Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov has incurred Russian President Vladimir Putin's displeasure on two occasions over the past two years.
First, he failed to meet the deadline for renovation of the Caspian town of Derbent in the run-up to its 2,000th-anniversary celebrations in September 2015. Then, egregious procedural violations were registered during the elections a year later to the Russian State Duma and the new republican parliament.
A third such scandal may now be imminent following a decision last month by the republican government that, if implemented, will deprive the predominantly ethnic Nogai population of three districts in northern Daghestan of the use of huge tracts of agricultural land.
Outraged by that decision, the legality of which is open to question, some 5,000-6,000 Nogais from across the Russian Federation converged last week on the village of Terekli-Mekteb for an All-Russian Congress of the Nogai People. Delegates argued that the government's initiative will exacerbate the problems of an already economically backward and disadvantaged region, intensify popular resentment of the republic's leadership, and possibly spark a new conflict between the Nogais -- who account for just 1.5 percent of Daghestan's population -- and other ethnic groups, even if that is not their intention. They therefore endorsed a formal appeal to President Putin to intervene and quash it.
The Nogais are a Turkophone people descended from the Golden Horde. They settled in the 17th century on a swath of lowland territory, now known as the Nogai steppe, that extends from the northwest Caspian coast to the Black Sea. Russia's Nogai population is currently estimated at a little over 100,000, of whom some 38,000 live in Daghestan; there are also Nogai communities in neighboring Chechnya and Stavropol Krai, and in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where the estimated 13,000 Nogais enjoy formal national-cultural autonomy and, since 2007, their "own" small district. There is a huge Nogai diaspora in Turkey, and a far smaller one in Romania.
The Daghestani government plans that served as the catalyst for last week's congress entail granting official municipal status to 199 small settlements in the predominantly Nogai-populated Kizlyar, Nogai, and Tarumov administrative districts. Those settlements were established illegally by herders from mountain regions who pastured their herds of sheep there during the winter months. The herders were mostly ethnic Avars, as is Abdulatipov.
The newly legalized municipalities will be deemed part of the administrative district from which the herders originated, which means that Kizlyar's indigenous Nogais will be deprived of the right to lease that land -- reportedly already at risk of desertification -- for agricultural purposes. Consequently, the 1,500-2,000 residents of the newly legalized settlements will have the use of some 600,000 hectares of agricultural land in Kizlyar, which the Nogais will thus be unable to lease, while the legitimate 20,000 Nogai population will have just 300,000 hectares at its disposal.
In addition, residents of the newly legalized settlements will pay taxes in the administrative district from which they originated, thereby depriving the Kizlyar district of income. (The profits from oil extracted on the Kizlyar lowlands are likewise channeled into the republican budget, depriving the municipality of badly needed funds.)
The lack of available agricultural land in Kizlyar has already given rise to large-scale out-migration by young Nogais in search of employment elsewhere in Russia. But the Nogais' collective grievances, as chronicled by Svetlana Chervonnaya in her useful compendium, Tyurksky Mir Yugo-Vostochnoy Yevropy, go far deeper, and date back decades. The Nogais still remember, and resent, the failure of the Soviet leaders in the early 1920s to make good on a promise to designate Kizlyar a separate autonomous okrug; instead, the region was subsumed into the Daghestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Then, when the Chechens and Ingush were rehabilitated and their republic reestablished in 1957, its borders were expanded to encompass part of the Nogai steppe; the Nogais' traditional territory was thus carved up between Daghestan, Chechnya, and Stavropol Krai.
In the early 1990s, immediately before the demise of the Soviet Union, the Nogai national movement Birlik (Unity) campaigned unsuccessfully for a revision of those borders in the North Caucasus that divided the Nogai-populated lands, and for the creation on those lands of a separate Nogai territorial entity within the Russian Federation. To compensate for the blanket refusal to create separate territorial entities for the Nogais and other small ethnic groups, the Russian leadership passed legislation, which Abdulatipov was instrumental in drafting, formalizing the concept of "national-cultural autonomy." That concept was intended to guarantee the preservation of small ethnic groups' national culture and language.
A similar appeal to Russia's Constitutional Court in April 2017 to annul the Soviet-era decree reconstituting the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was likewise rejected.
Photos posted online of the congress in Terekli-Mekteb, and of gatherings of Nogais elsewhere in Russia that preceded it, show that the age of the overwhelmingly male participants ranges from young men in their early 20s to men in the 60s. Some congress delegates stressed to journalists the extent and importance of the younger generation's commitment to the national cause.
The congress delegates adopted a 10-point resolution, the first point of which was to address a formal appeal to Putin, given that the republic's leaders refuse to meet with them to discuss their grievances. They further demanded the abolition of the 1996 Daghestani law "On The Status Of Territory For Transhumance" that served as the basis for that seasonal use of grazing grounds because it allegedly violates not only federal legislation on the use of agricultural land but also the relevant provisions of the Russian Federation constitution; an audit of the land currently used for transhumance; and measures to improve socio-economic conditions, including the modernization of medical facilities and schools.
A government program for developing the district's economy in 2015-18, with a budget of over 1 billion rubles ($16.77 million), has not been implemented, businessman Rustam Adilgereyev was quoted as informing the congress.
The congress delegates did not, however, call for a revision of the borders between the various federation subjects where the Nogais live, possibly anticipating that such a demand would only render them vulnerable to charges of attempting to foment interethnic enmity. Neither the federal nor the Daghestani leadership has made any official comment to date on the Nogais' demands. But two days ago, Abdulatipov named former Minister for Youth Affairs Zaur Kurbanov, a Dargin from Kizlyar district, as deputy head of his administration.