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Daghestan's Kumyks Launch New Attempt To Gain Control Of Ancestral Lands

A group of Kumyk representatives decided to set up a national parliament in Makhachkala in May, as the small ethnic group continues to demand its right to move back to its prewar lands.
A group of Kumyk representatives decided to set up a national parliament in Makhachkala in May, as the small ethnic group continues to demand its right to move back to its prewar lands.
Seven decades later, the repercussions of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's deportation of entire North Caucasus nations to Central Asia in 1944 continue to be felt.

Two people were hospitalized on August 21 in the wake of violent clashes in the district of Karaman, north of Makhachkala, between Kumyks, who say the land is historically theirs, and Laks resettled there over the past 20 years to enable Chechens deported to Central Asia in 1944 and their descendants to return to their homes in what is now Daghestan's Novolak district.

Senior Daghestani government officials sent to defuse the tensions pledged to create a commission to seek to reconcile the two peoples' conflicting demands. The estimated 1,000 Kumyks, some of whom converged on Karaman from other parts of the republic, reportedly refused to disperse, however.

The Kumyks are a Turkic people who constitute the third-largest ethnic group in Daghestan, after the Avars and Dargins: at the time of the 2010 all-Russian census, they numbered 431,700 people, or approximately 15 percent of the total population of 2.9 million. The Laks (5.4 percent) are the fifth-largest group.

The Kumyks' claim to the lowland regions to the north of Makhachkala and the settlement of Tarki to the south stems from the existence in the 16th-18th centuries of an independent Kumyk kingdom with Tarki as its capital. (Daghestan's present-day capital, Makhachkala, was founded only in 1844 as a Tsarist Russian military outpost with the name of Petrovskoye.)

Both the Kumyks and the Laks were forcibly resettled in 1944 to villages in the extreme west of Daghestan left empty after Stalin's mass deportation of the Chechens to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The Kumyks were given the green light to return to their lowland homes in 1957 in the wake of then-Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" exonerating the Chechens, Ingush, and other deported peoples of the charge of collaboration that served as the rationale for their deportation. Many of them settled in three villages -- Tarki, Kyakhulay, and Alburikent -- on the southwestern outskirts of Makhachkala. A campaign last year to have those villages designated a separate municipality failed.

In May 2000, a congress of the Kumyk national movement Tenglik first undertook to draft a law on land use in Daghestan that would make provision for the return to the Kumyks of the lands they forfeited to the north of Makhachkala. But the republic's leadership had already earmarked that territory for the Laks, in order to enable the Chechens deported in 1944 from the Aukh district of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR to return to their homes. (Aukh Raion was subsumed into Daghestan in the wake of the deportation and renamed Novolak Raion.)

In the early 1990s, there were an estimated 10,000 Laks living compactly in nine villages of Novolak Raion. Rather than return them to the mountain villages in central Daghestan from which they were deported, it was decided to resettle them on the flatlands to the north of Makhachkala to which the Kumyks lay claim. But that process, which should have been completed by the late 1990s, was delayed, partly by insufficient funding for the construction of new homes and partly due to the reluctance of some Laks to settle in a district unsuited for the livestock raising that has traditionally been their primary occupation.

Meanwhile, the Chechens who anticipate resettling in Novolak Raion from the neighboring Khasavyurt district where they have been living for the past 50 years are becoming impatient at the delay. In February, they staged protests to demand the exodus of the Laks be speeded up, and the restoration to Novolak Raion of its original name.

The Kumyks for their part met in Tarki in mid-May and resolved to convene within one year a national congress at which delegates would elect a national parliament. Rasul Ismailov of the human rights group Civil Alternative described that planned parliament as the first stage in the process of national mobilization in defense of the Kumyks' rights. One Kumyk subsequently elected as a delegate to the planned congress was shot dead in his car six weeks later, possibly because he was an adherent of the Salafi Islam espoused by the North Caucasus insurgency. Just days later, the home of one of the unofficial leaders of Khasavyurt's Kumyk community was blown up.

How acting Republic of Daghestan President Ramazan Abdulatipov will set about the thankless and seemingly impossible task of resolving the Rubrick's cube of conflicting territorial demands is unclear. A specialist on interethnic relations (he drafted a nationality policy for then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1995), Abdulatipov has demonstrated little sympathy toward the grievances voiced by Daghestan's smallest ethnic groups. Instead, he seeks to promote a common "Daghestani" identity reminiscent of the "Soviet" identity imposed on the non-Russian peoples of the U.S.S.R. during the 1960s to mid-1980s.

Certainly Abdulatipov's response to the Karaman violence has been less than promising. Between 700-800 police were dispatched to the scene, together with senior representatives of the "power" ministries, including Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Dzhafarov, the prosecutor-general, and Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov, the Laks' most senior representative in the republican leadership. Daghestan's most senior Kumyk official, parliament Chairman Khizri Shikhsaidov, was not listed among those sent to defuse the tensions. As of midday on August 22, Daghestan's main Russian-language news agencies had not reported on the continuing standoff.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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