To Reach Caspian's Crude, the West Must Walk Across Shards of Empires

Every day he climbs the ladder onto the balcony off the main town square and sits down in a small, high-ceilinged office. Here, Agasi Ibiev publishes a newspaper in a language that no one in town actually speaks.

Most citizens of this mountain town are Dargins, one of more than 30 nationalities that have lived in the isolated valleys of Dagestan for millennia and speak languages that are mostly mutually unintelligible. So naturally Mr. Ibiev publishes The Kaitag Peasant in Dargin.

But even among Dargins, each fold in these vast mountains has evolved a dialect as different from the next as French is from Italian. The only written form of Dargin is in fact the dialect of those Dargins who live a few valleys over. Local Dargins, who call themselves Kaitags, can't understand it.

Roughly the size and population of West Virginia, with the same steep gorges and roaring streams, Dagestan is an ancient ethnic and linguistic mosaic that makes the Balkans look as homogeneous as a Levittown suburb. These are the tattered shards of empires: Huns, Persians, Turks, Arabs, and Russians have gnashed their teeth against the fierce and egalitarian peoples that inhabit these mountains.

And a pipeline runs through it.

The only existing pipeline from the main oil terminal on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, now swarming with Houston-accented oil-seekers opening up what could be the largest oil-and-gas reserves outside the Persian Gulf, runs through Dagestan and neighboring Chechnya on its way to Western markets.

Since the collapse of the regional economy, law and order, and the Soviet Union, the national differences in the Caucasus have become much more volatile, splintering into ever more obscure slivers of ethnic autonomy. Chechnya has fought a war of independence from Russia that ended ambiguously. Abkhazia has broken violently away from Georgia. Armenia has seized mostly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. None of these are settled issues yet.

Keeping the peace among the multitude of micronationalities of Dagestan has become a delicate business.

"We can't exclude becoming like the Balkans," says Magomed Khachalayev, a prominent Dagestani leader and head of a council that includes representatives of all the major nationality groups. In a republic where crime and corruption have escalated, kidnappings for ransom are common, bombings run to several a week, and young people have very few legitimate economic prospects, "we have a social disaster," says Mr. Khachalayev.

With this kind of tension, he says, "sometimes even criminal actions can become ethnic issues." He recently returned from a nearby region, for example, where he helped end a mafia vendetta that threatened to escalate into a war between nationalities.

Counterbalancing cultures

Dagestanis, in fact, don't use the American model of mix-and-match blending into a universal culture. They balance groups. In this mountain town, for example, the differences are sharp and centuries-old, but have never taken on a hostile edge.

Most of them are Kaitag Dargins, who speak a language unrelated to any known tongue outside the Caucasus. The rest are Kumyks, who speak a language that is an ancient cousin of Turkish, and a few families of mountain Jews, who speak a form of Persian.

Since the head of the administration and the local prosecutor are Dargins, the town sought a Kumyk to be deputy head of administration. These kinds of balances are critical. And they are matched in nearly every city office here.

Problems of group representation are most often behind erupting tensions. In the majority Chechen city of Khasavyurt, several major ethnic groups lodged protests in May when an Avar was sworn in as head of administration. This appointment played to popular perceptions that Avars and Dargins always win more clout than others.

In Majolis, Dagestan, says deputy head Zulpikhar Zubailov, you might see a schoolyard fight, even between two brothers, "but three Dargins against three Kumyks? Never."

The narrowness of the nationality groups here leads to an odd blend of internationalism and backward isolation.

There are 14 different nationalities, each speaking very different, if related, languages. Consider the 5,000 to 10,000 people in the Ando-Tsezy group, for example. As a lingua franca among themselves, they speak Avar. But for commerce with non-Avar Dagestanis, they have traditionally spoken Kumyk. Now nearly everyone in Dagestan speaks Russian as a second language.

Likewise, editor Ibiev grew up speaking Kaitag Dargin, learned literary Dargin in primary school, and Russian from fifth grade on. But his father also sent all the children to live with Kumyks for three months so they would learn that language as well.

This richness of language is not quite the treasure trove it might be, however. For one thing, it's very hard for anyone here to read The Kaitag Peasant, except for the page printed in Russian.

"I can read Dargin only with difficulty. I can only get the essence," says the town director of architecture and engineering, Jamaludin Aliev, a Kaitag Dargin.

Sitting directly across from Mr. Aliev, Zyavudin Kakhromanov has a similar problem. He is a Kumyk, but can barely read Kumyk because the only written form is based on a different dialect.

In the Middle Ages, Kaitag was written in an Arabic script, says Ibiev, although no literature of any kind exists in the language. "We have no writers, artists, poets. We consider ourselves sort of humiliated."

Very little literature exists in Dargin, for that matter, which is one reason young Kaitag Dargins find it easier to learn Russian - with its vast literature and popular media - than literary Dargin.

Post-Soviet tensions

Caucasian people have lived in these parts for at least 8,000 years, and a parent version of the Caucasian language is thought to have covered a much wider part of the world, according to Sergei Arutyunov of the Institute of Ethnology at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Ancient Etruscan, once spoken in what is now central Italy, may even have been related to Caucasian.

But peoples, culture, and language have long since retreated to these mountains and held their own from the heights. The mountaineers defied feudal lords that ruled the lowlands in the Middle Ages. They learned to govern themselves through consensus. Stability was achieved through a balance of power between clans. The main tool of social justice was the vendetta, which is still prone to escalate into blood feuds.

Ethnic tensions in Dagestan today, says Khachalayev, have their roots in the "Great Russia nationalism" in Slavic Russia. "It is poisoning the small nations," he says, by treating them as second class to ethnic Russians.

"If you're not fair to other nations, you will not be fair within your own nation," he says, and the nation will fall apart. Look at the great Mongols, he adds. "They had a great empire, but who are the Mongols today?"

* Monday: Piping Caspian oil to the West.

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