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 503,060 Kumyks living in the Russian Federation. Kumyks live in the plains and the foothills of Dagestan. Part of the Turkic branch of the Uralo-Altaic language family, Kumyk emerged as a lingua franca for the North Caucasians. Although numerically small, the cultural, linguistic, economic and political influence of Kumyks on the region has been great.
Kumyks are mainly Sunni Muslim.
Well into the twentieth century, Kumyks were assimilating other Dagestani peoples (notably Dargins and Avars), and many other groups have shifted over to speak Kumyk.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders of the Kumyk nationalist movement Tenglik (‘Equality’) demanded the creation of a separate Kumyk republic within Dagestan. Clashes also occurred between Dargins and Kumyks. Kumyks emerged as the third most influential ethnic group in Dagestan after the Avars and Dargins, holding the post of prime minister since 1998.
Clashes occurred between Kumyks and Avars in 1997 following the election of an Avar as mayor of Khasavyurt, Dagestan’s second largest town, a post traditionally held by a Kumyk.
Kumyk political influence was not diminished by the accession of an Avar to the presidency of the State Council. The new president, Mukhu Aliev, appointed an ethnic Kumyk, Shamil Zaynalov, as prime minister in February 2006.
Some Kumyks, particularly those associated with Tenglik, continue to advocate territorial autonomy as a means of securing their cultural survival, although in the context of multi-ethnic Dagestan, this proposal remains controversial.
Of the main ethnic groups in Dagestan, only Kumyks have complained of cultural repression by the Dagestan authorities, namely by settling other minority groups from different areas on Kumyks´ traditional lands. Kumyks are distinctly different in their Turkic traditions from other Caucasian peoples who have migrated to their lands, and the gradual loss of their numerical majority in these lands along the Caspian Sea has led to hostility between Kumyks and the newer arrivals.
Kumyk activists have held a number of non-violent protests in order to get the attention of the Russian government and the regional Dagestan government, demanding more autonomy in order to be able to preserve their language and culture. In April 2012, Kumyks set up the protest camp in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, to highlight their concerns of being neglected, discriminated against and driven from their territory. As of yet, their protests have largely been ignored.
Kumyks, along with other ethnic groups, are involved in intersecting ethnic and mafia struggles for political and economic power in Dagestan. Together with knock-on effects from the Chechen conflict, these rivalries account for a dramatic deterioration in the security environment in Dagestan.
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