As it gears up to host next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian Federation is carefully considering its position in the Caucasus. Russian president Vladimir Putin recently called on a well-known deputy in the State Duma, Ramazan Abdulatipov, to become the head of the Republic of Dagestan. This change at the top of the region’s political power structure quickly became one of the main topics in the Russian media, which was by no means a coincidence given the high incidence of terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage since 2005 in this largest republic of the North Caucasus.
In 2012 alone, 405 people were killed and 290 injured in Dagestan as a result of armed violence. These days instability is perceived as somehow intrinsic to the region. Additionally, the social and economic outlook for the republic does not look so positive. Even though the unemployment rate decreased by almost 2 percent in 2012, it remained very high at 11.7 percent. Even more troubling is that those figures reflect only those people specially registered as unemployed—the true unemployment rate is probably higher. The average salary in Dagestan is just half of the average for Russia as whole. The republic also faces a deficit of land. Agricultural lands make up 66 percent of the total area of the republic, of which 70 percent are pastures, while at the same time available arable land in Dagestan is, on a per-capita basis, a third of the rate in Russia as a whole.
Yet Dagestan has considerable strategic importance for Russian security and economic development. The republic boasts considerable resources, though it has not yet been effectively developed. Dagestan contains the most hydropower resources in the North Caucasus. It is also host to developed infrastructure base for maritime transport. The Makhachkala sea port on the Caspian Sea is the only Russian ice-free port on the Caspian Sea and it has linkages to four different foreign states: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This positions Dagestan as an important hun within the trading system that moves goods to Europe and the north-east of Russia, as well as the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The republic could potentially become a center for energy production due to its substantial proven reserves of oil (13.7 million tons) and natural gas (45.5 billion cubic meters). Additionally, Dagestan contains portions of Russia’s interstate borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this territory for Russia’s security and stability, both on the whole and in the Greater Caucasus specifically. As such, its political stabilization is a profoundly high priority for the Russian government.
Meanwhile, what exactly has gone wrong in Dagestan remains quite unclear. One can argue about the efficacy of the Russian authorities in the North Caucasus, given the varying assessments of the operation in Chechnya as either a “restoration of the constitutional order” or a “counter-terrorist campaign.” However, in the case of the Chechen Republic Moscow at least attempted to explain the complex political challenges it faced. In Dagestan, this has not happened and the dearth of clarity on the part of the federal authorities only multiplies the fears and phobias of Russian society, not to mention the concerns of Russia’s foreign partners. Indeed, the situation in Dagestan is rather different from that of Chechnya. The republic has never had a strong separatist movement and poet Rasul Gamzatov’s phrase—“Dagestan did not voluntarily join Russia and it will not voluntarily secede”—has become something akin to the semiofficial slogan of the republic.
Dagestan is a multiethnic region that plays host to more than thirty different ethnic groups. This ethnic factor contributes to the development of numerous controversies, especially regarding the land shortage and the ongoing process of urbanization. As a result of changes to migratory practices, the customary ethnic areas have eroded and the principles of private property frequently come into conflict with the so-called conventions of “ethnic ownership,” in which the representatives of any ethnic group pretend to preferential status on a given territory as a result of their traditional residency. However the problems and conflicts in the region, especially the numerous attacks, assassinations and other acts of violence, cannot be explained solely within the context of ethnic tensions. In fact in many cases, republican identity and solidarity are more meaningful than ethnic identity, especially in regards to the relationship with the Russian federal government and the neighboring regions of Chechnya and Stavropol.
Since the mid 1990s another important factor has become a new line of division in Dagestan: the Islamic religious revival. In recent years, this development has supplanted the position of the “nationality question” atop the Republic’s political agenda. Adherence to the various sects of Islam in Dagestan is not determined on the basis of ethnicity or nationality. Rather, members of the various ethnic groups in Dagestan can be either Salafi or Sufi Muslims, irrespective of their ethnic background. The growing popularity of Islamic norms and beliefs in post-Soviet Dagestan has not been caused by the successful promotion of these ideals by local and foreign preachers; rather, it has been driven primarily by the decay of the secular systems that have historically regulated the different spheres of life in the republic. This process serves as a fitting backdrop to the ineffective and corrupt court and administrative systems that currently govern Dagestan itself.
Other significant divisions exist within the republic. Unlike Chechnya or Ingushetia, Dagestan has not been under a strict hierarchical system. Rather, Dagestani municipalities have been much more powerful and independent than their counterparts in other regions. The mayors of major cities are not just “cogs” within the regional power machinery system. They have their own resources and even some influence in Moscow. Moreover, in recent years competition between the "Moscow" Dagestani figures and those within the regional bureaucracy has become much more important. And some representatives of big business at the federal level also boast considerable resources and are thus able to exert considerable influence in the republic.
Dagestan faces more problematic knots than the average republic of the North Caucasus. Conflicts in Dagestan can relate to the ethnic or religious spheres, as well as to conflict with or between business and government interests. The region is plagued by numerous bombings and other acts of violence, yet each has its own particular story and set of motivating factors. However these conflicts can only exist in an environment in which social relations are not based on institutions but rather on informal principles, such as in Dagestan.
For the reasons listed above, the new Kremlin appointee will face a complex and difficult agenda. One advantages for Abulatipov, the new leader of the republic, is that he is far better integrated into the Russian political establishment than any of his predecessors. Although he was born in Dagestan (he is an ethnic Avar from Tlyaratinsky district), the high points of Abdulatipov’s career were achieved at the federal level and outside the republic. At the same time, Abdulatipov begins his term as Dagestan’s leader without his own team. In these conditions, his success or failure will depend on the degree of support his administration receives from Moscow, as well as his force of will.
The internal dynamics of Dagestan are an integral part of the socioeconomic and political situation for Russia in its entirety, with domestic migration, social policy and nationalities policy of special importance. If Abdulatipov is left as a sort of “lost commando” without adequate support from Moscow, the consequences of the power shift in the republic could be calamitous. If the Kremlin would correct its regional policy in its entirety and promote Abdulatipov’s goals of fighting corruption and increasing transparency, Dagestan will have a chance to overcome its social, ethnic and political turbulence. Today, many in the republic see Moscow as purely an objective referee that rules during difficult disputes and assists in the resolution of internal tensions. Thus, the Kremlin has to be more active and fluent in its support for Abulatipov’s administration and in its relations to Dagestan as a whole. The world’s gaze will be on the Russian Caucasus in less than a year. The stakes in regional stability couldn’t be higher.
Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.
Image: RIA Novosti archive, image #144532 / Timur Abdullaev / CC-BY-SA 3.0