Saturday, August 21, 2010

Window on Eurasia: How Many Nationalities are There in Daghestan?

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 21 – There are 14 titular nationalities in the North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, but most people refer to the existence of 30 different ethnic groups there --while some say there is no reason not to report a far larger number, differences that have serious political consequences that are attracting attention as the 2010 Russian census approaches.
Last week in Makhachkala, experts and officials met to discuss plans for a partial, preliminary census involving some 56,000 people (two percent of the republic’s population) who live in some of the most inaccessible mountain regions of the republic. That enumeration will take place August 26 to October 20, mostly before the all-Russia count of October 14-20.
Several speakers at the meeting pointed out that “among the difficulties which will confront the census takers” is the fact that “approximately 200,000 Daghestanis will be temporarily beyond the borders of the republic for seasonal work, only a small segment of whom will return by October (
But a far more serious challenge, “Novoye delo” journalist Marko Shakhbanov reported yesterday, concerns the number of nationalities and whether census takers will group smaller communities into larger ones, thus boosting the numbers of the latter, or list the smaller ones separately and thus cut into the size of the 14 titular nationalities.
As the Daghestani weekly writer points out, these are far from trivial questions because they threaten to undermine the delicate ethnic balance in that multi-national republic and because they are profoundly affected by an intellectual tug of war not only among Russian scholars and officials but also between Russian and Daghestani ones.
Some Russian scholars, like Yuri Karpov of St. Petersburg’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, argue that the smaller nationalities must be protected from what Shakhbanov calls “natural” assimilation into larger nationalities like the Avars, a move many Daghestanis oppose.
On the one hand, they say, blocking such assimilation by the larger groups will make it impossible to run the republic on the basis of negotiations among these groups. And on the other, they suggest, supporting these tiny groups at the expense of larger ones will open the way for their ultimate assimilation by the Russian nation.
Karpov, who Shakhbanov says is “well-known for his ‘dislike’ of the Daghestani peoples” and seems interested in exacerbating inter-ethnic tensions, also ignores the way in which even relatively larger groups, like the Nogays, are frozen out of most offices and not provided with paved roads because of past undercounts achieved by reporting sub-groups.
Other Russian scholars agree with the Daghestanis. Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, argues that the notion, which is found “in scientific circles of Moscow,” that the Andi-Dido peoples were “’forcibly’ united to the Avars does not correspond to reality.”
It reflects the view of many, Tishkov continues, that “all questions of an ethnic character under the communist system were decided by arbitrary force and administrative measures” and that “an ethnos, having independent ‘ethnic markers’ cannot voluntarily want to be integrated within ‘another’ nationality.”
A Daghestani scholar now working at Moscow’s Center of Civilizational and Regional Research, Enver Kisriyev, provides another perspective. He argues that “one should not deny the existence of a counter-tendency when a simple people at the initiative of local community [jamaat] authorities and inspire of the so-called objective and scientifically based assessments of scholars prefers to be ‘counted’ within” another, larger and more powerful nation.
But at the same time, Kisriyev suggests, “if even one of the so-called numerically small ethnoses (there are a total of 16) belonging at the present time to more numerous (Avar or Dargin) nationalities is able to achieve its inclusion in ‘the list of peoples,’ then the already established structure of political power in Daghestan will begin to collapse.”
And this process can continue almost infinitely, he points out, with ever smaller groups demanding to be treated as separate peoples, something academic specialists appear to be interested in not only because they can then present themselves as “’the discoverers’” of these peoples but also because they can continue to use language alone to define nationality.
Language, of course, is not the only thing that matter as far as identity is concerned, Shakhbanov said. And he concludes his article by noting that some Russian scholars, driven by this linguistic approach, now want to link various indigenous Caucasus languages not with Georgian but “with semi-disappearing peoples of Siberia.”
By presenting the situation in that way, the Daghestani journalist argued, the Russian experts are pushing forward the process of “disintegration” of existing Daghestani peoples and thus setting the stage for their “transition to the Russian language” and their “disappearance from the face of the earth.”

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