The Russian Republic of Dagestan, which translates as “land of themountains”, is situated in Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus with Chechnya and Georgia to the west, Azerbaijan to the south and the Caspian Sea to the east.
So high are its peaks in some places that certain areas are accessible only by helicopter. The republic is also famed for its ethnic and linguistic diversity, being home to more than 30 languages.
Several dozen Muslim peoples have settled among the high valleys over the centuries.
The Avars form the largest ethnic group and account for about a fifth of the population. A further substantial proportion is made up of Dargins, Kumyks and Lezgins. About 10 per cent are ethnic Russians. There are also Laks, Tabasarans and Nogai, to name but a few of the other significant groups.
The republic’s constitution declares the protection of the interests of all of Dagestan’s peoples to be a fundamental principle. It is a delicate balance to maintain, in what is Russia’s most ethnically diverse province.
The republic has oil and gas reserves and also the fisheries potential offered by a share in the resources of the Caspian sea. However, it is prey to organized crime and regional instability. The crime barons may prosper but the people are amongst the poorest in Russia. They live in the shadow of lawlessness and the threat of violence.
Dagestan was the birth place of Imam Shamil, the legendary fighter who in the 19th century spearheaded fierce resistance by tribesmen of Chechnya and Dagestan to the spread of the Russian empire. The name of Imam Shamil is still revered by many in both republics.
Dagestan: Land of rugged peaks and remote mountain villages
When the Bolsheviks sought to enforce control in the Caucasus in the early 1920s, Dagestan became an autonomous Soviet republic within the Russian Federation. During the Stalinist period its peoples escaped the mass deportation inflicted on their Chechen neighbours and many others.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the republic’s authorities have been regarded as loyal by the Kremlin and as corrupt and incompetent by many elsewhere. Oil and caviar mafias are reported to flourish. Kidnappings and violence are commonplace. Firearms are ubiquitous and assassinations are a regular event.
Moscow consistently says it sees the hand of Chechen-based separatism as the cause. Others see the roots in lust for profit against a background of lawlessness in a gun culture.
Budennovsk and beyond
In the 1990s, Chechen warlords openly led armed operations in Dagestan on several occasions. In 1995 and 1996, they seized hundreds of hostages in hospitals in the Dagestani towns of Budennovsk and Kizlyar in the name of the separatist cause. Scores died in the attacks.
The Muslims of Dagestan, for whom Sufism combined with local tradition is the main faith, have generally been anxious to avoid the conflict that has afflicted Chechnya.
However, since the latter part of the 1990s, radical and militant elements said to be linked with Wahhabism are said to have been acquiring influence.
State officials are frequently targeted by Islamist insurgents
Violence flared in August 1999 when an Islamic body was reported to have declared an independent state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya and called on Muslims to take up arms against Russia in a holy war.
Chechen fighters crossed into Dagestan in support. There were fierce clashes with Russian forces but within a couple of weeks the fighting was over. The incident contributed heavily to the return of Russian troops to Chechnya.
The republic has seen numerous bombings targeted at the Russian military which has forces stationed at Kaspiysk, Buynaksk and Budennovsk. Scores were killed in 1996 and 1999 in Kaspiysk and Buynaksk when bombs went off near blocks of flats housing Russian officers. Dozens more died in 2002 when bombers targeted a Russian military parade in Kaspiysk.
Russian forces have since been the target of numerous smaller scale attacks. At least 10 died in a bomb blast in the capital, Makhachkala in July 2005. A leading journalist was killed in 2008, and in 2009 a senior police investigator and the republic’s interior minister were shot dead.
Russia accused a Dagestan militant, Magomedali Vagabov, of being behind an attack on the Moscow metro by two female suicide bombers from Dagestan in March 2010, in which 39 people died. In August 2010, Russian forces killed Vagabov in a counter-terrorism operation in Dagestan.
- Territory: Dagestan
- Status: Semi-autonomous region of Russia
- Status: Republic within Russian Federation
- Population: 2.2 million
- Capital: Makhachkala
- Area: 50,300 sq km
- Main religion: Islam
- Languages: Language rights of many peoples of Dagestan guaranteed by constitution
- Currency: Rouble
- Resources: Oil, gas, agriculture, fisheries
President: Magomedsalam Magomedov
The Kremlin sees Mr Magomedov as a new broom in Dagestan
Magomedsalam Magomedov was nominated for the leadership of the republic by Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev on 8 February 2010. His appointment was approved two days later by Dagestan’s parliament.
He succeeded Mukhu Aliyev, who was the Kremlin’s choice for president in February 2006.
Mr Aliyev’s predecessor was Mr Magomedov’s father, Magomedali Magomedov, who led Dagestan from 1987 to 2006.
Born in 1964, Magomedsalam Magomedov worked as a teacher before going into business and politics. He was chairman of the Dagestani parliament from 2006 to 2007.
An ethnic Dargin, Mr Magomedov was a persistent critic of Mr Aliyev’s administration, and his nomination – which came hard on the heels of Mr Medvedev’s appointment of a new special envoy to the North Caucasus – suggests that the Russian leadership is keen to see changes in the republic.
Mr Aliyev had been tasked with tackling rampant corruption and curbing the high levels of political violence in Dagestan, but made little headway in either of these areas.
GTRK Dagestan, a branch of the state-owned federal Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), operates local TV and radio services.
Some 140 newspapers and more than a dozen radio and TV stations are registered with officials.
Journalists are “physically attacked and murdered with impunity”, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said after a 2011 fact-finding visit.
While Dagestan has a degree of media pluralism, mirroring its diverse population, RSF warned that this is endangered by economic problems and attempts to manipulate the media.
- Dagestanskaya Pravda – published by republic’s government
- Novoye Delo – private
- Makhachkalinskiye Izvestiya – published by Makhachkala local government
- GTRK Dagestan – TV and radio operated by Russian state, broadcasts in Russian and ethnic languages
- RGVK Dagestan – TV and radio operated by Dagestan government
- Safinat TV/Radio Safinat – private
- Radio Stolista – private
- D-FM – private radio
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