No end in sight to Dagestan conflict

By Sergei Blagov, Asia Times Online, 28 August 1999

MOSCOW—Russian troops seem to have gained the upper hand against Chechen rebels and Muslim extremists in western Dagestan, but a full victory in the northern Caucasian region is a long way off.

Though the bulk of Chechen-led rebels are withdrawing, they are believed to leave behind small groups of infiltrators capable of carrying out terrorist attacks. Thus Moscow could be forced to act against insurgents' bases in Chechnya, opening way for a wider conflict.

“The events in Dagestan were caused by a well-calculated policy, which had been financially backed from abroad,” argued Vyacheslav Mikhailov, Russia's minister of Federal and National Affairs. “The Chechen extremists and their backers aim at changing the political map in North Caucasus, and Chechnya has become the base of international terrorism.”

There were rumors that notorious international terrorist Usama Bin Laden has supported Chechen efforts and even mulled over moving into Chechnya himself. This has sparked speculations about alleged Russian attempts to get foreign aid to combat international terrorism.

Israel's foreign ministry had to come up with a statement dismissing reports saying that the ministry planned to supply Russia with intelligence on Islamic rebels in Dagestan. The ministry claimed these reports resulted from a translation mistake.

But—characteristically—rebel leader Shamil Basayev announced his men were moving into “phase two” of their operations—the removal of “Zionist” influence in Dagestan. They also vowed to fight “Zionist” Russian president Boris Yeltsin, when the separatists under the leadership of notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev seized villages in the Botlikh mountain district near Dagestan's border with Chechnya.

By 25 August Russian troops had regained control of all six mountain villages captured by Islamic militants in Dagestan's Boltikh district on 7 August. The Russians have carried out heavy bombing raids and artillery barrages, and the use of powerful vacuum bombs helped to drive the rebels from their hideouts.

But in spite of the encouraging official propaganda about the federal troops' “successful” operations in Dagestan, they have been unable to seize full control.

Russian military commanders have claimed that about 2,000 rebels were killed in the conflict, while 59 government soldiers and officers died in combat. Rebel leaders put their casualty figure at 30, but all these claims cannot be independently confirmed.

Dagestan, made up of more than 30 language and ethnic groups in the Caucasus mountains and steppes along the Caspian Sea, has been the scene of increasing border violence with Chechnya in recent months.

Some 2,000 rebels infiltrated from Chechnya, which has had de facto independence since the end of the two-year war with Russia in 1996. Representatives of a body called the Islamic Shura (council) of Dagestan appeared in the Chechen capital of Grozny and called on Chechens to support the struggle for “the liberation of the Islamic state of Dagestan from Russian occupation.”

The rebels are understood to belong to the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement, but have patently failed to gather substantial support among Dagestanis. The unnamed foreign powers accused by Moscow of backing the rebels are said to be Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

Basayev, the rebel leader, is considered a war hero by many Chechens. But he is also sought on terrorist charges in Russia. He reportedly lured the fighters into Dagestan promising to pay $100 a day.

Russian commanders responded in kind by raising the troops pay to up to 800 rubles ($30) a day—about half an officer's monthly salary. The Russian military seems to have learned the lessons of their disastrous military campaign in Chechnya, where underpaid officers often sold weapons to Chechen rebels.

Russia asked Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov to crack down on the rebels operating out of Chechnya, but he claimed that an invasion from Chechnya was being simulated to deceive Russia and the international community. The Chechen president does not appear to have much control over warlords like Basayev or even over members of his own government.

“The fighting in Dagestan is a struggle of Dagestani peoples for independence,” Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen deputy prime minister vice-premier, reportedly said. “Chechnya can not afford not to support this struggle.”

The fighting in Dagestan became the worst security crisis in Russia since federal troops withdrew from Chechnya, after a truce was signed on 31 August 1996 in Khasavyurt, a Dagestani border town. The peace agreement deferred the issue of Chechen sovereignty for five years.

Dagestan's crisis became a sort of litmus test for Russia's strategy in North Caucasus, says Yegor Stroyev, chairman of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament.

Other politicians sound more ominous, claiming that the Chechen involvement has made the 1996 peace deal between Russia and Chechnya meaningless. “The Khasavyurt peace deal between Russia and Chechnya is now dead,” says Vladimir Zorin, chairman of the Nationalities Affairs committee of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. “They have failed to respect their pledges to disband armed gangs, and this has become the main reason for the fighting in Dagestan.”

Kremlin officials have avoided hawkish rhetoric, however. “In Dagestan the Russian troops did not fight against the Chechen people or against the Muslims. It's not a ‘second edition’ of the Chechen war,” Mikhailov insisted.

However, despite official pronouncements, fears remain that a new war in Chechnya could be used as a pretext by Yeltsin to declare the state of emergency in Russia and cancel the parliamentary elections in December 1999 and presidential poll in mid-2000.

(Inter Press Service)