Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan's Capital Bursts With Migrants

As impoverished villages grow empty, the local capital is under strain from the number of migrants.
By Nina Agayeva

Patimat Tagirova and Magomed Aliev moved to the Dagestani capital Makhachkala with their two young sons from the mountains of the Tsumadin district. Since they couldn’t afford to buy a house, they decided to build one for themselves on the outskirts of the city.

In his home village, Magomed worked at the local hydroelectric plant until 1991, when the management stopped paying his wages. Eventually the family had to leave because there was no other work to be found.

The family is among tens of thousands of poor rural Dagestanis who are swelling the city and stretching its resources to breaking point. A recent census found that the population of Makhachkala now stands at 545,000 people, compared with just 337,000 in 1989 – a staggering increase of more than 60 per cent.

The newcomers are desperate for work and improvise as best they can to find places to live. Magomet and Patimat bought an allotment on the edge of the city and started to build their home there, although at the moment it is illegal to build on a plot intended for agriculture.

They are trying to obtain a “homestead certificate”, which would make it legal for them to build on the plot and reside permanently in Makhachkala. But the rumour is that getting the paperwork alone would cost around 2,000 US dollars.

“We can’t afford it,” sighed Magomed. They are already paying for utilities and are being asked to pay for sewerage as well.

“We are expecting a visit from the local police at any time,” said Magomed. “Unlike registered local residents, they won’t even give me a free X-ray at the local day clinic, because I have no local registration stamp in my passport. Thank God we are all in good health, and have no need of medical services.”

Every year, 10 to 15 families move down to the city from Magomed’s home village alone. All are in the same position – none is officially registered to live there. They have left behind a village almost entirely inhabited by old people.

Patimat said another village in their district, Aknada, is now completely abandoned.

The city authorities are trying to control the flood of internal migrants. Makhachkala’s powerful mayor, Said Amirov, has issued a directive ordering tighter controls on resettlement in the city.

“More than 165,000 people have moved to Makhachkala in the past ten years,” the directive warned. “Most of them live here without registration, using utilities, health and social services illegally and not paying tax. As a consequence, social tensions are growing in the city, crime is on the rise, and pressure is mounting on the job market and the city’s economy”

Deputy mayor Abdurakhman Gusseinov estimates that Makhachkala is losing around 40 million roubles, 1.3 million dollars, a year from supporting unregistered settlers. But he said it would be illegal for the authorities to stop resettlement, so the focus is on legalising those who have arrived.

The settlers say that they have no chance of getting decent work in the countryside and working in Makhachkala is their only chance – even though official unemployment in the city is also high, at 39 per cent.

Karina, 23, graduated in biochemistry from Dagestan State Pedagogical University last year. She went back to her home village of Majalis only to find out her skills were not wanted there. “I spent three futile months trying to find any kind of work, so when I was finally offered a job in Makhachkala, I packed up and went,” she said.

Karina now works as a psychological counsellor for children, paying almost her entire 1,100 rouble, 40 dollar, salary in rent for a 16 square metre room, which she shares with her brother, a student. Living conditions are primitive – a shared kitchen, no hot water, an outdoor shower that cannot be used in winter and a toilet in the yard.

“Ninety per cent of my fellow students came from the country, and the majority stayed after graduation,” Karina told IWPR. She said all but three of her 30 former secondary school classmates have left their home village.

Most residents of Makhachkala are in fact relatively recent arrivals or only second-generation inhabitants and still have strong ties to their native communities. But they are worried about overcrowding and often encourage their relatives to stay in the village, where they can visit in the summer.

Government money intended for the regions often flows directly back to the city.

Patia, 27, has been living in Makhachkala for the last ten years since her parents bought her an apartment. Following the 1999 armed skirmishes with Chechen rebels in Patia’s native Botlikh region high in the mountains, the government paid her parents compensation, even though their house had not been damaged.

“Many in my native village received money from the government, only to invest it immediately in housing in Makhachkala,” said Patia.

Now only Patia’s mother still lives in their home village, while the rest of her large family has moved to the capital to stay with Patia and her student brother in their cramped two-room apartment.

“You come home after work, and there are people everywhere, there’s nowhere even to sit down,” Patia said.

Hajimurad Aliev, director of the Professional Evaluation Institute, recently told a local newspaper that property prices in the city were rocketing as a result of migration from rural areas.

“Farms are in ruin and poverty reigns as close as 100 kilometres from the capital,” he said. “The rural economy is paralysed. Villagers take the cash compensation they receive for flood and landslide damage and use it to buy flats in Makhachkala.”

Yet many say they would return if they could. Karina told IWPR that, after trying out life in the city, she might prefer to live in a village where you can live off your own vegetable patch. “With the miserable money we’re making, even renting in the city is an unaffordable luxury, let alone buying a flat. I may move back to my home village eventually.”

Nina Agayeva is a reporter for Makhachkalinskie Novosti newspaper.

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