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Russia: Study Says Dagestan Does Not Support Chechen Cause

  • Ben Partridge

Three years after the end of the Chechen war, Moscow still faces the dilemma of how to manage the volatile situation in the North Caucasus. A new British study suggests that Moscow's policy so far has not promoted stability in the region. But neither have the Chechens succeeded in attracting their Dagestani neighbors to their cause.

London, 14 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The messy compromise that ended Russia's war in Chechnya in 1996 failed to resolve the underlying conflict. A new study says that Moscow has to face the fact that the failure to achieve workable relations with Chechnya has led to growing instability in the whole northern Caucasus region.

The study is by Anna Matveeva, of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. It appears in the October edition of the institute's monthly journal, The World Today.

The study says the Russian-Chechen compromise implied that Chechnya would act as a de facto independent territory. But it argues that the agreement has resulted in the destabilization of neighboring regions -- particularly Dagestan.

The study says Chechnya wants to expand into Dagestan because increasing its territory would increase its chances of surviving as an independent state. Dagestan has over two million people, access to the Caspian Sea, and a long border with Azerbaijan.

The Chechen militants exploited three political tools, according to the study. They used their ethnic kin across the border as a "fifth column," they started an anti-colonial struggle against Russian domination, and they called for a holy war to produce an Islamic state.

But it argues that ironically, the Chechens, who themselves fought under a nationalist banner, misjudged the power of nationalism in Dagestan. After years of cross-border violence, looting and kidnapping, Dagestani animosity toward the Chechens came to the fore. And far from attracting support, the Chechen-led cross-border attacks in August provoked fury among Dagestanis, who set up self-defense units and demanded weapons from their authorities.

Dagestan -- the largest of the North Caucasian autonomous republics -- is the home to 34 distinct indigenous groups, none of them with a clear majority. As a result, the study argues that Dagestan's government shows "a clear commitment to preserve interethnic peace at all costs."

Fragmentation along ethnic lines means that the Dagestani authorities have to play a constant balancing act to prevent violent conflicts between groups. At the same time, since no group can win on its own, uneasy compromise is inevitable, and is in fact the essence of Dagestan's multiethnic democracy.

Matveeva's study says most ethnic groups in Dagestan have their own leaders -- local strongmen, often with dubious pasts, many of whom have been promoted into positions of formal authority. But their real power derives from their wealth accumulated by controlling economic assets -- often illegal ones -- and their informal standing among ethnic kin.

Such ethnic barons provide arms and ammunition to their clansmen, adding to the overwhelming militarization of the region. When Dagestan came under cross-border threat, these barons came into the open, leading their private armies to confront the invaders, often fighting alongside federal troops commanded by Moscow. The study argues that having acquired legitimacy and an organizational structure, these ethnic barons will probably not fade from the scene once this crisis is past. Russian federal authorities will have to face the prospect that these ethnic barons may become the ruling elite in the north Caucasus when the old party nomenklatura goes.

Still, the study says, the current conflict shows that the majority of Dagestanis are not attracted by radical Muslim politics. They still tend to look to Moscow.

The study adds this: "Given a highly conservative political culture, Moscow is still regarded as a seat of a symbolic, if not real, power." Moscow heavily subsidizes Dagestan's budget, and tends to give the region more money when security threats emerge. The study says: "All in all, fear of being abandoned by Russia is much stronger than resentment of its policies."