War is sweeping into Russia's troubled southern province of Dagestan once again, threatening to draw in neighboring Chechnya and making a mockery of Moscow's claims of victory over insurgents. The turmoil raises fears that the Kremlin may declare a state of emergency, endangering Russia's fragile political stability.
The thousands of Islamic fighters who invaded Dagestan from Chechnya over the weekend of Sept. 4-5 appear deeply entrenched in at least one district of the tiny Caspian Sea republic. Hours before the incursion began, a car bomb demolished a building housing Russian military families in central Dagestan, killing 64 people.
In Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin summoned his Security Council into urgent session Sept. 7 and said the military was partly to blame for Russia's second battlefield humiliation in less than a month. "How is it that in Dagestan we have lost an entire district? This can only be explained by the carelessness of the military," the ITAR-Tass new agency quoted Yeltsin as saying.
Though details remain sketchy, military officials in Moscow say 1,500 federal troops, plus local police and armed volunteers, are preparing an assault on villages held by the insurgents.
"Instability is spreading in the mountain regions of Dagestan, and the character of the fighting could change from guerrilla raids to full-scale war," says Alexander Iskandaryan, deputy director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies here. The rebels are demanding the departure of Russian troops and the creation of an Islamic superstate in the north Caucasus.
The latest events look like a rerun of last month's rebel raid, led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and Khattab, a Jordanian-born follower of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam. Wahhabi adherents also control parts of central Dagestan. After two weeks of fighting, Russian forces retook four villages the guerrillas had seized and declared victory. But critics insisted the rebels simply slipped away.
"The Russian military blundered badly in August, and they seem to be repeating all the same mistakes today," says Vladimir Pribuilovsky, director of Panorama, a private Moscow think tank. "We know that Shamil Basayev and his men drove away ... while Russian forces kept bombarding empty villages into rubble for days. Can it be our military is that stupid?"
Mr. Pribuilovsky says the scope of military incompetence raises the question of whether some Russian political forces are deliberately fueling instability in the Caucasus. "You have to wonder if this is being stage-managed to create a situation where a state of emergency could be declared and the Kremlin could put off elections." Anti-Kremlin candidates seem to have an early lead in the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections. Some members of Mr. Yeltsin's inner circle, under investigation for corruption, are reported to be nervous at the prospect of his leaving office in June.
Still, Russians blame outside forces for the turmoil, especially Chechens seeking to break out of their isolation. Russian officials claim Islamic mercenaries from as far afield as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are involved in Dagestan. Analysts say external forces are definitely involved, but the causes of the conflict are mostly indigenous. Dagestan, a tiny republic with 32 ethnic groups, is one of Russia's poorest regions. Unemployment hovers near 80 percent, and the average monthly income is just $18.
"Dagestan need not be lost to Russia, but we must develop a strategy that provides economic and social development," Pribuilovsky says. "If Moscow offers nothing but air raids and bombardments as the solution to their problems, the war will surely spread."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society