Vienna, February 26 – Any rapid change of a practice dating to Soviet times of assigning the top positions in Daghestan according to an ethnic quota, a practice the new republic president describes as “the unwritten rules of the game,” could lead to the further destabilization of the most multi-national republic in the Russian Federation, according to a Moscow analyst.
In an essay in the current issue of “Novaya politika,” Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on ethnic politics in the North Caucasus, notes that recent changes in the ethnic mix of top officials there could provoke additional demonstrations by various ethnic groups like the one the Kumyks held a week ago (novopol.ru/text81614.html).
On February 20th, Magomedsalam Magomedov, the Kremlin’s choice to replace Mukhu Aliyev, an ethnic Avar, took office. An ethnic Dargin, Magomedov announced that he was “prepared to invite an Avar,” the largest ethnic group in Daghestan, to serve as the republic’s prime minister, a gesture that he appears to have felt he had no choice but to make.
“This is an unwritten rule of the game,” Magomedov said, “and people agree with this. Of course, all nations ought to be represented.” But at the same time, he said, ethnicity should not be the “only” basis for selection: “In the first instance we should consider professional qualities, reputation, business and personal qualities.”
That statement reflects the new Daghestani president’s effort to stand between two stools: On the one hand, he gave a clear nod to the way things have been done since the 1920s in that multi-national republic in which no group has a majority, and on the other, he indicated that he would follow Moscow’s explicit preferences for giving more importance to non-ethnic qualities.
Not surprisingly, one ethnic group, the 360,000-strong Kumyks, saw Magomedov’s statement as a threat, and on February 16, hundreds of them – figures range from 600 to 2,000 --staged a demonstration in Makhachkala to demand that the post of prime minister remain as it had been a Kumyk preserve, rather than being handed over to an Avar.
Unlike in other republics in the Russian Federation, Markedonov points out, “there is no ‘titular nation’ in Daghestan “and “interethnic harmony for many years has been preserved by a system of ethnic quotas, which guarantee representation of the major ethnic communities in the organs of power and administration and the rotation of cadres on that basis.”
From the 1920s on, except for the period of the Great Terror at the end of the 1930s, this system was maintained, Markedonov says. And from 1948 to the end of the USSR, there were five ethnic “troikas” in the top jobs – Avar-Lezgin-Kumyk, Avar-Dargin-Kumyk, Dargin-Kumyk-Avar, Dargin-Avar-Kumyk, and Avar-Kumyk-Dargin.
Of course, throughout this period, the second secretary of the CPSU oblast committee was, “on the basis of an analogy with the [communist] party structures of the union republics and autonomous ones,” an ethnic Russian, and it was he who ensured that Moscow’s policies were implemented locally.
[Although Markedonov does not mention it in this context, neither he nor other analysts of ethnic relations in the region have forgotten that Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to ignore nationality when he replaced an ethnic Kazakh with an ethnic Russian in Kazakhstan in December 1986 helped to ignite the anti-Moscow national movement there.]
When the Soviet Union dissolved and the CPSU was dethroned, that created problems in Daghestan of a particular type, but until 1994, Markedonov says, “the model of the powers that be to a large extend reproduced the old principles,” with a Dargin at the head of the State
Council, an Avar as head of the Popular Assembly, and a Kumyk as head of government.
Then, in 2006, the State Council was dissolved, and the post of republic president was introduced. He became an Avar, but the head of the republic government continued to be a Kumyk. Now, however, a Dargin is in the top spot, and he has proposed to name an Avar as head of government, displacing a Kumyk
The Kumyks are not only the third largest ethnic group in Daghestan, exceeded only by the Avars and the Dargins, but historically, they were the most educated and both before and after 1917, they considered themselves to be “the first people” of Daghestan with a Turkic language that was alongside Russian “a language of inter-ethnic communication.”
But over the last century, they have gradually had to yield positions to the other groups, as the educational attainment of the latter has risen and as the share of Kumyks in the population in lowland Daghestan has fallen from approximately 70 percent in the 1930s to only 20-25 percent at the present time.
And consequently, Markedonov says, they feel especially threatened by Magomedov’s plan to deprive them of the prime minister’s chair. That is all the more so because in recent years, other leaders of North Caucasus republics have violated longstanding expectations for particular posts going to members of particular nationalities.
In 2008, for example, Boris Ebzeyev, the president of Karachayevo-Cherkessia appointed as head of government not a Cherkess but rather an ethnic Greek, something that enraged the Cherkess (Circassians) not only in that republic but also their co-ethnics in other parts of the North Caucasus.
Not all Kumyks are opposed to the shift, Markedonov notes, but that should not be the basis of ignoring this issue. That is because discussions about ethnicity are, as the ethnologist Dan Smith has pointed out, often “a mask” for fights over other issues, including power, all the more so in highly variegated situations like Daghestan.
Observers must understand that there exists in Daghestani republic structures a kind of “soft apartheid,” which means that those ethnic groups – and there are more than 25 of them – who are not part of “the Avar-Dargin majority” are often excluded from appropriate representation in various institutions.
Any overly rapid change in the “unwritten rules,” Markedonov suggests, could create “new sources of destabilization,” including not only more demonstrations but even demands for “the federalization of Daghestan,” a measure the Kumyks unsuccessfully sought in 1991-92 but have not entirely forgotten.
And consequently, while the importance of a single demonstration should not be overemphasized, the Moscow analyst concludes, “one must no fail to see in it an indication of concern, which could again make the complex problem [of ethnic relations in Daghestan once again] a matter of concern.”