Dagestan smolders, but less fire

Caucasus conflict continues 14 days after Russia's premier declared it

Russia's war against Islamic extremists in the impoverished southern province of Dagestan will probably smolder for years but is unlikely to lead to another Chechnya-style defeat for Moscow, analysts say. That's more due to local differences than a change in Kremlin attitude.

As in the disastrous 1994-96 military campaign to crush nearby Chechnya's independence drive, Russian bravado and disinformation have helped to obscure the conflict's true face.

Newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged on Aug. 10 to end the Dagestan incursion by an estimated 2,000 Muslim fighters "in two weeks." Russian generals have declared themselves on the verge of victory at least twice since then and claim to have killed more than 600 rebels. A spokesman for the insurgents told Reuters yesterday, "If you added up all the people they say they killed, there would be no one left in the mountains."

Mr. Putin's deadline expires today, with fighting actually escalating in Dagestan's remote Botlikh district. Having apparently learned little from their thrashing by lightly armed but highly mobile Chechen guerrillas three years ago, Russian commanders are again pouring in soldiers, artillery, and air power to hammer rebel-held mountain villages. The only visible effect so far: An estimated 10,000 civilians have fled the area.

THIS is another painful situation for Russia, "and it has some potential to spread," says Alexei Malashenko, with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "But there are also key differences between this conflict and the war Russia lost in Chechnya. Beyond the surface there is little similarity."

Chechnya, the largest and most ethnically homogeneous of Russia's five north-Caucasus republics, forced federal forces to withdraw under a 1996 deal that left its political status in limbo for five years. But it has since failed to consolidate behind an elected government and has plunged into chaos and poverty. A few local warlords profit from the lawlessness through gun-running, kidnapping, and drug smuggling.

Shamil Basayev, a top commander in the war against Russia, is managing this new conflict with a Jordanian-born lieutenant known as Khattab. Mr. Basayev has vowed to liberate the entire north Caucasus from Moscow and has spoken of building an Islamic superstate from the Black Sea to the Caspian.

But whatever Russia's historic blunders in the mainly Islamic region, most of its peoples seem unlikely to answer that call. "Dagestan is a very different social milieu from Chechnya," says Andrei Zdravomyslev, with the independent Institute of Social and Ethnic Studies in Moscow. "Chechnya is a monoethnic republic that responded to a nationalist war of liberation from Russia. Dagestan has 40 different ethnic groups, historically at odds with one another."

The rebels have made inroads in Dagestan by appealing to the common Islamic heritage of all its diverse groups. Khattab is reportedly a devotee of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam, whose adherents include the leaders of Saudi Arabia.

Russian officials concede that crushing poverty in Dagestan, where as much as 80 percent of the population is unemployed and the average monthly income is just $17, is a motor for mass discontent.

Even Putin, who is most responsible for Moscow's tough military response to the rebellion, told parliament last week, "We must not only struggle against terrorism but also resolve the socioeconomic situation causing this tendency."

Ironically, the example of Chechnya may work against the spread of its anti-Russian revolution to neighboring republics. "There was some euphoria among the mountain Muslim peoples when Chechnya defeated Russia," says Svyatoslav Kaspei, a Caucasus expert with the Social and Political Center, a Moscow think tank. "But today Chechnya is a crime-ridden economic basket case. Everybody sees that separatism is a dead end, that this is not the way to a better life."

With Russia in the midst of campaigning for parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in June, there is surprising unanimity across the political spectrum on Dagestan. "We see this as a concerted attack by international Islamic extremists, separatists, and terrorists against Russia," Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Yabloko, Russia's only liberal party, said last week. Mr. Yavlinsky was bitter opponent of the Kremlin's war in Chechnya.

If the body count starts to climb, however, political resistance might begin to rise with it, as it did during the Chechen conflict. Some analysts warn that widespread and protracted - if low-level - war in the region is likely for years unless Russia moves beyond military answers.

"Perhaps we must wait for power to change in Russia before we can develop the necessary legal, economic, and political strategies to unravel the Caucasian knot," says Mr. Zdravomyslev.

"Chechnya is the key. We must find the courage and political will to make a real and lasting peace with Chechnya or it will always be a source of instability."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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