Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Rebellion Simmers in Dagestan
The "Chechen invasion" of Dagestan last August provided fine grist for Russia's propaganda mill. The state television channels regaled their audiences with images of indignant Dagestanis cursing their Chechen cousins for this act of treachery. And they washed this down with tales of Russian military triumphs and the total annihilation of the rebel forces. But the first casualty of federal intervention was, as usual, the truth.
In fact, the Chechen fighters led by Shamil Basaev and the Jordanian-born Khattab arrived in Dagestan at the invitation of the local population. They didn't "seize" the villages of Karamakhi or Chabanmakhi, as the Russian media would have it - they were welcomed with open arms by their spiritual brothers, the Laks, many of whom had also embraced the extremist Wahhabi doctrine. The "invasion" was, in reality, part of a simmering rebellion in Dagestan which has been gathering momentum for the past decade.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mountain republic has been suffering from the same malaise which has crept across the entire North Caucasus - political and social apartheid.
In Dagestan, the reins of power lie firmly in the hands of the Avars, the majority ethnic group. Over the last 10 years, the Avars have been able to usurp all the top positions in political, cultural, economic and academic circles. Minority clans, such as the Laks, the Dargains and the Kumyks, have effectively been dispossessed.
Today, the capital Makhachkala is the fiefdom of the Magomedov "princes" with influential government jobs and choice commercial contracts awarded exclusively to members of the dynasty.
Naturally, it wasn't long before the downtrodden minorities found themselves a leader -- Nadirshakh Khachilaev, an ethnic Lak and a deputy for the Russian State Duma. Soon Khachilaev was waging a far-ranging political campaign across the North Caucasus, calling on neighbouring peoples to support his cause.
But things reached a head in 1994 when the Lak leader infuriated Boris Yeltsin's government by condemning the Russian campaign in Chechnya. Moscow wasted no time in branding Khachilaev an enemy of the state and dispatching secret service agents to engineer his downfall. But support for Khachilaev and his brother, Magomed, never wavered and, in May 1998, a police raid on Nadirshakh's home brought thousands of Lak protestors on to the streets of Makhachkala.
The brothers were suspected of taking five policemen hostage after a brief gun-battle on the border with Chechnya - but the circumstances of the subsequent raid were almost irrelevant. On reaching the main square, the protestors took the opportunity to seize government buildings and threaten a coup d'etat.
On this occasion, the situation was defused by the intervention of interior minister Sergei Stepashin but both brothers are currently standing trial for their part in the uprising. The authorities remain acutely aware that the court case, conducted against a backdrop of high security, could spark fresh violence at any time.
However, despite the danger signals, the Magomedov regime continues to demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to key ethnic and religious issues. Recently, Surakat Asiyatilov, chairman of the religious affairs committee for the Dagestan State Assembly, told the Severny Kavkaz newspaper, "Taking Islam out of the mosques and into the streets is harmful both to the believers and to Islam as a whole."
Asiyatilov and the entire bureaucratic cabal clearly believe they are capable of defining the framework for religious worship in Dagestan. They have completely ignored the fact that Islam is a genuine political force in the republic - and that extremist tendencies, such as Wahhabism, owe their momentum to external influences.
One can sense shades of the Communist Party line and the Stalinist approach in Asiyatilov's pronouncements - but it is unlikely that he would have the courage to face an armed rebellion with such equanimity.
It is clear that the failure of the May 1998 coup prompted the Lak leaders to throw in their hand with the rebelling Chechens. Prior to the arrival of Basaev and Khattab, they stockpiled weapons and build defences around key villages.
Their fate is already well-documented. The Russian army flattened their fortresses, drove the Chechens back across the border and rounded up the Lak "mutineers". The Dagestanis who appeared on Russian television to express their relief at this dramatic "liberation" were almost all ethnic Avars who supported the federal cause.
Once again, the Russians deliberately chose to ignore the root cause of the troubles - and their greater implications. We have seen the growth of apartheid across the North Caucasus - in Kabardino-Balkaria where the Kabardinian majority under Valery Kokov has seized power and in Karachaevo-Cherkessia where Karachai president Vladimir Semenov has excluded Cherkess and Abazin leaders from government posts.
The North Caucasus can only be saved by democracy in its widest form. Democratic principles must be applied to every aspect of political power, ethnic disputes and commercial dealings. The North Caucasus is inhabited by tough and uncompromising peoples - but, at heart, they are lovers of freedom and democracy.
More and more people are asking themselves the same question: is Russia capable of bringing this democracy to the North Caucasus? Recent history shows increasingly that she is not. Russia has brought us nothing but suffering and poverty. And there is no reason to hope that this will change.
Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight