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Dagestan crisis worse than Chechnya

By MARTIN SIEFF UPI National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 -- The Islamic nationalist rising in Dagestan in the Russian Caucasus confronts President Boris Yeltsin and his new Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a crisis that threatens to dwarf the Chechnya war, leading analysts warn. 'The Russian government has predicted that it will close down the revolt in Dagestan in two weeks,' said Paul Goble, former chief State Department analyst on Soviet nationalities in the Bush administration. 'But it made the same prediction about the 1994 Chechnya war and that assessment will prove as erroneous now as it did then.' Goble is now deputy director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He spoke in a private capacity. More than 100,000 people were killed in Chechnya during 1 years of fighting from December 1994 to the summer of 1996 before Russia recognized its inability to crush that fierce Muslim mountain people. But the Dagestan uprising threatens to be even worse because it is deeply religious as well as nationalistic and could engulf many other Muslim peoples within the sprawling Russian federation. 'The Dagestan explosion is going to tap into Islamic passions as well as nationalist ones,' Goble said. 'That will make it far more difficult for the Russians to contain it.' The Shura of Dagestan, an Islamic council, declared independence at a meeting last weekend in a mountain town and declared an Islamic state. They also declared a jihad, or holy war, and called on the neighboring Chechens to support their struggle for independence.

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The Shura is dominated by a radical Wahhabi Sunni Islamic sect that is determined to win independence for the mostly Islamic republics of the Caucasus, which have been part of Russia since the 1830s -- longer than Texas has been a state of the Union. David Kramer, a Eurasian affairs expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Dagestan rebellion marked a significant escalation in Muslim militancy within the Russian federation against the central government in Moscow. 'The uprising is somewhat reminiscent of Chechnya,' he said. 'But this time, the initiative for violent escalation of the conflict did not come from Moscow or from the Russian military. It came from the Islamic forces in Dagestan themselves. It seems they are taking advantage of what they see as the growing weakness and chaos of the central government in Moscow to launch their own bold challenge for independence. The Russian military -- with the bitter memories of its enormous casualties and poor performance in Chechnya still fresh -- has already hit back hard at the rebels with air attacks and artillery bombardments. Several thousand civilians are already reported to have fled from the disputed Botlikh region. But Kramer said the Russian army appeared reluctant to get involved in repressing another popular Muslim uprising after its traumatic experiences in Chechnya and in the 1980-88 Afghanistan war. 'It will be harder for the Russian political and military leadership to get away with another Chechnya,' he said, referring to the enormous casualties caused by the indiscriminate Russian bombardment of the Chechen capital Grozny. 'And the (Russian) military's willingness to go into Dagestan on a large scale is much less since their experience in Chechnya.' Also, Kramer said, 'The Russian military of 1999 is at a far lower state of readiness and cohesion to fight such a conflict than it was even in 1994 when it went into Chechnya.' Goble said that the mountainous terrain of Dagestan presented the Russian military with a difficult choice: suffer more heavy casualties by sending its poorly equipped and under-trained conscript forces to fight the rebels on their home turf, or cede victory to the Dagestan uprising. 'In Chechnya, the Russians were very reluctant to fight in the mountains, but almost all of Dagestan is mountains, and they are of an even more imposing nature than the Dolomites in northern Italy, and far, far worse than the Appalachians (in the eastern United States),' Goble said. Even if the Dagestan conflict does not flare into a full-scale war on the Chechnya scale, it will increase Russian-Muslim tensions and encourage the restiveness of Russia's fast-growing Muslim minority, which now comprises 25 million in a total nation of 145 million people, Goble said. 'Currently, around 18 percent of the population of Russia are Muslims,' he said. 'But if current trends continue, as soon as 2005, the percentage of Muslims in Russia will have risen to 22 percent. 'Right now, the ethnic Russian population in absolute terms is shrinking by around half a million people a year, while the Islamic peoples' population (in Russia) is growing at a rate of 3.5 percent to 4 percent a year.' ---

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Copyright 1999 by United Press International. All rights reserved. ---

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