The Dagestan War and Beyond

Under President Boris Yeltsin, premiers come and go like circus bears on bicycles. But not so for the parts of Russia itself.

That's why a new war by Muslim fighters to break off the impoverished land of Dagestan near the Caspian Sea has the attention of Russia's military commanders more than yesterday's changing of the Kremlin guard.

What's at stake for Russia - and for Central Asia - is a potential for Islamic guerrillas to lead separatist movements or revolutions. Thus the war being waged for an independent and Islamic Dagestan - like the 1994-96 war to create a free Chechnya - has a tip-of-the-iceberg quality to it.

To put it simply, eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the center of the Eurasian continent is not stable. The end of communist control has left an opening for Islamists and nearby powers such as Turkey, China, and Pakistan to meddle in the "stans" - from Dagestan to Kazakhstan. Afghanistan has already largely fallen to the radical Taliban.

Islamic militants can easily feed off land disputes and ethnic fragmentation left over from Soviet days. Of peculiar interest is the import into the region of a movement from Saudi Arabia called Wahhabism. At the least, its well-funded and secretive missionaries have heightened existing ethnic and clan tensions by appealing to young, often jobless men.

The Wahhabis' doctrine comes from an 18th-century Sunni leader who taught adherence to the Koran and rejection of popular innovations.

Refugees from the Dagestan war say rebel leaders want to create an Islamic state out of the 2 million people living there. One commander is reportedly either Jordanian or Saudi.

The Wahhabi threat is often overplayed by Central Asia's secular leaders. Still, the West should do more to stabilize the region. NATO already has "partnerships" with most of the region's states. And Western aid is tackling economic and environmental problems. But the West's primary interest seems to be tapping oil wealth.

The Dagestan war points to a need for more preemptive diplomacy.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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