Regions and territories: Dagestan The Russian Republic of Dagestan, which translates as "land of the mountains", is situated in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus with Chechnya and Georgia to the west, Azerbaijan to the south and the Caspian Sea to the east. So high are its peaks in some places that certain areas are accessible only by helicopter.
Dagestan is home to several dozen Muslim peoples who settled among the high valleys over the centuries and who between them speak over 30 languages.
The Avars form the largest ethnic group and account for about a fifth of the population. A further substantial proportion is made up of Dargins, Kumyks and Lezgins. About 10 per cent are ethnic Russians. There are also Laks, Tabasarans and Nogai, to name but a few of the other significant groups.
The republic's constitution declares the protection of the interests
of all of Dagestan's peoples to be a fundamental principle. It is a delicate balance to maintain.
The republic has oil and gas reserves and also the fisheries potential offered by a share in the resources of the Caspian sea.
However, it is prey to organized crime and regional instability. The crime barons may prosper but the people are amongst the poorest in Russia. They live in the shadow of lawlessness and the threat of violence.
Dagestan was the birth place of Imam Shamil, the legendary fighter who in the 19th century spearheaded fierce resistance by tribesmen of Chechnya and Dagestan to the spread of the Russian empire. The name of Imam Shamil is still revered by many in both republics.
When the Bolsheviks sought to enforce control in the Caucasus in the early 1920s, Dagestan became an autonomous Soviet republic within the Russian Federation.
During the Stalinist period its peoples escaped the mass deportation inflicted on their Chechen neighbours and many others.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the republic's authorities have been regarded as loyal by the Kremlin and as corrupt and incompetent by many elsewhere.
Oil and caviar mafias are reported to flourish. Kidnappings and violence are commonplace. Firearms are ubiquitous and assassinations are a regular event.
Moscow consistently says it sees the hand of Chechen-based separatism as the cause. Others see the roots in lust for profit against a background of lawlessness in a gun culture.
Budennovsk and beyond
Chechen warlords, ever eager to make trouble for Moscow, have openly led armed operations in Dagestan on several occasions.
These attracted international attention for the first time in 1995 and 1996 when Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev crossed the border and seized hundreds of hostages in hospitals in the Dagestani towns of Budennovsk and Kizlyar in the name of the separatist cause.
Scores died and the Kremlin now finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that Basayev and Raduyev got away.
The Muslims of Dagestan, for whom Sufism combined with local tradition is the main faith, have generally been anxious to avoid the conflict that has afflicted Chechnya.
However, in the latter part of the 1990s there were reports that more radical and militant elements, said to be linked with Wahhabism, were acquiring influence. There was tension when two mountain villages near the Chechen border sought to introduce Shari'ah law in 1998.
Violence flared in August 1999 when an Islamic body was reported to have declared an independent state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya and called on Muslims to take up arms against Russia in a holy war. It also called for the arrest of Magomedali Magomedov, the repulic's leader at the time, accusing him of working with the Russians.
Chechen fighters crossed into Dagestan in support. There were fierce clashes with Russian forces but within a couple of weeks the fighting was over. The militants were silenced. This incident contributed heavily to the return of Russian troops to Chechnya.
The republic has seen numerous bombings targeted at the Russian military which has forces stationed at Kaspiysk, Buynaksk and Budennovsk. Scores were killed in 1996 and 1999 in Kaspiysk and Buynaksk when bombs went off near blocks of flats housing Russian officers. Dozens more died in 2002 when bombers targeted a Russian military parade in Kaspiysk.
Russian forces have since been the target of numerous smaller scale attacks. At least 10 died in a bomb blast in the capital, Makhachkala in July 2005. Violence continues, with several people killed in multiple explosions and shootings through 2006.
The Kremlin is not alone in blaming Islamic militants for orchestrating the violence. Many say organized crime is the crucial factor. Clan and political rivalries are seen as another ingredient.
As concerns grow over the volatility of the North Caucasus, lawless Dagestan offers little short-term hope of stability.
Status: Republic within Russian Federation Population: 2.2 million Capital: Makhachkala Area: 50,300 sq km Main religion: Islam Languages: Language rights of many peoples of Dagestan guaranteed by constitution Currency: Rouble Resources: Oil, gas, agriculture, fisheries
President: Mukhu Aliyev
Mukhu Aliyev was nominated for the leadership by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2006. He was confirmed by Dagestan's parliament of which he had previously been chairman.
He is tasked by the Kremlin with countering the rise of Islamic insurgency and bringing stability to the volatile republic.
Mr Aliyev, an ethnic Avar and Dagestan's Soviet-era Communist Party boss, is 65. He replaces Magomedali Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin who resigned on grounds of age at 75.
A former Communist Party official, Mr Magomedov had led Dagestan since the end of the Soviet era.