Russia's Breakaway Republics Fighting in Dagestan May Be Only the Tip of the Iceberg for the Troubled North Caucasus Region

Article excerpt

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. …