Monday, January 9, 2012

Window on Eurasia: North Caucasus Land Disputes Intensify Ethnic Conflicts, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 9 – Land disputes in Daghestan and other parts of the North Caucasus not only arise because of disputes among the various nationalities but also increasingly spark new and intensified conflicts, as disagreements over who owns or can use what land become invested with ethno-national meaning, according to ethnographers and other observers.

            At a meeting to discuss these issues last month, Akhmed Yarlykanov, a senior specialist at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, noted that “the ethnic factor really plays an important role in the development of land conflicts” in the region, with longtime residents angered by the demands of arrivals (

            That is especially the case when the arrivals use land for different purposes than the older residents did, when the claims of the former do not have a legal foundation, or when the new arrivals occupy so much land that existing settlements cannot expand because they have been surrounded.

            Yet another problem with the new arrivals, many of whom come from the mountains into the lowlands, Yarlykhanov added, is that they no longer move cattle from the lowlands to the highlands during the summer but keep them in the valleys year round. That creates ecological problems and this too “is another reason for conflict.”

            In Daghestan in particular, the ethnographer said, “a danger exists” that these conflicts will take on an “ethno-political” character. He noted that “calls to solve the problem” by separating the Daghestani lowlands from the highlands by setting up “territorial formations for the residents of the valleys and so on.”

At the same session, Konstantin Kazenin, the deputy chief editor of Russia’s Regnum news agency expanded on Yarlykhanov’s remarks.  Kazenin suggested that there are now four main problems at the intersection of land and ethnicity in the North Caucasus, problems that will only fester if they are not addressed.

First of all, he pointed to “the absence of a legal market for agricultural land.”  There has been a ban on privatization of such land in all republics of the North Caucasus except for Karachay-Cherkessia since 2002 when Moscow allowed the regions to set the date for the launch of land privatization.

Second, the lack of legal arrangements by the state is leading “to the appearance of alternative legal systems for the use of land.”  In Daghestan, for example, two village communities, “ignoring all the complexities of republic legislation,” simply concluded between themselves a land accord, “which was signed in a mosque.”

“In this, there was nothing ideological,” Kazenin suggested; “it was simply an attempt to find a simpler system of land relations. But the spontaneous appearance of such a parallel legal world is a problem for the state.”

Third, Kazenin continued, there are the still-unresolved issues arising from the Stalin-era deportations of peoples and the subsequent return of them from Central Asia and Siberia. The most neuralgic of these disputes involved North Osetia’s Prigorodny district, but in many places the return of those deported involves both borders and land use patterns.
            And fourth, the Moscow editor suggested, there is “the problem of the ideologization of the problems by the efforts of local scholars and social forces.” Their activities, he said, make “the possibility of giving land disputes an ethnic content extremely likely,” something that can be very dangerous.

Indeed, Kazenin argued, “sometimes the occasion [for such actions by scholars and activists] are problems that otherwise would not exist.” For example, the creation of a new district in one republic put grazing lands not only in another village but in another political unit altogether. And that in turn led to “the escalation of the dispute.”

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