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The Current Crisis in Dagestan and Chechnya: Will the Federation Emerge Intact?

By Mikhail Alexseev

Two years ago, when I visited Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, I saw that the economy was at a standstill, but ethnic and religious forces were on the move. Despite widespread poverty, new mosques dotted the landscape, and even a new gas station on the road from the airport to the city looked like a miniature mosque. Ethnic popular movements, representing most of Dagestan's 14 major ethnic groups, had built impressive "palaces of culture" in Makhachkala.

I recall thinking that if the situation deteriorated, these movements could quickly recruit activists and fighters from the ubiquitous gangs of unemployed young people all over the city. A popular form of "music" consisted of amateur tapes of fighters in neighboring Chechnya blasting Russian tanks to smithereens.

The war music is on again in the North Caucasus, this time for real. First, about 2,000 rebels crossed from Chechnya into Dagestan in an attempt to set up an independent Islamic state. The rebels met with stiff opposition from most Dagestanis and were driven out, but they also provoked the Russian military into pounding tons of metal into the mountain slopes and treating local residents with arrogance and suspicion.

Claiming that the Chechen terrorists blew up three apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in August and September, the Kremlin amassed an estimated 200,000 troops around Chechnya, canceled peace talks, and launched air strikes on the Chechen capital, Grozny. Fleeing death and destruction, close to 200,000 people have made for the neighboring republic of Ingushetia by November. In Moscow, police rounded up and deported 10,000 people with darker skin, typical of ethnic groups in the Caucasus. An estimated 80,000 non-Russians and people of mixed ethnicity fled Moscow fearing ethnic cleansing.

Reversing a 1997 peace treaty, in which President Boris Yeltsin recognized the current Chechen government of popularly elected Aslan Maskhadov, Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, stated that Maskhadov was illegitimate and that Chechnya, once again, was nothing but "a bandit enclave." Yeltsin only praised Putin for resolute action.

The stakes are high. Russia faces its worst security crisis since a humiliating defeat in Chechnya three years ago, and the Kremlin fears it will not be regarded as a great power if it loses Chechnya and Dagestan.

Times have changed since Soviet days

This is a misperception, unless one subscribes to a popular conspiracy theory that the current crisis had been orchestrated by Yeltsin to cancel the elections next year. At the heart of this misperception is a "domino theory" rooted in the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union: If one republic goes, the Kremlin fears, others also will break away. Russia then would consist of just a handful of ethnically Russian regions around Moscow.

But the Kremlin's indulgence in this domino theory, along with its arrogant determination to be seen as a "great power," poses a much more serious -- albeit a different -- threat to Russia than regional separatism. For starters, the domino theory is wrong.

Before the current military campaign in Chechnya -- and this is a crucial qualifier -- Russia could not collapse the same way as the Soviet Union did eight years ago, even if both Chechnya and Dagestan seceded, for several reasons:

1. The 89 regions that make up Russia have never had the trappings of sovereignty enjoyed by the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union. Thirty one of these 89 regions of the Russian federation were carved up into administrative units on the basis of ethnicity. When the USSR collapsed, these unitsÑcalled autonomous republics and districts -- have not had politburos, flags, anthems or seats at the United Nations -- attributes that helped the former Soviet republics to become recognized as independent nations with relative ease. The republics of Russia would have a long way to go to establish any kind of real sovereignty that would threaten Russia as a whole. Prospects for international recognition are close to naught. By contrast, the catalysts of Soviet disintegration, the Baltic republics, were not recognized by the United States as constituent units of the USSR, which greatly eased international recognition after Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia declared independence.

2. Critically, Russia has no state ideology like the communism that cemented the Soviet Union. Any breakaway movement would have to draw exclusively on ethnic anti-Russian sentiment.

Thus, despite being an ethnic Russian, I voted for Ukrainian independence in the 1991 referendum. Mine was an anti-Soviet, not an anti-Russian, vote. Millions of Russians in the Soviet republics similarly supported independence for the same reason.

In post-Soviet Russia, by contrast, any separatist movement can only be anti-Russian. But ethnic Russians make up more than 80% of Russia's population, and broad public support for anti-Russian separatists has been unlikely even among non-Russians.

In Dagestan, the Avars -- the largest ethnic group who think of themselves as the Chechens' ethnic brethren -- have come out against the guerrillas.

The military action in Chechnya makes anti-Russian ethnic mobilization more likely in the long-term, while serving as a deterrent in the short run.

3. Russian regions today have no popular movements such as existed in the former Soviet Union: the Sajudis in Lithuania, or the Round Table in Georgia, or the Rukh in Ukraine that in the late 1980s sparked off Soviet disintegration. Chechnya is the sole exception within Russia.

Russia's other provinces also lack a charismatic secessionist leader such as Chechnya's Dzhokar Dudayev. Dagestan's leaders are, in essence, Soviet apparatchiks seeking a quiet life. They back the Kremlin in the current battle, even setting up their own Web site to counter the Web site run by guerrilla supporters.

The leaders of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Sakha, Tyva and the Maritime Territory raised the specter of separatism at one time or another, but they quickly backed down when offered lower taxes and higher federal subsidies.

4. No regional leader in post-Soviet Russia could, even remotely, play the role that Yeltsin played as Russia's leader in the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. In those days, Yeltsin urged secessionist Soviet republics to take as much sovereignty as they could swallow.

In 1994, other republics did not join Chechnya in seeking independence. The leader of oil-producing Tatarstan, all his declarations of sovereignty notwithstanding, did not threaten Yeltsin with an energy embargo. The powerful and popular Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, did not cut off electricity to the Kremlin. Instead, Luzhkov ordered Moscow police to patrol the streets and to question anyone resembling a Chechen. (My brown eyes, mustache, black eyebrows and a forest green L.L. Bean hat - vaguely resembling Dudayev's - made me an inevitable target of these spot checks as late as 1997 and 1998.)

5. The secessionist leaders in the Soviet republics knew their movements would enjoy strong support of large anti-Soviet constituencies in the West, including sizable ethnic diasporas. No such sympathy exists for the separatists in Chechnya and Tatarstan, or in the Urals and in the Far East. When Russian tanks attacked Grozny in late 1994, President Clinton asserted that Chechnya was Russia's internal affair and sided squarely with Yeltsin.

6. President Yeltsin has done a better job negotiating with regional leaders than Gorbachev did with the Soviet republics. With the stunning exception of Chechnya, Yeltsin has hammered out mutually acceptable power-sharing deals. He wisely ignored sovereignty declarations and foreign policy programs as long as they did not undermine Russia's federal agencies.

In 1996, Yeltsin even gave up appointing regional governors, allowing the regions to have their governors elected. And some Russian regions acted as free-market laboratories, privatizing land and inviting in foreign businesses. Hopes for a strong, dynamic federation in Russia emerged.

High cost of Kremlin's imperial aspirations

But the Kremlin's imperial arrogance toward the Caucasus has undermined those hopes. New Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged to defend Russian territorial integrity and "solve the Dagestan crisis" in as little as a week and a half -- a promise that was broken. Russia's military commanders then promised to destroy all "terrorists" in Chechnya in another two weeks or so. While in Moscow in late September, I saw Putin on the evening news resort to gangland slang when reporters asked him about his plans to fight the Chechen rebels. "We'll blast them anywhere. If we find them in the john, we'll stick their head in the bowl. Any more questions?" Putin eyed theaudience with a hint to triumphant disdain.

These statements echo ominously the pledge by Pavel Grachev, Russia's defense minister in 1994, to quash Chechnya's secessionist government with one paratrooper regiment in "a few hours." Two years and 80,000 violent deaths later, Russian forces withdrew.

While Moscow's desire to quash the rebels fast is understandable, the Kremlin's great power illusions keep backfiring. In June, despite having missed repaying billions of dollars of international debt, Russia put scarce resources in its largest military exercise since the Soviet collapse. Strategic bombers flew to Iceland. Elite paratroopers went to Kosovo. These symbolic acts let Moscow feel it remained a "great power," but diverted its attention and resources from preventive action in Dagestan and from peace negotiations with the Chechen leaders.

Now these illusions are pushing Moscow, belatedly, toward unwinnable military solutions. A massive attack, now seemingly imminent, would trigger another protracted Chechen war. (Already, the Chechen field commanders pledged to forgo their feuds and join forces against the Russian military.) A low-intensity campaign would foment a Viet Cong on the Caspian. Sealing all the mountain paths to isolate Chechnya and protect Dagestan is unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's pledge to defeat the rebels at all costs means Moscow will have fewer, if any, resources to turn around Chechnya's and Dagestan's moribund economy. Ironically, this can only help advance the long-term goals of the Islamic radicals, by creating further instability in Dagestan. Getting out of this vicious circle will be more difficult as time goes on - even the most popular of Russia's liberal parties, Yabloko, called for tough military measures to stop the rebels. In this election year of the Russian parliament, they and other parties seek to cash in on the growing public xenophobia. In a recent poll of 1,030 Moscow residents, more than half said they want the Kremlin to fight a war in the Caucasus.

But instability in Chechnya and Dagestan will rob Moscow of its biggest economic prize in the region, access to westward routes for the Caspian Sea oil. The pipeline taking the Azerbaijan oil to the Western markets can bypass Chechnya, but it cannot bypass Dagestan. Oil deposits and refineries around the pipeline have been set ablaze.

Great power illusions threaten Russia well beyond the Caucasus. Moscow is neglecting massive work that needs to be done to give ordinary Russians a break from years of economic decline.

This work requires a consensus among nearly 90 constituent units of the Russian federation on the rules of their relations with Moscow. It requires patience, engagement, compromise and new political institutions. Ten years after the collapse of communism, Russia has nothing like the great compromise between the states and the federal government that made the United States possible more than two centuries ago.

But Moscow's military campaign in the Caucasus casts doubt on its ability to compromise, or even to use resources wisely. And it encourages regional leaders to fend for themselves and be wary of the Kremlin. Some have already toyed with trade embargoes, quasi-currencies and regional security forces. The republic of Tatarstan just passed a law forbidding Moscow to send local residents to the North Caucasus. Other republics with large non-Russian populations are likely to follow suit, setting the stage for a broader center-periphery conflict.

In other words, if the Kremlin chooses to remain on the warpath with the Caucasus, it also will be choosing the path to a weaker economy, regional fiefdoms, and social unrest.

The current upsurge of knee-jerk xenophobia notwithstanding, it is hardly the path most Russians would want to take.

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