Note: With attention refocused on Chechnya and Dagestan because of the Boston Marathon terror attack, I’m re-running some old pieces from August 1999 that supply you with a little basic history of these two regions, understanding little has changed since I wrote them. The two remain hotbeds of Islamist fundamentalism and we are less than a year away from the Sochi Olympics, which will be staged near this very bad neighborhood. If you missed last week’s piece on Chechnya, see the archives. Also, note my reference below to Afghanistan, pre-9/11.
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 Caucasus). 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 Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time when imperial troops were grabbing territory not just in the Caucasus, but also Central Asia, Siberia and the Far East. When the Bolsheviks took over, the republics of South Caucasus, such as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, formed separate governments though they were part of the USSR.
The Northern Caucasus 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 country and their application to the United Nations is continually rejected.
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 commandoes 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 recently proclaimed.
One of the tragic 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 the lion’s share 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 interests.
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.
Hot Spots returns in two weeks or so.