Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 912,090 Avars in the Russian Federation. Avars are a mountain people and are numerically the largest community in Dagestan. Small populations of Avars also reside in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The Avar people were constituted as a singular ‘official’ nationality from a large variety of culturally related local groups in the 1930s. Avars in Dagestan inhabit primarily mono-ethnic districts. Traditionally Avars have played a pre-eminent role in the delicate, informal power-sharing system between the many ethnic groups in Dagestan. This system has successfully contained a number of traditional rivalries, for instance, that between Caucasian highlanders, such as the Avars, and Turkic lowlanders. An example is the repeated rejection in three post-Soviet referenda in Dagestan that would have established a presidency, an institution that would concentrate power in the hands of one ethnic group over others. Avars played a central role in blocking the introduction of a presidency, which would have diminished their numerical advantage.
Instead, Dagestan’s 1993 Constitution provides for a collective presidency, known as the State Council, composed of 14 members, one from each of Dagestan’s 14 official titular nationalities – including Avars. Although the chairmanship of the State Council was originally intended to be a post rotating between ethnic groups, it was abolished in 1998 in recognition of the de facto control over the chairmanship of an ethnic Dargin. To balance Dargin influence, an ethnic Kumyk prime minister was appointed and an ethnic Avar as parliamentary speaker. In 2003 Dagestan’s Constitution was amended to allow for direct presidential elections, an amendment later rendered obsolete by President Putin’s abolishment of directly elected heads of federation subjects.
In 1990 an Avar National Movement was formed to counter the influence of a parallel Kumyk organization, Tenglik. In May 1993 clashes over disputed territory in the mountains broke out between Avars, Laks, and Chechens. The Avar National Movement was disbanded in 2000.
Competition between Avars and Dargins for political influence continued in subsequent years. In the summer of 2005, for instance, the Avar mayor, Saidpasha Umukhanov, of Dagestan’s second largest town Khasavyurt organized protests against the Dargin chair of the State Council. Umukhanov also headed the Northern Alliance, an Avar-dominated group opposed to the Dargin political elite.
According to reliable reports, Avars are among those communities in Dagestan more influenced by Islamic religious revival and the spread of Wahhabism in Dagestan. Dagestan has been extremely vulnerable to spill-over from conflict in neighbouring Chechnya: bombings and ‘anti-terrorist’ operations have been common.
Avars, along with other larger ethnic groups in Dagestan, are involved in intersecting ethnic and mafia rivalries for political and economic power in the republic. These rivalries have also fuelled further insecurity in Dagestan. In June 2017, for instance, conflict broke out between ethnic Avars and Chechens in the southwest of the region.
Avar community members have launched a number of initiatives in recent years to promote their culture and language. In April 2011, for instance, Avar representatives announced the creation of the Avar National and Cultural Autonomy, established to maintain Avar culture, language and traditions. The next year saw the launch by Avar activists of various internet and television services in their native language. The project, ‘Avar TV’, was partly financed by the Avar National and Cultural Autonomy and by the contributions received from local authorities, civil society and local businessmen. In January 2013, it started to broadcast from its local office in Makhachkala.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs