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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Both Sides Are Ready to Fight for Dagestan

The mountain villages of Dagestan, scene of Russia's latest military clash with Chechen and Dagestani rebels, are extraordinarily remote. The people of the Botlikh region, a high corner on the Chechen-Dagestani border, are unique to their valley and speak their own language. The stark, barren crags of the Great Caucasus mountain range where they live are even more impenetrable than the wooded mountains of Chechnya.

A skirmish in this southernmost point of Russia may seem like a small problem with bandits in the hills. Yet the growing number of casualties shows both sides regard the area and the issue to be important enough to fight for. The rebels have a vision and proven determination. The Russian authorities are again trying to smash incipient separatism with brute force, despite the lessons of Chechnya that such tactics may only reinforce popular resistance and could bring greater instability and even military humiliation.

For the people of Dagestan, stuck in the middle, the conflict spells trouble. Dagestan, which only just managed to survive the fallout of the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, is double the size of its Chechen neighbor and far more fractured, with a population of 2 million made up of 34 different ethnic nationalities. The power sharing between them is intricate and complicated.

For Russia, Dagestan retains an important strategic value. Dagestan commands 70 percent of Russia's shoreline to the oil-producing Caspian Sea and its only all-weather Caspian port at Makhachkala. It provides the crucial pipeline links from Azerbaijan, where Russia maintains important oil interests. Geographically placed between Chechnya and the Caspian and Azerbaijan, it has served as a containing buffer, controlling the Chechens' access to the outside world.

For Chechnya, which won its freedom from Russian rule but has suffered drastically from the consequent economic isolation, Dagestan offers the way out to prosperity. During the war, Dagestan, and in particular the Botlikh region, became a conduit for weapons and men into and out of Chechnya. Hundreds of wounded Chechen fighters were spirited over the mountain roads to Azerbaijan for treatment. Now the routes offer the promise of trade, jobs and economic survival.

There is much more than economics driving this confrontation, though. The men leading the incursion into Dagestan are determined revolutionaries, who want to see the whole Caucasus region free from Russian rule. They regard much of Dagestan as theirs by right, harking back to the Islamic state that resisted Russian conquest for so long in the last century.

There are few people in Dagestan who actively support independence from Russia, yet discontent with Moscow runs deep. Since the war in Chechnya, the republic has suffered drastic economic decline and instability. Unemployment is the highest in all of Russia, and like all people from the Caucasus, the Dagestanis suffer ethnic discrimination in Russia. Their predicament leaves them susceptible to ideas of radical Islam, or even separatism, according to Enver Kisriyev, a Dagestani sociologist.

Shamil Basayev, the Chechen guerrilla commander who led his troops in the fiercest fighting of the war, is the driving force behind the latest fighting.

He has had Dagestan in his sights for more than a year now. After six months as Chechen prime minister last year, he resigned to set up a formal movement called the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan and head its "peacekeeping force."

"The aim is the union of Dagestan and Chechnya," he said in an extended interview last year. Asked if that meant removing Dagestan from Russian jurisdiction, he answered, "Inshallah," which means "God willing." He said he hoped Dagestan would win independence without recourse to war, but that there were many Dagestanis willing to fight and he was prepared to help them. "I am helping Dagestan and will help anyone who is against Russia," he said.

At 34, Basayev is a fierce fighter with a clear political aim. For many years he has argued that the world is witnessing the collapse of the Russian empire and its dominance of the North Caucasus region. He was always confident that Russia would withdraw from Chechnya and predicts the same for Dagestan.

"Dagestan will be independent, there is no doubt," he said. "Russia will not have a presence in the North Caucasus, it will simply leave. Probably without war or bloodshed, it will collapse. Our job will be to prevent great bloodshed."

Basayev is supported and possibly helped with funds by a commander known by his nom de guerre, Khattab, who arrived in Chechnya in early 1995 to join the fight against Russia. Khattab keeps his origins secret, but is thought to be from Jordan or Saudi Arabia and a follower of Wahhabism, the conservative sect of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

He fought with the rebels against the Soviet army in Afghanistan but has since made his home in Chechnya and married a Dagestani. Wounded three times in Chechnya, he is very close to Basayev and has been training young Chechen and Dagestani fighters. His agenda, he says, is to fight the Russians and bring Islamic rule once more to the North Caucasus.

Khattab is reticent about his connections with other Wahhabi organizations around the world and about his long-term aims. Yet he is part of a growing presence of Wahhabis in the Caucasus, in particular in Dagestan and Chechnya. Their version of Islam is strict and militant, and much of it alien to the Caucasus. Not all Wahhabis advocate armed intervention; some are living peacefully in other Dagestani villages. But militant Wahhabis are finding fertile ground among the young, particularly when tempted by weapons training.

While Basayev defends Khattab fiercely as a brother who spilt his blood for Chechnya, he has spoken against Wahhabism, or extreme Islam, for Chechnya. Basayev is a practicing Moslem. Unlike the Wahhabis, who are against the presence of infidels in a Moslem country, Basayev says he would welcome the presence of NATO in the Caucasus and Chechnya.

The combination of Basayev and Khattab makes the Russian leadership see red. While Moscow can tolerate the moderate Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, it regards Basayev as a terrorist and a radical with whom it cannot negotiate, and Khattab as a dangerous foreign mercenary.

The authorities are not even considering negotiating with them over their occupation of several villages in Dagestan, Zagir Arukhov, the deputy nationalities minister in Dagestan, said in a telephone interview. "We will not go to negotiate. They are bandits and we see this action as an aggression and occupation of Dagestan."