Navigating the Daghestani Conflict

Category: World Affairs Topics: Conflicts And War, Dagestan, Russia Views: 963

The recent turmoil in the Daghestani Caucasus Mountains has provoked the wrath of the Russian bear and raised hopes in some, and fears in others of another Chechen-like conflict. Chechen rebels, often striking from mountain strong holds -- as has also been the case in Daghestan -- were able to drive back the Russian army with help from the Chechen people. In doing so, the Chechens gained a degree of autonomy from the Russian federation. But, aside from the fact the rebels in both cases are Muslims, any comparison of the recent fighting in Daghestan to the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya poses problems both in terms of the nature of the current conflict and the identity of the rebels themselves.

A few hundred rebels, according to the BBC on August 11, crossed into Daghestan from Chechnya and on August 7 and declared Daghestan an independent Islamic republic after taking control of some 15 villages in the southern Botlikh province. While reports of rebel casualties have varied, the guerilla fighters have so far resisted a fierce Russian onslaught and inflicted a number of casualties on Russian troops.

It is evident the rebels are well trained, equipped and financed. Although they perhaps lack numbers, the rebels are deeply committed to their cause.

But despite rebel allusions to a national holy war against Russian occupation, reminiscent of the Chechen war for independence, the current conflict seems to lack the broad-based popular support the independence struggle received in Chechnya. Anatole Lieven, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told the BBC on August 14 that in Daghestan, "most of the local people don't support the rebels" and that their control is limited to the villages they already occupy. "If they try to break out of this area, fewer and fewer people will come to their side," he said.

There are several reasons for this lack of popular mobilization. Daghestani Muslims are somewhat less unified than their Chechen counterparts, there being some 34 different ethnic groups in the Russian province. And despite a common Islamic history with Chechnya -- fighting Tsarist domination in the 19th century, Imam Shamil, the renowned 19th century Daghestani Muslim leader, established an Islamic kingdom in the Caucus mountains -- Daghestan was not targeted by Stalinist purges to the degree of Chechnya and has maintained a somewhat more tolerant view of Russia. And unlike Chechnya, Daghestan opted to remain part of Russia following the break up of the Soviet Union.

But Anatole Lieven said in an August 20 editorial for the New York Times that the siding of Daghestani officials with Russia has to do with "their dependence on Russian subsidies." Lieven said another significant reason for people's popular wariness of the rebels is "the realization that Russian withdrawal would inevitably trigger a disastrous struggle between Daghestan's 34 different nationalities."

The rebels however do not share skeptics' apprehension regarding division. They have made repeated attempts to avoid such ethnic conflict in the call for the establishment of an Islamic state. Speaking on Russian Public TV, the rebel deputy chairman, a Daghestani named Adollo, said, "We in Daghestan have long forgotten the words 'Laks' or 'Avars' ethnic groups in the Caucasus. We are Muslims and that is all," according to BBC monitoring on August 8.

In his Times editorial, Lieven says that Islam could serve as a unifying force for Daghestan, but warns that the current rebel movement could only achieve this unity after much domestic conflict. Lieven writes, "It could be that radical Islam can create a new supranational system but if so, only over tens of thousands of corpses."

Much of the caution evidenced by Daghestanis in regards to the rebels has to do with the identity of the rebels themselves. Although many of the rebels, including such prominent leaders as Bagautdin and Majomed Tagayer, are native Daghestanis, many of the fighters are left-over Mujahideen from the 1994-1996 Chechen war and hail from a variety of countries in the Muslim world. The rebel commander, Shamyl Basayev, is a Chechen and was a prominent field commander in the Chechen war. The current rebel field commander in Daghestan, Khattab, is a Mujahideen fighter from Saudi Arabia who came to Chechnya in 1995 to fight in the war.

After the Chechen war, many of the Mujahideen engaged in questionable activity such as hostage taking. Basayev is himself wanted by Russian authorities for his role in taking some 1,000 Russians hostage in a hospital. With unemployment high and Chechnya economically devastated by the war, the Mujahideen have attracted many youthful compatriots who have become, in some cases, armed gangs that Chechen authorities have been unable to control.

The state of anarchy as a result of growing polarization between Chechnya's left-over Mujahideen and the Chechen authorities was evidenced by a showdown earlier this year between Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov and several Mujahideen, including Basayev, who was Maskhadov's former Prime Minister. Maskhadov reformed the legal system to provide Chechnya with Islamic Shari'a law, but found that his reforms were rejected by the opposition leaders, who formed their own legal code and called for Maskhadov's resignation.

Maskhadov, himself a field commander during the Chechen war, has condemned the rebel movement in Daghestan, declared a state of emergency and commanded security forces to prevent the reentry of the rebel fighters into Chechnya. The Daghestani government has called for citizens to resist the rebels and drive them out of Daghestan.

Several religious leaders have condemned the rebels in Daghestan and their use of Islam to unilaterally declare an independent state based on the control of a few villages. Shaykh Ravil Gainutdin, the mufti of Russia's 12 million Muslims, has publicly condemned the rebels.

But confounding such reports of lack of support, is an August 5 article in Russia's Kommersant which said many of the inhabitants of rebel-occupied villages in Daghestan, widely perceived as being bastions of support for the rebels, "were delighted to receive the occupiers and expressed a willingness to support them," according to BBC monitoring on August 10.

With conflicting reports of casualties and varying opinions on popular support, the landscape of the Daghestani conflict is as navigable as the treacherous Daghestani mountains. And as the rebel insurgents seem undaunted in their mission, it is unlikely that the dust will settle enough any time soon so that more clarity on the convoluted twists of this conflict can be ironed out.

Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Dagestan, Russia
Views: 963

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