Seventy years on, the Kumyk people in Dagestan are still fighting territorial claims

In Russia's North Caucasus, wartime deportations influence the complex relations between ethnic groups to this day. RU

Микаил Каплан
2 May 2018

The Tarki-Karaman camp on the day of remembrance on 12 April, 2018. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.On 12 April, representatives of the Kumyk people, the largest Turkic ethnic group of the North Caucasus and the third largest of Dagestan, held a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the forced deportation of people living in its former Tarki district.

In 1944, residents of Makhachkala’s outlying villages Tarki, Kyakhulai and Alburikent, all part of the Tarkinsky district, were forcibly rounded up and re-homed in houses which had had been left empty. Their Chechen inhabitants were deported to Central Asia and Kazakhstan by the Soviet authorities two months earlier. Both the Tarki Kumyks and Dagestani Chechens have been trying to reclaim their districts ever since.

The Kumyk capital

On 12 April, between 300 and 400 Kumyks gathered in a specially built mosque popularly known as the Tarki-Karaman mosque, as it’s called in the village of Karaman (“Black Stones”). Members of the older generation spoke about how the deportation took place, and a mavlid, a Muslim religious ceremony, took place. Then local leaders reminded people that the main aim of this public action in Karaman was to restore the Tarkinsky district and revive local government there


Tarki settlement, on the western outskirts of Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital. Source: akamaihd.net. From the start, this “Karaman protest” has not been just a protest of Makhachkala’s outlying villages. Kumyk communities, in Dagestan and beyond, have expressed their solidarity with the Karaman villagers. The Kumyks formed as an ethnic group on the so-called Kumyk plain, which encompasses the low lying area and lower slopes of Dagestan’s mountainous region, as well as present-day Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. Today’s Kumyks often associate themselves with the Shamkhalate of Tarki and its historic capital, and now cultural centre, the village of Tarki. In the Middle Ages the Kumyks had their own feudal states, of which the Shamkhalate of Tarki was the most important. Its centre was in Tarki, where the local Tarkovski ruling dynasty lived. Both the forced resettlement of the Tarki Kumyks in 1944 and the attitude towards them of today’s Russian state has led them to believe that they are the target of concerted attempts to deprive their people of their historical memory.

This is one subject touched on by Khabiy Alkhanadjiyev, co-chair of the Union of Native Kumyk Communities. Alkhanadjiyev stresses the fact that it was only the Tarki communities who were deported on the orders of the Dagestan government, rather than the Soviet authorities. And, he says, the Tarki communities are the only remaining ethnic group in Dagestan to have been refused compensation by the state, which has not returned their property and possessions.

It is worth mentioning that the Tarki Kumyks, who were exiled to the Chechen villages Osmanyurt, Bammatyurt and Bayramayl in the Khasavyurt district, voluntarily handed their houses back to their previous owners when they began to return home in the late 1950s. What’s more, it was their local assembly, not the Dagestan authorities, who took this step.

“Perhaps the authorities have taken this attitude to the Tarki residents because they returned the Chechens’ houses and property, unlike the Laks of the Novolaksky district and the Avars of the Kazbekovsky district, who didn’t,” says Khabii Alkhanadjiyev. “And the Tarki Kumyks returned, after all, to an area where no one expected them and houses that were more or less destroyed. But the main thing was that they lost their land, their previously rich kolkhozes. And now their settlements don’t even have their own local authorities: they’ve turned into powerless appendages of [Dagestan’s capital] Makhachkala.”

The problem in Tarki is further complicated by the fact that back in the 1990s, the Dagestan government decided to resolve the land conflict between the Laks and the Chechens by allocating individual plots of land to Laks in areas that had formerly belonged to the Tarki district. Last year, the Dagestan government reported that it had built more than 3,000 houses for Laks on this land.

The Lak community welcomed this decision from the start and called on the Tarki residents to give up their claims to Karaman. Djabrail Khachilayev, a prominent social activist, declared that “The Laks must be resettled, and the sooner, the better. Half of them are already resettled in the Kumtorkalinsky district. We just have to stop cashing in on the situation and find people who are really engaged in the whole process.”

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Zelimkhan Valiyev at the March 2017 Emergency Congress of the Kumyk people. Source: Youtube / Atakumuk. Zalikhman Valiyev, chair of the Kyakhulai Kumyk community organisation, pointed out that the Tarki group hadn’t given their consent to the Laks’ resettlement. “The residents of the Tarki settlements haven’t agreed to the Laks moving onto our historical lands, and under current legislation that is an important condition,” says Valiyev. “In this situation, the powers that be have brought municipal officials in from our villages and so legitimised the resettlement. Also, in cases like this in the Caucasus, it’s normal to also get the agreement of the clerics, and the Tarki imam has turned down the Laks’ request.”

The active phase of the battle of Tarki’s communities over the reconstruction of their district began in 2012, when the jamaats, religious assemblies, of the Tarki, Kyalukhai and Alburikent suburban settlements occupied the area of Karaman next to their lands (opposite the lands allocated to the Laks for new development), demanded that the Makhachkala and republic-level authorities stop the illegal sale of plots of land and created a protest camp to keep an eye on the situation (it is still functioning today). The mosque, built by the Tarki community with their own hands right in the camp, has become the symbol of the protest.


21 August 2013: the conflict between the Kumyk protest camp at Karaman and law enforcement comes to a head. Source: Youtube / Targu Karaman. The forms taken by the protests gradually diversified. In November 2014, for example, activists wanting to force a decision on the land issue went on a hunger strike. From time to time, the camp was subject to pressure from the authorities, but neither the arrest of its leaders, nor a blockade of its perimeter by armed police, nor attempts to turn members of other ethnic groups laying claim to the same land against the Kumyks had any effect. The “Karaman protest” astounded observers by its immunity from any provocation.

The battle for the plain

The conflict over land came to a head between 2013 and 2017, when Ramazan Abdulatipov led the Republic of Dagestan. It was clear from the start that Abdulatipov had no intention of trying to resolve the issue. One of his first speeches as head of the republic was openly aimed at the protesting Kumyks. Instead of proposing a way to reach a peaceful settlement, Abdulatipov offhandedly remarked that “There are no ethnic lands here.”

And that wasn’t the end of it. Other speeches made by Abdulatipov contained recriminations against the Kumyks. Their leaders had been “caught” making frequent visits to Turkey, they organised congresses in Pyatigorsk and, to cap it all, the new head of Dagestan called on the FSB to pay particular attention to their leaders. In other words, Abdulatipov hinted that the Kumyks’ activism was not a natural reaction to their circumstances, but a sign of their manipulation by Turkey, a country with which they have close cultural links. This was a rather threadbare dig: the subject of “Kumyk pan-Turkists” is often used to discredit Kumyk activism in the eyes of the Kremlin.


Prayer in the Tarki mosque. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.The land situation, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. In the post-Soviet period, uncontrolled migration from mountain areas to the lowlands of Dagestan escalated. Regional legislation on agricultural land permitted mountain municipalities to rent pasture on the plains; however, the pastures somehow turned into entire villages: 200 ghost settlements sprang up on the Kumyk plain alone.

These illegal settlements also somehow acquired public amenities, including a gas supply. Some of them are even in a better state than the local legal villages, where the schools, hospitals and so on are in a much worse condition. In addition, the over-exploitation of land in the north of Dagestan has turned it into an environmental disaster area with increasing signs of desertification.

To add to the problems, the Kumyk population is expanding, with an almost 20% increase in numbers recorded between the last two censuses — one of the highest rates in the whole of Russia. And it’s not just overall figures that are rising: settlements in the Tarki area are also growing. There are now many families in these villages where three or more generations squeeze in under one roof, despite the fact that a “small family” of two, or rarely, three generations is now the norm among Kumyks.

The shortage of land is becoming critical. Any plans by the Dagestan government to remove land from the “Kumyk” settlements in favour, for example, of the towns are immediately shot down by the public. And even the leaders of the “Kumyk” districts frequently refuse to have anything to do with the media or public figures. 

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March 2017, people gather at the Emergency Congress of the Kumyk people. Source: Youtube / Atatkumuk.The leaders of the Karaman protest are popular among the Kumyks, so it’s logical that a new centre of the Kumyk movement is forming here. In March 2017, the Kumyks convoked an Emergency People’s Congress. This event brought together representatives from nearly all their communities, including the Karaman leaders, in response to the republican government’s intention to legalise the “ghost settlements”, which community leaders believe would lead to a reduction in the number of ethnic Kumyks in their traditional lands. After the congress, activists threatened to hold a referendum on Kumyk secession from Dagestan. The explanatory letter sent out by them in advance of the congress also contained a response to the government plans:

“This (the legalisation of the “ghost settlements”) is nothing more or less than a covert prescription to officially merge the lowland areas with the mountain districts, after which the centres of population that have sprung up on the plain would be legalised and given their own local authorities.”

After the Kumyk protests in northern Dagestan, the Nogais, a closely related Turkic people with similar land problems were the next community to take to activism. The congress they held attracted 6,000 people, among them delegates from the Kumyk community.

This noticeable rise of public activity by two Turkic peoples, along with protests by other ethnic groups and constant complaints from Dagestanis about the uselessness of their regional government, contributed to Ramazan Abdulatipov’s forced resignation from his post as regional governor (although officially, the decision was his own).

Vasilyev’s “strong arm”

The Kumyks are quick to talk about the particular discrimination they face from the Dagestani authorities. However their clans, as well as the Avars and Darghins, have traditionally held high office in Dagestan. And, according to residents of Tarki, the Kumyk clans were used by the authorities to break up the Karaman protest, which has led to the Kumyk grassroots movement becoming even more alienated from the clans. At the same time, however, each new regional gubernatorial appointment gives Tarki residents hope that things will change.


Vladimir Vasilyev, former chair of the Russian parliamentary committee on security, who was appointed acting head of Dagestan in October 2017. CC BY 3.0 / Premier.gov.ru. Some rights reserved.This is what happened when Abdulatipov was appointed, before the local population became disillusioned with him. And now it’s happening again, with the appointment of “strongman” Vladimir Vasilyev to the post. Khabiy Alkhanadjiyev believes that the new republican head has seriously declared war on Dagestan’s clans:

“The new government isn’t complete yet, not all the ministers have been appointed. The main agenda is the war on corruption, arrests are continuing. Governance systems in line with the Kremlin’s requirements are being introduced; issues to do with property, gas and electric supplies and so on are being ironed out. That’s the main angle at the moment. The ethnic clans that have had a monopoly on power for many years are regrouping and settling in for a long struggle. They are trying to discredit the new administration, catch it out and use its ignorance of Dagestan’s reality to provoke mass disaffection with the new leadership.”

The Nogai leadership is looking at Dagestan’s new head with the same idea in mind. They recently discussed their current problems with Vladimir Vasilyev.

There is, however, as yet no noticeable progress in the resolution of these problems. Houses owned by supposed terrorists are still being blown up, social activists still attacked (this was what the previous regime was criticised for). Recently, for example, Sirazh Utdin, the local head of the Memorial human rights organisation was beaten up. Dagestan is still not a place where you can lead a normal life.

The first target for Vasilyev’s “strong arm” politics wasn’t the Kumyk clans who wielded power in the area, but ordinary farmers

Nothing has changed for the Kumyks either. The first target for Vasilyev’s “strong arm” politics wasn’t the Kumyk clans who wielded power in the area, but ordinary farmers. On 1 April, the Department for Combating Economic Crimes held a full scale “special operation”. The villagers who experienced it reported that it was intended as a check on the papers required by people who used gas to warm their greenhouses, but that the department’s staff behaved like thugs.

“It’s not the first time they have burst into greenhouses without showing any orders or even introducing themselves,” said the villagers in Ullubiiaul. “And it sometimes even happens at night. If the greenhouse owner isn’t there, they can break the lock or tear the polythene cover. The people in this village work all day in the greenhouses to earn a living and never obstruct any inspections. But what happened on 1 April can’t be seen as just an inspection by a government agency. Unknown people in jeeps and with guns burst into the greenhouses like bandits and when asked to show their ID all they said was, ‘We’re not going to explain ourselves to you; we’ll show our ID to the people who need to see it’.”

The local social networks are full of the news of how these “guests” falsified the evidence that they stole gas. They locked the owner in his greenhouse, attached a pipe from the street to the structure and recorded this “construction” on video. Now the greenhouse owner is threatened with a court case and possible fine of 250,000 roubles (£2,877).

“People asked the strangers to show their ID and introduce themselves, but they refused,” reported the local social media. “They also started a fight, pulled out their guns and started shooting, although the local police were there to protect them. It was only speedy and professional action by the Karabudakhkentsky district police that averted a mass punch-up.”

The local community has now drawn up a letter about the incident to the appropriate authorities. The stand-off with the government continues.


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