Sunday, October 28, 2012

Window on Eurasia: National Movements within Daghestan Again Becoming More Active

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 28 – National movements across the North Caucasus are becoming ever more active, not only in Circassian areas of the Western Caucasus but also in Ingushetia and now and perhaps most significantly in heavily Islamic Daghestan, the most ethnically diverse republic in the region.

            Although the people involved are overwhelmingly Muslim, the renewed rise of these movements and the specific goals they have articulated represents a check on Islamist influence. On the one hand, that means that the Russian authorities typically view them as less threatening. And on the other, it forces the Salafis to include ethno-nationalist themes in their programs.

            But these ethnic movements challenge existing power, land and cultural arrangements, and consequently, they contribute to the destabilization of the situation, and thus they too represent a challenge, albeit from a somewhat different corner, every bit as threatening to power arrangements within these republics and across the region as a whole.

            In an article on the Kavkazskaya politika portal, Tamila Shakhbanova and Milena Pinatova describe the re-emergence of ethno-national activism among Daghestan’s 850,000 Avars, 365,000 Kumyks, and 150,000 Laks as well as Makhackala’s response to that development (

            (Several weeks ago, the same portal described the rebirth of the Sadval movement among the Lezgins, a group that lives astride the Daghestan-Azerbaijan border, with 385,000 in Daghestan (13 percent of the republic population) and 180,000 in northern Azerbaijan, whose activities have disturbed both Moscow and Baku (
            About 18 months ago, leaders of the Avars, the largest ethnic group in Daghestan with just under one-third of that republic’s population, met and called for the formation of a national cultural autonomy and chose Saygidpasha Umakhanov, the mayor of Khasavyurt, as its president.
            Even though the Avars are the largest nationality in Daghestan, Umakhanov declared, “today they do not feel themselves to be in a very good situation. [And] if things are bad for the largest ethnic community, then that means that the situation of the other peoples is in no way better.”
            Since that time, Ismalgomed Nabiyev, an Avar who heads the local taxi driver union, says that “no one has been defending the interests of the Avar people.”  “Dozens of organizations” appeared in earlier years, he notes, but after they secured the well-being of their leaders, they ceased to be willing to challenge the powers that be.
            One of the Avar movement’s most prominent actions was the convention in Moscow of an international conference on “Problems of the Lezgin and Avar Peoples Who are Divided between the Russian Federation and the Azerbaijani Republic and the Ways of Resolving Them.”
            Not surprisingly, both Moscow and Baku saw this as a threat to the existing border between the two countries, but Daghestani leaders saw it as something more: the emergence of an alliance between the Avars and Lezgins who together make up almost half of the republic’s population and who together thus form a power base.
            The second national group to become more active recently is the Kumyks, who number 365,000 or about 15 percent of the republic’s population. In July, they held a meeting of the Council of Elders of the Kumyk People and focuses on the consequences of the introduction of privately owned land in their traditional areas.
            To deal with that and with ethnic competition for land, the Kumyks demanded the creation of a separate municipal district within Makhachkala that they would control and also the return of all land held by the Kumyks before their deportation in 1944.  Makhahckala reacted angrily, saying that such demands were “a threat to the territorial integrity” of the republic.
            But there is no indication that the Kumyks have backed down.
            The third nationality to become more active in the last few weeks is the Laks, who number 150,000 and thus form six percent of the Daghestani population.  They held a congressat the end of September to consider how to cope with the decay of their community as a result of impoverishment and outmigration from their homeland near the Chechen border.

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