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Russia: Dagestan-- What Are The Real Causes Of Ethnic Conflict?

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 12 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting in the Russian region of Dagestan has demonstrated how little is known about the real causes of ethnic conflicts that can lead to war.

Although the press has been quick to label rebel groups as Islamic militants, Western experts say there are few facts to support claims that a fundamentalist or Wahhabi movement is the source of the unrest.

Particular confusion has surrounded the role of Shamil Basayev, a Chechen field commander during the last Caucasus war with Russia, who was asked this week to lead the rebellion in neighboring Dagestan.

Some reports have portrayed Basayev as the leader of armed gangs who have already been in conflict with Chechnya's president, Aslan Maskhadov, and now have crossed into Dagestan to seize villages there.

But Diane Roazen, a U.S. expert who spoke Wednesday by telephone with aides to Basayev in Chechnya, told RFE/RL that the accounts are at odds with information that Basayev met with Maskhadov in a mountainous area last week in an effort specifically aimed at controlling the gangs and ending the lawlessness that has ruled Chechnya since its 20-month war with Russia.

Roazen said that it can be assumed that some of the fighters who served with Basayev in Chechnya are now involved in Dagestan. But she said Basayev is known only to have crossed over into the territory to inspect the situation rather than to take part.

Even less is known about Hattab, a Jordanian-born commander, who is reportedly involved in the taking of Dagestani villages near the border. Hattab does not answer to Basayev, Roazen said. But the link between Basayev and fundamentalism may be particularly suspect as a label of convenience for the press.

Although Basayev held the post of deputy prime minister in the Maskhadov government until last year, he opposed the establishment of sharia, or courts of Islamic justice, in Chechnya.

Roazen said that Basayev's focus has been on independence for the Caucasus, not on religion. She said expressions of Islam can be seen as anti-Russian, but equating rebellion with Wahhabiism is difficult.

It is unclear whether Basayev will lead the rebellion at the invitation of the self-proclaimed Islamic Shura, or council, in Dagestan.

"He will support and be active in the latest movement for an independent Dagestan," Roazen quoted Basayev's aides as saying Wednesday. "But he wants to make it clear he is not supporting Wahhabi movements," she said.

Other experts agree with Roazen that many forces with a variety of interests may be involved in Dagestan, where there are more than 30 ethnic groups and volunteers who have reportedly been joining in the battle against Russian control.

Fiona Hill, a Caucasus expert and associate director of the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, told RFE/RL that the situation has left U.S. officials in the dark.

"I can tell you that the State Department doesn't have a clue," Hill said after speaking with government analysts Wednesday.

The lack of firm intelligence on the conflict in Dagestan, and the differing motives of its combatants, highlights the danger of trying to deal with a situation that has raised security fears.

Hill said that even specialists have been unable to sort out the ethnic frictions, factional conflicts and regional violence since Djokhar Dudaev, the late president of Chechnya and leader of rebel forces, was killed by a Russian missile attack in April 1996.

Because Dudaev held his field commanders together in Chechnya's rebellion against Russia, the issues were relatively simple compared with the causes that have been unleashed in Dagestan now. Some groups seeking a rallying cry may well reach for the banner of fundamentalism, said Hill.

But although the rebels may seek a single leader, it seems too soon to conclude that they will be unified under any one label. If Chechnya is any guide, unity may prove even more elusive after the fighting stops.