The Deepening Dangers Of Dagestan

The ongoing bombing campaign that has all of Russia on edge could not be more serious. It highlights the insoluble dilemma the Kremlin faces in the Caucasus--and risks destabilizing the entire Russian state. The appallingly high body count could spark a Russian backlash against Caucasian people in general, increasing ethnic hatred in Russia, and above all in the ethnically mixed North Caucasus itself. The terror could also lead Russia into another bloody and disastrous intervention in Chechnya, in a misguided attempt to stop the attacks at their source. More ominously, the Kremlin's reaction to the campaign could erode Russian democracy (such as it is).

How? The group around Yeltsin--the so-called Family--could use the crisis as an excuse to declare a state of emergency. Under its terms, next June's presidential election would be postponed, allowing the current crew to remain in power and avoid prosecution for alleged corruption. Such a move would deal a terrible blow to democracy, fatally undermine the legitimacy of the central government and risk plunging the country into chaos. The real threat to Yeltsin and his associates from the corruption allegations makes a dictatorial power grab a genuine possibility.

In fact, some in the media and the opposition think forces close to the Kremlin are behind the bombings. This seems on balance unlikely. Most people, including Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander and one of the leaders of the incursions into Dagestan, see a link to the Caucasus. In a recent interview with a Czech newspaper, Basayev denied personal responsibility for the terror campaign. But, he said, the bombers are Dagestanis enraged by the behavior of Russian troops in the republic.

There is no doubt that radical Islamic militancy has taken root in the northeast Caucasus. Middle East extremists have poured money into the region. The Russian government has suggested that Osama bin Laden himself is funding the region's Islamist surge. The main beneficiaries are the Wahabis--a catchall term for a collection of Arab-backed fundamentalists in the region. Before the Chechen war, there were very few of them; now Wahabis make up a key part of the anti-Russian forces fighting in Dagestan. They include a significant number of Arab volunteers; Basayev has said that during the first stage of the Dagestan fighting, five Arab and three Turkish fighters were killed. Basayev's ally in the invasion of Dagestan, the Jordanian-born commander Khattab, directs a force that reportedly includes a significant number of mujahedin from Afghanistan. In fact, Chechnya is becoming very much like Afghanistan: a base for Islamic radicalism and terrorism--and for drug smuggling and other criminal activities.

Before and during the Chechen war, I liked and admired Basayev both as a man and as a great commander and defender of his people, who suffered terribly in the Russian invasion. It is easy to understand how the brutalizing effects of the war, and the destruction of the economy, have contributed to the breakdown of Chechen society, as thousands of heavily armed, unemployed young men seek revenge against Russia. However, in their attacks on Dagestan, and the actions linked to them, Basayev and his comrades are no longer acting as freedom fighters in defense of Chechnya. They aim to establish an Islamic state that incorporates Chechnya and Dagestan. As such, they are in direct opposition not only to Russia but also to the Chechen president, Gen. Aslan Maskhadov. After leading the Chechen forces to victory against Russia, Maskhadov was elected in January 1997 with 65 percent of the vote, but his moderate government has long since been reduced to a powerless sham.

Even more important, the great majority of Dagestan's 34 nationalities oppose the Chechens and Wahabis. The animosity is not solely ethnic. Most Dagestanis follow local Sufi Islamic traditions and regard the new fundamentalism as alien and frightening. The Dagestani government of Mahomedali Mahomedov is strongly committed to keeping Dagestan in the Russian Federation. This is a completely different situation from that of Chechnya in December 1994, when the great majority of the population rose up to resist the Russian invasion.

The real danger in Dagestan: Chechen and Islamist pressure will overturn the republic's extremely delicate and fragile ethnic balance. The result could be a civil war much like the one Lebanon endured--but even bloodier and much more complicated. As anxiety over the rebel attacks grows, the Dagestani government is arming its own ethnic supporters. These groups, however, are often hostile to each other and also have close links to organized crime. If chaos grows in Dagestan, it is not impossible that at some point a weary, cynical and divided Russia might withdraw, leaving the "natives" to fight it out among themselves. This would not be "liberation." It would be a disaster for the whole region--and, as the example of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden shows, ultimately a danger for the West as well.