Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan Turns Its Back On Chechnya

Russia's new military campaign in the North Caucasus is marked not only by a new military strategy but also by a changed attitude to the Russian army's activity in Chechnya.
By Nabi Abdullaev

A transition from sympathy for the Chechens and their fight for independence to total approval for the Russian military campaign is now clearly visible in Dagestan, Chechnya's neighbouring Russian republic.


More than 14,000 Chechen refugees sought shelter in Dagestan during the first Chechen campaign in 1994-96. Dozens of international humanitarian organisations worked in the republic at that time to help official agencies care for the refugees.


The situation this time is very different. After the Chechen 'boevik' invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 under the leadership of Shamil Basaev, the Dagestan Interior Minister, Adilgirey Magometdagirov ordered a stop to free travel across the border of Chechen citizens.


This order is still in place. Only about 4,000 refugees, mainly ethnic Dagestanians and Russians have fled from Chechnya into Dagestan since the beginning of the latest conflict. Only a few Chechens with relatives in Dagestan were allowed to enter and only after their credentials were checked.


And most Dagestanis support these new administrative measures. Chechnya has been a constant source of danger for Dagestan for several years. Besides incidents of kidnapping, cattle rustling and attacks on border villages Dagestanis have come to associate Chechnya with drug and oil smuggling, as a support base for local extremists and criminal leaders.


Such characters easily find shelter in Ichkeria where the Russian police have no real access. Dagestanis who gave a shelter to Chechen families during the first war in Chechnya - and particularly the citizens of the Tsumadin and Botlikh regions - have publicly expressed regret for their own hospitality. These people believe the Chechens betrayed their hospitable traditions.


Dagestanis are inclined to associate all Chechen people with Chechen leaders like Maskhadov, Basaev, and Raduyev. Such attitudes are given further credence by stories narrated by former hostages, freed from Chechen captivity. There are hundreds of former hostages in Dagestan and the majority of them claim many Chechens are members of criminal groups and there is no way to separate "bad" from "good".


As a result pro-Russian opinion in Dagestan has been strengthened. Despite the existence in Russia of prejudice against Dagestanis together with all Caucasian peoples, Dagestanis have opted for Russian "imperialism" rather than Chechen "imperialism".


Chechens make up the largest ethnic group in the Northern Caucasus and have never concealed their aspirations to dominate in the region. Shamil Basaev could be considered an exponent of Chechen imperialism. He declared his mission to unify all the Northern Caucasus republics and to create one Islamic state with Ichkeria playing a central role.


This concept does not suit either the Dagestani political elite or the public at large. The 'civilised' Russian "imperialism" is considered a better option than the 'wild' Chechen variety. Separatist tendencies are virtually invisible now.


Russia's presence in the region has been seriously strengthened. Many in Dagestan see this a positive force given the Russian presence restrains local leaders, who still possess some old, feudal habits. An example of this restraining influence was demonstrated during the pre-election campaign in Dagestan.


In the past violence and confrontation have marred election campaigns, but this time things are proceeding relatively peacefully. The people's attitude towards the Russian military has also changed, especially during and after the military operation to expel the Chechen incursionists from Dagestan.


Now the residents not only feed the soldiers, but also supply them with warm clothes. Some men have even helped in military operation.


This contrasts markedly with the Russian military experience in 1994-1996. One other interesting observation: many Dagestanis have joined the Islamist Wahabi forces as soldiers for the Chechen cause.


In the mountainous areas of Dagestan emissaries for Basaev and Khatab still try to hire local residents. But society in general refuses to acknowledge that Dagestanis are fighting on the Chechen side and have labeled such people traitors to the motherland.


If the local press and general conversation are anything to go by Dagestanis do not foresee a political settlement in Chechnya. Maskhadov is not perceived as a viable negotiator. The Chechen president failed to apologise for the incursion into Dagestan, an omission that seriously damaged his standing in Dagestan.


So much so in fact that residents in Khasavyurt prevented Maskhadov from meeting his Dagestani counterpart, Magomedali Magomedov on September 29.


The main impact of the war in neighbouring Chechnya on the every day life in Dagestan has been increased security measures - the strengthening of existing police checkpoints and the establishment of new ones by Russian forces. Despite the added inconvenience most people are sympathetic to the measures.


One local driver said, "I am not against my car to be checked by a Russian officer. I am sure he won't be afraid to stop a brand new Mercedes that belongs to a local Mafia guy. In addition, unlike our militia, the Russians address me using the more polite form of 'you'".


Nabi Abdullaev is the political editor of Novoye Delo in Makhachkala.


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