Staunton, October 22 – The Kremlin’s decision to install an ethnic Lezgin as head of Daghestan may not be about rebalancing ethnic relations in that multi-national republic but rather be a move designed to put Moscow in a position to revive the Lezgin question inside of neighboring Azerbaijan and thus put pressure on Baku.
When Sergey Melikov was appointed to the top job in Daghestan two weeks ago, it was unclear whether he would act as the interior forces general, an ethnic Lezgin, or a longstanding friend of Vladimir Putin (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/10/will-new-man-in-daghestan-act-as-mvd.html).
Given the unsettled nature of that North Caucasus republic, his military experience could certainly be put to good use as far as Moscow is concerned; and his ethnicity has the effect of rebalancing the ethnic mix in Makhachkala given that the Lezgins are the fourth largest nationality there and no Lezgin has headed Daghestan in almost a century.
But his friendship with Putin and Putin’s increasingly short-term approach to problems may signal that Melikov’s selection had little to do with either of those calculations and instead represented a move by the Kremlin leader to put himself in a position to play the Lezgin card in Azerbaijan in the current crisis.
The editors of the Versiya portal suggest that may be the most likely explanation because Moscow has less leverage in this crisis than many imagine and that the Russian regime has a tradition of exploiting ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics in order to advance its interests (versia.ru/kreml-xochet-davit-na-azerbajdzhan-s-pomoshhyu-novogo-glavy-dagestana).
They argue that at present Moscow finds itself in an almost impossible position: “If it supports Armenia, it will lose Azerbaijan; if it supports Azerbaijan, the reverse will occur, but if it supports neither, it may lose both.” Consequently, it needs to find a way to bring pressure to bear on Baku without appearing to support Armenia or Azerbaijan in the war.
According to the Versiya editors, “the problem of ‘Lezginistan’ is a constant sword of Damocles over Azerbaijan. The Lezgins are the largest divided people in the Caucasus: 700,000 of them live in Daghestan, and another roughly 500,000 live in the northern part of Azerbaijan. A people with such numbers can certainly aspire to unity.”
Melikov is just the man to do that or at least threaten to do that, and he thus gives Moscow leverage it would not otherwise have.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lezgins in both Daghestan and Azerbaijan organized political movements to promote greater autonomy or even independence. But these efforts were suppressed both north and south of the Russian-Azerbaijan border and little has been heard of them since.
Because both countries oppose such mobilization, the Lezgins have remained relatively quiet over the last 15 years. But the state border that divides them remains a constant irritant, and it is possible that they can become a problem if Moscow or Baku seeks to use them. Moscow now may be preparing to threaten that.
(For background on this neuralgic issue and thus the possibility that Lezgins could be put in play once again, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/05/russians-arent-only-divided-people-in.html).