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

Erstwhile Rebels Bury the Hatchet

Dagestan's overtures to Russia have become increasingly ingratiating
By Yuri Akbashev

Apparently renouncing its mutinous past, the mountain republic of Dagestan is taking every opportunity to reiterate its loyalty to the Russian state.

And, contemptuous as ever of the opinion of its neighbours, Makhachkala has proved convincingly that good relations with Moscow can bring swift rewards.

In early January, 44 delegates met with President Vladimir Putin to "highlight regional problems and represent the interests of the Dagestani peoples".

The Dagestani mufti, Ahmed Hadji Abdullaev, made some apposite remarks about outlawing Wahhabi extremist groups while the Poet Laureate, Rasul Gamzatov, offered several thought-provoking observations about modern literature.

Seidula Dzhabrailov, who fought against Shamil Basaev's Chechen guerrillas during the 1999 incursion into the Botlikh region, suggested that Dagestanis should be permitted to keep weapons at home to protect themselves against any future attacks.

Finally, the delegates presented the Russian president with a handmade carpet embroidered with his likeness and an engraved sabre.

Dagestan promptly received the largest budget allocation for 2001 of any republic in the North Caucasus.

Last week, Dagestan celebrated its 80th anniversary - and the official tone of the proceedings was no less ingratiating.

The region was declared an autonomous republic by the Russian Central Executive Committee in 1921. It had previously been part of the so-called Mountain Republic with a capital at Rostov-on-Don.

The anniversary was celebrated at a ceremony in Makhachkala's Drama Theatre which brought together members of the State Council, deputies of the People's Assembly, war veterans, elders and intellectuals.

The event was opened by Magomedali Magomedov, chairman of the State Council, who stressed that, over the past 80 years, the republic had existed as a part of Russia and the Dagestani people would always consider themselves subjects of the Russian state.

"In the last 80 years of the 20th century," said Magomedov, "the peoples of the republic have not only preserved their historical and spiritual legacy but have significantly increased and enriched it."

He concluded, "In the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the Soviet state was in a dire predicament, the Dagestanis stood staunchly by Russia and remained loyal subjects of the Federation, preventing a more tragic outcome of events."

Here Magomedov might be accused of being economical with the truth. He apparently ignored the 50-year struggle between the Dagestanis and the Russian empire in the 19th century when Imam Shamil led the mountain people to a series of victories against the Imperial troops.

He also chose to forget the Lakh uprising in the Botlikh region and Wahhabi rabble-rousing in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi.

However, he was swift to welcome Alexander Karabeinkov, first deputy to Victor Kazantsev, governor of the Southern Okrug, who read out congratulatory telegrams from Vladimir Putin and General Kazantsev to the assembled dignitaries.

And Khizri Shikhsaidov, chairman of the Dagestan parliament, responded in kind, saying, "We need to support the climate of trust and mutual accord. We should use this festival to evaluate our losses and our gains and to move towards the new horizons which have opened up in the 80th year of our existence." The official ceremony ended with a rousing rendition of the Russian and Dagestani national anthems.

Elsewhere across the republic, the people celebrated this dubious anniversary with displays of singing, dancing and folk music. Dagestan's infamous yogi stole the show by walking on tightropes, hammering in nails with their bare hands, dancing on broken glass and walking on burning coals. Which goes to show that some of the old values, at least, have not yet been eroded.

Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor