Date: Thu, 9 Sep 1999 21:55:10 -0500 (CDT)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: RUSSIA: Russia on the Brink of a Major War
Article: 75512
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

/** headlines: 364.0 **/
** Topic: RUSSIA: Russia on the Brink of a Major War **
** Written 12:50 PM Sep 8, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 9:06 PM Sep 7, 1999 by in */
/* ————— “IPS: CONFLICT-CAUCASUS: Russia on t” ————— */

Russia on the Brink of a Major War

By Sergei Blagov, IPS, 7 September 1999

MOSCOW, Sep 7 (IPS)—Russian vows to hit Islamic militants at the heels are yet to materialize. Despite triumphant statements, the irruption of 2,000 Islamic militants from neighbouring Chechnya put Dagestan—and probably Russia itself—on the brink of a larger war.

On Tuesday, an irate president Boris Yeltsin accused army generals of “negligence,” for failing to prevent a bomb attack Sunday against a military living compound in the Dagestani town of Buynaksk which killed 65 people and left 150 wounded.

The explosion destroyed the five-storey building which had housed the families of army officers fighting the rebels.

“How is that in Dagestan we have lost an entire district?” Yeltsin asked.

A 2,000-strong rebel column infiltrated the Novo-Lak district from Chechnya. The rebels targeted the town of Novolakskoye, where they held a police stronghold under siege this weekend. Reports say that another 5,000-strong force is being readied to join the fight.

The rebels aimed at seizing the nearby town of Khassaviourt—the republic's fourth largest—and declare it the capital of an Islamic state, but have so far failed.

The Dagestani State Council, the republic's ruling body, called for a general mobilisation. However, the move was later downplayed and replaced by calls to join voluntary self-defence units.

Ghadji Ghamzayev, Dagestan's representative in Moscow, warned that “this plague” could spread into Russia, and urged air attacks against the militants' bases in Chechnya.

In the wake of the invasion, Russian planes bombed the village of Mazai-Yurt, just 5 kilometres inside Chechnya, near the Novo-Lak district in Dagestan. Chechen officials say dozens of people were killed.

The Russian military said the village was being used by Chechen militants as a command centre and supply base to invade Dagestan.

In launching the invasion, it is presumed in Moscow that Chechen warlord Shamil Bassayev was counting on support from the Dagestani opposition, including ethnic Chechens and Laks, who have land disputes with the Avars, the republic's largest nation.

Khasavyurt is populated mainly by Chechens, but so far they have not openly supported Bassayev's insurrection.

Dagestani Chechens have long demanded the return of lands where they lived before mass deportations conducted more than 50 years ago by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The land is now occupied by Avars,

Many Avars have already volunteered to fight on the federal army's side against the militants.

Nadirshakh Khachilayev, an influential Lak leader—another sizable ethnic group in Dagestan—was said by some sources to have sided with the rebels, but others say he is still negotiating with the Russian government.

Khachilayev, who is also an elected deputy to the Russian parliament, has demanded more positions for the Laks in the Dagestani administration and accuses another ethnic group, the Dargins, of controlling the republic's government.

Khachilayev was widely blamed for the May-1998 riots in Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, in which several hundred of his armed supporters took over government buildings.

He has been formally charged with seizing state property and organizing an illegal armed group. He was stripped of his parliamentarian immunity and has remained at large ever since—presumably hiding in Chechnya.

“Russian generals must not meddle in Dagestan's internal struggles… There is no viable military solution of the Dagestani crisis,” has warned Khachilayev, who is also a leader of non-official Russian Union of Moslems.

The Russian federal government backs Magomedali Magomedov, head of the State Council, who has many enemies among rival ethnic groups.

However, Ramazan Abdullatipov, Russia's former deputy prime minister in charge of nationalities, disagrees. The current crisis in Dagestan was caused by an aggression of “international gangsters”—not by internal struggle, he claims.

Some 95 per cent of the republic's population now support the local government, argued Abdullatipov, himslef a Dagestani.

In the Chechen capital of Grozny, the rebels said the attack against the army housing quarters in Buynaksk was an act of support to the Muslim territory of Karamakhy, where local leaders announced in September 1998 that they would live by Islamic laws (Sharia).

Jerulla Ghidjimagomedov, head of the Karamakhy Sharia court, has told Russian television that Islamic Sharia is seen by people as an alternative to corrupt government.

Karamakhy and Chabanmakh, strongholds of Moslem radicals, have come under intense Russian bombing and shelling over the past two weeks.

With a population just above two million people, Dagestan is one the most ethnically diverse territories of Russia. It is homeland for over 36 different nationalities, each one of them with its own language.

Analysts argue that the current crisis has deep social roots in blatant inequality and deprivation of most Dagestanis.

According to some estimates, about 20 per cent of the republic's population control 85 per cent of Dagestan's wealth, while the rest lives in desperate poverty, “even by Russian low standards,” argues Sergei Arutyunov, head of Caucasian research at the Institute of Ethnology in Moscow.

More than 80 per cent of young Dagestanis are unemployed, providing potential recruits for the militants, he warns.

The latest Chechen incursion occurred just hours after Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin announced that the federal forces' operations in the Caucasus was proceeding “smoothly.”

The invasion and the apartment building explosion became a major embarrassment—not only for the Prime Minister, but also for Yeltsin, who had named Putin his chosen successor apparently hoping that a quick and successful war in Dagestan would boost his popularity.

The Russian media and opposition have long speculated that Yeltsin—now battered by corruption allegations—could use the Dagestani crisis as a pretext to declare a state of emergency, cancel elections and resign to install Putin as his successor.

The worsening crisis in the Caucasus could adversely affect “the schedule of Russian domestic politics,” argued Alexander Shokhin, former deputy prime minister.

Surprisingly, Yeltsin's arguments were echoed by one of his main foes, the State Duma's (lower house of parliament) Communist speaker Gennady Seleznyov, who blamed the military and secret services' carelessness for the rebels' advances.