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Ethnic Nogais rally in March in Daghestan against the proposed changes.

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Davit Usupashvili is a qualified lawyer and one of the team that drafted Georgia’s first post-Soviet constitution in 1993-95.

Eight months after his Republican Party suffered a crushing defeat in the October parliamentary elections, former parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili has formally launched a new centrist opposition party, the Development Movement, that he hopes will make a strong enough showing in the election due in 2020 to form a coalition government.

Such a government would be well-placed to transform a barren political landscape in which unceasing recriminations between the current ruling Georgian Dream party and its predecessor, the United National Movement, have already resulted in profound polarization, the eclipse of virtually all other political forces, and the alienation and disillusion of much of the electorate.

Announcing his planned return to politics in late April, Usupashvili said his new party will be grounded in both national and European culture and tradition. In that respect, it could be the ideological successor to the unequivocally pro-Western, liberal, center-right Republican Party that Usupashvili quit immediately after the election defeat, citing “political, value, and tactical disagreements” with other leading members over its future.

Usupashvili described the Development Movement as new in its form, its nature, and the way it will do things. That is in line with his pronouncement in October that "the 2020 election should be won by a political force of a new type, which would have the full capability to govern the country and will carry in its genetic code the values of multiparty democracy."

Usupashvili explained the need for such a new approach in a lengthy analysis posted on Facebook in late April. He argued that it’s taking “a dangerously long time” to eradicate the pernicious legacy of the communist past and that none of Georgia’s leaders over the past quarter century has been able or willing to overcome the “us vs. them” mentality and the temptation to rely on the use of state power instead of promoting broad civic cooperation in the name of building a strong Georgian state that could guarantee the liberty, welfare, and security of every citizen. Meanwhile, one in five Georgians has left the country and many who remain live in poverty.

Those failings, he argued, and the ensuing popular realization that efforts to build a modern, democratic, European-style state were largely superficial, have given rise to the devaluation and discrediting of fundamental values and to widespread hopelessness and despair. Only a competent, responsible political force that stands firmly on national and European political and cultural ground can change the situation for the better, he suggested.

Specifically, he said the Development Movement will seek to overcome the mutual antagonism and political polarization that imbues Georgian politics, bringing together “successful professionals from relevant fields” to work together to strengthen Georgian statehood and improve the social and economic environment. That emphasis on consolidation reflects Usupashvili’s seemingly tireless efforts as parliament speaker to paper over the differences between the disparate political forces aligned in the Georgian Dream coalition. In a lengthy interview he gave in August to the news portal, he described the role he played as parliament speaker as being more that of “chief political firefighter.” The Development Movement manifesto warns against the temptation for a new government to reject everything its predecessor accomplished and “start again from scratch.” Instead, the Development Movement has adopted as its credo: “We foster what’s good. We change what’s bad. We create what’s lacking.”

In light of the perceived threat posed by Russia to Georgia’s sovereignty, the manifesto also stresses the need to “build a state, which will [have] as its foundation the best practices of [our] centuries-old history; strong, democratic institutions will be its load-bearing walls; while the Euro-Atlantic cooperation and security structures will serve as its roof.”

Portly and bespectacled, Usupashvili, 49, is a qualified lawyer and one of the team that drafted Georgia’s first post-Soviet constitution in 1993-95. He is also one of the founders of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and served as its chairman from 1994-97. In 2003, he joined the protest movement that culminated in the Rose Revolution that toppled then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, but he soon distanced himself from the country’s new ruling triumvirate: Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania, and Nino Burjanadze. He was elected Republican Party chairman in 2005.

The Republican Party was one of 10 that aligned in October 2007 in an opposition National Council that took a stand against what they termed the usurpation of power by then-President Saakashvili and the corruption and “political terror” that ensued. It was, therefore, logical for the Republican Party to join the election bloc set up in 2012 by wealthy businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party with the aim of putting an end to the United National Movement’s nine years in power. The precise nature of the disagreements that stopped Georgian Dream forming an analogous election bloc last year -- of which the Republicans would again have been part -- remains unclear.

Running independently, the Republican Party garnered just 1.55 percent of the vote; Usupashvili placed third in the Tbilisi constituency, where he ran as a majoritarian candidate.

The nucleus of the new Development Movement numbers several other prominent former Republican Party members, including Vakhtang Khmaladze, who, like Usupashvili, helped draft the 1995 constitution. But it also includes several leading members of the extraparliamentary opposition National Forum, including its chairman, Kakha Shartava. (The National Forum, too, was one of the 10 founder members in 2007 of the opposition National Council.) Talks between Usupashvili and Shartava on jointly establishing a new party reportedly began late last year.

Usupashvili told a press conference in Tbilisi on June 16 that his new movement will participate in the municipal elections due this fall. Then, after its formal registration in spring 2018, it will focus on the 2020 parliamentary elections. Usupashvili was quoted by the website on January 18 as saying he has no intention of participating in either the Tbilisi mayoral elections in 2017 or the presidential election in 2018.

While political commentators have noted the need for a new alternative to both Georgian Dream and the now divided United National Movement, some have expressed doubts that Usupashvili’s new Development Movement will prove attractive to voters who no longer trust either. On the plus side, a recent opinion poll ranked Usupashvili personally fifth in popularity among Georgian politicians, after President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Health Minister Davit Sergeenko, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and Davit Bakradze, who heads the European Georgia party that split earlier this year from the United National Movement.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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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