London, 25 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The brief seizure by gunmen of a government building in the southern Russian republic of Daghestan last week has deepened fears of instability in a conflict-prone region strategically located on the Caspian Sea.
The incident, which ended peacefully, underlines the volatile situation in the mainly Muslim republic on Russia's southernmost border, bordering Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Daghestan, largest of the north Caucasus autonomous republics, is of crucial interest to Moscow because it controls the sole railway line connecting Russia with Chechnya, and is currently negotiating the rights to run a Caspian oil pipeline over its territory to Russia.
International oil companies are watching the Daghestan internal situation closely because any instability there could affect their plans to pipe Caspian oil and gas through the North Caucasus.
Daghestan (Land of the Mountains) is a region of great ethnic diversity. Its 2 million people are mainly of Caucasian or Turkic origin comprising a total of 34 ethnic groups, including Avars (28 percent), Dargins (16 percent) and Kumyks (13 percent). No ethnic group constitutes a clear majority or occupies a dominant position.
Daghestan has the lowest proportion of Russians of any area of the Russian Federation and it is one of the poorest. Some 70 percent of the population are said to live below the poverty line, while unemployment is twice the Russian national average.
Analysts say structural conditions within the republic suggest that existing disputes could escalate because of a recent economic collapse, growing ethnic strife and a soaring crime rate that has triggered a mass emigration of Daghestan's Russians to other areas.
The analysts, who cannot be identified, also say the "knock-on" effect of the Chechen war, coupled with the postponement of a decision on Chechnya's political status, is adding to Daghestan's economic and political difficulties, creating a volatile environment.
Local pressures have been aggravated by the return of thousands of ethnic Daghestanis from other parts of the former Soviet Union, and the influx of an estimated 100,000 Chechen refugees.
These population shifts have intensified inter-group competition for scarce land resources and led to serious disputes over land allocation. Local Akkin Chechens, for example, who were deported by Stalin in the 1940s, are demanding a return to their ancestral lands and the relocation of the peoples currently living there.
The analysts say the claims over land and access to resources have prompted the emergence of ethnic movements. The first serious ethnic clashes took place between Kumyks and Avars in 1991. There have also been smaller conflicts triggered by disputes over land distribution and resettlements from mountain areas.
Young males are abandoning rural areas for urban centers all over Daghestan, but the xenophobia against people of "Caucasian nationality" elsewhere in Russia has forced them to stay home.
This process has caused the marginalisation and criminalisation of society; growing anti-Russian sentiment among young Daghestanis; and a loss of belief in the state and the rule of law.
There has been a growth in illegal and semi-legal military groups, including city gangs, volunteer corps and private security companies. Weapons are becoming an increasingly common sight. One analyst says: "Real power has been transferred away from the elected authorities and into the hands of the masked gunmen."
There have been many assassination attempts in recent years. Fourteen political and business leaders were killed in 1996-97, seven of them members of the Daghestani parliament.
The Chechen factor looms large. Daghestanis strongly supported the Chechen secession movement, and many Daghestani militants fought on the Chechen side. But after the peace agreement between Moscow and Grozny, renewed border clashes and Chechen raids on Daghestani territory led to an increase in anti-Chechen feeling
Yet Daghestani society is split on the question of relations with Russia. Daghestanis ask themselves: should the republic follow the Chechens in seeking secession, or should they remain loyal to the Russian Federation? Chechen leaders are trying to influence the situation by encouraging a split with Russia, a move they hope could lead to the formation of one state with Chechnya in future.
But the analysts say Daghestani leadership, although split, does not want to follow the Chechens in seeking secession. They prefer to remain loyal to the Russian Federation as a means of countering increasing Chechen influence in the region's politics. Moreover, Daghestan is heavily reliant on Russian government subsidies.
What is the solution? Analysts say improvements in Daghestan are likely to be found only within the broader framework of a regional agreement between Russia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and in conjunction with a resolution to the Chechen problem.