Dagestan Is Russia. Civil War Is Unlikely
A historical brief
I have been seeing the flag of the Republic of Dagestan bouncing around social media for the last few days. Anti-conscription riots there are raising expectations that the republic might quit Russia to become independent. This is unlikely, however, because Dagestan’s economy and security are entirely dependent on the Russian center. Peace is the norm in Dagestan because of its human and physical geography, but the peace of Dagestan cannot survive without Russia.
Which is not to say that Vladimir Putin is unworried by what is happening there. On the contrary, his success as leader of Russia began in Dagestan. If Dagestan is also the beginning of the end for Putin, that is only fitting, but it will not be as an independent state. Dagestan has not displayed any urge for independence in exactly a century.
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Problems had been growing since the fall of the Soviet system when Chechen rebels and Islamist fighters moved on Dagestan in August of 1999. Expecting little challenge, they got the same sort of reception Ukrainians have given Russia lately. Instead of melting away before the sons of the prophet, neighborhood self-defense units put up decisive resistance until Russian regular forces could come into action, crushing the incursion.
As the Russian Army moved on Chechnya itself that December, a grateful Putin pledged his deep affection for Dagestan, thereafter increasing the salaries of government employees as well as other economic rewards. He had been seen as weak, and now all of Russia had rallied around his leadership. In political terms, Dagestan made him what he is today.
Thus the affection has been mutual. It is even possible that when Putin received 92.8% of the vote in Dagestan during the 2012 federal “elections,” they really meant it.
Of course, the bad came with the good. “By the end of the decade there were about 200 clans in Dagestan that had managed to acquire huge resources and that consequently defined the system of political relations” in Dagestan, Robert Bruce Ware and Enver Kisriev write in Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance in the North Caucasus. Graft is as endemic there as anywhere else in Putin’s mafia state. Nevertheless, circumstances have created a form of what we might call “mountain democracy.” There are
at least thirty ethnolinguistic groups in Dagestan. Depending upon the criteria that one employed in distinguishing a language from a dialect, the count could be considerably greater with many of Dagestan’s djamaats displaying their own ethnolinguistic peculiarities. Most of these languages and dialects lived on in village conversation, while Dagestan’s fourteen officially recognized languages flourished in their own newspapers, magazines, theaters, and radio and television programs.
The southern heartland is rugged, producing hundreds of microclimates in which a true diversity of ethnic and religious and tribal identification makes it impossible for any one group to take power over the others. Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, 19th Century Ottoman historian, explicitly tied this geography to the flat hierarchy of peoples living there. “Since their land is steep and difficult,” he said, “they do not submit to a government.” Historiography has not overturned his thesis.
One or a number of villages, usually all very different form each other, make up a djamaat. A number of djammats make up a tuhum. Tribal affiliations overlap political and religious ones. A series of carefully-constructed balancing mechanisms create genuine diversity of representation in Makhachkala, the capital. Dagestan runs on consensus. Within the republic, there is a pluralist democracy, amazing as that may seem.
The terrain also makes it extremely difficult for an invader to concentrate forces or maneuver them to effect. Arabs swept north through Persia and got repelled by the mountain walls here in the 8th Century. Although they managed to seize the coastal towns, Arabs never subdued the highlands.
Dagestan not only held out against the Mongols in their mountain fortress, they actually forced Karakorum to pay them tribute to stop their destructive raiding on the silk road. Tamerlane marched up and down the western coast of the Caspian Sea as well, but never moved to conquer the heights. Ottomans and Safavid Persians balked at military subjugation of such a difficult victim. Their influence had to be indirect. The traditional system of power-sharing in the North Caucasus allowed relations to develop with faraway Istanbul because Islam took early root in Derbent and flowered under the Sufi movement.
Muscovy entered the scene in the 17th Century. The fractured nature of the landscape, in which each djamaat was really its own khanate, allowed the Russian crown to take over Dagestan one piece at a time in the feudal fashion, an option not available to the Ottoman system. Islamist reaction to Russian advances began in the 19th Century and culminated in the Murid uprising. Russian armies subjugated Dagestan only after a brutal, decades-long occupation that participants compared to a siege.
Like some other mountain societies studied here, the Dagestanis lived in stone houses clustered close together for mutual support and sited on high terrain that made most gunpowder artillery ineffective against them. Equipped with rifle loops, these proved to be formidable strongholds. Nor had Russia snuffed out the fires of discontent with imperial chauvinism, as Dagestanis and Chechens held a joint uprising during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. Turmoil threatened again in 1913 when the Tsar confiscated the Arabic-language records of local communities and fired the traditional civic officials, replacing them with Russians and the Russian language.
The cycle of oppression and resistance was put off by the outbreak of war in 1914, however, and then the Russian empire collapsed into anarchy in 1917. Dagestan joined with their Circassian, Ossetian, Ingush, and Chechen neighbors to form the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus. It only lasted five years. Bolshevism arrived in force with the victory of the Red armies over the White, and then the Mountain Republic was dissolved.
Village collectivism turned out to be quite amenable to Soviet collectivism. Horizontal political structure did not break under the vertical pressures of Stalinism; it thrived in what historian Krista Goff calls “nested nationalism.” Rather than impose a Russian identity on Dagestan, diverse peoples were assimilated into categories with their own distinct languages, and those categories were assimilated into the Soviet state. The boundaries of Dagestan were not linguistic or ethnic or religous borders.
“We are undertaking the maximum development of national culture, so that it will exhaust itself completely and thereby create the base for the organization of international socialist culture,” Stalin explained in 1920. This was supposed to be a progressive model for the global communist project, but it obscured more demographic differences than it revealed. Historian Terry Martin describes Soviet policy as “original in that it supported the national forms of minorities rather than majorities. It decisively rejected the model of the nation-state and replaced it with a plurality of nation-like republics.”
Improvement in the standard of living, infrastructure, and education was slow under the Soviets, but it was sustained for long enough that Dagestanis appreciated the benefits of being a Russian territory. In their minds, Dagestan became a territory instead of a nationality — a piece of Russia instead of a reason to leave Russia.
Historian Christopher Zuercher writes in The Post-Soviet Wars : Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus that “the story of how violent conflict was avoided” in Dagestan “is one of how micropolitics and the interlocking of formal and informal institutions can defeat structural risks.” Since 1991, the chief threat to that system of stability has been the violent Muslim extremist, and the Russian state has been a bulwark against him.
Whereas the nomenklatura, or Soviet bureaucracy, did not survive the dissolution of the USSR in Chechnya, that structure survived in Dagestan. This is reflected in the current mobilization. Chechen recruitment of volunteer battalions has been conducted in place of the state mobilization apparatus that still exists in Dagestan. Ramzan Kadyrov can refuse to send more troops to Ukraine because he controls the mobilizing apparatus. In Dagestan, however, Russian government officials are in charge of mobilization, pitting the people against a Russian state they otherwise support.
Although the videos coming from Dagestan are certainly inspiring, Putin’s mobilization decree is unlikely to cause a split or a violent rebellion. Battlefield defeats will happen before that happens. Unlike Khazakhstan, which has been able to gravitate towards Beijing as a security guarantor, there is no one else nearby who can keep the demons of extremism at bay.
Dagestan is Russia. Dagestanis do not want to live without Russia. They just want to live rather than die in a war that is already lost.
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