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Ethnic conflict in Dagestan could internationalize

On January 7, unidentified assailants vandalized the tomb of Seid Mir-Gafar-aga in Derbent, Dagestan. The tomb is a place of worship for ethnic Azerbaijanis and the act of vandalism sparked tensions between the Azerbaijani community and the rest of the republic. The leaders of Dagestan’s Azerbaijani community reportedly intervened to prevent mass protests. Some local residents blamed Salafis, who are known as supporting a “pure” form of Islam, for the attack on the tomb, but others said a third force, seeking to spark ethnic conflict, may have been behind the incident.

An unnamed Azerbaijani community leader told the Azerbaijani news service: “We still do not know who was behind this provocation—the Salafis, Lezgin nationalists, the security services or simply hooligans. Local media remain silent, of course, because the tomb of Seid Mir-Gafar-aga is a place of worship of Azerbaijanis. If somebody broke a Lezgin monument or vandalized their sacred spaces, the [local] media would have spread the news to the entire world”. The monument for the Azerbaijani poet Nizami in Derbent was also vandalized. Last October, a monument to a World War II Azerbaijani Hero of the Soviet Union was thrown out into a trash dump. It is unlikely these attacks on Azerbaijani monuments and sites in southern Dagestan are completely unconnected.

The local rivalry quickly became an international one when the media and government of the neighboring Republic of Azerbaijani took notice. “Everything is against the Azerbaijanis [in Derbent] and some of the [local Azerbaijani] people have forced to go out to protest to deliver a wake-up call,” said one Azerbaijani activist. Many Azerbaijanis are opposed to the current head of Derbent, Imam Yaraliev, whom they accuse of having pursued anti-Azerbaijani policies. The governor of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, was forced to issue official reassurances that he would take the investigation of the incidents under his personal control. On January 10, authorities in Derbent hastily reported that they repaired the damage that had been done to the Azerbaijani cultural and religious sites.

Derbent, a city with an ancient history, is located in southern Dagestan close to the border with Azerbaijan. There are more than 80,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis in the city and the surrounding administrative district, or about 44 percent of the total, according to the 2002 Russian census. That census found that Lezgins were the second largest group, with a population of about 50,000, or 26 percent of the total. Dagestanis often accuse the authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan of forced assimilation and of persecuting the leaders of ethnic minorities indigenous to Dagestan that live in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis, in turn, call Derbent “an ancient Azerbaijani city” and accuse Makhachkala of discriminating against the North Caucasus republic’s ethnic-Azerbaijani population. The divide goes further than the language differences between the Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis and the Caucasian languages–speaking groups, such as Lezgins and Tabasarans. In addition, Azerbaijanis are predominantly Shiite, while the Dagestani indigenous ethnic groups tend to be Sunni.

The political underpinnings of the conflict in the Derbent area are complex. The head of the local government, Imam Yaraliev, formerly Dagestan’s general prosecutor, was elected to his position in 2010 for five years. In January, he resigned and was elected by the Derbent city council to be the city’s mayor, according to new legislation. Dagestan’s head Ramazan Abdulatipov reportedly did not like this and, on January 15, police raided the city government’s offices. It is unclear if the attacks on Azerbaijani sites and subsequent protests were part of the political struggle for control over southern Dagestan.

According to other sources, the Russian president’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, was also unhappy with the method that Yaraliev used to prolong his political life. Melikov happens to be an ethnic Lezgin who was born and raised outside Dagestan but is said to have a keen interest in the internal affairs of Dagestan. One of the reasons for Melikov’s appointment as Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus in May 2014 may have been his knowledge of Dagestan plus the absence of connections to the local clans. The Kremlin envoy’s keen interest in Dagestan has even produced a persistent rumor that Melikov is about to replace Abdulatipov as the governor of Dagestan. Given the political rivalry between the Kremlin’s envoy and Dagestan’s governor, local authorities, like the head of Derbent territory, become politically important and are able to navigate between more powerful political figures.

The recent series of attacks on Azerbaijani sites in southern Dagestan suggest there is a high possibility of an ethnic conflict erupting in the republic that could easily become internationalized given the involvement of ethnic Azerbaijanis. An estimated 130,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis reside in Dagestan and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Lezgins and Avars live inside Azerbaijan. Whether rival political forces sought to play an ethnic card or the conflict in Derbent erupted spontaneously, these tensions in Dagestani society remain and are likely to resurface again.

Source: The Jamestown Foundation

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