DAGHESTAN: FACTORS OF CONFLICTS AND STABILITY

Enver KISRIEV


Enver Kisriev, professor, Daghestan Research Center, RAS (Makhachkala, Russian Federation).


Throughout the transition period the Caucasus remained the most conflict-prone part of the former Soviet Union while Daghestan became the potentially most dangerous place there because of its domestic ethnopolitical specifics and geographic location. The past and present justified this reputation yet the republic has demonstrated an amazing political stability. This could not but attract attention of politicians, academic circles and the general public. Here I have undertaken to supply a more or less general picture, identify the destabilizing factors and analyze the stability factors that allow Daghestan (so far) to cope with its problems.

I. Causes of Conflicts

A retrospective analysis reveals the causes of numerous social conflicts that have been plaguing the republic since perestroika each of them with a face of its own. At the same time their more or less prolonged monitoring and analysis identify a group of common and constantly present factors that determine the content and significance of each of the conflicts. I have identified four sets of them: ethnopolitical, geopolitical, sociopolitical and ideological.

The Ethnopolitical Factors

I want to have a look at how the unique multi-ethnic structure affects the political situation in Daghestan. There is no title nation there; the republics name means mountainous country which is the home of more than 30 ethnic groups.

The Avars make up 28 percent of the total population. They are divided into the Avars proper and 14 smaller ethnic groups speaking their own languages. They are: the Andiitsy, Archintsy, Bagulaltsy, Bezhitintsy, Botlikhtsy, Genuzhtsy, Godaberintsy, Gunzibtsy, Didoitsy, Karatintsy, Tindintsy, Khvarshintsy, and Chamalintsy. The Darghins account for 16.2 percent with the independent groups of the Kubachintsy and Kaitagtsy in them. There are 13 percent of the Kumyks, 12.5 percent of the Lezghians and the kindred groups in southern Daghestan; 4.7 percent of the Tabasarantsy, 0.8 percent of the Rutultsy, 0.8 percent of the Agultsy, 0.3 percent of the Tsakhurtsy; the Laks make up 5 percent of the total population; the Nogais, 1.6 percent, the Tats, 0.4 percent. There are also Russians in the republic (7.1 percent), Azeris (4.3 percent) and Chechens (4.5 percent)1.

The peoples of Daghestan speak the languages that belong to three different language families: the Iberian Caucasian (the Avars, Darghins, Lezghians, Laks, Tabasarantsy, Rutultsy, Agultsy, Tsakhurtsy and Chechens), the Turkic (Kumyks, Nogais, Azeris), the Indo-European (Russians and Tats who speak an Iranian tongue). Traditionally the population professes one of three world religions: either Islam (Avars, Darghins, Kumyks, Lezghians, Laks, Tabasarantsy, Rutultsy, Agultsy, Tsakhurtsy, Nogais, Chechens are Sunnis; Azeris and people from a Lezghian village of Miskinzhi are Shiites), Christianity (Russians) and Judaism (Tats).

By the time perestroika began nationalism had become a noticeable factor among the republics political and creative elite. In the last 30 or 40 years of Soviet history the attention to the ethnic factor was increasing. The crisis that followed and collapse of the communist regime were marked by still greater awareness of the ethnic factor. Movements of ethnic groups and the republics multi-ethnic structure in general gained weight in the complex situation of the transition period and power struggle. The ethnic groups that had no importance in the past and had been nothing more than passive objects of the nationalities policy of the powerful empire emerged as independent subjects of political processes. Today, political structures are based not on ideologies and party convictions but on the firm basis of ethnic affiliation. The factor of ethnic cohesion and opposition among different ethnic groups is constantly demonstrating its varied and not always acceptable influence in Daghestan.

The Geopolitical Factors

Mountain dwellers are actively colonizing the valleys and this is one of the geopolitical factors. The process started under pressure of powers in 1952; in the 1970s it escaped control. Since that time tension has been growing between the newcomers and the local people because the lands had to be redistributed among the mountain (Avars, Darghins, Lezghians, Laks, Tabasarantsy, Agultsy, Rutultsy, and Tsakhurtsy) and the valley peoples (Nogais, Kumyks, Chechen-Akkintsy, Russians, and Azeris). As a result many of the valley villages became homes to people of varied ethnic affiliations.

This explains why the first, and most active, ethnic organizations appeared among the Chechen-Akkintsy, Kumyks, and Nogais. From the very beginning of perestroika the former have been demanding the Novolakskiy (former Aukhov) district back: in 1944 as soon as the Chechens had been deported from it Laks and Avars from the mountains had been forced to take their place. On 19 November, 1989 at a constituent congress in the village of Endirei Kumyks formed their own ethnic movement which they called Tenglik (Equality). A month later Nogais set up their own Birlik (Unity) society at their congress. The Cossacks in Kizliar and Tarumovka districts in northern Daghestan became more active. Their organizations demanded independence from the republican powers to prevent further resettlement into the valleys. With this aim in view, and to promote their economic and political demands the valley peoples closed ranks: they started forming inter-ethnic organizations. Kumyks sided with Chechens or with Azeris, and Nogais with Kumyks or with Cossacks.

Distribution of new plots of land among the old timers and the newcomers caused serious conflicts which developed into direct clashes and caused loss of life. The local political elites were also involved and were supported by their ethnic groups in power struggle. This blended the large-scale conflicts over land and the struggle of the political elites for their interests.

The Sociopolitical Factors

The social and class structure altered, property differentiation created wider gaps and this, in turn, gave rise to various sociopolitical factors. It seems that nowhere else in Russia there are as great differences between the incomes of the common people and the narrow circle of the richest families as in Daghestan. Its living standard is one of the lowest in Russia, eight times lower than in the richest federation subjects.

Common people are becoming destitute while the rich are growing unprecedentedly richer. According to my rough estimates 200 extended families have concentrated in their hands huge capitals and dictate policies in the republic. They comprise about 1,000 nuclear families (6,500 members) which is 0.3 percent of the total population. About 5 to 7 percent have considerably improved their material situation and serve a firm support of the richest groups; 20 to 25 percent are working hard to maintain their incomes which are 2 to 5 times higher than the subsistence level. The majority, about 70 percent, are poor.

According to official figures the total number of crimes in the republic has remained the same since 1994 yet the number of violent crimes (first degree murders and attempted murders, robbery and banditry, premeditated bodily harm, rapes and attempted rapes, and disorderly conduct) is growing2. Power is obviously unable to cope with the rising wave of crime which pushes the people toward criminal methods of fighting criminals. People arm themselves (especially in the countryside), they form para-military detachments to support local economic and political bosses; there are unofficial civil trials, etc. Rural communities organize mob trials readily accepted by society. It should be added that recently public law and order has been strengthened to a certain degree yet the economic situation remains the same; the gap between the rich and poor is widening.

There are more mass rallies and strikes. In the early nineties public protest was mostly inspired by political sloganstoday, it is moved by economic considerations. Teachers, medics and others demand their wages and allowances; the number of labor conflicts at state and joint stock companies is increasing; petty businessmen are trying to protect their rights by opposing powers and organizing protest marches. The Independent Trade Union of Businessmen and Drivers of Daghestan which detached itself from the Federation of the Trade Unions of RD (the heir to the Soviet trade unions) is rapidly gaining weight.

Ideological Factors

Ideologically society is divided into two more or less equal groups: those who support the European norms and values and those who look to the East and support the Islamic norms and values.

Naturally enough, it is urban dwellers who look at the West. They are mostly Russians and Russian-speaking Daghestanians, as well as Laks, Lezghians and other ethnic groups of southern Daghestan. The faithful, that is those to obey the Muslim rituals comprise not more than 15 to 20 percent of the total population. A considerable number of people believe themselves to be Muslims and support the Islamic values. They are mainly Avars, Darghins, Kumyks, Azeris and Chechen-Akkintsy.

With certain reservations those who support the European values can be divided into communists and democrats: the former are more numerous while the latter comprise not more that 8 to 10 percent of the communists numerical strength. The democrats are few, not more than several dozens. They are urban intellectuals and marginal groups. The communists, also found in towns, are older, they are well educated professionals (doctors, teachers, academics and engineers) who have grown much poorer, and also a large share of workers and peasants mainly from southern Daghestan where Islam had retreated under Soviet power and is slowly reviving.

Those who actively or passively support the Islamic values can also be classified:

There are traditionalists who support everyday Islam common in the republic. They view Islam as a way of life rather than as a political or ideological issue. They are mainly rural people.

There are supporters of Tariqat who profess the intellectual and very much refined trend in Islam. They belong to Sufi brotherhoods headed by sheikhs. Tariqat arrived in Daghestan in the early nineteenth century and developed into the ideological and organizational support of the mountain peoples liberation movement against Russias colonization. Today, there are at least 15 Murid brotherhoods in the republic all of them monoethnic. They are especially popular among the Avars, Kumyks, and Chechens and form the backbone of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Daghestan (SAMD), the main and most respected organization of the faithful in the republic. Recently, the Administration has been developing into a semi-official institution close to the state.

Wahhabis. They support Islam purified of the local traditions. There are not many of them in the republic, some two to three percent of the total number of those who profess Islamic values. They live mainly in the villages of central Daghestan, in the mountain and piedmont areas and the neighboring valley settlements (Avar mountainous villages, Buinaksk district that has become well known after the Wahhabis from the Darghin villages of Karamakhi, Kadar and Chabanmakhi openly proclaimed their ideas, and Kiziliurt and Khasaviurt valley districts). There are Wahhabi groups among the Lezghians in southern Daghestan. Today, after the events of August-September 1999 they are persecuted by the state and SAMD as a subversive sect.

Combination of Factors

Each of the above typological sets of factors can be regarded as a matrix of the republics political reality. They can be applied to any specific social incident to identify the forces involved in it. As a rule not less than two factors are present in the conflicts fraught with social instability. For example, the problem of Wahhabis belongs, on the whole, to the ideological matrix yet in certain cases there are ethnopolitical, sociopolitical and geopolitical matrices. If a conflict embraces several typological matrices one can expect mounting tension.

The Lezghian and Chechen Problems

There are special factors extending outside the republic which help identify conflicts. They are the problems of the Chechens and Lezghians.

The Lezghian problem was born by the division of the peoples territory between Azerbaijan and Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart. The frontier along the Samur river, the Lezghians geographical axis, radically changed the ethnocultural, social, economic and geopolitical aspects.

I shall not go here into the painful sociocultural and political echo of this fateful eventI shall concentrate on the economic side. The frontier drawn by ethnically alien bureaucrats in both countries turned the Lezghians home territory (in the past an active intermediary between the Southern and Northern Caucasus) into a marginal area in two not quite friendly states.

This deprived the Lezghian economic and political elites of influence in the capital: they are living too far from the main economic regions in the republics center and north and from Makhachkala (there are not more than 9 percent of them in the capital while the Avars are represented by 23 percent, Kumyks, 17 percent, Russians, 15 percent, Darghins, 13 percent, and Laks, 12 percent3). There are no more or less influential Lezghian ethno-parties in the republic which breeds in the people a feeling of vulnerability, protest against injustices and rejection of the political regime. Sociological polls say that the Lezghians are the most consistent opponents of the authorities in Moscow and Makhachkala.

The Chechen factor has two sides: the problems of the Chechen-Akkintsy who are living along the frontier with Chechnia and the problems created by the liberation movement in the Chechen republic of Ichkeria.

The former want the Aukhov (Novolakskiy) district back. This was slowly settled when in August-September 1999 militants from Chechnia invaded the frontier mountainous regions of Daghestan and Novolakskiy district which added fuel to the fire.

Since the early nineties Daghestan has been affected by the political events in Chechnia. The solution lies in more protected frontiers that would isolate Daghestan from the Chechen chaos, and new transportation ties with Russia (new highways, railways, oil and gas pipelines and power lines to by-pass the troublesome republic).

II. Stability Factors

In this context the republic preserves its political stability: there are obviously mechanisms that are maintaining political balance. How can this be explained? Which sociopolitical features and political mechanisms make relative stability possible?

The Ruling Elite

Lets have a look at the recent past: at first, when the communist regime collapsed there were practically no changes at the top yet some latent processes were obviously unfolding. Finally, they gradually altered the structure of the political elite and divided the ruling group into two categories. The first comprised the highest officials and civil servants. The second, the key figures in the sphere outside the state structures, big businessmen, public leaders that rely on the money of their supporters.

Until recently the correlation of these categories on the political Olympus could be presented as a partial intersection of two sets. However, while the binary structure was being formed one more category of the ruling elite emerged within it which can be found at the intersection of the first two. This third top group included highly placed officials who grew rich and went into public politics with latent support of power structures, the nouveaux riches and charismatic figures who were appointed to top political and economic posts or reached them through elections. There processes went on among sharp conflicts. Little by little the third category is acquiring key political influence and is becoming the decisive force.

This led to bitter clashes in the ruling class: inside the group of political heavyweights (the third group); between it and two original groups; between the two original groups and finally, inside them. These conflicts gave rise to a dynamic structure of horizontal and vertical relationships of power and subordination. No matter what differences are tearing the third group apart the heavyweights need a united front in the face of the second echelon of power. It, in its turn, is divided into groups that support heavyweights.

In this way, collapse of communism deprived the ruling elite (consisting in the past of representatives of the republics major ethnic groups) of a firm foundation. It had to look for different supporting constructions and found them in the form of personal friendships and a system of trustworthy relatives and people from the same home districts. The traditional ethnocultural values rather than ideology were behind mobilization of the political forces in the republic.

Political Structure

On 26 July, 1994 the new constitution of the republic crowned three years of painful efforts. It rests on the idea of the sovereign rights of each ethnic group and it was this idea that caused discussion and contradictions in the course of writing the fundamental law. Wide public circles, politicians, academics and experts of the working group were trying to find a form of power that would guarantee all the peoples of Daghestan the right to their land and their natural resources, to ensure their just representation on the top and in the sphere of material production, education, science, and culture.

On the other hand, the top political leaders on whom the final variant of the fundamental law depended (if there is an agreement at the top) wanted to avoid concentration of power in the hands of one person. This would have obviously caused restructuring of the relationships, changes in the ruling crust and finally, would have given one group an advantage over the others. This would have amounted to a coup detat.

Public discussions and the search for a balance behind the scenes created an original political system.

Under the new constitution the State Council of 14 is the highest body of state power, the members being elected by the Constitutional Assembly (CA) rather than popular vote. The Constitutional Assembly is convened specially to elect the Council or to amend the constitution. The CA includes all members of the parliament and representatives elected by district and urban self-administration structures.

Art 88 of the Constitution bans more than one representative of an ethnic group in the State Council; its members cannot be elected to the parliament, serve in the Cabinet, be judges yet they can continue working as public prosecutors, teachers or lecturers, they can head a joint stock company or a state organization or enterprise or be their employee.

The constitution provides the minutest details of voting: at first the CA elects the Chairman of the State Council by secret ballot out of several candidates. Art 92 describes him as Head of State. Head of government who is suggested by the State Councils Chairman and approved by the parliament is the State Council member ex officio and is First Deputy State Council Chairman.

As soon as the national affiliation of the two members is known the CA starts suggesting candidates for the remaining 12 seats, each of the members irrespective of his/her affiliation has the right to put forward any candidate of any nationality; then the preliminary secret ballot draws the list of 24 candidates (two for each nationality). The second, final round of secret ballot names the new members of the State Council.

The parliament, the Popular Assembly, consists of 121 deputies elected by popular direct and secret ballot in territorial constituencies. Art 72 guarantees representation of all ethnic groups of Daghestan the mechanism of this constitutional norm being supplied by the Law on Elections to the Popular Assembly of RD.

Under the law each of the ethnic groups is proportionally represented. To achieve this the republic is divided into ethnically homogeneous (mainly the mountainous regions populated by Avars, Darghins, Lezghians, Laks, Tabasarantsy and other nationalities living in compact groups) and ethnically mixed constituencies (towns and villages in the valleys). The former can propose any number of candidates of one nationality. In the latter the law allows the Republican Election Commission to create ethnic territorial constituencies in which candidates of only one nationality can be named. The voters in the ethnically mixed constituencies are not divided by their ethnic affiliation: all of them vote for a candidate of the same nationality. This is done to avoid ethnic conflicts in the course of election struggle. This keeps it within the limits of one ethnic group while ethnic affiliations of the candidates is of no importance for the multi-ethnic electorate.

It should be noted that the system is smoothly functioning thanks to Art 31 of the constitution: Each is free to determine and state his/her ethnic affiliation. Nobody shall be forced to determine and state his/her ethnic affiliation.

These rules are efficiently complemented with another constitutional norm that protects the major ethnic attributes: Art 81, Para 22, introduces, in fact, the right of veto: When dealing with the questions related to changing the existing administrative-territorial division as well as the demographic, linguistic, socioeconomic and cultural environment of the peoples of Daghestan, in cases when a deputy or a group of deputies from this territory disagree with the proposed changes the decision shall be made after reconciliatory procedures by not less than two-thirds of the total number of the Popular Assembly deputies.

It should be said that many of the rules designed to regulate the ethnic balance though not registered by the constitution, laws or any other documents are faithfully observed in practice. Thus, the highest officials (the State Council Chairman, the speaker and the premier) should belong to different ethnic groups. Deputy premiers are selected with an eye on their ethnic affiliation preferably, not more than one person of any nationality. The same unwritten rule applies to the Popular Assembly deputy speakers, heads of the parliamentary committees, administrations of the State Council, heads of higher educational establishments, research institutes, etc.

This model was set up totally outside the influence of the consociational democracy conception formulated back in the late sixties by West European comparativists yet it can be classed within it. Arend Lijphart is one of its most prominent critics4. In consociational democracy it is traditional ethnic and/or confessional entities that play the role of social-class and ideological groups that stand opposed to one another. This is what makes consociational democracy different from classical democracy; it possesses two distinctive features: a clear vertical division of the population represented by ethnocultural entities (religious, linguistic, ethnic or racial) and political institutionalization of their social interaction at the level of their elites.

Any political structure based on ethnic representation as political subjects cannot be a stable one: it breeds separatism and division by ethnic affiliation. Strange as it may seem in Daghestan nationalism, or ethnic bias, no matter how important for the sociopolitical process, has not called to life any tangible political repercussions. What is more, political practice testifies that the ethnic factor widely discussed in the republic recedes to the background or totally disappears when serious issues are at stake. For example, popular leaders of national movements whose popularity is based on holding forth about their ethnic groups past and present insults and claims cannot gather enough signatures to be registered as parliamentary candidates. Those who manage to make it to the ruling class dropped their ethnic claims on the way to the top. Quite often an ethnic leader enters into political alliances with leaders of other ethnic groups and thus damages the interests of other popular politicians of the same nationality. There is something in nationalistic slogans that deprives them of their weight.

Structure of Political Forces

A deep-cutting analysis of the opposition at the top, of the mechanisms of appointment to the highest posts and removals from them, of the peoples electoral preferences, election technologies and of many other things prompt a conclusion that the nationalist wordage conceal rather clarify the true structure of political relationships in Daghestan. It is normally believed that ethnic groups act as subjects in political processesyet this role belongs to different structures absent from the political language and, therefore, considered non-existent. They reveal themselves as soon as the eyes are detached from the stage and follow specific details of the political processes.

These latent structures can be called, with a certain degree of conventionality, ethno-parties since they reveal all the formal attributes of West European political parties: shared views that allow them to mobilize the like-minded social forces and shared corporate interests. They have organizational structures with one or several popular leaders and a great number of activists. They receive money from business elites and they enjoy support of certain population groups.

The difference is a significant one: these parties are supported by members of the same ethnic groups at the level of a village or several neighboring villages, which is called jamaat5 in Daghestan. One can meet people from different ethnic groups among the functionaries of ethno-parties yet the key components (such as the leaders, monetary and public support) belong to the same group. At the same time there is not a single political center in the republic based on the national principles, that is, according to the ethno-party principle. They serve definite groups and cannot spread its service to the nationality as a whole. The leaders of such quazi parties often unite not only with other groups of their own nationality but also with other ethno-parties to the detriment of the interests of their own nationality if they believe it expedient.

Daghestan did not follow the road of ethnic division. Nationalism there did not feed separatism. Probably this happened because the true structure of the political forces that have taken shape there was based not on ethnic affiliation but on more clear identities rooted in the traditional political structures, the jamaats.


1 The official list of ethnic groups in Daghestan contains 14 ethnoses. Today, there is a mounting movement in the republic to identify as independent those of the small ethnic groups that were included, in the post-war population censuses, into the larger ethnic groups of the Avars and Darghins.

2 See reports Sotsialno-ekonomicheskoe polozhenie Respubliki Dagestan for 1992 and later years published in Makhachkala by the RD Committee for State Statistics in a limited edition.

3 See: Osnovnye natsionalnosti Respubliki Dagestan. Statisticheskiy sbornik, published by the RD Committee for State Statistics, Makhachkala, 1995.

4 See: A. Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies. A Comparative Exploration, London, 1977.

5 Jamaat is a nucleus political unit of the traditional form of life in Daghestan which was shaped in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as small poleis made of small clan villages which united into large closely knit mountainous townships with a unified administration system of a republican type, as a rule, with clear borders, civil law protecting equal rights of all jamaat members (and private ownership of land). Their domestic life was rigidly regimented by the laws of natural clan solidarity. The tukhum, a rudimentary form of blood kinship by male line, did not have any common property or a leader. Each jamaat included at least 3 to 5 tukhums. Newcomers could join any of the tukhums, families were free to change tukhums. People could also move from one quarter to another provided they remained within their jamaat. In Daghestan there was no tradition of ex-territorial clan entities such as teips among the Vainakhs or tukkhums, which were even wider clan entities. It was the judicial system as an auxiliary social institute designed, together with others, to maintain public order that registered an individual as belonging to a definite clan. In fact, the tukhum was an auxiliary instrument of justice. Neighboring jamaats united into alliances while alliances formed, in some cases, super-alliances (confederations). In all cases the jamaats preserved their internal integrity and indivisibility. According to rough estimates by the time Russia and Daghestan came into contact at the turn of the eighteenth century there had been up to 400 jamaats in Daghestan and about 60 alliances (see: M.A. Aglarov, Etnogenez v svete poliantropologii i etnonimii in Dagestan, Makhachkala, 1998; B.G. Aliev, Soiuzy selskikh obshchin Dagestana v XVII pervoi polovine XIX v., Makhachkala, 1999).


SCImago Journal & Country Rank
 - Advertorial UP - E-MAIL