Among the numerous seemingly intractable problems facing the Republic of Daghestan leadership, that of relations between the region’s numerous ethnic groups is frequently eclipsed by the Islamic insurgency, endemic corruption, and the pressing need to attract investment with a view to galvanizing the stagnating economy.
But long-standing tensions between the Lezgin and Azerbaijani communities in the southern town of Derbent have flared up again over the past week, just as Daghestan’s government is stepping up its preparations to celebrate on a grand scale in September the 2000th anniversary of Derbent’s foundation.
The Azerbaijanis and Lezgins each account for some 35-36 percent of Derbent’s population of 120,000. The town mayor, Imam Yaraliyev, is a Lezgin.
Three cases have been reported of damage to or destruction of monuments in Derbent to prominent Azeris.
The first reported case involved the tomb of a venerated Azeri cleric, Seid Mir-Ghafar Aga. Precisely what happened and when is unclear. The website navigator.az reported on January 7 that the tomb had been destroyed the previous night and that respected members of the Azerbaijani community had only with difficulty persuaded their co-ethnics not to launch a mass protest.
On January 9, Caucasus Knot reported having received an SMS late the previous evening saying the tomb was destroyed during the night of January 7-8.
The republican news agency RIA Daghestan, however, reported later on January 9 that at the end of December, the headstone was found to have toppled over and been partly damaged. The reason was said to be unclear, but vandalism was not suspected. Repair work has reportedly been successfully completed.
That RIA Daghestan report condemned what it termed unreliable claims about multiple “instances of vandalism” in Derbent posted to the Internet with the express intention of “destabilizing the situation” and fomenting interconfessional and interethnic conflict. It failed to mention a second incident in which the monument in Derbent to the 12th-century Azerbaijani poet Nizami of Ganca (who wrote in Persian) was vandalized during the night of January 8-9.
It is not clear whether there is any connection between three incidents. The initial report had suggested that the damage to the Muslim cleric’s grave may have been the work of local Salafis.
There was no immediate response from the government of the Azerbaijan Republic. But former Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov, now head of the Moscow-based Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Azerbaijanis in Russia (AzerRos), apparently lodged a formal complaint on January 9 with Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. Abdulatipov condemned as unacceptable any attempts at fueling interethnic tensions in Daghestan. He assured Abbasov he will personally monitor the investigation into the damage caused, and immediately dispatched to Derbent a commission headed by a first deputy prime minister.
A subsequent statement by the Daghestani leadership on January 10 again condemned what it termed attempts to sow suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of Daghestan and Azerbaijan. That statement blamed those “rumors” on unnamed “persons who, abusing their ethnicity, have become accustomed to engage in dirty deals, extortion, and corruption” and have since been dismissed from their posts.
It is not clear whether that formulation is a particularly clumsy and unconvincing attempt to discredit former Derbent district head Kurban Kurbanov, who was constrained to step down last fall and is currently under arrest on suspicion of abusing his official position. Why, after all, should Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani, have instigated damage to monuments to fellow Azerbaijanis?
Meanwhile, some 200 Derbent residents staged a protest demonstration on January 10 to demand Yaraliyev’s resignation. In an appeal to Abdulatipov, they enumerated their complaints against the municipal authorities, including the exclusion of one district badly hit by flooding in 2012 from the jubilee restoration program. It is not clear to which ethnic group the protesters belonged.
Ignoring those protests, the municipal council convene on January 13 and reelected Yaraliyev as mayor in accordance with the legislation enacted last fall abolishing direct elections for the post of city mayor.
At least some of the renovation work in Derbent in the run-up to the jubilee celebration is being carried out by construction companies from the Azerbaijan Republic. The private Ata Holding, for example, has undertaken to renovate a street named after deceased President Heidar Aliyev and the park in which the monument to Nizami of Ganca stands. The company will also build an Olympic sports complex in the park. The total cost of the construction and renovation work was estimated at 1 billion rubles ($16.13 million). That apparent altruism has only compounded some Lezgins’ fears of irredentist aspirations in Baku, given that some Azerbaijani scholars openly claim that Derbent was historically an Azerbaijani town.
-- Liz Fuller