Lenin-Aul and neighbouring Kalinin-Aul, two villages near Dagestan’s border with Chechnya, 2006. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Umar Dagirov / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
Lenin-Aul is a town of some 10,000 in the Republic of Dagestan, in Russia’s North Caucasus. Chechnya is not far from here, and in recent weeks its presence has been very keenly felt. A land dispute in Lenin-Aul has almost transformed into an interethnic confrontation between the local Avar population and Akkins (a subethnos of Chechens). While peace was easily restored to the village after unrest in late July, the roots of this conflict lie deeper — mistrust still lingers.
The bone of contention is the historic ownership of these lands, for which both side has its own justification.
Thin red lines
Lenin-Aul straddles the border between Dagestan’s Kazbekovsky and Novolaksky districts. Until Stalin uprooted and deported the entire Chechen people from their historic lands in 1944, the settlement was known as Aktash-Aukh, and many of its inhabitants were ethnic Chechens. In those years, some 28,000 Chechens were deported from Dagestan, including 15,400 Akkins. Following their exile to Kazakhstan, ethnic Avars from the village of Almak moved into the Chechens’ empty homes. With the stroke of a pen, Aktash-Aukh received the resonant name of Stalin-Aul, and the Aukhovsky district to which it had belonged was disbanded.
Chechens deported from the village of Aukh-Yurt, Dagestan (now Kalinin-Aul) at a railway station in Soviet Central Asia, after being permitted to make the long journey back to their homeland. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 1957. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
By 1961, Stalin-Aul had been renamed to Lenin-Aul, and the deported Chechens had started to return to their homeland, but not to their homes — barred from resettling their ancestral villages. Nevertheless, some Akkin Chechens made it to Lenin-Aul, buying their old homes from the Avars who now occupied them.
To the right of Lenin-Aul, behind a small mountain, lies the neighbouring village of Novolakskoye — administrative centre of the neighbouring Novolakovsky district. According to a decision made on 23 June 1991, this area should have been reformed into the Aukhovsky district. Concurrently, a new Novolaksky district was to have appeared not far from Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala, where the predominantly Lak population of Novolakskoye village would have been encouraged to settle (ethnic Laks also came to occupy former Akkin Chechen villages after 1944).
For other ethnic groups who moved here after 1944, the ancestral lands of deported Chechens have become their home, and they’re not willing to give them up so easily
The 1991 decision allows for the resurrection of the Aukhovsky district within its previous borders, and the full return of Akkin Chechens to their ancestral lands — but it’s little succour for the Chechens of Lenin-Aul and neighbouring Kalinin-Aul, who wish to return home. Following the dissolution of the Aukhovsky district, these two villages were transferred to the neighbouring Kazbekovsky district, meaning that they cannot return there.
Local authorities have dragged their heels over resurrecting the old Aukhovsky district, to put it mildly. Not only do the deported Akkin Chechens have the biggest claim to stake — for other ethnic groups who moved here after 1944, these lands have become their home, and they’re not willing to give them up so easily.
Click to make this partial map of Dagestan and Chechnya larger. Lenin-Aul is marked. Source: Google Maps.
This impasse has led to today’s state of affairs, which has grown into Dagestan’s most heated confrontation in recent years. I headed to Lenin-Aul to hear both sides.
A fight of federal importance
On 7 July, an anonymous appeal spread across social networks, calling on Chechens to travel to Lenin-Aul and support their compatriots. This was to take the form of a “people’s gathering” to be held after Friday prayers outside the central mosque in Chechnya’s capital of Grozny, and in the village of Lenin-Aul itself.
The gathering in Grozny never took place — in today’s Chechnya, such spontaneous public meetings are nigh on impossible. Whether in Chechnya, Ingushetia or Dagestan itself, people who were interested headed to Lenin-Aul. The response was so strong that it certainly surprised the “organisers” of the appeal, whoever they were. Lenin-Aul is 18km from the city of Khasavyurt, Dagestan’s largest city along the border with Chechnya. A convoy of cars stood just 10 km away — each of them packed with people determined to enter Lenin-Aul.
The convoy was halted at the edge of the village of Novo-Danukh, where riot police vans and cars from Chechnya’s Special Rapid Response Team awaited them, alongside URAL trucks from Dagestan’s military. Five kilometres on stood two armoured personnel carriers. While the local clashes between groups of Avars and Chechens occurred on 25 June, it was only by 7 July that the situation had escalated into an inter-ethnic dispute, in which Chechens from Chechnya itself now participated. Attempts to resolve the situation quietly, without bringing in the authorities, came to naught.
Magomed Daudov, chairman of Chechnya’s parliament, speaks with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at an event in honour of the latter’s father Akhmat-Hadji in Grozny, 2016. Photo (c): Said Tsarnaev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.
This convoy of cars, bearing the letters “KRA” on their numberplates (the initials of Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov) was led into Lenin-Aul by the chairman of the Chechen parliament Magomed Daudov, known by his moniker “Lord”. Only Daudov’s motorcade was allowed to proceed further; ordinary Chechens were kept waiting. For its part, Dagestan also dispatched several significant government officials, including the Avar Saygitpasha Umakhanov, minister of transport and energy and former mayor of Khasavyurt.
Rumours grew around Daudov’s arrival, chief among them that stones had been thrown at him. It’s difficult to believe that this really happened; in a region like the North Caucasus, and even beyond it, everybody knows what the possible consequences of such an act could be.
Another rumour held that there were no Chechen police in the Lenin-Aul region. In actual fact, nearly all of the security services’ vehicles arrived from Chechnya itself — and after they set off from Khasavyurt in the afternoon, nobody tried to conceal that fact. When they arrived at their destination, Chechen security operatives walked past civilians with guns at the ready — and only left once Daudov’s motorcade, with its tinted windows, had departed for Chechnya. Upon leaving Dagestan, all the cars returning to Chechnya were greeted by mass applause from a huge crowd of people.
Head of the Republic of Dagestan Ramazan Abdulatipov visited Lenin-Aul only a few days after the events described above, leading locals to accuse him of leaving Lenin-Aul and its problems “at the mercy” of a neighbouring republic.
A Chechen story
The lower part of Lenin-Aul is inhabited by the descendants of Akkin Chechens who were deported from these lands in 1944. They returned here in the 1960s, despite the ban on their doing so. In the 1990s, following the decision on restoring the Aukhovsky district, their numbers grew considerably.
The town’s division is quite apparent. Everybody will tell you where the “Avar neighbourhood” begins. You’ll hardly meet any Avars while walking through the narrow streets of the “Chechen neighbourhood”. It’s said that after the recent incidents, they’ve even been barred from entering Chechen-run shops.
The Chechens have two working mosques in this part of town. The newest, a large building, was built a year ago with funds the community raised itself. It’s called the “Heart of Aukh”. The house opposite bears a memorial plaque to Akhmad-Hadji Kadyrov, the former president of Chechnya and father of Ramzan Kadyrov after whom the street is named.
The street is calm, tranquil — occasionally we encounter a group of schoolchildren. But on 7 July, you couldn’t squeeze through the crowd here; for this mosque is where Magomed Daudov met with local Chechen elders.
The newly-built Heart of Aukh mosque in the Chechen neighbourhood of Lenin-Aul, on Akhmat-Hadji Kadyrov street. Photo courtesy of the author.
Murad Zakayev, local Chechen youth leader in Lenin-Aul, was a direct participant in these events. Everybody knows Murad here — he’s something of a local authority. His car can be easily spotted by the word “AUKH” on its numberplate. “On 25 June, a fight broke out between young Avar and Chechen guys. The elders broke them up. We thought that the conflict had been settled, but then we heard that all the Avars were meeting up at the petrol station. A few of our guys walked past them, and the Avars just pounced on them. A police patrol car was right there, but they didn’t lift a finger. They just stood and watched. All the policemen on the beat are Avars,” recalls Murad.
“There were only five or six of us, and around 200 Avars. They were clearly enraged. We told the police to put a stop to it, to calm their guys down. And finally, a few policemen showed up — but the crowd just trampled over them.”
Only with the arrival of riot police, who fired rounds over their heads, did the crowd settle down.
“We then found out that another crowd had gathered at a checkpoint,” says Murad. “The police had blocked the entrance — if you were Avar, they’d let you pass, if a Chechen — they wouldn’t. Yet on that day, many people were travelling out of town to visit their relatives for a festival. A big traffic jam had already built up, and then the riot police and armoured personnel carriers arrived from Khasavyurt.”
In his words, law enforcement constantly provoked the Avar crowd and detained young Chechens who tried to get through the police cordon. Murad was among them.
“I saw some badly injured people, one of them had lost consciousness. We begged the police to call an ambulance, but they refused. They only released us after a request from the head of the local interior ministry. While there, we wrote a declaration, but three of our guys who had been at the petrol station and hadn’t even been involved in the fight were detained for seven days. We didn’t panic, as we thought that would be the end of it,” remembers Murad.
Following these events in Lenin-Aul, the leader of Dagestan’s security committee Abdulmuslim Abdulmuslimov and deputy leader of the office of the head of the Republic of Dagestan Alexey Gasanov arrived, and urged the local population to peacefully settle their conflict. Everybody agreed, but the story would soon have an unexpected sequel.
Defend Grozny: two boys on the streets of the Chechen neighbourhood of Lenin-Aul. Photo courtesy of the author.
“Shortly before 7 July, I received an SMS message asking me to record a video message to Putin and Kadyrov. I haven’t a clue who the sender was, but they certainly weren’t from our town. Afterwards, a group appeared on WhatsApp which started calling on people to gather in Grozny and Khasavyurt. I phoned the administrator’s number, but nobody answered me. I wrote to them saying that I was from Lenin-Aul myself, and asked them to please call off their meeting.”
On 7 July, Zakayev headed to Grozny, in an attempt to stop the gathering of Chechen youth. While there, he found out that the activists had already departed for Lenin-Aul, so hurried back home. “There was another crowd at the checkpoint — mostly Chechens from Dagestan. The event at the mosque, at which Daudov presided, was already in full swing,” says Murad.
Zakayev believes that Daudov’s arrival may have been agreed in advance with Dagestan’s leadership. “If that was so, then it was a wise decision. This case demonstrated that the Chechen authorities have influence not only over ordinary people, but over law enforcement,” believes Murad.
Local disputes over land frequently occur across Russia — but in Lenin-Aul, they easily become catalysts for inter-ethnic confrontation. Once again, these clashes revolve around the possible resurrection of the Aukhovsky district. “I live in a newly-built house, while my grandfather’s old house now lies in the Avar part of town,” Zakayev tells me. “If you want to truly witness this conflict, then let’s go up there and ask whose house it really is. They’ll immediately answer that ‘it’s mine — Stalin gave it to me’.”
“Their upper mosque was built in the yard of a house owned by a Chechen man. After he was deported, an Avar settled there, who then donated the land for the construction of the mosque. Now Avars go there to pray. But nobody has asked that Chechen, the original owner of the land, for permission to do so — as they are mandated to do by Sharia law. That Chechen passed away last year, and until his last breath said that he would never forgive them.”
“If you want to witness this conflict, let’s go and ask an Avar whose their house really is. They’ll respond that ‘it’s mine — Stalin gave it to me’.”
Local Chechens fear that Lenin-Aul, and their families’ former homes in its Avar district, won’t be included in the new Aukhovsky district. For them, it’s a matter of principle. “We haven’t yet seen any documents confirming that Lenin-Aul or Kalinin-Aul will be included within the district’s borders. But we want historic justice, and we want our lands. After all, throughout Dagestan there are ethnic groups far less numerous than the Chechens who have their own districts,” explains Murad.
“We don’t want to kick the Avars out. Let them stay here. We tell them: ‘let’s be friends, let’s become brothers, but just return to us what is ours.’ They say that they understand what happened in our history and can work with us to resolve the issue. But no.”
Recent events have led to a breakdown in the already rare lines of communication between the Avars and Chechens of Lenin-Aul. “The Avar side hasn’t even approached us since 7 July. And why should we make overtures to them? We didn’t start this!” exclaims Zakayev.
An Avar story
The Avar part of town couldn’t be more different from the Chechen neighbourhood. Winding, narrow passageways snake around the courtyards and flow into each other like mountain streams. Once upon a time, Akkin Chechens lived here. In the centre stands a historic Chechen mosque — it’s said to be over 200 years old. The building is in poor condition — it’s been used as an agricultural warehouse since the 1930s and Chechens have only recently obtained permission to renovate it, albeit with their own funds.
The Avars have built three other mosques. Opposite one of them, I meet with a deputy in the local town council, Batirkhan Musichov. Like most of the population of Lenin-Aul, he’s originally from the village of Almak.
“Around 1989, various provocations began. Graffiti appeared on Avar-owned buildings, even on school desks, telling Avars to ‘return home to Almak’.”
Musichov adds that nowhere in Russia other than Dagestan is there a law on the territorial resolution to the problems of ethnic groups repressed during Soviet rule. “The Chechens lobbied for a territorial resolution. So now both the Avars, Laks and others have to be resettled to accommodate them. But we never agreed to any of their territorial claims. We’ve lived here in the Kazbekovsky district for 70 years, while their Aukhovsky district has only existed for three and a half months!” He reminds me that the Akkin Chechens already received compensation for their lost lands — 28 hectares in the lowlands of the Khasavyurt, Kizilyurt and Babayurt districts.
The historic Chechen mosque in the Avar district of Lenin-Aul. Photo courtesy of the author.
The current dispute is a continuation of 1991. “Back then, the Chechens built a camp in an apple orchard, brought their relatives and simply settled there. Then parliamentary leader (and ethnic Chechen) Ruslan Khasbulatov came to speak with them, and so did Ramazan Abdulatipov. The ethnic Avar Duma deputy from Dagestan, Gadzhi Makhachev, also came along. So did Saygitpasha Umakhanov. They were able to resolve the situation, if only temporarily,” says Musichov. And resolved it had to be, for the Akkin Chechens’ protest demanding the restoration of the Aukhovsky district led to a state of emergency being introduced in the Kazbekovsky district in September 1991.
“Back then, we even signed a document vowing to live together peacefully, but things just went back to the way they were. They’re still building the same camp.” Musichov is convinced that the current clashes occurred under the direction of Chechnya’s authorities. “Ramzan Kadyrov has begun to lay claims on neighbouring republics — both Dagestan and Ingushetia. He thinks he can come here and restore order on his own terms. Kadyrov is an ambitious neighbour; he wants to rule the entire North Caucasus — all the land until the Sulak River, an outlet to the Caspian Sea!”
“Around 1989, graffiti appeared on Avar-owned buildings, even on school desks, telling Avars to ‘return home to Almak’”
“But we can resolve our conflicts on our own. We have police, a village head, a district, a republic. But no, the [Akkin Chechen] leaders decided to appeal to Ramzan Kadyrov, to go to Grozny and call on the people to go to Lenin-Aul. And who did they decide to dispatch here? Some “Lord” [Daudov] who has nothing to do with Dagestan whatsoever! Chechnya is a neighbouring subject of the Russian Federation, but they come over here and bring their own security services!” exclaims Musichov.
According to Musichov’s sources, Daudov believed that the Avars would turn up and discuss the matter with him. “But none of us did. Who is he to us? Some guy with fake medals he was awarded. We would never come to talk to him. We — deputies and heads of the village — waited for him at the local administration building. Had he turned up here, we’d have met with him.”
Musichev stresses that the opinion of the Chechen community is taken into account in all important decisions regarding village life, adding that the local council comprises of nine Avars and six Chechens. Batirkhan concludes: “Four of my neighbours are Chechens. Three petrol stations belong to Chechens, as do five shops. The school director is a Chechen, the deputy head of the local administration is a Chechen. They even run the local shared taxi business. The deputy head of the Kazbekovsky region is a Chechen. The head of the local pension fund is a Chechen. Any talk of discrimination against them is absurd.”
In search of a compromise
The disagreement about the Aukhovsky district lies at the root of the tensions in Lenin-Aul. Sooner or later, the issue will have to be resolved — but at the moment, nobody can compromise. Konstantin Kazenin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences and Gaidar Institute, believes that the first moves have to start small — establishing normal interaction between ethnic communities and their leaders.
Many Avars in Lenin-Aul genuinely fear the eventual integration of the Aukhovsky district into Chechnya itself. However, Kazenin believes that such a move is implausible, and very difficult from a legal point of view. He adds that conspiracy theories are widespread in the North Caucasus, and Lenin-Aul is no exception.
Kazenin adds that fears over a newly mono-ethnic Aukhovsky district are groundless. “It’s very important that the leaderships of Dagestan and Chechnya, as well as the federal authorities, reassure everybody that the district will be ethnically mixed, and interests of all sides will be taken into account — including those of Avars,” he says.
What hope for a shared home? “I love the Kazbekovsky district” - reads this sign. Photo courtesy of the author.
So why has it taken so long to resolve the question of the Aukhovsky region, and which villages belong to it? Kazenin believes that frequent changes in power in Dagestan’s authorities are partly to blame. Of crucial importance is also the issue of where to resettle the Lak population. “The ambiguity around that question suits plenty of people just fine — we know of several corruption schemes related to it. But unless that question is fully resolved, a solution to the problem of the Aukhovsky district will be impossible,” explains Kazenin.
As concerns interference from Chechen officials, Kazenin reminds me that powerful Dagestanis have also played a role — not least Saygitpasha Umakhanov, who is hugely influential among Avars in and around Khasavyurt. The expert also dismisses opposition to Daudov’s involvement in the dispute. “In terms of keeping the peace, his intervention had a positive effect,” Kazenin stresses. “Certainly, some Chechen officials have great influence on the Chechens of Dagestan. And if they can leverage that to positive ends in situations like this, then that’s excellent.”
At the moment one can only be relieved that the situation hasn’t deteriorated further, though Kazenin adds that the root of the conflict still remains. “It’s naive to think that everybody will start living peacefully regardless, there’s a lot of work to be done,” he admits.
Keeping the calm
Finger-pointing over the Lenin-Aul conflict is doomed to failure, as both sides of this dispute are informed only by facts which confirm their righteousness. And the amount of “evidence” only increases with the years, deepening yet another conflict for the regional authorities’ desk drawers.
It’s unlikely that this issue can ever be resolved on a local level. Even the influence and best efforts of Dagestan’s politicians are not enough — confidence in them has practically dried up. Indeed, it could be time for the federal authorities to take an active role in the dispute over the Aukhovsky region, concerning as it does territorial borders.
Finger-pointing over Lenin-Aul is doomed to failure, as both sides of this dispute are informed only by facts which confirm their righteousness.
Another realistic option is that the external dimension to this conflict heats up. To see how likely that is, one need only have been in Lenin-Aul on 7 July and to see the impact of the call to arms (whose author still remains unknown). Decisionmakers would have to deal with hundreds of grateful locals escorting cars bound back to Chechnya. Their applause mingled with shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” and the foreboding sense of a coming victory.
This form of civic unity hasn’t been seen among the Chechens for many years — and we’ll probably witness it again, if the burning dispute over Lenin-Aul isn’t solved.
Translated by Maxim Edwards