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Russia: Dagestan Rebels' Aims, Moscow's Plans Remain Unclear

  • Liz Fuller

Prague, 12 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Islamic militants under the command of former acting Chechen premier Shamil Basayev and maverick field commander Khottab last Sunday crossed the border between Chechnya and Dagestan and occupied several villages in the mountainous Botlikh Rayon.

Three days later, the self-styled Islamic Shura (Council) of Dagestan issued a statement in Grozny declaring an independent Islamic state in Dagestan. Both those developments had been predicted months earlier by Dagestani leaders and Russian intelligence. Depending on Moscow's response, they could develop into a serious threat both to political stability in Dagestan and to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

Some politicians in both Moscow and Makhachkala are clearly aware of that danger. Leaving the capital of Dagestan on last Sunday after emergency consultations with the republic's leadership, then Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin warned that "We could lose Dagestan." The following day, Dagestan State Council speaker Magomedali Magomedov admitted that the republic's authorities had failed to respond in good time to the threat of attack from Chechnya, calling for the swift creation of volunteer self-defense units. Whether such units, which are reportedly being armed mostly with hunting rifles, will prove able to repel highly trained and motivated guerrillas armed with grenade-launchers and anti-tank weapons is questionable.

The apparent reluctance of the Russian defense establishment to make serious contingency plans for a crisis in Dagestan is both alarming and puzzling.

Rumors of a planned attack on Dagestan by armed forces subordinate to the Congress of Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan have been circulating at least since late 1998. The Congress was formed in April 1998 with the proclaimed aim of creating an independent Islamic state comprising Chechnya and Dagestan.

Dagestan's Interior Minister Adilgirey Magomedtagirov said in May that the republic's leadership takes seriously rumors of a planned attack by Chechen militants. Concern mounted in recent months as raids from Chechen territory on Interior Ministry and border posts along the Chechen-Dagestan border became increasingly frequent. But Stepashin and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo downplayed the threat posed by those incursions, ascribing them to "bandits" whom they pledged to eradicate.

Both men ruled out a new war in the North Caucasus. Russian Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin in early July ruled out preemptive strikes against the militants' bases in Chechnya. The reasons for Moscow's reluctance to launch such preemptive strikes -- whether because of disagreements within the top leadership, excessive caution, underestimating the danger, or lack of strategic thinking -- is unclear.

Russian commentators have advanced varying explanations for the intensifying hostilities along the Chechen-Dagestan border. Some observers believe Moscow is behind those clashes, suggesting that some Russian ruling circles are deliberately promoting instability in the North Caucasus to create a pretext for imposing a state of emergency and postponing the State Duma elections scheduled for 19 December. But President Yeltsin said on Tuesday that one of the main reasons for his replacement of Stepashin as prime minister by Putin was to prevent destabilization in the runup to that poll.

A second theory is that the fighting is aimed at thwarting the long-planned meeting between Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, at which the latter may make serious concessions to Moscow over the renegade republic's future status vis-a-vis the federal center.

Such an agreement, if it were accompanied by measures to strengthen Maskhadov's authority, could lead to a resumption of exports of Caspian oil via Chechnya. Some Russian observers say that such exports are not in the interests of "some influential circles in a number of Near and Middle Eastern states" who are believed to support the Islamic insurgents in Chechnya and Dagestan.

A third possibility is that the fighting does indeed mark the beginning of a serious attempt by the Chechen opposition to Maskhadov and a handful of Islamic radicals from Dagestan to seize power. Interfax last week (5 August) quoted an unidentified Russian intelligence source as predicting that the radicals will take hostages in Makhachkala to pressure the republic's leaders to resign. It's worth noting that Basayev first achieved notoriety as a result of his masterminding of the June 1995 hostage-taking in the south Russian town of Budennovsk. If such a move is in the militants' approved scenario, then the current skirmishes on the border with Chechnya could merely be a stratagem to tie down Russian forces as far as possible from the capital. And last year's occupation by Nadirshakh Khachilaev's forces of the government building in Makhachkala may have been a practice round for a more serious move.

What remains unclear is precisely how strong the armed forces of the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan are, and what support they can count on from the Dagestani population. Basayev can count on the 100,000 so-called Akkin Chechens, whose traditional homeland was part of Chechnya until 1921 when it was transferred to Dagestan. And most of the population of Botlikh Rayon, the scene of the present fighting, belong to an ethnic group closely related to the Chechens.

Calculating the number of potential sympathizers on religious grounds is equally problematic. Some 10 percent of Dagestan's 2.2 million population are estimated by Russian observers to be "Wahhabists," but this term fails to differentiate between militant radicals and the tens of thousands of other Muslims who simply prefer a truly godly, righteous, and sober life to the occasional pro forma observance of Muslim rites.

Profound dissatisfaction with the current Dagestani leadership certainly exists. But that resentment derives primarily from the leadership's virtual monopoly on economic activity and its efforts to exclude the smaller of the republic's 34 ethnic groups from leading positions to the benefit of the Avars, Dargins and Kumyks. Those ethnic groups account for 27 percent, 15.5 percent and 12.9 percent of the total population.

If observers' prognoses of the militants' plans are accurate, calculations of the probable degree of support within Dagestan for a coup orchestrated from Chechnya are irrelevant. In that case, Moscow's success in retaining control of Dagestan is likely to depend on the ability of the Russian military and interior ministry forces to preempt guerrilla strikes in Makhachkala. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported today that 1,000 Russian Interior Ministry troops had been sent to Makhachkala yesterday "to conduct special operations."