Earlier this month, the well-known Dagestani weekly newspaper, Novoe Delo, attacked the mayor of the city of Derbent for what it regarded as a servile attitude toward neighboring Azerbaijan. Journalist Ramazan Rajabov wrote: “Against all the protests and clamor by the local Lezgin population, the mayor of Derbent, Imam Yaraliev, approved the renaming of Sovietskaya Street—now it has been renamed after Haidar Aliyev. The question could be asked why it was necessary and why he went against his own countrymen, the Lezgins, and took a pro-Azerbaijani stance?” Rajabov alleged that several years earlier, a contender for the head of the administration of the village of Chokh in Dagestan’s Gubden district went to the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to ask for permission to name one of the streets of the village after Akhmad-haji Kadyrov, Ramzan’s father. In Rajabov’s view “this unhealthy drift to the strong neighbor, striving to receive political dividends through renaming streets in the villages and cities, did not add popularity either to the one or to the other” leader (Novoe Delo, July 7).
Dagestan has a complex relationship with neighboring Azerbaijan. The differences lie in both ethnicity and the religious realm. While Azerbaijan is a majority Turkic-speaking country with relatively small minorities, Dagestan is a majority Caucasian-speaking republic, although with significant Turkic-speaking ethnic groups. Dagestan is primarily Sunni Muslim, while Azerbaijan is majority Shia Muslim. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis reside inside Dagestan, primarily in the Derbent area in the southern part of the republic on the border with Azerbaijan. Dagestani ethnic groups, primarily Lezgins and Avars, reside in Azerbaijan, although their exact numbers are not known. In the 1990s, the Russian-backed Lezgin terrorist organization Sadval threatened to launch an insurgency in northern Azerbaijan in order to carve out part of Azerbaijan’s territory with a Lezgin population. While Kremlin support for the Lezgin movement eventually died out, the resentment has survived.
The same author, Ramzan Rajabov, said that widening Azerbaijani investment in the city of Derbent is a security threat to Dagestan and Russia. In Rajabov’s words, such investment signals to locals, about one-third of whom are ethnic Azeris, that Baku is more generous than Moscow. This might affect the allegiances of people in the area. In Rajabov’s opinion, by allowing Azerbaijan to invest in this area, Moscow is partially recognizing Azerbaijan’s claims to this territory. Eventually, Moscow could completely recognize Azerbaijan’s claims on southern Dagestan, the analyst asserted, “if that is dictated by the international situation. We have encountered this repeatedly. In the geopolitical game between the two countries, the Dagestanis might end up as the losers. The Dagestanis have ended up as a divided people as a result of the Kremlin’s short-sighted policy anyway” (Novoe Delo, July 7).
Many Dagestanis have held a grudge against Azerbaijan over the fact that Baku has pursued aggressive assimilationist policies in regard to its ethnic Lezgins and Avars who traditionally resided in northern Azerbaijan. These ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan are being treated as if they are not local, even though “they are living on the land of their ancestors,” wrote Rajabov, adding that pressure on Dagestani ethnic groups in Azerbaijan has “become routine” (Novoe Delo, July 7). Ethnic Lezgins are usually critical of the actions of both the Dagestani and Azeri authorities, when it comes to nationalities policies.
A Lezgin activist, Vagif Kerimov, has been especially vocal and blunt in his criticism of all the actors—the Dagestani, Azerbaijani and Russian authorities—advocating for a separate independent Lezgin state that would not be part of any other entity. Calling the current head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, a “pathetic hater and enemy of Lezgin-ness,” Kerimov rhetorically asked how Abdulatipov plans to establish close ties between Makhachkala and Baku bypassing the Lezgins. The author accused the Russian and Azerbaijani governments of a conspiracy to divide Dagestan and, in particular, historically Lezgin territory, into Russian-speaking and Turkic-speaking areas, with no area left for the Lezgins, who speak a Caucasian language. Kerimov warned that Abdulatipov was installed by the Kremlin for the purpose of subduing the Lezgins, but would be unsuccessful in that task. “Lezgin collective thought is political and has deep roots,” he said. “In the time before Abdulatipov’s ancestors [the Avars] came from the Mongolian steppes, the Lezgins were already struggling against the colonizers, and it has endured ever since. We have historical memory and most of all we have retained the history upon which a true Lezgin state will be built that will be the master of the land and its own history. How can such a prospect be liked by the puppets of the Turkish and Great Russia’s tribes [plemya Oguzov i Velikorossov]?” (lezgistan.tv, July 23, 2013).
Postings on Lezgin websites indicate that nationalist sentiment among the Lezgins runs strong. Bearing in mind that an ethnic Lezgin, 48-year-old Suleiman Kerimov, is one of the richest men in Russia—and is number 19 on Forbes magazine’s list of Russian billionaires (Forbes, accessed July 21)—the Lezgins may also have real capabilities to seek a greater degree of statehood. At the same time, the recent clashes between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces appear to have stirred some intellectuals in Dagestan who feel that the political situation in Russia might become more fluid and result in border shifts in the republic. The conditions in Dagestan appear to be showing signs of ripening for potential radical changes, provided that the Russian government reaches a critical juncture, following a combination of foreign policy failures, economic problems and intra-elite conflict.