Dagestan - Country Profile

For several centuries the territory of Dagestan was fought over by Russia and Persia, and Russia finally took control, despite fierce opposition. Dagestan and Chechnya seized the opportunity presented by the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78), to rise together against Imperial Russia for the last time (Chechnya rose again various times throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries). On 21 December 1917 Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan declared independence from Russia and formed a single state "United Mountain Dwellers of the North Caucasus" (also known as Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus) which was recognized by major world powers. However, in 1921 this political formation was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, and the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed on 20 January 1921.

The Republic of Dagestan is one of 21 ethnic republics in the Russian Federation, which has 83 subjects altogether. It is located in the North Caucasus region, to the west of Chechnya. Its capital and largest city is Makhachkala, on the Caspian Sea.

Dagestan has a population of nearly 3 million, and is ethnically very diverse, the most diverse in Russia. It has several dozen ethnic groups and subgroups, most of which speak Caucasian and Turkic languages. The largest ethnic groups are the Avar, Dargin, Kumyk, Lezgin, Laks, Azerbaijani, Tabasaran and Chechens. Ethnic Russians comprise a very small proportion, about 3.6% of Dagestan's total population. Russian is the primary official language and the lingua franca among the ethnic groups.

Ethnic tensions

Dagestan has been a scene of low-level Islamic insurgency, occasional outbreaks of separatism, ethnic tensions and terrorism since the 1990s. The militant Islamist organization Shariat Jamaat is said to be responsible for much of the violence. Much of the tension is rooted in an internal Islamic conflict between traditional Sufi groups advocating secular government and more recently introduced Salafist teachers preaching the implementation of Sharia law in Dagestan.

Compared to mono-ethnic Chechnya and other parts of the north Caucasus, Dagestan is a relatively liberal republic – civil society is more developed here; there are separate mosques for different religious groups and in terms of freedom of speech Dagestan could serve as an example to other Russian regions.

Human rights

But Dagestan is now officially the most dangerous part of the Russian Federation, and not a week goes by without clashes between the police and insurgents, anti-terrorist special forces, raids and explosions. It is also one of its least developed regions, with most of its financial needs met by subsidies from the Russian Federal centre. And its level of corruption is one of the highest in Russia.