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Issue 42, October 1999

Russia's Caucasian quagmire

THE HORRIFIC bomb attacks in Russia have pushed the recent fighting in the Caucasus out of the news, although clearly the two are linked.

Russian troops intervened in the mountain republic of Dagestan over the summer to repel incursions by Chechen fighters led by the notorious Shamil Basayev. He claimed that he was establishing an Islamic republic in Dagestan based on the ideology of the Wahabis (the Islamic fundamentalist sect, originally from Saudi Arabia), and helping to create a 'Great Chechnya'. He is reputedly supported by Osaman bin Ladin and the Afghan Mojahedin.

Needless to say, the position is much more complex than the European civilisation versus Islamic fundamentalism picture painted by the Russian government and mass media. Since the defeat of the Russian army, Chechnya has been established as an Islamic state, under Sharia law. Chechnya however, has not been able to immediately overcome its Soviet past. Women, for example, will not accept the veil and even the hard-line Basayev says they should not have to do so.

The position in Chechnya is directly linked to the restoration of capitalism in Russia. The war was fought because Russia wanted to keep control over Chechnya's oil pipeline and, more importantly, because they used and still use the republic as an outlet for laundering the billions of roubles the new rich are robbing from society. On the other hand, many of the Chechens who fought what they saw as Russian aggression have been left unemployed, bitter and brutalised. Some have kept their arms and turned to banditry, frequently kidnapping Western and Russian businessmen for ransom.


Although Arab sources such as bin Ladin have been helping to finance and train both fighters and religious cadres, the Chechen regime is far more dependent on support from the Chechen diaspora, most of whom live in Russia. Many are reputedly linked to the 'mafia' (Russia's new rich) and provide finance and weaponry to Basayev. The explosives, for example, used in the recent bomb attacks were bought from Moscow factories. And in Dagestan, the Chechens are armed with the latest models of rifles and rocket launchers that are so new they have not yet been issued to the Russian army.

Chechnya's neighbours are the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and South Ossetia. The latter two have been afflicted by intense ethnic conflict since the collapse of the USSR, although Dagestan has avoided this fate. This is partly because its population of two million people is made up of over 100 nationalities and ethnic groupings. Dagestanis have always boasted of their internationalism.

However, since 1991, it is estimated that 85% of Dagestani's wealth has been concentrated in the hands of 200 families, who employ a private army of 200,000 people as bodyguards, chauffeurs and bureaucrats. They live in a rich suburb ironically dubbed 'Santa Barbara'. The rest are left to starve. The average income in Dagestan is one-quarter of that of Russia as a whole. Eighty-five percent of youth are unemployed and lack proper education. Most of the wealth has been accumulated by members of the former Soviet ruling elite, who openly plundered Dagestan's resources. The state apparatus, nominally secular, has proved incapable of preventing this and has, more often than not, openly assisted the process. This applies also to the religious elite. Most mullahs have been bought-off by what are called the 'New Dagestanis'. One or two mullahs who resisted have been assassinated.


Not surprisingly given this situation, some especially young people in Dagestan, have rejected the secularism that they believe has incapacitated the state's ability to deal with the current crime and poverty. There has been a growth of support for more radical Islamic ideologies, including for the Wahabi sect. At the start of the decade, less than 2% of the population could be described as fundamentalists, now the figure is nearer 10%.

Support for the Wahabi sect is concentrated in the regions seized by Basayev's fighters. For that reason, he expected to be welcomed by the local population. Reality proved different. During the Chechen war, the Dagestanis had willingly put up refugee families in their homes. Now they are bitter that, in the name of Islam, fighters were sent to their villages in occupation. Insult was added to injury as locals, who had turned to fundamentalism in reaction to what they saw as the anarchic lawlessness of the new capitalist Dagestan, witnessed the behaviour of Basayev's fighters. One local described it: 'I saw these so-called believers, they don't take their shoes off in the mosque, they don't know how to pray and they drink vodka by the glassful. We don't need these Wahabis!' In reality, Basayev is little more than a bandit using Islam as a cover for his armed adventures.

Initially, many Dagestanis welcomed the Federal (ie Russian) army in to defend them from Basayev. Questions soon began to be raised, however, about the army's competence. In Moscow, the government was assuring the population that they had learnt the lessons of Chechnya and would only send professional troops. Generals continually stated that the decisive battle had been won. Yet the number of troops, now exceeding 30,000, sent to surround Chechnya can only be increased by using conscripts. Locals report that most Chechen fighters still have freedom of movement. Almost as if to prove their inability to beat back Basayev, the Russians announced they would arm the local population. This proved to mean handing weapons to the different private armies of Dagestan's ruling families.


The brutal approach of the Russian army also alienated many locals. If the local population saw the first intervention of Basayev as aggression, many saw his second as an attempt to defend his followers. Meanwhile, the Russian army use Blitzkreig tactics, with aerial bombing of villages that are thought to hold Chechen fighters.

Already people are beginning to suspect that Russia's ruling elite is using them once again as pawns in their own power struggle. The mayor of one of the regions seized by Basayev, for example, commented: 'I believe that the fighters were intentionally allowed to escape. Someone in Moscow obviously wants them to attack again'.

The situation is beginning to resemble that which led to the start of the Chechen war. Russia's ruling elite, with a former KGB chief as premier and the president so ill that he cannot even attend Raisa Gorbachev's funeral, are beginning to panic in the lead-up to elections. The atmosphere in the Caucasus is becoming very tense. Now Russian aircraft have started to bomb Grozny for the first time since the end of the war. Further provocations by the Russian army or secret services, or further incursions by Basayev, could mean an escalation into the second Caucasian war since 1991.

Rob Jones

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