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Russia: New Potential Ethno-Territorial Flashpoints Emerge In Daghestan

A village in Daghestan (file photo) (RFE/RL) Most Russian media coverage of Daghestan over the past year has focused on the activities of groups of militants who have systematically gunned down dozens of police officers and other officials. That upsurge in violence, whether it is motivated by religious considerations or simply reflects an ongoing battle for resources and influence among powerful political interest groups, has overshadowed the possibility that new conflicts could erupt at any time over rival claims to parts of Daghestan's territory.

One of those disputed regions is the former Aukh district, until 1944 a part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR. The Chechen and Ingush population of that republic was deported en masse to Central Asia in February 1944 on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin on suspicion of collaborating with the advancing Nazi German forces, and the internal border was redrawn to make the Aukh district part of Daghestan.

The Laks Of Central Daghestan

The district was subsequently named Novolak and forcibly resettled with Laks from two mountainous central districts of Daghestan, up to 30 percent of whom died during that forced resettlement. The Laks constitute the sixth largest of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups. The Akkin Chechens returned to their homes after their rehabilitation in 1957, but two years ago issued an ultimatum to the Laks to leave the district, according to "Vremya novostei" on 23 August 2004.

In accordance with a 1992 Russian government directive on reversing the injustices to which some ethnic groups in Daghestan were subjected under Stalin, a program was drafted that envisaged returning some 13,000 Laks from nine villages in the Novolak district where they constitute a majority.

Resettlement Delays

On 20 December 2005, the Russian State Duma's Commission for North Caucasus Issues convened to assess the implementation of that program, reported. The commission found that to date only some 2,100 Laks have left Novolak, partly because of delays in the construction of new homes for them (the plan envisages building nine separate villages to replace the villages they are to leave, together with highways and water, gas, and electricity supplies and related infrastructure), and partly because the area to which the Laks are to be resettled is not suitable for agricultural purposes and there is no alternative employment, according to Mamma Mammayev (Unified Russia), who is one of Daghestan's deputies to the Russian State Duma. Moreover, according to Mammayev, up to 80 percent of the Lak population was not informed about the impending resettlement.

Madrasah students in Daghestan (RFE/RL file photo)

In addition, some representatives of Daghestan's authorities may have misgivings about, and possibly even seek to sabotage, the exodus of Laks from Novolak. Their departure would leave the Avars, who are the largest single ethnic group in Daghestan, outnumbered by the Chechens in Novolak by a factor of 3:1 -- a ratio that Mammayev fears might impel the Chechen leadership to ask for Novolak to be returned to the Chechen Republic. (The Akkin Chechens, who have little liking for the current pro-Moscow Chechen leadership, would in all likelihood oppose any such initiative.)

'Will Not Cede A Centimeter'

Daghestan Supreme Council speaker Mukhu Aliyev sought to downplay the possibility of Chechen territorial claims on Daghestan, telling the commission that "not all the Laks will leave," and that he "will not cede a centimeter of Daghestan's territory to anyone." At the same time, Aliyev predicted violence if the resettlement of those Laks who do wish to leave Novolak is not completed within two years, claiming that "populists" (he did not specify of which nationality) would undoubtedly seek to take advantage of the ensuing tensions.

The Lezgins

Meanwhile, some representatives of another of Daghestan's ethnic groups, the Lezgins, plan to campaign for the incorporation of those regions of southern Daghestan that constitute part of their ancestral homeland to be transferred to the Azerbaijan Republic, reported on 26 January.

The Lezgins are the sixth largest ethnic group in Daghestan. There are an estimated 204,000 of them in southern Daghestan and a further 180,000-260,000 in Azerbaijan, where they constitute the second largest ethnic group after the Azeris, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 6 October 2005.

The Lezgin national movement Sadval, which emerged in 1990 in Daghestan, initially lobbied for the creation of an independent Lezgin state comprising those regions of southern Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan that constitute the Lezgins' historic homeland. That demand was reportedly fuelled by the fact that Daghestan's Lezgins felt -- and still feel, according to on 26 January -- that they are routinely treated as "second class citizens." Unemployment in the Lezgin-populated districts of Daghestan is reportedly almost double the republican average of 32 percent.

Factional Infighting Erodes Popular Support

Sadval split in late 1998 into a radical wing and a more moderate wing. The former continued to espouse the idea of an independent Lezgin state, while the latter advocated the creation of an autonomous territory for the Lezgins in Daghestan that would have the status of a separate federation subject and of a free economic zone, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of 27 January 1999. Infighting between the two factions continued for several years, during which the movement apparently forfeited much of what popular support it once enjoyed.

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 August 2004, one of Sadval's co-chairmen, Nasyr Primov, admitted that Sadval was experiencing "a period of stagnation," and that "we do not have an electoral base as such." (Politically active Lezgins may have chosen to pin their hopes instead on the extraterritorial Federal Lezgin National Cultural Autonomy established in March 1999. The leader of that body, a Lezgin from Azerbaijan, was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 October 2004 as affirming that "the broad mass of the Lezgin people will never support the separatists.")

'Unite The Lezgin People In One State'

Primov nonetheless insisted that Sadval's goals remain unchanged, namely, "to unite the Lezgin nation, make the frontiers transparent, and give people the opportunity to meet and move freely." Asked whether Sadval still harbors territorial claims on Azerbaijan, Primov denied that it pursues any aims in Azerbaijan, but in a seeming contradiction he added that "our only desire, our dream if you like, is to unite the entire Lezgin people in one state."

The moderate wing of Sadval now intends to resurrect that goal, but by redrawing the borders of Azerbaijan to incorporate the Lezgin-populated regions of southern Daghestan and creating a Lezgin autonomous region, according to an article published on 26 January in the Azerbaijani online daily The paper quoted an unidentified source within Sadval as arguing that "the Daghestan Lezgins cannot remain within a republic that is being turned into a breeding ground for international terrorism and which is choking in the grip of an interethnic confrontation in which several foreign countries have a hand."

But Sadval's proposed solution is, as observed, unrealistic insofar as neither the Russian Federation nor Azerbaijan is likely to agree to a redrawing of the border between the two countries. At the same time, the online daily also notes that all Moscow's efforts to impose stability on Daghestan have proven fruitless, and the republic's future remains unclear. Sadval may at present number nothing more than a few dozen embittered feuding nationalists, but it remains a potent myth, and one that foreign powers with an interest in destabilizing the Caucasus might seek to co-opt for their own ends, concluded.