Chechnya and Dagestan are Not the Same Thing: A Brief Look at Conflict in the Caucasus

Ingrid Pederson

This article originally appeared in the Central Eurasia Standard on April 19, 2013.

The Boston Bomber suspects may be Chechen and lived at one time in Dagestan. These are not the same places. We don’t know anything else about the suspects, and they have/had lived in America for a very long time as well. But since Chechnya and Dagestan are all over the news now, here’s the very basics of what you should know about the ongoing conflicts in these regions.

This post is not speculating on the guilt or motivations of the suspects. You can get all of that from other sources. Since these two conflicts have just been hurled forward into the public eye, this is a quick catch-up. We are in no way implicating the regions or ethnic groups from these regions in the crimes committed. We are simply trying to shed light on the complex history of the regions so people can better understand them before conflating them with other parts of the world that are associated, rightly or wrongly, with extremism.

Chechnya and Dagestan are NOT the same place. Both are republics within Russia in the Northern Caucasus regions, south of Moscow and north of Georgia (Pictures to come later).

To reiterate: these are two separate territories, with many different conflicts, insurgencies and militant groups. Both countries have separatist conflicts (to gain full independence from Russia) and both countries experienced violence related to Islamism.

This is a complicated region and not suited to generalization. Dagestan is one of the most ethnically heterogeneous regions in the world and the most diverse republic in the Russian territories with at least 10 different groups claiming to be indigenous to the region and 30 spoken languages. Chechnya is more homogeneous, with a 2010 Russian census placing the ethnic make up to be 95{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} Chechen, followed by ethnic Russians.

Chechnya actually invaded Dagestan in 1999 in an effort to support a local separatist movement. This launched the 2nd Chechen War – leading us into the complex conflicts in Chechnya and Dagestan.

These are primarily local conflicts, rooted in separatism from Russia.

Background on Chechen conflict: Although officially an autonomous republic within Russia, Chechnya has consistently defied Russian rule. Chechnya was first taken by force by Russia in 1858. During the Soviet Stalin years hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Ingushetians (another ethnic group in the region) were deported to Siberia for supposed ties to Nazi fascists. Thousands perished in the process. In 1957, Khrushchev re-established the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic and allowed the indigenous populations to return.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the republic again sought to secure its independence from Russian control, adopting its own constitution. Shortly thereafter in 1994, Russia invaded killing up to 100,000 Chechens, many of whom were civilians, women and children. In 2000, under Putin’s rule Russia captured Grozny (the Chechen capital) and declared it to officially be under Moscow’s rule. The 2000s saw a series of terrorist strikes followed by Russian retaliations ending in “normalization” in 2009 under Medvedev’s presidency.

Background on conflict in Dagestan: Conflict in Dagestan has been brutal for decades. It is related to corruption, separatism, and Islamism. As previously mentioned, though Dagestani authorities attempted to prevent the turbulence seen in Chechnya, there was violent spillover when Chechen militants invaded in 1999. Though Chechnya is quieter now, Dagestan is considered Russia’s secret war, but there are near-daily attacks by militants on police or vice versa. Russian counter-terrorism operations occur regularly. The reports from Dagestan, which are scarce, indicate that the territory is increasingly struggling with Islamist insurgency, but it cannot be seperated from anger at Moscow and local authorities over pervasive corruption, human rights violations and ties to criminal organizations. To call the conflict in Dagestan merely an ‘Islamist’ conflict is to gravely oversimplify the issue:

“Instead of reforming the court system, so independent courts could prosecute those who abduct and execute people in this part of Russia, Moscow assigns thugs, men known for their criminal background, to leading positions at security agencies, who pay million-dollar kickbacks to the insurgency in order to save their lives,” said Gagzhimurad Omarov, a former member of parliament from Dagestan who stepped down last fall and has now joined the opposition. It’s a paradox that Moscow refuses to address. At the same time Putin has declared a zero-tolerance policy for militant activity in Dagestan, the officials he has appointed are paying protection money to the insurgency, which has often targeted Russian officials.(From Foreign Policy’s Anna Nemtsova, linked above)

The main takeaway? Do not make any assumptions about these regions or the people in them – so few people truly understand them, including ourselves.


Ingrid Pederson co-founded Central Eurasia Standard in June 2012 to bring news and analysis of Central Asia and the Caucasus to foreign policy watchers trying to learn more about the region. She has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, where she focused on conflict related to energy security.