As I write this Russia is claiming that they have the rebels on the
run in the Russian territory of Dagestan. In the weeks ahead you
may hear about the rebels withdrawing back across the border to
Chechnya. This would follow the example set by the Chechen
rebels during their 1994-96 war with Russia. Withdraw, lull the
Russians into a false sense of security and then attack again when
the appetite for resistance by Russia''s army has been weakened.
So what is Dagestan? It is a Russian province about the size of
Austria bordering Chechnya to the west, the oil-rich Caspian Sea
to the east and the independent nations of Georgia and
Azerbaijan to the south. Of Russia''s 89 regions, Dagestan is one
of the 5 poorest (all of the poorest regions are in the general area
of the North Caucusus). It is home to some 34 nationalities.
Locals like to say that in the beginning of time, God walked the
world with a sack of languages on his back. When he got to
Dagestan, Land of Mountains, he tripped, his sack burst open and
the languages spilled out.
As I mentioned in last week''s article on Chechnya, the Russian
czars expanded into the Caucusus in the 18th and 19th centuries,
at a time when imperial troops were grabbing territory not just in
the Caucusus, but also Central Asia, Siberia and the Far East.
When the Bolsheviks took over, the republics of South Caucusus,
such as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan formed separate
governments though they were part of the USSR.
The Northern Caucusus are home to some 4.9 million people.
About 100,000 Chechen refugees live in Dagestan while about
80,000 Chechens live on the frontier with Dagestan.
After the war with Chechnya was officially declared over in
1996, Chechnya was, in essence, granted full independence even
though it technically remains part of the Russian Federation. No
other nation on earth has officially recognized Chechnya as an
independent nation and their application to the United Nations is
What Chechnya has become is a hotbed for anti-Western Arab
Muslim militants; another Afghanistan. From guerilla bases in
Chechnya, the seeds of Dagestan''s current problems were sown.
Back in September 1998, Chechen warlords demanded the
resignation of new President Maskhadov, saying he was too
conciliatory towards Moscow. Maskhadov was also under
pressure from Russia, which said he was failing to combat
organized criminal gangs, whose frequent kidnappings were
turning Chechnya into a no-go zone for outsiders.
In March 1999, Maskhadov narrowly escaped an assassination
attempt. In an unrelated incident, more than 50 died in a bomb
blast in North Ossetia which borders Chechnya and Dagestan.
By this past July, Russian troops were clashing with Chechen
fighters near their border with Dagestan. In early August, an
estimated 2,000 militants poured across the Chechen border to
take control of key villages in Dagestan. By August 7th, Russian
helicopters were pounding positions held by the militants. Then
two days later, Boris Yeltsin fired Sergei Stepashin as prime
minister and replaced Stepashin with Vladimir Putin.
Putin has since been approved by Russia''s parliament and he
promised that the campaign in Dagestan would be successful by
month''s end. When asked whether Russian troops would pursue
the comandos back to their bases in Chechnya, Putin said,
"Strikes will be delivered on the militants'' bases. Chechnya is
Russian territory and strikes will be delivered wherever militants
are located, Chechnya or no Chechnya."
Ah, but not so fast, Vladimir. For the Islamic council that
controls the rebels is led by Shamil Basayev, a Chechen guerilla
fighter regarded at home as a hero in the war against Russia.
You''ll recall that it was Basayev who led the June 1995 assault
on the Russian town of Budennovsk where over 100 people died.
Basayev has declared that Dagestan is an independent Islamic
state and vowed to drive all "infidels" out. "There is no force on
earth capable of stopping the Muslim fighters other than the
Almighty, who guides them on the road of sacred war," he
One of the sad parts of this story is that the full military might of
the Russian army (and they can still pack a punch) is being borne
by the poor people of Dagestan. Most of them remain loyal to
the more traditional rule of the current regime of Mahomedali
Mahomedov who wants to remain within the Russian Federation
because about + of their budget is funded by Russian subsidies.
Of course, with the plight of the Russian economy being what it
is, these subsidies have been cut.
So, it''s come to this. The unfolding crisis in Dagestan presents
dangers not only for Russia but also for Western political and
economic interest. As Anatol Lieven recently wrote in the New
York Times, "Normally we don''t want Russia to interfere so that
the nations of the region can develop both strong, independent
state structures. In the regions like Chechnya and Dagestan,
though, it''s the very loss of Russian military power and political
authority, demonstrated above all by its defeat in the Chechen
war which threatens to plunge the whole region into violent
ethnic, religious and economic turmoil."
The rebels have a burning hatred of Russia. The collapse of the
Chechen economy has left tens of thousands of young Chechens
with no occupation other than to fight. The instability in the
region can easily spread into Azerbaijan and our very real oil
Some pundits continually question, why do we care about what
goes on in Russia and some of its surrounding territory? If the
Russian economy continues on its death spiral (the war in
Chechnya cost Russia $5 billion...it can ill afford another full
blown similar conflict) and corruption becomes a permanent
fixture (perhaps it already has) then Dagestan may seem a few
years from now to have been nothing but a harbinger of worse
things to come.
Next week, the dispute between Taiwan and China.