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Russia: Kovalyov Warns Of Interethnic Tension In Dagestan

An incident today in which Dagestanis blocked Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov from entering Dagestan to meet with authorities there illustrates some of the rage felt against Chechens in Dagestan. As RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow, discrimination against Dagestani Chechens could unleash ethnic tensions within Dagestan.

Moscow, 29 September 1999 (RFE/RL) - Perhaps Russian authorities shouldn't bask too much in their apparent victory over Chechen-led guerrillas in Dagestan. Russian human-rights activist Sergei Kovalyov visited the area in the past few weeks and has returned with a strong warning.

Kovalyov says that if authorities are not careful they might not be able to contain growing ethnic tension in the region. Dagestanis --angry at the Chechen-led incursions into their province-- have been discriminating against the Akkin Chechens, a branch of the Chechen people living in Dagestan.

Kovalyov and other members of the human-rights group Memorial spent 10 days in Dagestan. At a press conference yesterday, they said they had witnessed dozens of cases of violence or looting against Akkin Chechens. The head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, told RFE/RL that in some villages he visited smoke was still rising from half-burnt Chechen houses. Memorial collected testimony from Akkin Chechens who said they had been abused by Laks, the dominant ethnic group in Dagestan.

In one such incident, Chechen residents of a border village were confronted by a local Dagestani militia. Wearing ski masks and carrying automatic rifles, the militia members ordered the Akkins to leave their homes. When the Chechens came back the next day, their houses had been looted and partly destroyed. Orlov says the discrimination against the Akkins stems from several myths exacerbated by difficult post-war conditions.

The Akkin Chechens are kin to Chechens in nearby Chechnya, but they live further east, in the Aukh region, now renamed the Novolak district of Dagestan. Chechen extremists claim the Novolak district as their own land.

During World War II, the Akkins were deported by Stalin along with the other Chechens, and their lands were re-populated by another Dagestani minority, the Laks. In the 1960s, when the Chechens were allowed to return, they found their houses occupied by Laks. Many Akkins settled nearby, but the territorial claims still simmer.

Because of this history, when the Chechen led-fighters entered the region at the beginning of September, many Laks thought the Akkin Chechens might support the fighters. But that fear was unfounded. All parties confirm that the Akkins stood up against the rebels as much as their Laks neighbors.

Orlov said the Laks were using the Akkin Chechens as a scapegoat. They could not attack the Chechen-led militants, so they attacked their own Chechen neighbors instead. In Orlov's words: "Many of the Dagestanis we saw were burning with hatred against the guerrillas spilling in from Chechnya and invading their lands. But the guerrillas withdrew before many Dagestanis even set their eyes, let alone their hands, on them. Yet they have these other Chechens, living just down the street."

Sergei Kovalyov was especially alarmed by the local Dagestani authorities' failure to stop the violence against Akkin Chechens. He said the authorities are treating the Akkins as potential insurgents.

"The authorities in Dagestan are attempting to prevent the instigation of inter-ethnic conflict. But, to put it very mildly, these same authorities demonstrate a suspicion based on ethnic criteria that really doesn't coincide with the law. Their alertness borders on discrimination."

But Orlov said the Dagestani central authorities have sent delegations to the area to ensure equal treatment for the Akkins. And Dagestani leader Mahomedali Mahomedov warned that Dagestanis must not discriminate against Akkins. Mahomedov says it would be extremely dangerous to divide the country between --in his phrase-- "ours and theirs."

Still, Orlov notes that the violence against Akkins is just one of the many problems in Dagestan. Tens of thousands of Dagestanis lost their homes in the fighting, and discontent is growing.