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

Although many feared that Lezgin demands for the creation of an independent "Lezgistan" would destabilize the fragile ethnic balance in Dagestan, these fears have thus far proved to be unwarranted. By 2003 it appears less likely than ever that the Lezgins will resort to rebellion or sustained collective political action to address their grievances. They have not engaged in any serious violence or protests in the last seven years, and have shown a willingness to negotiate and compromise away their most intractable demands. Their nationalist movements do not receive wide support among the Lezgin people who are not well-organized on the grass-roots level, and who certainly do not want Dagestan to suffer the same fate as Chechnya.

One potentially destabilizing factor is the struggling economy of the Lezgin regions. The Lezgin are among the most disadvantaged of the Dagestani groups, and there appears to be little effort to rectify the situation on the part of local officials. Sources report that unemployment among young Dagestani Lezgins is as much as 80%, due largely to the collapse of both the defense industry that was concentrated in their region and traditional Lezgin sheep herding. One suspects that these figures may be exaggerated, or that many Lezgins are supporting themselves in the "unofficial economy" that still thrives across the former Soviet Union. But if those unemployment numbers are close to reality, such large numbers of unemployed people in comparison to other groups may prove to be a tremendously destabilizing factor in the long run.

The wars in Chechnya have had opposing effects on the Lezgins. On the one hand, the wars exacerbated the main Lezgin grievance, as the Samur became a virtual wall dividing their people. However, the ferocity of the fighting seems to have discouraged militant Lezgins by convincing them (and many other Caucasian groups) that Moscow is determined to maintain a firm hold on its territories. Lezgin leaders seem to have concluded that the best route to change is a peaceful one. Of course the Lezgin grievances could be largely satisfied if the Russian government relaxes the tight border controls on the Samur. Such a far-sighted policy shift could perhaps be taken when and if the conflict in Chechnya dies down.

The Lezgins in Dagestan seem to understand the fragility of the ethnic balance in their republic. In the last few years even the most ardent Lezgin nationalists have softened their demands. This recognition that their interest lies in peaceful social change bodes well for the prospects for stability in the region.

Analytic Summary

The Lezgins are a Sunni Muslim people whose lands are divided by the international border between two countries – Russia and Azerbaijan (BELIEF = 3). In Russia, the Lezgins are concentrated in southern Dagestan (GROUPCON = 3), which is one of the most diverse regions of the world (see description below). The term "Lezgin" was once used by outsiders to refer to all of the ethnic groups of Dagestan, but today it correctly refers only to the people who refer to themselves as "Lezghi" and share a strong group identity (COHESX9 = 5). This history of this group probably began with the merger of various indigenous groups of the Caucasus early in the last millennium (TRADITN =1). The Lezgin language is part of Caucasus family of languages and includes three distinct dialects (LANG = 1).

Throughout most of the Soviet era, the Lezgins were subjected to various cultural manipulations. Moscow went through periods of promoting Arabic and Turkic as the "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 only irritated the anti-Russian feelings of most Lezghi and they resisted Russification by the Soviets just as they had under the czars. To this day all Lezgins still share a profound distaste for and distrust of Russians.

Today there are somewhere around a half million Lezgins, of which probably under half live in Dagestan. Although official records report that Azerbaijani Lezgins number 180,000, their real numbers are probably quite a bit higher. Azeri officials admit that many ethnic groups are underrepresented by their censuses, a condition that Lezgin nationalists claim is due to the cultural and economic discrimination that minorities face in Azerbaijan. Although their numbers are unlikely to be as high as these Lezgin nationalists claim (700,000 or more), the Lezgin population in Azerbaijan may be double of what is officially reported.

By far the largest grievance that the Lezgins have against the governments in Moscow and Baku is what they see as the artificial division of their lands that occurred when the Soviet Union collapsed. The nominal border between Soviet Socialist Republics along the Samur River became an international border in 1991. The Lezgins in Russia still face historical economic discrimination (ECDIS03 = 2). Movement for the Lezgins was still more-or-less free until 1994, when the Russian government tightened border controls in September 1994, after the outbreak of hostilities in Chechnya, in order to try to stop Islamic guerillas and military supplies from the Middle East from reaching the break-away republic.

This division did more to the Lezgins than simply cause an inconvenience. For centuries free passage over the Samur was necessary for the survival of the Lezgin sheep-herders, who would bring their flocks to graze in Dagestan for the summer and spend the winter in Azerbaijan. The flocks were decimated by the inability to migrate. Many of the traditional Lezgin burial grounds are in Azerbaijan. In addition, the forests and fields north of the Samur now receive far less water than they did before the end of the water-sharing regime that existed before the split, which has led to widespread environmental degradation.

The Sadval (Unity) movement was formed in 1990 to press for unification of the Lezgin territories in Dagestan and Azerbaijan, and they later (in 1991) began to call for a nation-state "formation" for the Lezgins (implying that less than full independence would be acceptable). In 1991, another Lezgin movement, "Samur", was formed in Baku to press against the unification of Lezgins into a single sovereign unit, preferring to cultivate ties across the borders as they presently exist. Both movements primarily seek the removal of the tight border controls between Dagestan and Azerbaijan, but Sadval has been more willing to resort to acts of violence. Sadval has been blamed for a variety of terrorist actions in both Dagestan and Azerbaijan in the 1990s, although no such action has been reported since the late 1990s.

More recently, Lezgin nationalism has been experiencing a "calm period". The militant activities of the Sadval movement never had much popular support, and now violence seems to be even less of an option. In 1998, Sadval held a congress in which the party split: the moderate wing demands include an open border between Dagestan and Azerbaijan, securing cultural rights for Lezgins in Azerbaijan, improving the ecological situation north of the Samur, and demands for an autonomous region for Lezgins within Dagestan; the radical wing demands a "Lezgistan" formed outside Dagestan but still within the Russian Federation, while maintaining a long-term goal of unification with the Lezgins in Azerbaijan. It appears that neither side is militant, with no reports of violence in recent years (REB00-03 = 0), and both sides have abandoned demands for outright independence.


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 a 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 the concentration of the defense industry in Lezgin areas) 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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