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Caucasus Report: August 12, 1999

12 August 1999, Volume 2, Number 32

Incompetence Meets Conspiracy Theory As Moscow Confronts Crisis In Daghestan. On 7 August, Islamic militants under the command of former acting Chechen premier Shamil Basaev and maverick field commander Khottab crossed the border between Chechnya and Daghestan and occupied several villages in the mountainous Botlikh Raion. Three days later, the self-styled Islamic Shura (Council) of Daghestan issued a statement--in Grozny--declaring an independent Islamic state in Daghestan. Both those developments had been predicted months earlier by Daghestani leaders and Russian intelligence and could, depending on Moscow's response, develop into a serious threat both to political stability in Daghestan and to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

Some politicians in both Moscow and Makhachkala are clearly aware of that danger. Leaving the capital of Daghestan on 8 August after emergency consultations with the republic's leadership, then Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin warned that "we could lose Daghestan." And the following day, Daghestan State Council speaker Magomedali Magomedov admitted that the republic's authorities had failed to respond in good time to the threat of attack from Chechnya, calling for the swift creation of volunteer self-defense units. Whether such units, which are reportedly being armed mostly with hunting rifles, will prove able to repel highly trained and motivated guerrillas armed with grenade-launchers and anti-tank weapons is, however, questionable.

The apparent failure of the Russian defense establishment to make serious contingency plans for a crisis in Daghestan is both alarming and puzzling, given that rumors of a planned attack on Daghestan by armed forces subordinate to the Congress of Peoples of Chechnya and Daghestan have been circulating at least since late 1998. (Basaev formed that organization in April 1998 with the proclaimed aim of creating an independent Islamic state comprising Chechnya and Daghestan.) In November 1998, for example, "Parlamentskaya gazeta" reported that Khottab was training volunteers from Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Ukraine at bases in Chechnya to that end.

That paper named as the organizers of the planned assault on Daghestan former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Khottab, and Magomed Tagaev, whom Russian commentators describe as the ideologue of radical Islamism in the North Caucasus. Nadirshakh Khachilaev, former chairman of the Union of Muslims of Russia, and his brother, Magomed, were said to be coordinating plans for the seizure of government buildings in Makhachkala. Nadirshakh Khachilaev fled Daghestan for Chechnya in September 1998 after the Russian Prosecutor-General's office issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with the storming in May by armed units loyal to him of the government building in Makhachkala (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21-22 May 1998).

Daghestan's Interior Minister Adilgirey Magomedtagirov said in May that the republic's leadership takes seriously rumors of a planned attack by Chechen militants. Concern mounted in recent months as raids from Chechen territory on Interior Ministry and border posts along the Chechen-Daghestan border became increasingly frequent. Stepashin and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, however, played down the threat posed by those incursions, ascribing them to "bandits" whom they pledged to eradicate. Both men ruled out a new war in the North Caucasus. Russian Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin in early July ruled out preemptive strikes against the militants' bases in Chechnya. The reasons for Moscow's reluctance to launch such preemptive strikes --whether because of disagreements within the top leadership, excessive caution, underestimating the danger, or lack of strategic thinking--is unclear.

Russian commentators have advanced varying explanations for the intensifying hostilities along the Chechen-Daghestan border. Some observers believe Moscow is behind those clashes, suggesting that some Russian ruling circles are deliberately promoting instability in the North Caucasus in order to create a pretext for imposing a state of emergency and postponing the State Duma elections scheduled for 19 December. But President Yeltsin said on 10 August that one of the main reasons for his replacement of Stepashin as prime minister by Putin was to prevent destabilization in the runup to that poll. (A low-level war in Daghestan in which the casualties were primarily local volunteers, not Russian conscripts, could nonetheless serve as a convenient pretext for tough measures if the alliance between Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and Vsya Rossiya is perceived as a real challenge to the status quo in a few months' time.)

A second theory is that the fighting is aimed at thwarting the long-planned meeting between Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, at which the latter may make serious concessions to Moscow over the renegade republic's future status vis-a-vis the federal center. Such an agreement, if it were accompanied by measures to strengthen Maskhadov's authority, could facilitate a resumption of exports of Caspian oil via Chechnya which, some Russian observers argue, is not in the interests of "some influential circles in a number of Near and Middle Eastern states" who are believed to support the Islamic insurgents in Chechnya and Daghestan.

A third possibility is that the fighting does indeed mark the beginning of a serious attempt by the Chechen opposition to Maskhadov and a handful of Islamic radicals from Daghestan to seize power. Interfax on 5 August quoted an unidentified Russian intelligence source as predicting that the radicals will take hostages in Makhachkala in order to pressure the republic's leaders to resign. (Basaev first achieved notoriety as a result of his masterminding of the June 1995 hostage-taking in the south Russian town of Budennovsk.) If this is in fact the militants' approved scenario, then the current skirmishes on the border with Chechnya could merely be a stratagem to tie down Russian forces as far as possible from the capital. And last year's occupation by Nadirshakh Khachilaev's forces of the government building in Makhachkala may have been a dress rehearsal.

What remains unclear, however, is precisely how strong the armed forces of the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Daghestan are, and what support they can count on from the Daghestani population. Basaev can certainly count on the 100,000 so-called Akkin Chechens, whose traditional homeland was part of Chechnya until 1921 when it was transferred to Daghestan. And most of the population of Botlikh Raion, the scene of the present fighting, belongs to an ethnic group closely related to the Chechens. Calculating the number of potential sympathizers on religious grounds is equally problematic: some 10 percent of Daghestan's 2.2 million population are estimated by Russian observers to be "Wahhabists," but this term fails to differentiate between militant radicals and the tens of thousands of other Muslims who simply prefer a truly godly, righteous, and sober life to the occasional pro forma observance of Muslim rites.

Profound popular dissatisfaction with the current Daghestani leadership certainly exists. But that resentment derives primarily from the leadership's virtual monopoly on economic activity and its efforts to exclude the smaller of the republic's 34 ethnic groups from leading positions to the benefit of the Avars, Dargins, and Kumyks. Those ethnic groups account for 27 percent, 15.5 percent, and 12.9 percent of the total population. (In one of Moscow's many miscalculations in the North Caucasus, former Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, himself an Avar from Daghestan, condoned and even encouraged the myth of Avar "elitism.") ITAR-TASS reported on 12 August that Daghestani Deputy Premier Gadzhi Makhachev, who also heads the movement uniting Daghestan's ethnic Avars, has already mobilized 1,500 of his co-ethnics to help quash the Islamist threat.

If observers' prognoses of the militants' plans are accurate, though, calculations of the probable degree of support within Daghestan for a coup orchestrated from Chechnya are irrelevant. In that case, Moscow's success in retaining control of Daghestan is likely to depend on the ability of the Russian military and interior ministry forces to preempt guerrilla strikes in Makhachkala. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 12 August that some 1,000 Russian Interior Ministry troops were sent to Makhachkala the previous day to conduct "special operations." (Liz Fuller)

Georgia Plans New Diplomatic Initiative Over Abkhazia. Having failed to persuade the UN Security Council to issue a formal condemnation of the policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the ethnic Georgian population of Abkhazia, which they accuse the region's leaders of implementing during the 1992-1993 war, the Georgian leadership last week proposed a new initiative to focus the attention of the international community on the situation in Abkhazia.

Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili told Interfax on 5 August that President Eduard Shevardnadze may soon propose an international summit modelled on the 30 July Sarajevo gathering that adopted a Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. The summit would consider how to resolve the deadlocked conflicts in the South Caucasus and raise funding for reconstruction in the regions affected. Menagharishvili added that the Peaceful Caucasus initiative that Shevardnadze proposed in early 1996 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No.17, 23 June 1998) could serve as a basic agenda for the Caucasus Summit.

Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi the previous day, Menagharishvili had echoed Shevardnadze's disappointment that the international community declined, in his words, to acknowledge that Georgians had been subjected to ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. Undaunted by that setback, Tamaz Nadareishvili, who is chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, flew to Germany on 6 August in an attempt to secure support for the Georgian position from political circles there. Nadareishvili also planned to visit OSCE headquarters and the International Court in The Hague.

Meanwhile, Russian and Georgian media reports of the surprise talks in Moscow on 4 August between Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba suggest that the two sides have narrowed their differences over the procedures for repatriation of the ethnic Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war or the renewed fighting in May 1998. Abkhaz presidential representative Anri Djergenia told Caucasus Press that Abkhazia has endorsed a "Draft protocol on repatriation of refugees in Gali raion and the rehabilitation of the Abkhaz economy," while the Georgian side undertook to make its position on that draft within one week.

It is not clear whether the Moscow talks also focussed on the question of Abkhazia's political status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government. No progress on that issue is likely in the runup to the Abkhaz presidential elections on 3 October, which neither Tbilisi nor the UN recognize as valid. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 6 August, Ardzinba said he has not yet decided whether to run for a second term, but several initiative groups have nonetheless expressed their intention of nominating him. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "I'm not saying that the Chechens are angels, but in most cases the attacks [on Daghestani border posts] are not carried out from Chechen territory." Chechen representative in Moscow Mairbek Vachagaev, quoted in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 23 July 1999.

"There is no Islamic state of Daghestan or Shura [Islamic Council] of Daghestan. This is an initiative by private individuals acting against the integrity of Russia." -- Russian State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev (quoted by Interfax, 11 August 1999).

"Russia, following the advice of former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, should control two bridges across the Volga and the Don, but should not try to keep the North Caucasus." -- Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev, interviewed by Interfax, 10 August 1999.