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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Avars in Russia

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Russia Facts
Area:    17,075,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Moscow
Total Population:    146,881,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Few aspects of the Avars are associated with an increased risk of violence. The group does not have a recent history of violence against the state, has not expressed major grievances and has even enjoyed a relatively privileged relationship vis--vis Moscow. However, the Avars are territorially concentrated, which increases the risk of violence, and the spreading instability from neighboring Chechnya poses a potential problem.

The position of the Avars is one of precarious advantage. While they no longer dominate the local politics of Dagestan, they remain the most powerful ethnic group politically and economically. They still maintain some advantages based on their traditional positions in the hierarchy of the republic, although these positions are now shared with the Dargins and Kumyk. Together, these three groups share the advantages based on their numbers, their unity as a people and their economic positions. To date, Avar leaders have not pressed their advantages and have yielded considerably to the other groups; they have even disbanded the Avar National Movement, Imam Shamil, apparently as a demonstration of their commitment to ethnic harmony. They seem to recognize the necessity of maintaining an ethnic balance in order to avoid a situation like that which led to wars in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Their interests are best served by a stable Dagestan, which can only be maintained if no one group tries to better its position.


Analytic Summary

The Avar are a mountain-dwelling Islamic people who comprise the largest single nationality in the complex autonomous Republic of Dagestan in Russia (GROUPCON = 3; CG2 = 1). They have played a very important role in the North Caucasus for centuries. Historically, they have dominated commercial relations in the region, especially in Dagestan, but in general, compared with Russians in the rest of the country, the Avars are relatively less well off. Also, it was an Avar spiritual leader, Imam Shamil, who led the revolt against Russian expansion into the Caucasus in 1834. For 25 years, he led the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus, Avars, Chechens, Kumyks, Dargins and others in the revolt that was finally put down with his capture in 1859 (AUTLOST = 1). Since then, the Avar have prided themselves on their heritage of resistance, much like their kindred, the Chechens.

The Avar live mainly in the mountains of Dagestan with small settlements in Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, elsewhere in Russia, and Central Asia. They are the largest single ethnic group inside Dagestan, forming a plurality but not a majority (about 30 percent). They are officially the titular group but so are 13 other groups, and there are reports about other groups resenting the dominance of the Avars. The political composition is a broad power-sharing agreement within the republic of different ethnic groups.

Their origins predate the Mongol invasions and even the Arab invasions of the 8th century A.D. After being incorporated into the Golden Horde, the Avar broke from the Mongols and formed the Avar Khanate in the 14th century. This khanate acquired considerable power in the 16th and 17th centuries when many neighboring principalities paid it tribute; but even during this period, tribal loyalties were very strong. It is these tribal loyalties which survive today in Dagestan among the Avar. They are also among the most fiercely loyal to their Muslim faith (BELIEF = 2) and ethnic identity.

The Avar are not Turkic, though their language does have some Turkic influences (as well as Arabic and Persian) (LANG = 1). Among the Avar, over 99 percent speak one of the four mutually intelligible Avar dialects. Only about 60 percent speak Russian as a first or second language. This is probably due to the lack of interest Russia showed in colonizing their mountainous areas. Relatively few Russians live in Dagestan even today and most positions of authority have historically gone to Avars and Dargins. Nevertheless, recently there has been some concern expressed by Avar elites regarding the lack of state support for Avar language (CULGR06 = 2).

As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the Avars formed a national movement named after their famous 19th century leader. The formation of the Imam Shamil movement (Avar National Movement) was in large part a reaction to the creation of Tenglik, a movement representing Kumyk national interests. After a decade of relative inactivity, the Imam Shamil disbanded in December 2000 because "its continued existence could increase the likelihood of clashes between Dagestan's various ethnic groups," according to its leaders. However, when its former leader, Gadzhi Makhachev, was shot in 2003, the "executive committee" of the movement issued a statement asking people not to gather and "create trouble" out of the attempted assassination; this suggests both that the group is still active to some degree and that, at present, it is still committed to maintaining the status quo and overall ethnic harmony in Dagestan.



Barrett, Thomas M. 1994. "The Remaking of the Lion of Dagestan: Shamil in Captivity." The Russian Review 53: 353-366.

Bremmer, Ian and Ray Taras, eds. 1993. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. New York: Cambridge University Press.

King, Charles. 2008. Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1995-2006.

Nupi Centre for Russian Studies. 2000. "Avar."

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Various reports. 2000-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006