Russia's breakaway republics

Fighting in Dagestan may be only the tip of the iceberg for the troubled north Caucasus region.

Once again, Russia's weakening central government is facing the threat of lost territory on its volatile Caucasus frontier.

Three years after a devastating separatist rebellion in Chechnya, a brand of Islamic extremism is igniting civil war in the neighboring republic of Dagestan, a mountainous region beside the Caspian Sea rife with social and ethnic tensions.

In recent days, as many as 2,000 armed militants claiming to belong to the Wahhabi Islamic movement (see story, below) have seized several villages near Dagestan's border with Chechnya, declaring the territory independent and demanding that Russian troops leave Dagestan.

Russia, occupied with a political crisis touched off Aug. 9 when President Yeltsin fired his fourth prime minister in 18 months, accuses Chechen warlords of orchestrating the attack and has responded with massive military force. The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted the new acting prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as saying Aug. 10 that the standoff would be over in two weeks.

Repeating old mistakes

Like television footage of the conflict, the claim is eerily reminiscent of the two-year conflict in Chechnya, when Russian generals initially predicted victory in a similar time frame.

Critics warn that, however the operation turns out, Moscow is repeating mistakes it has been making since conquering the region in the mid-19th century. By doing so, it risks a protracted cycle of turmoil in the non-Russian, non-Orthodox Christian republics of the north Caucasus. Ultimately, they say, that could lead to the dissolution of Russia's patchwork federal system.

"The present conflict in Dagestan is, unfortunately, not an isolated case," says Sergei Kazyennov, an analyst with the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research, a Moscow think tank. "These peoples are not Russian, and the federal government in Moscow has not pursued policies that incline to make them feel Russian. This makes them identify more with outside forces, with the ideology of Islam and the countries of the Muslim world.

"To reverse this process would take massive economic investment and a whole set of new policy ideas for the region. Neither of these resources seems to be available in Moscow today," he says.

Local roots of unrest

Russia's claim that the unrest is imported "is a very narrow view," says Alexander Iskandaryan, deputy director of the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "Of course Chechens are involved, as are agitators from the Arab world and other places. But most of the rebels in Dagestan are local, as are the causes of their uprising."

Mr. Iskandaryan says discontent and Islamic radicalism are rising in Dagestan. This is due in part to mass poverty, acute since the end of Soviet-era subsidies and development. Unemployment is estimated as high as 80 percent. "All over the Muslim world young men become radicalized when there is no land, no money, no jobs, and no prospects," he says.

The collapse of Communist ideology left a vacuum that was quickly filled by the region's traditional Muslim religion. For many intellectuals, breaking with Soviet ways meant embracing the most extreme Islamic movements, such as Wahhabism. "The combination of committed, radical intellectuals and a mass of poor, angry, young men is social dynamite," says Iskandaryan. "Those are the prevailing circumstances in Dagestan, and throughout the North Caucasus today."

But Russia isn't about to let the Caucasus go. The post-Soviet state is a shaky federation made up of 20 ethnic republics and 69 provinces, which are firmly denied any right to secede under the Constitution. Any move to declare independence is viewed in Moscow as a criminal act and a threat to the survival of the federation itself.

And there is a growing sense that Islamic-inspired unrest is coming closer to Russia's heartland. "Dagestan is not a faraway place, it is a Russian place where everyone speaks our language and shares the same kind of life with us," says schoolteacher Maria Shelyabova. "To watch this madness starting up there is very, very frightening."

The Soviet Union fought a nine-year war in Afghanistan, ostensibly to stem the tide of militant Islam.

Russian troops are still entrenched and taking casualties in the battle against Muslim tribesmen in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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