Russian troops launched military operations on Muslims controlling an area of southern Dagestan on August 8, after claiming that Chechen fighters had crossed the border the previous day and begun fortifying the villages of Anslta and Rakhata in the Botlikh district. Muslims in the area were reported to have declared an Islamic state. The Russian operations were launched with attacks by helicopter gunships, followed up the next day by ground attacks.
Russia’s prime minister Sergei Stepashin flew into Dagestan the same day to supervise the operations, but was sacked on his return to Moscow the next day, along with the rest of the cabinet, as president Boris Yeltsin evidently suffered another fit of pique. Stepashin was replaced by Vladimir Putin, the head of the federal security service, whom Yeltsin he also named as his choice to succeed him when he steps down as president next year.
The two episodes - the Russian attack on Dagestan and the sacking of the government - are certainly linked. Boris Yeltsin has long been looking for a political crisis or a war to cancel justify cancelling the December 19 parliamentary polls, and for a reliable ally to groom as his successor. The polls are expected to bring in a Parliament hostile to Yeltsin. He is now anxious to ensure that he and members of his corrupt family are not tried after he leaves office.
The president appeared to have found both his war and his political crisis on August 9, when his generals completed preparations for launching a ‘large-scale’ operation against Islamic groups in Dagestan. Stepashin accused Chechen Islamic groups of crossing over from Ichkeria to form an Islamic State in the Caucasus republic. He vowed to bomb the positions they had been accused of taking in remote mountain areas and force them to surrender. “We will not allow a new Pervomaiskoye,” he said, in reference to a hostage-taking raid by Chechen fighters in January 1996. The reference reveals the deep sense of failure and shame still felt by Russian officials and servicemen, which keeps alive skirmishes along the Chechen-Russian border.
The allegation that Islamic activists are trying to establish a single Islamic State in Dagestan and Ichkeria is absurd. What is not, and has in fact become a familiar feature of the Dagestani scene for more than a year, is the occasional occurrence of clashes between federal troops and local insurgents. Moreover, anti-Russian feeling in the Caucasus has been fuelled by the Chechen war; by Russia’s pro-Serb and anti-Muslim intervention in Kosova; by the Russian State’s reduction into a mafiosi organization; and by the increasing awareness of Muslims in the region of their separate and distinct identity.
But there is no large-scale and concerted effort to turn Dagestan, or for that matter Ichkeria, into an Islamic state overnight. The bricks for building such a state, after more than 70 years of communist rule, are simply not there and the bricklayers will have to be trained first. The ruling elites of Muslim states that could have helped accelerate the process are as afraid of the revival of Islamic awareness as the Russians. (The Arab League member-states have adopted an ‘anti-terrorism’ pact for combatting Islamic movements world-wide, and the Organization of African Unity has a similar treaty binding on its member-states).
In Dagestan, there is an added problem, which the Russians continue to invoke to scupper any pro-independence or pro-Islam movements. There are 30 different ethnic groups, some of whom want Dagestan to stay in Russia, while others prefer to see it develop closer links with fellow Muslim countries. The opportunity to exploit these differences is there, and Yeltsin will not flinch from seizing it to further his personal and political agendas. His determination to continue his murky activities in the region is demonstrated by the background of the man he has chosen to take over from Stepashin as prime minister, and to succeed him as president.
A former KGB spy, Vladimir Putin will not be averse to falling in with the president’s cloak-and-dagger schemes. It is also significant that Yeltsin has, for the first time, publicly named anyone as his preferred successor. In a televised speech to Russians after sacking Stepashin he stressed that he was nominating Putin not only as prime minister, but as an ideal candidate for succeeding him as president as well.
Yeltsin knows that he has secured the support of the west simply by declaring that he was taking military action in Dagestan against Islamic terrorists. The Americans swiftly endorsed his appointment of a former spy as prime minister, and the western media began to portray the ‘Wahabi Islamists’ allegedly crossing over from Ichkeria as extremists bent on establishing a ‘religious dictatorship’.
The Times of London, in an editorial comment on August 9, said: “Islamic militants, many with gangster connections, had hoped that their victory in the 1994-96 war with Russia would lead to the setting up of an Islamic State. Like the Afghan Taleban, the Wahabis who have hijacked the Muslim movement in the Caucasus are obscurantist fanatics who see the West as the source of evil and want to set up a religious dictatorship.”
With this diplomatic and media backing, and given his conspiratorial turn of mind, Yeltsin will be tempted to use the considerable Russian security forces in Dagestan to destabilize it, and create the basis for declaring a national emergency and cancelling the December parliamentary elections, as some Russians have accused him of planning. Certainly the expected long and bitter battle in the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) over the new cabinet could provide the political turmoil he needs to exploit to subvert the country’s political process.
Muslims, of course, are likely to be more interested in the fate of the Muslims of Dagestan. Whether the latest Russian military operations develop beyond minor clashes, which Russian officials’ rhetoric suggests may be the case, the Muslims may find themselves fighting a war for no reason whatsoever except that Moscow wants to flex its muscles and recover some pride after its humiliation in neighbouring Ichkeria. In this case, the Muslims are liable to pay a high price in lives and property for the Russians’ pride.
But the Russians must also be aware that the area is close to Ichkeria, where there are plenty of armed Muslims prepared to resume their jihad against the Russians. In fact, given the Chechens’ military traditions and their frustration at Moscow’s refusal to fulfil the peace-deal which ended the Chechen war, they might welcome it. Yeltsin’s final, drunken legacy to Russia may be to embroil it in another war it cannot win. The tragedy is that it is the Muslims of the Caucasus who will suffer again.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999