Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to have capitalized on Daghestani authorities' perceived failure to address grievances that led to a brawl between Chechens and Avars last month in order to cast Chechnya's controversial parliamentary chairman in the role of peacemaker.
The chairman, Magomed Daudov, is currently the subject of a probe by Russia's largest bank, Sberbank, after the head of its office in Chechnya accused Daudov, a former Chechen resistance commander, of trying last month to extort 30 million rubles ($507,140) from him.
The village standoff that Daudov is reported to have successfully averted has its roots in the uneasy coexistence of Chechens and Avars in the former Aukh district of western Daghestan that was part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic prior to the deportation to Central Asia in 1944 on orders from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations.
In 1956, the deported peoples were exonerated from the charge of collaborating with advancing Nazi forces and formally permitted to return to their homes. But by then, the border between Chechnya and Daghestan had been redrawn, thousands of Laks (Daghestan's fifth-largest ethnic group) had been forcibly resettled in the Chechens' abandoned homes, and the Aukh district had been formally renamed Novolak.
For the past 30 years, since then-Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policy of glasnost to promote the discussion of hitherto taboo topics, Daghestan's Chechens have been lobbying to get their property back and for Novolak to revert to its previous name.
In 1991, the third Congress of Peoples of Daghestan formally approved the Chechens' right to their lawful property, and the following year, the Russian government duly adopted a program to resettle some 13,000 Laks from nine villages in Novolak district where they had lived for almost half a century.
That resettlement process is still in process, however, due to a combination of factors, including the Laks' reluctance to leave Novolak and the lack of federal funding to provide them with adequate housing elsewhere in Daghestan.
Meanwhile, the Chechens have come up with a further demand: the revision of the border between Novolak and the neighboring Kazbekov district to incorporate into the reconstituted Aukh district the Kazbekov villages of Leninaul and Kalininaul. Technically, that is not feasible, however, given that under Russian law any change to the borders of a municipality must be put to a referendum and the Kazbekov Avars would be likely to vote "unanimously" against.
The population of the two villages is approximately two-thirds Avar and one-third Chechen, and the tensions between the two nationalities have spilled over into violence on a number of occasions. The most recent was on June 25, the Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan, when an altercation between two adolescents escalated into a mass brawl that was eventually suppressed by police.
According to senior members of the Council of Elders of Chechens of Daghestan, nine young Chechens were savagely beaten by police officers; three policemen were also reported injured. Ten people were arrested, of whom six face criminal charges.
A few days later, Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, himself an Avar, convened a meeting of local officials in the nearby town of Khasavyurt, at which he affirmed that the Chechens and Avars have always lived peacefully together and warned that "provocateurs" who seek to destabilize the situation will have to answer for their actions in court.
Some Chechens construed those remarks as a threat. Calls by the Council of Elders of Chechens of Daghestan for a formal probe into the allegedly brutal police reaction were ignored.
Meanwhile, the Chechen Republic leadership, which on previous occasions has retaliated swiftly and forcefully to any perceived unjust treatment of Chechens in Daghestan, refrained from any public comment. In footage posted to YouTube on July 3, one young Chechen activist deplored that silence, asking whether Grozny needed to obtain permission from Moscow before making a public statement.
Whether in response to that rhetorical question or to similar posts on social media, on July 7 up to 1,000 Chechens and Ingush gathered at a Grozny mosque and set forth in a convoy of up to 500 vehicles for Leninaul to "support" the village's embattled Chechen population, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on July 10, quoting a participant.
In light of the security measures Kadyrov has put in place to contain the perceived threat from Islamic militants, it is unlikely that any such convoy could have assembled in Grozny and then driven across Chechnya without Kadyrov's personal permission, if not his orders.
The convoy reportedly crossed the border between Chechnya and Daghestan without incident but was intercepted by Daghestani traffic police on the outskirts of Leninaul, giving rise to a massive traffic jam.
At that juncture, Kadyrov reportedly dispatched parliament speaker Daudov, together with Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov and presidential-administration head Vakhit Usmayev, to Leninaul to defuse the rising tensions between the Chechen visitors and the local Avars. According to Daudov, his intervention was agreed on during a phone conversation between Kadyrov and his Daghestan counterpart, Abdulatipov.
Caucasian Knot quoted eyewitnesses as saying that stones were thrown at Daudov's motorcade and that his bodyguards then fired into the air as a warning. Daudov subsequently contacted Caucasian Knot and provided his version of what happened. He said the stone-throwing took place before his arrival on the scene and that he met with village elders and appealed for calm, and went with them to the mosque to pray.
Daudov also said he spoke with Daghestan Security Council secretary Abdulmuslim Muslimov, whom Abdulatipov had apparently dispatched from Makhachkala together with Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Karpov. According to Daudov, Karpov agreed to raise with his superiors the Leninaul Chechens' demand that the local Avar police officers be replaced by a contingent from elsewhere within the Russian Federation.
Having seemingly wrested the initiative from the Republic of Daghestan leadership, Kadyrov then received a delegation of Chechens from Leninaul in Grozny late on July 8. Like Daudov, he reportedly warned that resorting to violence in an attempt to resolve grievances is inadmissible. Then on July 13, Kadyrov cited the standoff in a bid to discredit his longtime enemy, Republic of Daghestan Transport, Energy, and Communications Minister Saygidpasha Umakhanov, whom he once publicly branded "a bandit."
Umakhanov is an Avar and served for many years as Khasavyurt mayor. He is said to enjoy the respect of the Avar population of western Daghestan, and reportedly traveled to Leninaul on July 7 but arrived only after Daudov had left.
In a July 10 post on his Instagram account, Umakhanov acknowledged that there is a history of tensions and violence in Leninaul for which, he said, both Avar and Chechen activists bear the blame. He stressed the need to resolve disputes peacefully, but in an apparent reference to Daudov's intervention, concluded with the observation that "there are enough wise politicians in Daghestan capable of resolving the thorniest problems without interference from outside."
Kadyrov responded by claiming Umakhanov had publicly commented apropos to Daudov's arrival in Leninaul that "our enemies have arrived." He further implied that Umakhanov is positioning himself as a possible successor to Abdulatipov, in which case "he needs to tone down his language and leave us in peace."
In Makhachkala, Daghestan's Nationalities Ministry issued a brief statement blaming the July 7 standoff in Leninaul on "destructive forces" that circulated on social media an appeal to Chechens to converge on the village to engage in "illegal actions." Republican Prosecutor-General Ramazan Shakhnavazov has since traveled to Leninaul, where he undertook to launch a probe to establish the identity of those responsible. Meanwhile, Abdulatipov continues to refrain from any public comment on the altercation, a failure that has elicited widespread criticism.