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Russia: Is Dagestan A Second Chechnya?

Skirmishes on the border between Dagestan and Chechnya have been going on for months. But the violence that erupted last weekend between Dagestani troops and guerrillas who hope to set up an independent Islamic republic has many believing that Russia may again be on the brink of a prolonged war. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini provides this analysis from Moscow:

Moscow, 11 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin's final comments to his cabinet after being dismissed by President Boris Yeltsin rang like a bad premonition. Stepashin said Monday that "today the situation in Dagestan is very difficult" and that Russia "could really lose Dagestan."

Stepashin had spent his last day as prime minister in Dagestan, where violence escalated all last week, finally erupting in clashes between hundreds of guerrillas invoking Islam and Russian interior ministry troops backed by warplanes. After occupying five villages in the Tsumadin and Botlikh districts bordering Chechnya, the rebels proclaimed an Islamic republic and declared a holy war [Jihad] to liberate Dagestan from Russia. According to Russian and Dagestani officials, the guerrillas had crossed the border from Chechnya under the command of two Chechen warlords -- Shamil Basayev and a Jordanian-born man known as Khattab.

The violence in Dagestan escalated at a time when Moscow and Grozny are trying to set a meeting between Yeltsin and the Chechen president, Aslan Mashkadov. A moderate, Mashkadov denied at a Grozny press conference yesterday Chechnya's participation in the guerrilla raids in Dagestan:

"There are no Chechens there. Maybe a few who lost their way. I say this officially."

Dagestani officials last week admitted that Dagestanis based in Chechnya were involved in the guerrillas' incursions. Now they accuse the Chechens of seeking to destabilize their republic. The head of the Dagestani parliament, Muzu Aliev, insisted to reporters that the people of Dagestan do not support the idea of an Islamic republic.

"That's nonsense. If the Dagestan people were on [the side of the guerrillas], they wouldnt be in two or three localities, but would have taken over other parts long ago. A second Chechnya cannot start [in the occupied villages] because we will never let someone else occupy our territory. The people that think that way don't know Dagestan's history. You can look it up in any textbook." If the guerrillas' precise ethnic origin remains unclear, their aim is surely to undermine Russian influence in the region. According to Magomed Tolbuev, the former head of the Dagestani Security Council, "their objective is to push Dagestan out of the Russian Federation."

The fact that Chechen warlord Basayev was proclaimed chief of what was called the "united mujaheddin forces of Dagestan" reinforces these suppositions. Basayev has often spoken about his designs on Dagestan. Head of a Council of the People of Chechnya and Dagestan, Basayev promoted the unification of the two republics, independent from Russia. The Russian weekly "Kommersant Vlast" quoted Basayev recently as telling his followers that they "don't need the independence of Chechnya but [rather] the independence of the entire North Caucasus."

In addition, Chechen promoters of the unification idea count on an independent -- and Chechnya-friendly -- Dagestan to strengthen their own influence throughout the region. The merger would also give Chechnya access to the Caspian Sea, freeing it of its status as a land-locked enclave.

Dagestan's dire economic situation and 70-percent unemployment rate are also important factors. In addition, the republic's complex ethnic patchwork -- with over 70 groups represented -- makes for a complex and volatile political context.

Dagestan's recent history has been quite difficult. The collapse of the Soviet system toppled its fragile institutional equilibrium. Traditionally, the main ethnic minorities took turns at high government posts. But since elections a year ago, one single minority is now trying to install itself as the ruling elite. And the economic upheavals of recent years also undercut power-sharing agreements among various clans in the main profitable sectors, such as oil, caviar, alcohol -- and contraband and drugs.

Nikolai Petrov, regional expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, spoke today with RFE/RL about the main reasons for the unrest in Dagestan. "At the moment," he says, "Dagestan is divided by conflict. First, the conflicts among clans for economic control. Second, the conflict between a new and an old elite seeking political influence."

Also, Petrov points out, Dagestan lives off subsidies from Moscow. But, he adds, with Moscow's financial resources dwindling, it cannot keep pouring money into the region to uphold its stability. His analysis continues: "Most of the population lives in extreme poverty and is becoming increasingly intolerant about widespread state corruption. This may explain why some appear to be turning to the ideas of Islam. They hope to find in them a cleaner, superior way of running the country."

So are Stepashin's fears about losing Dagestan, as Russia lost Chechnya, well-founded? According to some analysts, Dagestan's multi-ethnic profile makes it very unlikely that its different ethnic groups could unite to wrestle independence from Moscow. Petrov believes that, "in Dagestan, the risk of the region exploding in an uncontrollable cauldron is higher than a possible secession from Russia."

According to Petrov, too, the unrest in Dagestan and in other parts of the Russian Caucasus, such as Ingushetia and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, is the result of Moscow's weakness. The events in this region, he says, are "the consequence of the general weakening of Moscow's power." He says that "When the center is busy with a permanent war for power, there is no regional strategy. It is only natural," Petrov concludes, "that places where the social and ethnic context are very complex are the first to suffer" from the lack of a regional strategy in Moscow.