Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 3

Will the Chechen Conflict Spread?

A New Caucasian War: Myth or Reality?

by Igor Rotar

The recent incident in which Chechen terrorists took hostages in the Dagestani city of Kizlyar and the tragic events that followed in the settlement of Pervomaiskoye have resulted in a dramatic exacerbation of the situation in the Caucasus. Never before since the beginning of the Chechen war has the probability of this war developing from a "local" conflict into a Caucasian-wide one been so high.

Surprising Calm

Immediately after the introduction of Russian troops in Chechnya many well-known political experts forecast that the war would inevitably spread into the neighboring republic of Dagestan. There is probably no other country in the world where so many ethnic groups live together (sometimes being immediate neighbors) on such a small territory. According to official data, Dagestan is populated by representatives of approximately 30 ethnic groups. As a matter of fact, the actual number is much greater. It is a common occurrence in Dagestan for people of two immediately neighboring settlements to speak different languages and represent separate nations. Peace in Dagestan is based on a fragile ethnic balance, therefore, any unrest at any given site of the republic is fraught with the danger of starting a "chain reaction."

In this particular case, the situation is further aggravated by the fact that approximately 70,000 of the native residents of the Khasavyurt region are ethnic Chechens and many Chechen refugees have been streaming precisely into the Khasavyurt region.

Significantly, not only the republican authorities who can be accused of being dependent on Moscow but also ordinary residents of the North Caucasian republics were rather restrained in reacting to Russia’s intervention in Chechnya.

Rallies of Muslim solidarity with the Chechen people could gather no more than 2,000 participants: The official clergy and even leaders of the radical Dagestani Islamic Party did not make any harsh statements concerning Russia’s intervention in Chechnya.

Unlike Chechnya which is rich in oil, Dagestan is very poor. Subsidies from the center have traditionally constituted more than 90 percent of the republican budget. "Without Russia we would simply die of starvation," this was the key note of all the conversations I had with people in Dagestan.

A Knot of Problems

One who planned to "explode Dagestan" could hardly find a better "point of attack" than the Khasavyurt district where the settlement of Pervomaiskoye is located. Since ancient times Chechens-Akin have lived in the district. In 1944 local Chechens were forcefully deported from their lands to Kazakhstan. The lands and homes which had become uninhabited in one night were then given to the Laks, Avars and Kumyks. Under conditions of Communist rule, open conflict between the Chechens and representatives of other Dagestani nations was impossible but in the early 1990s, bloody clashes erupted in the Khasavyurt district between the local Chechens and the Avars and Laks. These clashes were put down by the federal authorities but every settlement of the district has its own armed self-defense squad today.

Naturally, given this situation, the Russian leadership should have tried to refrain from unleashing any military actions in this area. Nevertheless, in violation of all considerations of common sense, a site located near the Chechen-Dagestani border was chosen for stopping the convoy with Chechen terrorists and their hostages. Once, the way to Chechnya had been blocked, the militants had no choice but to return to the territory of Dagestan and entrench themselves in the settlement of Pervomaiskoye.

Too Plain a Provocation

During the first few days after the Chechens seized hostages in Kizlyar calls were made at a number of rallies held in Makhachkala and other cities of Dagestan to begin pogroms against ethnic Chechens.

However, the hatred towards the Chechens suddenly began to abate. "Paradoxical as it may seem," Dagestani People’s Assembly Chairman’s Adviser and sociologist Enver Kisrieyv comments, "It was Mr. Yeltsin who helped us. When he stated that the Chechen militants intervened in the Avars’ territories and the Avars were ready to cut their throats, our people understood that they were being provoked."

During the days when the Russian troops stormed Pervomaiskoye a large crowd of people, the relatives of the hostages, gathered near checkpoints located 10 kilometers from the settlement. (Dagestani police did not allow them to come nearer to the site). The people stood in silence and watched how the Russian troops eliminated the settlement where their relatives were supposedly being held. "In the beginning our hatred was directed entirely against the Chechen bandits," local people told me, "but now it turns out that not the Chechens but Russian soldiers are killing our relatives."

"Our situation was extremely odd," former hostage and Kizlyar Criminal Investigation Department head Nazim Mazukayev told me, "we were fired on by our own people." The following is what a number of hostages told me: "The bandits told us: ‘You see, Russia has betrayed you. They do not want anybody to escape alive out of this village.’ The Chechens gave us arms and we, together with them, fought our way out through the Russian lines to escape. After that the Chechens set us free."

What is most interesting is that the Russian president himself called the shameful failure of the attempt to rescue the hostages as "a successful operation." The Dagestanis had scarcely recovered from such a strange assessment of the tragedy when Yeltsin came out with another statement, alleging that Dudayev’s fighters had prepared a base of support in Pervomaiskoye ahead of time. This statement of Yeltsin’s caused a new outburst of anti-Russian sentiments in the republic. "If Yeltsin doesn’t know what he’s talking about, they shouldn’t let him on the air! He’s just provoking people!" Magomet Khachalayev, the leader of the Lak People’s Movement said at a meeting of the representatives of Dagestan’s national movements.

What Lies Ahead?

To all appearances, at the price of titanic efforts, this time, the Dagestani authorities have succeeded in keeping the peace in the republic. But there is no guarantee that provocateurs on both sides will not try to destabilize the situation in the republic again.

Nevertheless, one must not discount the fact that today, Dudayev’s fighters are split; in essence, there is simply no unified command of the Chechen resistance forces. Even if Dudayev’s government makes a decision not to launch terrorist attacks in a neighboring republic, there is no guarantee that individual field commanders will agree to this.

At the same time, one cannot be sure that there will be no new provocation from the opposite side. "Russian troops are opening fire on Dudayev’s positions from the territory of Dagestan. Delegations have come to me several times from that side. The fighters tell me: ‘We can’t shoot at Dagestani villages; get the Russian troops to come out first!’ I’m afraid that someday, Dudayev’s fighters’ patience will run out," says Basyr Dadayev, the chairman of the National Council of the Chechens of Dagestan.

The mountain regions of Chechnya uncontrolled by Russian troops border on Dagestan. If the Russian troops go on the offensive, the Chechen fighters will simply be forced to retreat into the neighboring mountain regions of Dagestan. By the way, some of the fighters are based in the mountains of Dagestan even today: more than once, Dudayev’s fighters have raided federal troops from the territory of the adjoining republic. The mountain region of Dagestan bordering Chechnya is settled by the Ando-Didoy peoples, related in language and culture to the Chechens, and naturally, according to the rules of mountain etiquette, the local inhabitants cannot simply refuse shelter to Dudayev’s fighters when they are in trouble. It is well-known what Russian troops do to villages where Dudayev’s fighters are based, and as the experience in Chechnya has shown, such methods are quite effective in filling the ranks of the fighters with what were, up until that time, peaceful inhabitants.

Besides, after the introduction of Russian troops, a new source of tension arose in the region of Dagestan furthest away from the zone of military activity. About 200,000 Lezgins live in the south of the republic, and approximately the same number of these people live in the adjoining areas of Azerbaijan. After the disintegration of the USSR and the creation of the Russian-Azerbaijani border, the Lezgin national movement, "Sadaval," organized mass demonstrations demanding the creation of a single republic of Lezginstan, within the framework of the Russian Federation. At the time, the tension was defused: the Russian authorities promised to preserve freedom of movement across the borders. But after the introduction of Russian troops into Chechnya, Moscow feared that the Chechens would get aid from Azerbaijani Islamic-oriented organizations, and closed the border again. One must also not forget that the transportation of Azerbaijani oil to Western Europe is supposed to begin in the fall of 1996. If the "northern route" is chosen, the "black gold" will be transported through the territory of Lezginstan, and certain forces may try to use the means at their disposal to cut off this route.

And finally, one should not discount the influence that the difficult socio-economic conditions in the republic will have on the political situation there.

Decline in Production in Dagestan (as a percentage of the previous year)

1991 1992 1993 1994 1995

11.7 % 27.3 % 28.3 % 43.3 % 21.0 %

The standard of living here is substantially lower than in other regions of Russia. Thus, for example, in October 1995, the average [monthly] salary in Dagestan was 204,000 rubles (about $50) while the average salary in Russia is 560,000 rubles (about $125).

Officially, in December 1995, unemployment in Dagestan was at 7.2 percent of the work force. In 1994, unemployment was at 5.9 percent; that is, unemployment grew by 1.3 times in one year. Dagestan has become one of 16 regions in Russia where the situation in the labor market is officially recognized to be critical. Unemployment is especially high in rural areas. In some of these areas, the unemployment rate has reached 18-20 percent of the work force.

But the real number of unemployed people is still higher. There is a great deal of "hidden" unemployment in the republic: a person may work only a few hours a week, and although he is not considered to be "officially" unemployed, he receives only a symbolic salary. Naturally, in such a disastrous situation, there is great social tension, and it cannot be excluded that those who are most unfortunate could make up the backbone of Dagestan’s future holy warriors.

At the same time, the Dagestan scenario could also be played out in another North Caucasus republic–Ingushetia. The situation there, in many parameters, is reminiscent of that in Dagestan.

The Chechens and the Ingush are virtually the same people, and call themselves by a common name–vainakhi. Until 1991, Checheno-Ingushetia was a single political unit. There is no border agreement between Chechnya and Ingushetia. There are disputed territories, to which both republics have claims. One of the sources of tension in Chechnya is the region of the village of Sernovodsk, but from the point of view of the Ingush authorities, this territory belongs to their republic. Thus, practically speaking, it is possible to say that the war has already spilled over into the territory of Ingushetia. Just as in Dagestan, federal troops are shooting at Chechen fighters from Ingush territory. There have been several cases of Ingush villages being bombed by mistake by Russian aviation. Several months ago, Russian special forces [spetsnaz] seized the Sleptsovskoye airport in Ingushetia: the military had received false information that Dudayev was there. As a result of this action, several peaceful inhabitants were wounded, and one was killed.

In case of an offensive by federal troops (again, a direct analogy with Dagestan!), Dudayev’s fighters will retreat into Ingush mountain villages.

Thus, although this time, war has been averted in Dagestan, if there is a new provocation (and the chances for this are real), the Chechen war could grow into a North Caucasus war. And, as stated above, Dagestan is not the only potential hot spot in the Northern Caucasus into which the flames of the Chechen war could spread.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert

Igor Rotar is a correspondent for Izvestiya.