A new standoff is underway between the Azerbaijanis, one of the largest ethnic groups in south-eastern Daghestan, and the republican leadership.
As part of an ongoing systematic purge of local administrators regarded as inefficient and/or corrupt, Republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov announced last week the imminent dismissal as head of Derbent Raion of Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani who had held that post since 1998.
On July 30, however, supporters of Kurbanov (their numbers were variously estimated at 300 and 1,000 people), congregated outside the district administration building to protest that decision.
One participant argued that Abdulatipov had no right to sack Kurbanov, who was elected by a popular ballot and whose term does not expire until next year.
A second, smaller protest against Kurbanov's planned dismissal took place on August 1 in the village of Mamedkala.
Kurbanov, who is 58, told his supporters on July 30 that he will not step down voluntarily. He was hospitalized later that day after a meeting with unidentified government officials who pressured him without success to sign a letter of resignation.
According to unconfirmed reports, Abdulatipov intends to appoint as Kurbanov's successor Azadi Ragimov, also an Azerbaijani, who was dismissed last week after serving for 12 years as minister of justice.
Azerbaijanis are the sixth largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups, accounting for 4.5 percent of the total population, but the largest in Derbent Raion, where -- according to the 2010 All-Russian census -- they make up 58 percent of the total population of 99,500. The second largest group (18 percent) are the Lezgins. In the city of Derbent, which is celebrating its 2000th anniversary next year, Azerbaijanis and Lezgins each account for 35-36 percent of the total population of 120,000.
The Kurbanov family has long played a prominent role in local politics. Kurbanov's father, Said, served as first secretary of the Derbent Raion committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1962 to 1991, and then until 2006 as the Azerbaijani representative on the 14-person collective republican presidency. His brother Magomed was Daghestan's representative in the Azerbaijan Republic until last year, when Abdulatipov dismissed him.
Even though Derbent Raion is not contiguous with Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has long played a prominent role in the region and seeks to expand it.
In 2010, two Russian analysts went so far as to argue that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is one of the most influential political figures in southern Daghestan. In the run-up to the October 2013 Azerbaijani presidential ballot in which Aliyev ran for a third term, Abdulatipov officially appealed to Azerbaijani voters who belong to one of Daghestan's ethnic groups (primarily Avars, Tsakhurs and Lezgins) to cast their ballots for Aliyev.
Some Daghestani observers cite Azerbaijani claims that Derbent is historically an Azerbaijani town as evidence that Baku harbors irredentist aspirations.
In particular, the Lezgin population of the town of Derbent appears to resent what it perceives as unwarranted and inappropriate concessions by the municipal council to the leadership of the Azerbaijan Republic, as epitomized by the decision in the spring of 2013 to rename one of the town's streets in honor of Ilham Aliyev's late father, Heydar Aliyev. Many Lezgins similarly regard Kurbanov as too eager to please Baku.
Azerbaijan's expanding economic presence in the region may indeed be intended as a vehicle for political influence.
In the run-up to the Derbent-2000 celebrations, Azerbaijan plans to build in Derbent Raion an Olympic sports complex comprising a soccer stadium, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and hotels.
In addition, Kurbanov informed Republic of Daghestan Prime Minister Abdusamad Gamidov in March that Azerbaijani investors plan to build a canning factory, a factory to manufacture ceramic tiles, a cement plant, and a logistical center. Abdulatipov had criticized Kurbanov in July 2013 for his failure to attract investment in a predominantly agricultural district.
-- Liz Fuller