Sunday, October 26, 2014

18 Years A Slave In Daghestan

One of the stone quarries in Daghestan's Lavasha district where men claiming to be slave laborers were rescued by an NGO in May 2013.

Over the past three years, Russian media have periodically reported the release from slavery of men forced against their will to work at Daghestan's numerous brickworks.

The most recent such victim, a man from Murmansk rescued by the public organization Alternativa, claims to have been held for 18 years as a slave in Daghestan, where he worked first at a brickworks and then, after an unsuccessful attempt to escape, as a cattle herder.

According to Alternativa, the man was the fifth whose release they have secured so far this year, compared with at least 12 in 2013. In some cases, the victims (most of them Russians, but also some from Belarus) said they were drugged after signing a work contract in Moscow or Yekaterinburg, and transported unconscious to Daghestan.

Daghestan's prosecutor's office announced one year ago, however, that inspections of brickworks in the towns of Makhachkala, Kaspiisk, Kizlyar, and Kizilyurt and in the Babayurt, Kizilyurt, and Karabudakhkent districts failed to yield any evidence of the use of involuntary or slave labor. Those inspections did, however, uncover numerous unspecified violations of labor, land, and tax legislation and of health and safety regulations.

Assuming that the workers who managed to escape, and whose escape was reported in the media, constitute the tip of the iceberg, calculating how many may remain in semicaptivity is problematic. In March 2013, an official from the Makhachkala prosecutor's office for nature conservation told parliament officials that "until recently," there had been a total of 86 functioning brickworks in Daghestan, 39 of them in Makhachkala and the coastal town of Kaspiisk. One month later, Daghestan's Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Gasan Idrisov cited a figure of 27 for Makhachkala and Kaspiisk.

But no estimates have been made public of the proportion of those enterprises that employ slave labor. Commenting on the release in January 2013 by Alternativa activists of nine laborers, five of them from Belarus, then-Daghestan Information Minister Nariman Gadzhiyev admitted that "slave labor is not a rare occurrence in Daghestan," and that it was not confined to the construction industry. In May 2013, police launched an investigation after one Daghestani blogger claimed there was a functioning slave market behind one of the city's cinemas where it was possible to purchase a male slave for 15,000 rubles ($380 at today's exchange rate).

On the whole, the republic's authorities appear more concerned by the aesthetic and ecological impact of the brickworks and their importance for the republic's economy than the status of their workforce. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov complained in February that seen from the air, Makhachkala is surrounded by flooded craters from which clay for bricks has been excavated. Some of those craters are up to 150 meters in diameter and 25-30 meters deep. Other abandoned craters are used as garbage tips, although by law the brickworks owners are obliged to recultivate them.

The brickworks are inspected at intervals:  four of six works in Kaspiisk inspected last month were ordered to suspend production "temporarily" to address violations of ecological and sanitary norms. But any large-scale crackdown or reduction in the total number of such enterprises is unlikely in view of the importance of the construction sector to Daghestan's ramshackle economy. According to official statistics, the Kaspiisk brickworks alone produce between 8 million-9 million tons of bricks per year. 


Armenian Opposition Launches New Wave Of Protests

An opposition rally held in the town of Abovian is just one of several Armenian antigovernment protests planned in the coming weeks.

For the third time in three years, the Armenian opposition has announced the start of a nationwide campaign to bring about regime change, or at least wrest significant political concessions from the country's leaders. Whether this attempt to bring about what one leading figure termed "a velvet revolution as a result of peaceful popular pressure" will succeed where the previous two failed is questionable, however.

At the height of the "Arab Spring" of 2011, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian convened a series of four protest demonstrations in Yerevan to demand pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections. 

Ter-Petrossian never recognized the legality of the presidential ballot three years previously, in which, according to official returns, he polled just 21.51 of the vote compared to 53 percent for then Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. 

The 2011 protests mobilized up to 35,000 people. But, for reasons that were never clarified, Ter-Petrossian failed to capitalize on that manifestation of mass support: He advocated "caution" rather than "pushing the authorities into a corner."  The talks the HAK subsequently embarked on with representatives of Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) ended in deadlock.

In the spring of 2014, a year after Sarkisian's re-election for a second term, four of the five minority parties represented in the parliament elected in May 2012 set aside their long-standing mutual distrust and jointly planned new demonstrations in support of their efforts to force a vote of no confidence in the government. That initiative collapsed when Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) stepped down unexpectedly.

Then, in June 2014, the four parties in question  -- the HAK; the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, which had been part of the ruling coalition until the May 2012 parliamentary election; the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, Serzh Sarkisian's main challenger in the 2013 presidential ballot; and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) --  issued a list of 12 demands to the Armenian leadership, and set a deadline of September 30 for meeting them. 

Most of the demands focused on the socioeconomic situation. They did not include President Sarkisian's resignation, which the BHK and HHD have stopped short of calling for. HHD parliament faction head Armen Rustamian explained that "Serzh Sarkisian's removal alone would not save the country" in the absence of radical changes to the political system. 

Specifically, the opposition called for:

  • The suspension of the pension reform that requires mandatory payments by all employed persons under the age of 40 into two state-controlled pension funds.
  • The revision of legislation governing the use of roadside speed cameras
  • A three-fold reduction of the trade turnover tax and the abolition of VAT payments at the border
  • Doubling agricultural output
  • The conversion of agricultural subsidies from foreign currency into Armenian drams
  • A program to revive the country's flagship Nairit chemical plant, and the payment of wage arrears to its work force
  • A ban on the sale or privatization of hydroelectric  power stations on the Vorotan river
  • A ban on raising public transport tariffs
  • The adoption of legislation banning economic monopolies
  • Amending the electoral code to ensure that the next parliamentary election (due in May 2017) is held exclusively on the basis of party lists. (At present 41 of the 131 deputies are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 90 under the proportional system.)
  • Granting the opposition oversight functions (over which officials or government bodies is not specified.)
  • A ban on the signing of any document that could pose a threat to the continued existence of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.  


HHK parliamentary faction head Vahram Baghdasarian initially responded by hinting that the Armenian leadership took the "rational" demands seriously and would discuss those they considered "acceptable," but the authorities ultimately failed to meet any of them.

It was that failure that served as the catalyst for the planned new wave of demonstrations.

Lack Of Unity

How effective the new push for regime change will be is not clear. As indicated above, there are fundamental differences among the four parties.

The BHK and the HHD do not support the insistence by the HAK and Zharangutiun that Sarkisian and the government of Hovik Abrahamian should resign.

Moreover, the HAK, the BHK and Zharangutiun oppose planned constitutional amendments floated by Sarkisian that would transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister, while the Dashnaks support them.

And Zharangutiun is the only one of the four parties that unequivocally opposes Sarkisian's unilateral decision one year ago to commit Armenia to membership of Russian President Vladimir Putin's planned Eurasian Economic Union.

Possibly in light of that lack of opposition consensus, both Sarkisian and senior HHK representatives have shrugged off the opposition's warning that they face a "hot autumn." 

In a clear allusion to BHK Chairman Tsarukian, HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov dismissed the opposition alignment as "a merger of revanchism and oligarchy." 

Commentators too are generally sceptical. Veteran political scientist Aleksandr  Iskandarian, for example, was quoted as opining that, despite their growing cooperation, the four parties  lack "the potential" to bring down the government. "And everybody realizes that," Iskandarian said. "Not just you and me, but also the authorities and the leaders of the [opposition] quartet."

Possibly reflecting a lack of public confidence in the quartet's potential, just 2,000 people turned out on September 25 for the first of its new series of rallies. 

That figure would, however, most likely have been higher had the meeting been held in Yerevan's Freedom Square, rather than in the town of Abovian 15 kilometers north of the capital. 

Further rallies are planned in Gyumri, Vanadzor, and six other towns, culminating in a protest demonstration in Yerevan on October 10 at which the decision will be taken whether and how to intensify pressure on the country's leadership.  

-- Liz Fuller


Georgian Prosecutor-General Impounds Former President's Property

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has characterized all attempts to bring him to trial as a political witch hunt.

As part of its efforts to bring former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to trial on charges of exceeding his authority and misuse of public funds, the Georgian Prosecutor-General’s Office has impounded property belonging to Saakashvili, his wife, and his mother.

The stated rationale for doing so, according to a statement released by the Prosecutor-General’s Office on September 19, was that since the former president refuses to cooperate with the ongoing investigation, there is a “justified assumption” that he might conceal his assets in order to plead inability, in the event that he was brought to trial and found guilty, to reimburse the financial damages inflicted on the state.

Saakashvili and his lawyer have criticized that move as “absurd,” “unfounded,” and politically motivated. 

The charge against Saakashvili of misspending some 8.83 million laris ($5.1 million) between November 2009 and February 2013 was announced in mid-August. It is based on classified documents made public in April 2013 by a parliamentarian from the majority Georgian Dream coalition that trounced Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary elections.

The documents in question, some handwritten, appear to show receipts for visits by Saakashvili to European spas and to a resort hotel in Thailand; school fees for Saakashvili’s two sons; 53,283 laris for 10 wristwatches; and 49,499 laris for a cashmere overcoat and seven jackets purchased in London. All those expenses were reportedly charged to the Special State Protection Service, tasked with providing security for the president and other senior officials. Bank accounts belonging to Teymuraz Janashia, the former head of that agency, were frozen earlier this week.

Shortly after the misspending charge was made public, Saakashvili reportedly tried unsuccessfully to post the items of clothing in question back to the state chancellery in Tbilisi.

Saakashvili thus currently faces three separate sets of criminal charges.

The first, of exceeding his authority, were filed in late July. They relate to the use of excessive force, allegedly on Saakashvili’s orders, to break up antigovernment demonstrations in Tbilisi in November 2007 and the subsequent trashing of the premises of the independent TV station Imedi that had criticized the government’s actions.

The second, made public on August 5, focus on Saakashvili’s alleged involvement in an attack by armed masked men in July 2005 on businessman and opposition parliamentarian Valery Gelashvili.

On the basis of those charges, the Prosecutor-General’s Office issued a warrant for Saakashvili’s arrest should he set foot on Georgian territory and formally requested Interpol to issue a “red notice” for his arrest and extradition. No such notice has been issued to date.

In a recent interview with "The New York Times," Saakashvili again characterized all attempts to bring him to trial as a political witch hunt launched at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream coalition, who served from October 2012 until November 2013 as Georgian prime minister. Saakashvili had earlier commented in connection with the misspending charges that the Georgian authorities’ “thirst for revenge and their rush to please their Russian friends have no limit...Nothing seems to be able to prevent Georgian Dream leaders from tarnishing the reputation of our country.”

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli GaribashviliGeorgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili

Whether Saakashvili’s current significance as a symbol of opposition to Russian encroachment on Ukraine is so great that Putin should feel compelled to undermine it by seeking to discredit and humiliate him is an open question. On the other hand, if Saakashvili is innocent, why does he not at least submit to questioning by video link in order to demonstrate that fact, even if fears he would not receive a fair trial deter him from returning to Tbilisi?

His failure to do so suggests that he cares less about demonstrating his innocence than about seeking to portray the current Georgian leadership in the worst possible light and possibly goading it into taking measures that the international community would condemn in far harsher terms than the expressions of concern in response to the charges against him. The current government does not give the impression of being vindictive, incompetent, or stupid.

The prosecutor must know the risks involved in bringing criminal charges against Saakashvili that can be shown to be based on fabricated or even incomplete evidence. It is, therefore, logical to assume that Saakashvili would not have been charged if there was not solid factual evidence to substantiate those charges -- especially given that the Georgian authorities consulted with three prominent and respected international experts before doing so. The materials relating to the first set of charges alone reportedly run to 80 volumes.

Senior Georgian officials, for their part, continue to deny any political motivation behind the efforts to bring Saakashvili to trial. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili issued a statement in connection with Saakashvili’s suspected misuse of budget funds explaining, as he had done on previous occasions, that his government received a mandate from the electorate to create a system in which all citizens are equal before the law and will be held accountable for any crimes they commit, and that no one is above the law.

Alluding to miscarriages of justice during the ENM’s decade in power, Garibashvili stressed that "the Georgian people want to put an end once and for all to the impunity which reigned in our country for years."

-- Liz Fuller

Cause of Kabardian Journalist’s Death Still Unclear

Timur Kuashev left home on July 31 to go jogging. His body was discovered the following day in woodland some 15 kilometers from his apartment.

Seven weeks after Kabardian journalist and human rights activist Timur Kuashev was found dead on the outskirts of Nalchik, the precise cause of his death remains unclear. In light of the trace of an injection in his left armpit, the republican division of the Investigative Committee has nonetheless opened a murder investigation on the assumption that Kuashev was killed because of his professional activities.

Kuashev, 26, left home on the evening of July 31 to go jogging. His body was discovered the following day in woodland some 15 kilometers from his apartment. His body showed no signs of violence but friends said his fingers were turning black, which they construed as evidence he had been deliberately poisoned. Pathologists from the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) Health Ministry, however, said Kuashev’s heart, brain, and circulatory system were undamaged and his body showed none of the usual signs of poisoning.

Forensic tests conducted under the aegis of the Health Ministry reportedly failed to determine the cause of death. Further tests are to be conducted in Moscow, Kuashev’s father Khambi told Kavkaz-uzel last week.

The KBR Interior Ministry and the republican subdirectorate of the Federal Security Service have similarly made no progress in establishing who might have had a motive to kill Kuashev. The Interior Ministry had rejected in May a request by Kuashev to investigate death threats against him posted on the website KavkazPress, which is rumored to be controlled by the "force" agencies. (It was the recourse by KBR Interior Ministry personnel to indiscriminate and gratuitous violence against law-abiding young practising Muslims that served as the catalyst for the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005.) 

Russian journalists Maksim Shevchenko and Natalya Kevorkova, who traveled to Nalchik to conduct an independent investigation into Kuashev’s death, established that he was not involved in commercial activities, had no ties to the North Caucasus insurgency (although he professed Salafi Islam), and had no personal enemies.

Shevchenko and Kevorkova further noted that while dozens of journalists and human rights activists have been killed in the Caucasus over the past 10 to 15 years, almost all of them were shot. That circumstance conveniently allowed investigators to blame the killings on the North Caucasus insurgency, with the result that the killers were never found and brought to trial and/or the investigation was shelved.

The announcement in early September by investigators in Makhachkala that they had suspended inquiries into the murder in July 2013 of journalist Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev as all possible leads had been exhausted elicited outrage among international human rights watchdogs.

The use of a poison that leaves no trace (if that is, indeed, how Kuashev died) is a new and alarming occurrence, Shevchenko and Kevorkova say.

The two journalists acknowledge that Kuashev’s death reflects badly on Yury Kokov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named acting republic head last December. Although Kokov, 59, has spent virtually his entire career in the Interior Ministry, serving most recently as head of the federal ministry’s Counterterrorism Center, he has adopted a much softer stance vis-a-vis the insurgency than his predecessors. Kokov is personally monitoring the investigation into Kuashev’s death, which he termed a "terrible tragedy," and has met personally with Kuashev’s mother.

In the absence of any other motive, it is conceivable that Kuashev was killed with the sole intention of undermining Kokov and preventing his confirmation as republic head. If so, the perpetrators appear to have miscalculated. On September 15, Putin proposed Kokov, together with two alternative candidates, for the post of KBR republic head. The new parliament elected on September 14, in which the United Russia party controls 50 of the 70 seats, is to elect the new republic head on October 9. Most observers take it as given that deputies will endorse Kokov.

Daghestan's Supreme Court Overturns Medic's Acquittal

Daghestan anesthesiologist Marat Gunashev (with daughter) in an undated photo obtained in January 2013

Those who greeted the acquittal by a Makhachkala district court in May of respected anesthesiologist Marat Gunashev of membership of the Islamic insurgency as evidence that Russia's judges do occasionally return a fair verdict have been disillusioned.

The case against Gunashev, whom colleagues had described as a peaceful and law-abiding citizen with no interest in religion, was based largely on the testimony of his brother-in-law's jilted paramour. On September 15, Daghestan's Supreme Court nonetheless overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial by the same court.

Gunashev was arrested in November 2012 in the operating theater of the Makhachkala hospital where he worked. His brother-in-law Shamil Gasanov, a surgeon at the same hospital, was shot dead by security forces the same day, allegedly to prevent him opening fire on them. But when his headless body was returned to his family for burial, it bore marks of torture.  

The two men were suspected of having performed surgery at Gasanov's apartment on February 6, 2010, to remove a bullet from the upper arm of Ibragim Gadzhidadayev, leader of the Gimri group of fighters. Gadzhidadayev reportedly received that injury during an attack the previous day in which Makhachkala police chief Akhmed Magomedov, his driver, and two bodyguards were killed, and for which both Gunashev and Gasanov had cast-iron alibis.

Gadzhidadayev -- who had a reputation for ruthlessness, extreme cruelty, and extorting funds from prominent officials and businessmen to fund insurgency activities -- was subsequently reported killed during a special operation in Semender on the outskirts of Makhachkala in March 2013, but his body was never found.

Gunashev was initially charged with concealing a crime, and confessed under psychological pressure within days of his arrest to having done so. But that charge was soon dropped, and replaced by that of membership of the North Caucasus insurgency on the basis of his having allegedly treated the wounded Gadzhidadayev, which Gunashev consistently denied having done. Colleagues of the two men reacted to that charge with consternation and disbelief, characterizing both men as "secular to the marrow of their bones." 

The criminal case against Gunashev was based on the testimony of three witnesses. The first, identified by the prosecution by the pseudonym "Stella," had been Gasanov's paramour for several years. After he left her to marry Gunashev's sister, the spurned mistress bombarded the two men with threats to disclose their purported crime to the police, and admitted in court to having done so.

The second witness, identified as "Zakhar Prilepin," shared a cell with Gunashev while the latter was held in pretrial detention and testified that Gunashev admitted to him that he had abetted the insurgency. The third witness, identified by the alias "Filip Filippov," withdrew his testimony in court.

The presiding judge concluded that the testimony of "Stella" and "Prilepin" was not adequate to substantiate the charge against Gunashev (to which he pleaded not guilty) of belonging to the insurgency. But Daghestan's Supreme Court ruled that the judge had no grounds not to believe Prilepin's testimony, and construed Gunashev's alleged treatment of the wounded Gadzhidadayev as substantiating the charge.

At the time of Gunashev's acquittal, Moscow-based lawyer Zaur Arapiyev explained that under Russian labor law, a physician has an obligation to provide medical help to anyone who needs it, regardless of the circumstances, but he/she is likewise required to inform the police if the injury (such as a gunshot wound) may have been incurred during or as a result of a crime. 

One Year After Leader’s Death, North Caucasus Insurgency Soldiers On

A screen grab of Chechen insurgent Doku Umarov, who died of poisoning in September 2013.

September 7 marks the first anniversary of the death from poisoning of Doku Umarov, the Chechen field commander who abandoned the cause of an independent Chechen Republic Ichkeria in 2007 and instead proclaimed a Caucasus Emirate (IK) encompassing the entire North Caucasus.

While Umarov’s death has had only minimal impact on the military capabilities of the Islamic insurgency, it nonetheless ushered in a new stage in the ongoing evolution of the Chechen-dominated resistance of the late 1990s and early 2000s into a supranational force. Reflecting the shift over the past five to seven years of the center of military activity from Chechnya to Ingushetia (in 2007-09), to Kabardino-Balkaria (2010-11), to Daghestan, the new IK head, Aliaskhab Kebekov (Amir Ali Abu-Mukhammad) is an Avar, not a Chechen. As Kebekov himself acknowledges, is a theologian and ideologue, rather than an experienced general and military strategist.

That does not necessarily mean, however, that there were no other qualified candidates for that post. Veteran Chechen field commander Makhran Saidov affirmed in video footage released last month that “any one of the Vilayet Nokhchiicho [Chechnya] fighters could have become amir in Doku’s place. Don’t think that we chose a brother from Daghestan for lack of a worthy candidate here or because we are weakened.... We wanted to see at the head of the Caucasus Emirate a man who is knowledgeable and God-fearing.... It’s not necessary that he should be a strategist or an experienced warrior.”

Even before Umarov died, the incidence and effectiveness of the insurgents’ military activity was on the decline. The insurgency has not carried out a single major operation anywhere in the North Caucasus since the two audacious attacks perpetrated in August and October 2010 by Chechen fighters on the native village of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen parliament. What is more, it failed to deliver on Umarov’s instructions to take “any measures permitted by God” to prevent the successful staging of the Winter Olympic games in Sochi in February 2014. Suicide bombers perpetrated two attacks in Volgograd in late December, killing a total of 34 people, but the actual Games passed off without the terrorist attack that the Russian security forces (and some Western observers) had feared.

That failure is unlikely to have been the direct consequence of Umarov’s demise, given his total lack of skill and imagination as either a strategist or a tactician. In that respect, the deaths in January 2013 of the brothers Khuseyn and Muslim Gakayev and their elite band of fighters constituted a far more serious loss. As a veteran of Russia’s elite Alfa antiterrorism force observed apropos of the 10th anniversary of the Beslan hostage taking, the limited military capability of the insurgency today is primarily the result of the killing in 2006 of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, the wily strategist behind both the seizure of the Beslan school and the multiple attacks a few months earlier on police and security forces in Ingushetia.

By the same token, the human rights watchdog Memorial attributes the marked decline in casualty figures it registered during the winter of 2013-14 to the exodus of insurgents from the North Caucasus to fight in Syria.

How many fighters remain in the North Caucasus is, as always, virtually impossible to assess with any accuracy. Lieutenant General Andrei Konin, who at that time headed the Daghestan administration of the Federal Security Service (FSB), estimated the number of insurgents in Daghestan last fall at 150, divided into 12 groups.

By contrast, in Chechnya, the population of which is less than half that of Daghestan, the figure may be in excess of 500. Saidov, who played a key role in the August 2010 attack of Kadyrov’s home village of Khosi-Yurt, recently divulged that there are at least 70-80 fighters in the Achkhoi-Martan sector alone, and that some 10 new recruits had joined them over the previous month. (Most Chechen fighters seen in videos recently uploaded to YouTube appear to be in their late teens or 20s.)

Saidov claimed that “if we wanted, we could increase the number of our ranks, but at present there is no need to do so. We are preparing for a specific day, and if Allah wills, that day will come.” He acknowledged nonetheless that the current strength is inadequate to retake Grozny. Whether the “specific day” means the return from Syria of fighters who are currently honing their tactical skills there can only be guessed at.

Kebekov too has said that the insurgency command is “working out a tactic of inflicting crushing blows on the unbelievers.” He did not elaborate. It appears unlikely, however, that such attacks will take the form of suicide-bombings on the lines of those in Volgograd, or at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011 and on the Moscow subway in March 2010: Kebekov made clear his reluctance to condone such attacks, especially on the part of women. What alternative military options he and his fellow commanders are mulling remains a matter for conjecture.

Dispute Over Irrigation Water Compounds Tensions Between Daghestan, Azerbaijan

The dispute over water from the Samur River is just one aspect of the long-standing clash of economic, and possibly also geopolitical, interests between Daghestan and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Daghestan are at loggerheads over the use of water from the Samur River that in its lower reaches marks the border between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation. Daghestan’s Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry alleged earlier this week that Azerbaijan is channeling off far more water than it is entitled to under the terms of the border treaty signed four years ago; the Azerbaijani joint stock company responsible for irrigation and water resources denies this.

Meanwhile, thousands of residents of Daghestan’s Magerramkent border district are concerned that the reduction in the volume of water in the lower reaches of the river is negatively affecting the region’s fragile ecosystem, thereby posing a direct threat to their livelihood, which depends on the sale of agricultural produce. In 2013, Daghestan’s Ministry of Water Resources estimated that some 4,500 hectares of land remain unirrigated most years because of the water shortfall.

The use of the river’s water, and the volume each littoral polity is entitled to divert for its own use, is codified in the interstate treaty of September 3, 2010, on the border between Azerbaijan and Russia. Under the terms of that treaty, 30.5 percent of the total volume is designated the environmental norm; the remainder is to be shared equally by the two sides. The flow is currently 14.5 cubic meters per second, of which Azerbaijan and Daghestan are each entitled to 5 cubic meters. But according to Daghestan’s First Deputy Ecology and Natural Resources Minister Marat Aliomarov, Azerbaijan is taking an additional 3 cubic meters.

An unnamed Azerbaijani expert, however, offered a different explanation. He said the reason why the flow of the river is so low at its lower reaches is that because of this summer’s drought, the initial volume has fallen from the usual 60 cubic meters per second to 14.5 cubic meters.

Local villagers have been complaining for several years that the water table in the region is falling. Last fall, they convened a series of mass protests against plans by the republican government to drill artesian wells to pipe drinking water to the coastal town of Derbent, which has a population of 120,000. Those plans were suspended in the wake of a session of Daghestan’s Public Chamber in February at which Magerramkent residents outlined their concerns, including the threat to the survival of the region’s unique tropical liana forest. Federal agencies and the Union of Hydrologists of Russia were co-opted to assess the likely impact of the project and propose alternative options for supplying Derbent with water.

Last month, the administrative heads of five Magerramkent villages appealed to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who as Russian president signed the 2010 border treaty) and Daghestani Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov to ensure that the river water is shared equally in order to preclude “a conflict situation.”

The dispute over water from the Samur is, furthermore, just one aspect of the long-standing clash of economic, and possibly also geopolitical, interests between Daghestan and Azerbaijan. The two largest ethnic groups in southern Daghestan are the Azerbaijanis and the Lezgins. The latter are a northeastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century. Their historic homeland is split between Russia and Azerbaijan. Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. According to official data, they number only 178,000, while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000 (of a total population of 9.42 million).

They have long been regarded with suspicion in light of demands voiced in the 1990s by some Lezgins in Daghestan for the unification of their ethnic group in a separate republic. Several hundred of them were forced to leave their homes in Azerbaijan and relocate to Daghestan following the signing of the 2010 border treaty.

Today, many of Daghestan’s Lezgins are convinced that Baku has ambitious plans to expand its presence and influence in southern Daghestan, and that the Daghestani leadership either approves of that expansion or is reluctant, or even powerless, to counter it. Azerbaijan’s Ata Holding has put up 1 billion rubles ($27 million) toward the cost of renovating infrastructure and building new sports facilities in Derbent in the run-up to the planned celebrations in 2015 of the 2000th anniversary of its foundation. Some Azerbaijani scholars even claim that Derbent is an Azerbaijani town.

Meanwhile, the administrative head of Derbent Raion, Azerbaijani Kurban Kurbanov, continues to defy pressure from the Daghestani leadership to resign that post.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.