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Russia: Dagestan Faces Religious Rivalries And Tensions

Prague, 19 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Two people were killed last week and several injured in fighting in a village in central Dagestan. The fighting was between adherents of rival interpretations of Islam. Local authorities took swift action to defuse tensions and restore control -- but the incident serves to highlight the multiple problems facing one of the Russia Federation's poorest, and ethnically most diverse regions.

Religious tensions in Dagestan are a comparatively recent development. The republic's overwhelmingly Muslim population has generally espoused traditional Islamic teachings. Over the past five years, however, Wahhabi emissaries from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries have engaged in intensive proselytizing, appointing Imams and building mosques - without the official consent of the local Muslim Religious Board - and, sending young men to train at religious colleges abroad. These activities have been condemned by representatives of the traditional religious leadership, some of whom are reported to have denounced the Wahhabis as apostates, and even asserted that anyone who kills a Wahhabi will automatically go to paradise when he dies.

The May 12 clash in the village of Chaban-Makhi was not the first between converts to Wahhabism and Sunni traditionalists: similar clashes in the Summer of 1995 and last year both resulted in fatalities. The Chaban-Makhi fighting has, however, served to underscore the Dagestani authorities' sensitivity over inter-sectarian tensions. Among the officials who went to Chaban-Makhi to mediate were not only Dagestan's Security Council Secretary Magomed Tolboev and Minister for Nationalities Magomedsalikh Gusaev, but also the Chairman of the Union of Muslims of Russia, Nadirshakh Kharchilaev, who lives in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala.

A second cause of tensions in Dagestan is rivalry between the various ethnic groups. According to the 1989 Soviet census, the largest ethnic group in Dagestan were the Avars, who constituted approximately 26 percent of the total population of just over 1.8-million, followed by the Dargins, the Kumyks, Lezgins, Russians and Laks. There is also a small Chechen minority. This rivalry is reported kept in check by an unwritten agreement on the division of positions of authority both at republic, and at local level.

The recent election of an Avar as Mayor of the town of Khasavyurt -- a position traditionally held by a Kumyk -- led to mass disturbances and attacks on the homes of one Avar and one Kumyk local official. Conscious that ethnic diversity could lead to large-scale clashes, Dagestan's Government created a special Ministry of Nationalities several years ago, but according to a report on the region published in 1995 by International Alert, it is chronically underfunded and thus limited in the arbitration activities it can undertake.

Following last week's clash in Chaban-Makhi, however, Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented that ethnic tensions in Dagestan are fast being eclipsed, as hostility toward the Wahhabis becomes a unifying factor among various ethnic groups.

A third potential source of unrest is the Chechen minority, who were deported from their homes in Dagestan's Aukh region at the time of the mass deportation of the Chechen and Ingush nations in 1944, and repatriated in 1956. They have, however, experienced problems in returning to their old homes, which were taken over by Avars.

Moreover, some Chechens consider the Khasavyurt region to be historically a part of Chechnya. Chechen field commanders Shamil Basaev and Salman Raduev have both vowed at various times to reincorporate it into Chechnya. A formal treaty between Chechnya and Dagestan, due to be signed shortly, is expected to address this issue.

Finally, Dagestan is plagued by massive unemployment. The republic's industrial sector was oriented overwhelmingly towards the military industrial complex, and was therefore hard-hit by the contraction of the Russian Federation's military infrastructure. The work force in this sector declined by 30 percent between 1991 and 1993. Two-thirds of those people, who still have jobs, earn less than the minimum wage.