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Assessment for Kumyks in Russia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kumyks in Russia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 17 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Russia Facts
Area:    17,075,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Moscow
Total Population:    146,881,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The grievances of the Kumyk seem to have diminished as the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union went along. Although they have some of the risk factors associated with ethnonational conflict (high levels of group organization and cohesion, territorial concentration, outstanding grievances), there has been no record of persistent protest since 1992. Moscow has shown a willingness to involve itself in Dagestani politics, presumably in the hopes of avoiding an outbreak of hostilities such as the one it faces in Chechnya, which is an outcome that the various nationalities of the republic would also like very much to avoid.

Until the mid-1990s, the Kumyks were the most active and contentious of the Dagestani groups and most frequently involved in intergroup disputes. This may have been because they were among the most privileged in Dagestan and are from a cultural tradition which is distinct from the Caucasian groups there. They also saw other groups as trespassing on Kumyk lands and threatening the survival of the Kumyk culture. The lands they have historically occupied are among the most valuable in Dagestan.

Since 1995, however, the media have reported little Kumyk activity. This may be due to a variety of factors. First, it seems that Kumyks have retained their relatively privileged status in Dagestan and wish to keep a low profile in light of the rapid changes in the area. Since the Kumyks live along the border with Chechnya, they observed at close range the increase in hostilities in the neighboring republic. This may have provided them with an incentive to tone down their demands, lest they be lumped in with the Chechens as agitators. Furthermore, the incoming swell of refugees from Chechnya may have diluted their strength and the occupation of border villages by Russian and Chechen armies may have refocused their attention towards basic living necessities. While Kumyks have not been listed in the leadership of the "Wahhabi" movement, it is possible that some of the more militant Kumyks have left traditional Kumyk groups to join the Islamist organization. Kumyks have been listed among the ethnic groups joining the Chechen militia.

Unfortunately for the Chechen separatists, the second round of fighting that erupted in August 1999 in Chechnya has not upset the fragile ethnic balance in Dagestan. One trigger for the renewed warfare was an incursion into Dagestan by Chechen irregulars seeking support for their cause from other Caucasian mountain peoples. No such support materialized. In fact, the ferocity of the ongoing war in Chechnya has seemed to serve as a deterrent to violence for ethnonationalist movements of the region.

The enormous unemployment among young Dagestanis is the one problem that seems to have the potential to create social, and perhaps ethnic, unrest. Ironically, in the long run, democracy in Dagestan, because of its uncertainties and potential to marginalize some groups, may turn out to be less stable than the strict quota system maintained by the Soviets. To date, however, the precarious ethnic balance of Dagestan has remained remarkably stable. Nevertheless, a decision by Russian federal authorities in 2002 to introduce the post of president for Dagestan, with direct elections scheduled for 2006, has increased tension among ethnic groups; it is feared that a president representing only one ethnic group would threaten the current ethnic balance within the republic's executive and legislative bodies. In 2007, parliamentary elections will also take place under a new system that abolishes current ethnic quotas.

Analytic Summary

The Kumyk are a Turkic minority group located primarily in the lowlands along the coast of the Caspian Sea in the complex Dagestan republic (see note below) in the Russian North Caucasus (GROUPCON = 3). They are one of only two Turkic groups in Dagestan (the only other significant group is the Nogai, who number about 60,000). Due to a migration of other groups from the nearby mountains during the Soviet era, today the Kumyk account for only 22% of the population of their traditional lands (REG1P = .22).

The history of the Kumyk mirrors that of many Caucasian national groups. In the 16th century, Kumyks in the central plains formed a powerful state, the Shamkhalat of Tarki (under Safavid tutelage) and by the 18th century, they controlled both Avar and Dargin territory (TRADITN = 1). Among the Kumyk there is strong tribal identification – in fact, until the 1970s, a group of Kumyks in the southern part of their traditional territory still identified themselves solely by their village names, not as Kumyks. The Kumyks have adopted Russian more as a second language than many of their Dagestani neighbors (over 75% speak Russian as a first or second language) (LANG = 2). However, they are reported to harbor especially strong anti-Russian sentiments, as evidenced by their strong independence movement.

There are three subdivisions of the Kumyk identity with considerable political and historical differentiation. Northern, Central and Southern Kumyks differ in region of residence, dialect and, above all, historical enmity with the Russians. The Northern Kumyk participated heavily in the 19th century Shamil revolt and remain the most anti-Russian. The Central Kumyk are the most numerous and influential, and they actively opposed the Shamil movement. The Southern Kumyk remained neutral in the revolt. All three dialects are mutually intelligible.

The position of the Kumyk in Dagestani society, vis-à-vis other groups, has historically been one of localized advantage, but relative to Russians more broadly in the country, the Kumyks have lower levels of income (ECDIFXX = 1). The port cities on the Caspian Sea experienced early industrialization, and many Kumyks were able to rise to positions of authority in state industry under Soviet rule and were also able to manage collective farms. The Kumyk are among the more highly urbanized in Dagestan, but they still maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity (COHESX9 = 5). They have held onto their Muslim and Turkic traditions despite their urban setting (though the devoutness of the Kumyk compared to that of the Caucasian peoples is weak).

The Kumyks organized a national movement called Tenglik (which means "equality") in November 1989 as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Originally Tenglik called for the creation of an independent Kumyk republic, but such calls have not been repeated since the first few years of its existence. This is probably due to the fact that few Kumyk supported such a destabilizing demand, and that the logistics of any such independent Kumyk republic would be quite unimaginable given the fact that the Kumyk account for such a small percentage of their traditional lands. However, there have been more recent calls for broad autonomy with widespread powers for the Kumyks alone (AUTGR203 = 2).

Of the major Dagestani groups, only the Kumyk have made claims of cultural repression against the Dagestani authorities (CULGR203 = 2; CULGR303 = 3). The Kumyk complain and actively protest that the Dagestani authorities have historically settled excess populations from other areas (including Avars, Laks and Dargins) in their traditional lands (ECOGR403 = 2), which to some extent continues today (DMCOMP03 = 2). The Kumyks are distinctly different in their Turkic traditions from the Caucasian peoples who have migrated into their lands, and the gradual loss of their numerical majority in these lands along the Caspian Sea has led to hostility between Kumyks and the migrants. Tenglik also claims that the Kumyk are discriminated against in local government positions and in access to higher education (ECOGR203 = 3).


The Republic of Dagestan is located in one of the most ethnically complex regions of the world. Its two million inhabitants are divided into approximately 36 different nationalities and speak more than two dozen mutually unintelligible languages. Dagestan, approximately twice the size of Maryland, is situated on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains in southwestern Russia between Chechnya and Georgia to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. Despite its ethnic diversity, it is relatively peaceful today compared to its Caucasian neighbors. Most of the ethnic groups in Dagestan seem to be satisfied with the present make-up and multi-ethnic character of their republic. The general acceptance of Russian dominance is likely a result of several factors: the examples of Chechnya and Abkhazia; the strong acceptance of Communism in most Dagestani cultures; and the stabilizing (and subsidizing) role the Russian Federation plays in its inter-ethnic politics.

Throughout most of the Soviet era, the non-Russian ethnic groups of Dagestan were subjected to cultural manipulations. Moscow went through periods of promoting Arabic and Turkic as their "official" cultures and languages, as well as a period of promoting the diversity of the region. However, shortly after World War II Soviet authorities began to impose Russian as the only language of choice in schools and government offices. These manipulations exacerbated the anti-Russian feelings of most groups and they resisted Russification just as they had under the czars. The very formation of Dagestan as an administrative unit was a manipulation designed to group together the ethnic groups into an ethnic cauldron which Moscow could control. As a result, their cultural traditions probably are as strong today as they were a century ago.

The primary problem facing Dagestan as a whole today is massive unemployment (over 80% of whom are Lezgins because of their concentration of the defense industry) and the resulting crime. This has, in turn, increased interest in a new, strict, and militaristic form of Islam, sometimes called Wahhabism. Several Islamic militias have arisen in the mountainside, paying youths to join and fight for Islam in Chechnya and Dagestan. Many ethnic groups primarily reside in rural areas and unemployment has not hit the mountainous areas as hard as urban areas. The economy runs largely as it did under the communists as most of the communist-era officials have held onto their positions. The peoples of this area continue to practice arranged marriages and other Muslim traditions.

During the Soviet era, Moscow implemented a power-sharing system based on strict quotas for the major ethnic in groups in Dagestan. Historically, the Avars and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Kumyks have been the socially, economically and politically privileged groups of Dagestan. In the 1980s, an Avar held the post of secretary-general in the Dagestan Communist Party and violated the quota system by appointing Avars to most positions of power. Since the fall of the USSR, however, the Avars have lost their status, and many administrative positions, to Kumyks and Dargins.

The current political structure is based on the republic's 1994 constitution. The republic is ruled by a State Council, in which all major indigenous ethnic groups are equally represented, and there is a regional parliament, called the People's Assembly, for which electoral districts are formed according to the ethnic majority in each locale. In 2002 the Russian federal government made the decision to hold direct presidential elections in Dagestan in 2006 and to transform the parliament by 2007 into a smaller, unicameral body that will not use the current system of ethnic quotas; these changes led to increased tension among ethnic groups. However, in late 2004, President Putin announced constitutional changes that would see all regional presidents appointed, not elected. It is unclear, as yet, how this will affect the inter-ethnic relations.

Dagestan itself is built on an Islamic identity, as all of its indigenous groups are Muslim. Many people view Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, as the center of Islam in the North Caucasus. Many of the large demonstrations in Dagestan in 1991 were religiously based and national in character. Most groups in Dagestan follow the Sufi school of Islam, which is steeped in mysticism. The people follow this tradition very devoutly and Sufism played a large role in the revolt of Shamil, but it is not clear what role it is playing today in the inter-ethnic balance.

All Dagestani groups seem to be linked together by three factors. First, each uses Russian as the only lingua franca of Dagestan, especially in government. Second, Russian subsidies to the Dagestani economy are crucial for all of the groups' survival. And, third, each wishes (to varying degrees) to maintain the precarious ethno-political balance, not only in Dagestan, but throughout the Northern Caucasus. There are very few Russians in Dagestan and, as such, most positions of authority have historically been filled by indigenous people, even under Soviet rule. These leaders seem to realize that exacerbation of ethnic divisions would be to the detriment of all groups. Since it is impossible to contemplate the division of such a small and complex territory into anything resembling independent states, at present most groups seem more or less committed to working within the system to realize their social, political and economic objectives.


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