Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Daghestan’s Ethnic Russians Organize to Defend Their Collective Interests

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 3 – In a move that recalls the behavior of some ethnic Russian groups in the Baltic republics at the very end of Soviet times, the ethnic Russian community in Daghestan has for the first time ever held a public meeting to make demands on Makhachkala and threatening to seek Moscow’s intervention if the republic authorities ignore them.
Last week, Moscow commentator Igor Boykov says in an essay on the APN.ru site today, “a truly historical event” took place in Daghestan: for the first time ever, approximately one hundred of the small ethnic Russian community in that North Caucasus republic came together to act collectively (www.apn.ru/publications/article23052.htm).
The meeting, which took place in the republic capital, was initiated and organized, the commentator says, by the Russian communities of Kizlyar and Tarum district and the Kizlyar department of the Terek Cossack Host. And in an appeal to Daghestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov, the group made three demands.
First, the group called for the suppression of “Muslim extremism and terrorism,” lest these phenomena push more Russians to leave. Second, it demanded that the positions of the heads of Kizlyar city and Kizlyar and Tarumov districts be reserved for ethnic Russians. And third, it called on Makhachkala to address the ecological problems of the Russian enclave.
Such a combination of demands is quite sophisticated. The first of these appeals directly to Moscow given the center’s concerns on this score, the second to the traditional way of doing business in Daghestan that recent leaders have largely overturned, and the third plays to popular concerns that are increasingly animating people across the former Soviet space.
Perhaps because of that range of themes, the meeting in Makhachkala attracted not only ethnic Russians but members of other ethnic groups like the Kumyks and Nogays who live in the Daghestani lowlands and “to a large extent are allied with ethnic Russians on the questions of land disputes and the destruction of traditional systems of land use.”
But what makes this meeting such an “historical event,” Boykov says is that this is the first time a meeting of ethnic Russians as a corporate group has taken place in the Daghestani capital – even though ethnic assertiveness by others had made “the Russian national problem” there sharper than those of other groups who were demonstrating.
In the 1990s, he continues, “precisely the Russians became the main victims of ethnic crime as the weakest and most defenseless part of the population,” because they were forced out of their apartments, homes and lands, and because they were “systematically subject to repression” on an ethnic and religious basis. They left but they didn’t demonstrate.
Now, that may be beginning to change, in large part because the ethnic Russians there feel a double threat, one coming from the Daghestani authorities who have not done enough to protect them and a second and growing one coming from Wahhabi Islamist radicals who have been calling for attacks on Russians much as Chechen radicals did 15 years ago.
At the Makhachkala meeting, Russian organizers distributed copies of Wahhabi leaflets that they said had been widely distributed in Kizlyar in recent times. Because of the Chechen precedent, the Russians said, “Russian residents of Daghestan see in such manifestations a direct threat to their lives.”
The meeting featured one uninvited guest: Bekmurza Bekmurzayev, Daghestan’s minister for nationality policy, religious affairs and foreign ties. He seized the microphone and infuriated those assembled, Boykov says, by his claims that “there is no Russian problem in the republic” and that “everyone has it hard” at present.
To support his points, Bekmurzayev read out statistics about “the supposedly broad representation of ethnic Russians in the organs of power” of Daghestan. But that only angered those present still further. The only statistic anyone should focus on is this: At the end of Soviet times, nine percent of Daghestan’s population was ethnic Russian. Now, it is half that.
Of course, Boykov continues, “the [the current] tempos of migration, the day is not far away when the figures [for the ethnic Russian presence] will be of an entirely different order: 0.1 percent, let us say, or even 0.01 percent.” Once that happens, then “there simply won’t be anyone” to come to similar meetings in the future.
Consequently, the decision of the ethnic Russians of Daghestan to organize and demand their rights is both important and timely. At the very least, Boykov concludes, it is a demonstration of the fundamental truth of the popular saying that, whatever else, “it is better late than never!”

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