 3,000 ethnic Nogais rallied in the Nogai district of Dagestan. They demanded the creation of a unified republic for all the Nogais, carving out Nogai-populated parts of Dagestan, Stavropol region and Chechnya from these republics. The protesters waved slogans such as “Return to Us Our Stolen Land.” What apparently caused the Nogais’ anxiety in Dagestan is the rapidly expanding migration of the mountainous Dagestani ethnicities, such as Avars, Dargins and others, onto Dagestani plains where Nogais traditionally held sway (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/186275/, May 29, 2011). Although Nogais have a privileged status of a native ethnicity in Dagestan, because of their relatively low numbers they do not have the same political clout as the larger ethnicities of Dagestan, such as Avars, Dargins, Lezgins and others.
For Dagestan especially, a successful separation of the Nogais from the republic would spell trouble as other ethnicities might follow their lead. Ethnic Kumyks, for example, who also happen to be a Turkic-speaking people, have voiced very similar concerns about the mountaineers taking over their lands on the Dagestani plains. Kumyks number nearly half a million people in Dagestan, but also natively live in the northern areas of Chechnya and North Ossetia. Even the largest ethnic group in Dagestan, the Avars, has voiced concerns about losing their identity in this most ethnically diverse republic of the North Caucasus. It is not surprising that the Nogais’ initiative to call for autonomy have led to deeper tensions in Dagestan, as the police tried to prevent the Nogais’ rallies and even intimidated them by issuing statements that the authorities “were not responsible for the safety of the rally’s participants.” The Nogais’ rallying call was triggered by government plans to build a sugar factory and cultivate sugar-yielding plants in a large tract of the lands traditionally owned by the Nogais (http://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/186269/, May 29, 2011).
Not just the Nogais are worried about the influx of North Caucasian mountaineers. The ethnic composition of the several easternmost districts of the predominantly Russian-speaking Stavropol region has been a headache for the regional authorities and the Russian nationalist public as well. Ethnic Russians are leaving the outlying areas of Stavropol that are adjacent to Dagestan and Chechnya; and the Russian population is gradually replaced by Chechens, Dargins, Avars and other Dagestani ethnicities. These territories are often comprised of arid lands with a scarce population and poor infrastructure. The way this dilemma is framed by Russian officials reflects the contemporary peculiarity of the Russian Federation, with some ethnicities, such as ethnic Russians, being officially favored over other ethnicities. Consequently, the migration of one group of Russian citizens – Chechens and Dagestanis – into the territory of another group – in this case ethnic Russians – is considered a “security dilemma” for Russia.
The authorities expressed their worries that about 1,600 persons, presumably ethnic Russians, left the easternmost districts of Stavropol region in the first nine months of 2011 – an indication of the continuing trend. The latest attempt to reverse this trend in Stavropol was the government’s unveiled plans to resettle Cossack families from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in “problematic” areas. This bears a striking resemblance to the Tsarist era’s policies of using the Cossacks as the front-runners of the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus. To complete the picture of returning Tsarist practices, the Russian Orthodox Church recently announced plans to build 24 churches in the easternmost districts of Stavropol region in the next three years in an effort to reverse the changing ethnic landscape of this territory (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/205565/, April 25).
The complex processes of demographic transition and migration create a whole new dimension of the problems that Moscow and other local regional actors face in the North Caucasus. Although there are hardly any direct ways for the authorities to influence these trends in a meaningful way, their attempts to support one ethnic group over others are bound to create more problems than they actually solve.