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Russia: War In Dagestan Takes Toll On Ordinary Chechens

Russia's conflict with Islamic militants in Dagestan is being watched with concern throughout the region, including in Chechnya. As RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow, many ordinary Chechens fear the fighting will only further complicate their recovery from their own long war with Moscow.

Moscow, 19 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Grozny insist that the events in Dagestan have nothing to do with Chechnya. But ordinary people are already feeling the direct impact of the war taking place just an hour's ride from the Chechen capital.

A decree signed by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has imposed a curfew from 10 pm until 6 am in the republic and banned all media except for state-owned television. The ban is aimed at stations like Kavkaz, which supports the calls of the Islamic separatists fighting in Dagestan to unite the southern Russian republic with Chechnya into an independent Islamic state. So far, the ban shows little sign of taking effect, and Kavkaz continues broadcasting.

That means that ordinary Chechens -- confined to their homes in the evenings -- have plenty of time to sort out what they feel about the struggle of the Islamic militants, who are led by well-known Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Grozny, Khassin Raduyev, says that ordinary Chechens are watching the struggle next door with a mix of emotions -- ranging from fascination to dread -- as it threatens to reignite their own long war with Russia.

Moscow has said it will not hesitate to hit the Islamic militant bases wherever they are, including within Chechnya, and has already carried out bombings strikes on Chechen territory.

Magomed Situyev is a Chechen living near the Dagestani border who has taken in some Chechens fleeing Russian raids. According to him, people are shocked and confused by the proximity of the fighting.

"At the moment, the people are confused. They are looking for a safe place [because] they feel that the war is getting closer. They are unhappy about this. Whatever their opinion, there is a war going on there."

Anti-Russian sentiment flared up after Russia bombed suspected militant positions in Chechnya last Saturday. As another Chechen, Abdul-Khakin Sultygov, told our correspondent, Russian leaders have chosen to label the Islamic militants as "bandits," the same term they previously applied to Chechens. That has only increased many Chechens' sympathies for the militants.

Others say they are not surprised by the conflict in Dagestan and blame Moscow for fanning tensions in the region. Abdullah Molokhadjiev is a school-teacher in the village of Serjen-Yurt. He told RFE/RL that he is exasperated by what he sees as attempts by Moscow to blame the conflict on Chechnya.

"I closely followed the articles in the Dagestan press. And a year ago -- a year and a half ago -- (you) already saw that events were heating up over there and that they were linked to the republic's independence. That's why I wasn't surprised when it all happened. But as usual, Russian politicians are turning everything upside down, accusing the Chechens of all possible sins."

Many Chechens now say they fear to travel in Russia because of what they perceive as a growing anti-Caucasian sentiment provoked by the war in Dagestan.

Meanwhile, Grozny's efforts to ensure the conflict does not spill onto its territory have disrupted the economic prospects of Chechens. After militants spilled into Dagestan from Chechnya, Russia completely locked its border with the republic, cutting off an important trade route. The measure effectively isolates Chechnya, since its borders with Russia's Stavropol region were closed earlier. In Ingushetia, the border is also under very tight control.

Our correspondent says that by practically cutting off Chechnya, these measures are likely to further complicate the efforts of ordinary citizens to survive in the breakaway republic's grim post-war conditions. He says that in the three years of peace since Chechnya expelled Russian forces, many people have managed to get a small business going by traveling to Dagestan and buying goods there to resell in markets in Chechnya. That, he reports, is over now.

What has happened at the big wholesale market in Khassaviurt -- just an hour's drive from Grozny -- illustrates the impact the war has had on the Chechen economy. The market is used as a main shopping area for people who have a car or a truck. But since fighting broke out in Dagestan, prices at the market have jumped out of the reach of many shoppers. The cost of bread has increased from 3 to 5 rubles in a week.

Chechen businessmen can still slip into Dagestan, but only if they pay a heavy bribe to Dagestani police guarding the officially closed border. The bribes range from 400 rubles for a car to 1,000 rubles for a truck. Those willing to pay the bribes pass on the cost to shoppers.

But many others, fearing they won't find enough customers to make their business worthwhile, have simply abandoned the market altogether.