The diversity of Dagestan – along with its wider North Caucasian neighbours – is in public conscience often pushed aside over a monotony of news on violence and chaos. In the region itself, confidence is rising that this is about to change. We should thus turn our attention to this intriguing republic, which might face a future brighter than its often-perceived reductionist image might suggest.
A Comment by Mario Baumann
The “Land of Mountains” by the Caspian Sea
The heterogeneity of the Russian Federation features probably most prominently in the North Caucasus, a complex hub of peoples, languages, religions and cultures. At its south-eastern tip, squeezed between impressive peaks of 4000m and the shore of the Caspian Sea, lies the Republic of Dagestan.
Among its population of nearly three million people, Dagestan unites more than 30 different autochthonous nationalities. About the same number of commonly spoken languages belong not only to the Northeast Caucasian family (e.g. Avaric, Dargic or Lezgic), but comprise also Turkic (e.g. Kumyk) and Persian related (Tati) ones. Dating back more than 2500 years, Derbent is Russia’s oldest city. Back in the days, the UNESCO-listed fortress controlled the trading-corridor on the eastern Caspian shore, today the country’s southernmost point.
With its Sunni, Shia, Jewish and Christian communities, Derbentians are proudly claiming to be exemplary for the coexistence of different peoples in the predominantly Muslim republic. Always being situated at the intersection of vast empires, Mongolian, Ottoman, and Persian influences left traces in the region, which permanently – and very unwillingly – became part of the Russian Empire only at the last stages of the Caucasian War in the late 1850s.
A troublesome image
While the Caucasian periphery from the very beginning had a rather tense relationship to the Russian core, the region’s image has suffered particularly in more recent times. The first Chechen War, fought from 1994 to 1996, together with its continuation in the early 2000s has left a deep impact on the Russian consciousness. Associated with chaos and violence, the North Caucasus turned into Russia’s “other”.
More recent news about religiously motivated violence have added to this image. The 2007-founded “Caucasus Emirate”, a violent jihadist movement responsible for various terrorist attacks throughout Russia, gradually shifted its centre of gravity to Dagestan, making the republic a major knot for Islamist insurgencies in the region.
However, Dagestani and Russian security measures, splits within the Caucasus Emirate, and an outflow of radicals fighting in Syria and Iraq led to a significant reduction of violence within the last two years.
Change is in the air
The omnipresent security forces in Dagestan’s bustling capital of Makhachkala are a silent reminder of the ongoing tensions. They are easily overseen, however, in the multitude of busy restaurants and cafes, beach-goers and “sportsmeni”, buzzing kids’ attractions and markets selling the Republic’s rich produce.
People in Makhachkala are confident that things are changing now. Tourism is regarded a major opportunity in the future development of the region. What comes with it is a sense of rebranding. The growing number of visitors from all over Russia may not only contribute to a more differentiated picture in public conscience, but also create business opportunities in economically languishing Dagestan.
Along the Caspian coast, resorts are either being revived from their post-Soviet slumber or newly constructed. Restaurants and holiday apartments are emerging around the republic’s cultural and natural landmarks such as the town of Gunib, the abandoned village of Gamsutl or the turquoise waters down the Sulaksky Canyon.
Whether these developments will be able to last and sustainably contribute to a brighter future in Dagestan will depend on the long-term stability of the region, which many are in doubt of. Besides the low-level but ongoing conflict, corruption and economic inequality pose further challenges.
To merely reiterate the reductionist image of a troublesome republic, however, does not do justice to Dagestan’s many peculiarities, its beauty and diversity. We should, on the contrary, turn our attention to the vast potential that this part of Russia has to offer and which its peoples increasingly seek to realise.
Mario is currently reading for his PhD in International Relations at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. In his research he focuses on the interaction of discourses and interpretations in Russia and the European Union. He is a member of Polis180 and contributes the Perspektive Ost-section.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.
Image: Mario Baumann