The Republic of Dagestan over the past few months has emerged as the least stable place in an increasingly troubled Russian Federation. “Violence in the region is Russia’s biggest problem,” Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently said.
Dagestan’s Troubles Mount, Mirroring Its Torturous Terrain
Dagestan, the easternmost autonomous republic in the Russian Federation’s Caucasus region, shares land borders with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Chechnya, and the Russian Republic. To the east is the Caspian Sea.
Although Russian is Dagestan’s official language, only a tiny minority of its population is ethnic Russian – perhaps five percent – according to Paul Goble, an expert on the peoples of the former Soviet Union. “There are 30 different indigenous nationalities that speak 30 different languages, almost none of which are mutually intelligible,” Goble said.
These ethnic communities, which are based primarily on language, are subdivided by family and clan. “But unlike in Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan, ‘tribal’ would be the wrong word to describe Dagestan,” Goble said. Although the Avars have been the predominant nationality in recent years, no group commands a majority, he noted.
Dagestan’s mountainous terrain impedes travel and communication. “It is one of the most topographically difficult places on earth, where people live in isolated, segmented ways,” Goble explains.
Economic and Political Barriers
Economically and politically, Dagestan is in shambles.“Dagestan is a place that earns money from the transit of oil and gas, unlike Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan, which earn money from production,” Goble said. Furthermore, a once lucrative fishing industry that yielded caviar produced from the sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, has been severely restricted.
“Dagestan has clearly become the most unstable place in the Russian Federation, and part of it has to do with extreme poverty,” Goble said. The large numbers of unemployed young men constitute a source of terrorist violence. “Furthermore, you have a long tradition of Islamic and ethnic resistance to central power,” Goble explained.
“On top of that, right now you have the possible choice of a new president for Dagestan, something President Medvedev has been mulling over for the past two months,” Goble said. The Kremlin will choose one from a list of five candidates, whom the Parliament in turn will be expected to ratify. “But this time, it’s not absolutely certain that Dagestan’s Parliament will comply, in which case a crisis is likely to follow,” Goble suggests. “The current violence in Dagestan is the result of different political factions trying to show off just what they are capable of, if their candidate is not chosen,” he adds.
Violence, a Shared Problem
But Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center suggests the problems the Kremlin faces in Dagestan are not categorically different from those in other parts of the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya and Ingushetia. “Some of these are the result of a policy of neglect, appointing leaders loyal to Moscow, and then looking the other way,” Lipman said.
“Given the economic problems and the problems of crime and corruption, it’s very difficult to find the right person to appoint as the leader of Dagestan because of its very delicate ethnic balance,” Lipman explained. “And there is no good solution that can improve the situation in the region in the conceivable future.”
In fact, political turmoil and violence are not unique to the North Caucasus, according to Lipman, because the Kremlin picks the leaders for more than 80 administrative entities within the Russian Federation. So, their leaders are dependent on the Kremlin. And Dagestan – like the other republics of the North Caucasus – is economically unviable. “It is just one example of a territory where acts of violence – often accompanied by fatalities – happen on a daily basis,” Lipman said. It is a “well known fact” that political leaders cannot control the killing of administrative officials and police, she notes.
Role of Political Islam
Radical Islam, Lipman suggests, plays a significant role in this violence. “True,” says Goble, but the Kremlin has a tendency to blame Islam for problems in the Russian Federation, even when other factors are clearly at play. “They’ve learned they can visit any amount of violence on their own population, as far as the West is concerned, if they identify the opposition as Islamist.” In Dagestan, he argues, ethnic differences reinforce all the other problems. “Nonetheless, Islam in Dagestan has historically been the most resistant to the expansion of Russian power.”
However, it is misleading to lump together the causes for violence in Dagestan and in Chechnya, Goble said. “The problems in Chechnya were an ethno-national movement the Russians tried to suppress, and it developed later into a more religious one.” In contrast, Dagestan did not have a national liberation front. “What you had over the past 15 years is a desire to be left alone.”
People tend to forget that the traditional Muslim leadership in the North Caucasus was trained in Bukhara and Tashkent, Goble points out. “And what is going on in the Fergana Valley in Central Asia is very closely related to what is going on in the North Caucasus,” he adds.
A Temporary Fix – Or Is It?
This week President Medvedev named a little known Siberian governor and businessman as his personal envoy to the North Caucasus. The newly created, largely Muslim federal district over which Aleksandr Khloponin will have sweeping powers includes the conflict-ridden republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, as well as the less volatile republics of North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. It will be headquartered in Pyatigorsk in the Stravropol krai. “But, like previous efforts to administer the Caucasus, whether from Moscow or from the level of the republics, it appears likely to backfire,” Goble predicts.