Daghestan is by far the most ethnically diverse of Russia's federation subjects, being home to over 120 ethnic groups of whom no fewer than 14 are ranked as titular nationalities. They are the Avars (who in 2002 constituted 29.4 percent of the total 2.57 million population), Dargins (16.5 percent), Kumyks (14.2 percent), Lezgins (13.1 percent), Laks (5.4 percent), Russians (4.7 percent), Azeris (4.3 percent), Tabasarans (4.3 percent) Chechens (3.4 percent), Nogais (1.5 percent), Rutuls (0.9 percent), Aguls (0.9 percent), Tsakhurs (0.3 percent), and Tats.
In an attempt to ensure the broadest possible representation of those ethnic groups in government, and to preclude the concentration of political power in the hands of one single ethnic group, the post-Soviet constitution adopted in 1993 provided for a collective presidency in the form of the State Council. That body comprises 14 members, one from each of the 14 titular nationalities, and was initially elected by the 242-member Constitutional Assembly. When the State Council was first elected in 1994, it was intended that the chairmanship should rotate among the 14 members. Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin and the last Soviet-era chairman of the Daghestan Oblast Soviet, was duly elected to that post in 1994. But the constitution was subsequently amended in March 1998, several months before the expiry of his first term, to abolish the article stipulating that a representative of one and the same ethnic group should not serve two consecutive terms, and Magomedov was reelected. At the same time, to counter the influence of the Dargins in the person of Magomedov, a Kumyk, Khizri Shikhsaidov, was named prime minister and an Avar, Mukhu Aliyev, parliament speaker. Shikhsaidov resigned in 2004, but another Kumyk, Atay Aliyev, was named his successor.
Magomedov was elected for a third term in June 2002, but stepped down in February 2006, whereupon Russian President Vladimr Putin proposed parliament speaker Aliyev to succeed him. (By that time, the State Council had been abolished and replaced by the post of president.) To preserve the ethnic balance, Magomedov's son Magomedsalam was named parliament speaker to succeed Aliyev; the younger Magomedov was replaced one year later by another Dargin, Izberbash Mayor Magomed Suleymanov, following the election of a new republican parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). The post of prime minister went again to a Kumyk, Shamil Zaynalov.
One of Mukhu Aliyev's first moves as president was to decree the drafting of the new Complex Program, a preliminary version of which was submitted to the government in late 2006. It was subsequently amended and shortened to comprise 42 points, and the republic's parliament approved it in the first reading in May 2007, but at the same time called for additional changes to exclude duplication of effort among various different state agencies and to provide for the maximum clarity with regard to responsibility for, and financing of, specific tasks.
In September 2007, parliament held special hearings devoted to the revised program that riadagestan.ru described as "stormy." Although all the speakers reportedly agreed that the program was badly needed, almost all found fault with it on various grounds. Those various objections, together with an overview of the differing approaches to nationality relations espoused by various political groups in Daghestan, were summarized in an article by Nationalities Minister Eduard Urazayev that was posted on riadagestan.ru one month later.
Urazayev enumerated the primary objectives of the program, which are promoting the use of the languages and cultures of the various ethnic groups, together with the role of Russian as lingua franca; strengthening unity among the various ethnic groups; and addressing the problems and grievances of those ethnic groups that were repressed under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. While efforts to prevent the disappearance of the languages and cultures of the smaller ethnic groups are laudable, the proposal to "strengthen unity," a euphemism for encouraging the development of a supra-ethnic sense of Daghestani identity, is chillingly reminiscent of the 1980s campaign to bring the various nations of the USSR closer together in a bid to create a supra-national Soviet identity. The program's second major flaw is that it does not address the most acute and urgent problems in relations between the ethnic groups: resentment of the Avars as exercising a virtual monopoly over top political and economic posts, and every-day competition between the smaller ethnic groups for jobs, land and resources.
Those issues were, however, raised during the September parliament hearings, according to Urazayev. Urazayev made the point that the abolition in 2001 of the federal Nationalities Ministry and the division of its responsibilities between other ministries resulted in the primary responsibility for inter-ethnic relations devolving on to the governments of individual federation subjects. The need to bring Daghestan's legislation into line with federal law created additional problems, given that it precluded guaranteeing parliamentary representation for representatives of the 14 titular nationalities.
Urazayev said the issue of equitable representation within the organs of state power for representatives of all 14 titular ethnic groups was one of the most hotly debated, with some speakers insisting it be continued while others argued in favor of abandoning it as "archaic" and a barrier to selecting the most competent applicant for any given post. He said that "no one is insisting that specific posts should be reserved for a specific nationality." He referred in that context to President Aliyev's insistence that a candidate's moral and professional qualities, not his ethnicity, should be the decisive factor. But those arguments have failed to win over some skeptics who remain convinced that since Aliyev's appointment as president, Avars have landed a disproportionately large number of leading posts, including some previously held by Kumyks and Lezgins. Beginning last year, official announcements of new appointments no longer specify to which ethnic group the appointee belongs.
Urazayev went on to warn against inferring that what he termed "petty everyday disputes" were ethnically motivated simply because the persons involved belong to different ethnic groups. But it is probably such disputes, especially over land, resources and jobs, that reflect most accurately the level and intensity of mistrust and enmity between the various smaller ethnic groups. In its issue for April 27, 2007, the independent weekly "Chernovik" listed several territorial disputes involving competing claims by two rival ethnic groups. They included a long-standing quarrel between the Kumyk and Dargin communities in Karabudakhkent Raion (which lies directly south of Makhachkala on the Caspian Sea coast) that culminated in a demand by the Dargins to divide the raion into two to give them a separate raion -- Gubden --of their own.
A second example cited by "Chernovik" was the southern Derbent Raion, where the local authorities' pro-Azerbaijani sympathies and concomitant discrimination against the Tabasarans and Lezgins (the second and third largest ethnic groups) reportedly resulted in demands by the Lezgins to carve out their "own" raion in the south. (According to Urazayev, some militant Lezgins have even demanded the federalization of the entire republic as the sole means of guaranteeing national self-determination for the various ethnic groups. That proposal is, however, unrealistic insofar as most ethnic groups are scattered randomly, rather than living compactly in a single region.)
"Chernovik" suggested that in many cases, the catalyst for demands for the partitioning of a raion between two feuding ethnic groups was a deliberate attempt by the senior local government official to destabilize the situation simply in order to demonstrate to the republic's leadership that he is the sole person capable of keeping the lid on nascent tensions. The paper observed that local officials tend to resort to that tactic when they incur criticism from the government, or in order to distract attention from their personal involvement in embezzlement of government funds or their unfair distribution of land to co-ethnics. In that context, the paper affirmed its support for the maximum devolution of power to the village level as reflected in President Aliyev's proposal that village heads be elected, rather than appointed by the raion head, to whom they would serve as a more effective counter-weight. Individual villages tend to be populated by members of a single ethnic group.
But while Aliyev appears to support increasing the autonomy of individual villages, he remains suspicious of any move that could strengthen the collective authority of any ethnic group. During a November 2007 visit to Magaramkent Raion, which is located on the border with Azerbaijan, Aliyev stressed the need to "nip in the bud" any efforts to establish either religious administrations or councils of elders on a monoethnic basis.