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Russia: Anniversary Of Daghestan Incursions Prompts Blame

  • Sophie Lambroschini

President Vladimir Putin says Russian authorities themselves are at least partly to blame for the Chechen war. It's been a year now since rebels incursions into the Russian republic of Daghestan provided a pretext for the military campaign, and a victory by Russian forces looks as elusive as ever. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 4 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago this week (August 2), Chechen rebels first launched incursions into the neighboring Russian republic of Daghestan.

The attacks prompted Russian authorities to declare their own kind of holy war, saying Russia was in danger of crumbling to pieces if tough actions were not taken. Chechen rebels launched large-scale attacks in the republic a week later and Russia was at war in the region for a second time in five years.

But after 12 months of fighting, the results are mainly countable in losses, not gains: 200,000 refugees, several thousand dead Russian soldiers (the Russians say 2,585, the Chechens say more than double that), and thousands more civilian casualties. Control of Grozny is still uncertain. Residents of Daghestan are still at risk from Chechen attacks.

Against this far-from-victorious backdrop, President Vladimir Putin spoke on Thursday in the western Russian city of Pskov at a memorial service to the town's paratrooper division, which was nearly wiped out by rebels earlier this year. In his tribute to the dead soldiers, he admitted the war had been costly but said the soldiers' sacrifice had not been made in vain.

He also placed some of the blame for the war on the Russian authorities themselves. He said officials had been unprepared for the attacks:

"The fact that [the attacks] came as a surprise to the major part of the population is our fault -- the country's authorities, the armed forces, law-enforcement organs."

RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, a reporter with long experience in the North Caucasus, agrees with the assessment that Russian authorities are at least partly to blame for the war. He says the biggest mistake they made was ignoring the obvious signs of the rebels' intentions.

"It seems to me that if a little more attention had been given to journalists' reports, to the rumors, then the raids by Chechens on Daghestan would never have come as a surprise. [The attacks] were designs that had been prepared for several years and were carried out according to plan. And most importantly, completely openly."

Babitsky, who was later arrested by Russian authorities for his candid reports of atrocities in the war, points out that Movladi Udugov, a Chechen leader, never concealed his intention to create an Islamic state spreading from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

"If you remember, every month there was some announcement about the supposed date on which the Chechens would attack Daghestan. All the border districts were on guard, waiting for the zero hour. Also, Movladi Udugov never disguised his intentions. He spoke openly about a revolution in Dagestan and that the Chechens would support it. Speaking about his organizational skills but not his aims, he successfully organized common Chechen-Daghestani Wahabbi structures that worked in Chechnya and in Daghestan. They held congresses. No one hid anything. In addition to that, the Russian troops assigned to the borders [of Chechnya with] Daghestan and Stavropol were constantly attacked." The anniversary of the Daghestan attacks has revived popular speculation that it was Russian officials -- and not the rebels -- who were behind a series of apartment bombings that came about a month after the initial attacks. The bombings, in which more than 300 people died, ultimately galvanized public opinion in favor of the military action in Chechnya.

Some reports alleged at the time that the bombings had been staged to consolidate Russian society behind the authorities ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

But Babitsky says such a conspiracy is unlikely. He says it is more likely that the authorities were simply able to turn the war to their own advantage and rally people behind the tough-talking Putin.