The Russian Republic of Dagestan, which translates as “land of the mountains”, is situated in Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus with Chechnya and Georgia to the west, Azerbaijan to the south and the Caspian Sea to the east.
So high are its peaks in some places that certain areas are accessible only by helicopter. The republic is also famed for its ethnic and linguistic diversity, being home to more than 30 languages.
Several dozen Muslim peoples have settled among the high valleys over the centuries.
The Avars form the largest ethnic group and account for about a fifth of the population. A further substantial proportion is made up of Dargins, Kumyks and Lezgins. About 10 per cent are ethnic Russians. There are also Laks, Tabasarans and Nogai, to name but a few of the other significant groups.
The republic’s constitution declares the protection of the interests of all of Dagestan’s peoples to be a fundamental principle. It is a delicate balance to maintain, in what is Russia’s most ethnically diverse province.
The republic has oil and gas reserves and also the fisheries potential offered by a share in the resources of the Caspian sea. However, it is prey to organized crime and regional instability. The crime barons may prosper but the people are amongst the poorest in Russia.
Dagestan was the birth place of Imam Shamil, the legendary fighter who in the 19th century spearheaded fierce resistance by tribesmen of Chechnya and Dagestan to the spread of the Russian empire. His name is still revered by many in both republics.
When the Bolsheviks sought to enforce control in the Caucasus in the early 1920s, Dagestan became an autonomous Soviet republic within the Russian Federation. During the Stalinist period, its peoples escaped the mass deportation inflicted on their Chechen neighbours and many others.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the republic’s authorities stayed loyal to Russia, but the region became infamous for its lawlessness and corruption. Organised crime is reported to flourish and kidnappings and violence are commonplace. Firearms are ubiquitous and assassinations are a regular event.
Moscow blames much of this on Chechen-based separatism, but others say lust for profit, combined with a gun culture, is the root cause.
Budennovsk and beyond
In the 1990s, separatist warlords from neighbouring Chechen openly led armed operations in Dagestan on several occasions. In 1995 and 1996, they seized hundreds of hostages in hospitals in the Dagestani towns of Budennovsk and Kizlyar. Scores died in the attacks.
Dagestan’s Muslims, who tend to follow sufism combined with local tradition, generally steered clear of Chechen-style separatism, but after the late 1990s, radical and militant elements said to be linked with the more fundamentalist wahhabist tendency began to gain in influence.
In August 1999, an Islamic body declared an independent state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya, and called on Muslims to take up arms against Russia in a holy war.
Chechen fighters crossed into Dagestan in support, but within a few weeks, Russian forces had suppressed the insurrection.
The republic has seen numerous bombings targeted at the Russian military stationed in the republic.
Russia accused Dagestani militant Magomed Vagabov of being behind an attack on the Moscow metro by two female suicide bombers from Dagestan in March 2010, in which 39 people died. In August 2010, Russian forces killed Vagabov in Dagestan.