The Eurasian Politician - October 2003
Anssi Kullberg, 6 Oct. 2003
The series of events known as the Dagestan provocation cannot be understood only by looking into what happened in Chechnya, because the tragedy was influenced by three power struggles: one in Moscow, one in Dagestan, and one in Chechnya. It makes sense to start describing the events from Dagestan itself, where we have to go back to the "Soviet Islamism" and its roots in the IRP (Islamic Renaissance Party), keeping in mind that this kind of Islamism was originally a force backed by the Soviet secret services in order to counteract national independence movements.
Dagestan is linguistically very diverse, although all the more than 30 ethnic groups share the same Caucasian culture. Only less than 6 per cent of the population are Russians, and even in the capital, Mahachkala, they constitute no more than 15 per cent of the population. The largest ethnic groups are the Avars (28 %), the Dargins (16 %), the Kumyks (13 %), and the Lezgins (12 %). Smaller groups include the Laks (5 %), the Tabasarans (5 %), the Chechens (5 %), the Azerbaijanis (4 %), the Nogais (2 %), and a number of really small groups. In Mahachkala, the population is constituted by Avars (23 %), Kumyks (17 %), Russians (15 %), Dargins (13 %), Laks (12 %), and Lezgins (9 %).
An actual united national Dagestani independence movement has not appeared, at least not as a significant force, but all the different ethnic groups have organized their own national organizations, which form an opposition field against the communist regime of Dagestan, dominated by Dargins. The national movements, in turn, have connections with the Sufi brotherhoods, where the support for independence is large. However, unlike in the predominantly Sufi Chechnya, in Dagestan, the Sufi tariqat is mostly supported by a relatively limited educated and urban population, while in the countryside, the dominant line is Islamic conservatism. Wahhabis supporting more radical and puritan Islamism number no more than 2-3 per cent of the population, and they are concentrated in certain villages. The Dargin villages Karamakhi, Chabanmakhi and Kadar of the Temir-Khan-Shura (Buinaksk) area became best known of these; later also the villages of the valley region of Kizilyurt and Hasavyurt. Some Wahhabi groups also reside in Lezgistan, Southern Dagestan.
The Avar national movement and "Popular Front in the Name of Imam Shamil" was founded as early as in late 1980s, but its leader Haji Mahachev, head of the oil company Dagneft, is an "oligarch" representing the rich families of Dagestan. The Turkic Nogais of the northern plains have a movement called Birlik (Unity), which aims at founding an autonomous Nogai region by uniting the Nogai areas of Dagestan and Russia's Stavropol kray. The Kumyks founded their organization Tenglik in 1990. The Lezgin organization Sadval was founded in 1991, and it has aimed at founding a united Lezgistan by seizing the Lezgin district south of the Samur River, in Azerbaijan, and annexing it to Dagestan, and then making Lezgistan at least autonomous within the Russian Federation, if not independent. Sadval has committed terrorist acts in Azerbaijan, and according to the Azerbaijanis, it has been armed and trained by Russian and Armenian secret services. The Dargins have a little-known organization called Tsadesh (Unity), and the Laks have an organization called Tsubars (New Star). The Terek Cossacks have founded their own nationalist organization. The Lak organization Tsubars was headed by the later convert to Islamism, Nadirshah Hachilayev.
In May and July 1989, an Islamist and founding member of the IRP, Abbas Kebedov, organized relatively peaceful demonstrations in Mahachkala and Kizilyurt. In Mahachkala, the demonstrators expelled the leader of the "Spiritual Administration", Mufti Mahmud Gekkiyev, from the administration building. In 1990-1992, everywhere in the Caucasus, people's religion started to divorce from the Soviet-style atheist official "Islam", which was mainly a scene only. The media of Dagestan and Russia, however, immediately branded Kebedov's demonstrations by using the word "Wahhabi", which Kebedov himself did not use. In the Soviet propaganda, the word "Wahhabism" had traditionally been used for any kind of Muslim opposition to the Soviet power.
At first, the Islamists acted mainly in peaceful ways, opposed alcohol and advocated decent and religious ways of life. They received support from the population also by criticizing the official clergy, whose reputation was very bad due to their being part of the Soviet system, and who were both corrupt and ignorant towards Islam. The clergy, who were accused for being communist agents, were organized by Surakat Asiyatilov to found the "Islamic Party of Dagestan" in 1994. By then, Islam had been revived from its hides throughout Dagestan, a country which had traditionally been strongly Islamic and conservative. Mosques had been constructed, and new Muslim scholars and mullahs were being educated. Unlike the leaders of Soviet Islam for whom religion did not mean faith as much as an ethnic curiosity, the young mullahs could show that they actually knew the Koran and believed in God, and they challenged the official clergy into public debates, which were put to an end in June 1997, when Asiyatilov demanded that his opponents must "shave their dirty beards".
Although all those, who opposed the official clergy, were indiscriminately branded as "Wahhabis", they actually consisted of very different groups. Among them, the Islamist IRP was led by Bahauddin Kebedov, by his original name Bahauddin Mahomedov, who was a follower of Abbas Kebedov. Another segment was formed by the intellectual Sufi Islamic movement, whose support was strongest among Avars, Kumyks and Chechens. These groups founded together the "Spiritual Council of the Muslims of Dagestan". Majority of the Dagestanis, however, belong to the fold of the apolitical Islamic conservatism of the countryside. They see Islam as a force that brings solidarity, order and unity, compared with the corrupt, demoralized and despotic colonial administration.
A Wahhabi stronghold was formed in the previously mentioned group of villages in Dargistan, in the historical Temir-Khan-Shura district, whose center is nowadays the town of Buinaksk. The villages started to follow sharia, and criminals as well as indecent persons were expelled from the villages. In August 1999, the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote: "Who are these fanatics called 'Wahhabites'; nobody actually could explain us. Russian media uses this slogan to unscrupulously brand all pious Muslims, from the rather harmless peasants of the village of Karamakhi, whose inhabitants have cut their relations with the corrupt state and organized their life along the sharia, to real extremists, who are being provided support from the Gulf states, and not only money."
From 1996 on, there were various minor clashes in Dargistan and Avaristan, connected with internal politics, but also connected with a similar tension between Wahhabi moral militias and local civil guards, which was experienced in Chechnya only later, in 1998-1999. Quite many things, including Khattab's Dagestani family life, suggest that both radical Islamism and the influence of Arab agents first got rooted in the Russian-controlled Dagestan, and from there they spread to Chechnya, when the contacts between Basayev's troops and Dagestani Islamists became more frequent on the border area. This means that quite contrarily to the common media myth, which echoes Russian disinformation, it was Dagestan that destabilized Chechnya, not the vice versa.
In December 1997, the villagers of Karamakhi clashed with Russian troops. In March 1998, there were bomb explosions in the district of Akki, and the responsibility was claimed by an unknown organization called "the Sword of Islam". These bombings could be provocations, because the most potential "ethnic conflict" in Dagestan could be provoked in the Akki region ("Novolaksk"), which was annexed in the Soviet times from Chechnya to Dagestan. The original Chechen population of Akki was deported to North Kazakstan (most were killed), while Laks were deported there from elsewhere in Dagestan.
The co-operation between Chechen and Dagestani Islamists began in that spring, 1998, when in April, Basayev founded the "Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan". His information chief Movladi Udugov founded, together with a 68-year-old Dagestani poet Adallo Aliyev, an organization called "the Nation of Islam", which aimed at uniting Dagestan and Chechnya - to "return to unity", as they argued. The alliance was joined by the former Chechen vice president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, and the Dagestanis Mahomed Tahayev, Sirazhdin Ramazanov, and Djurally, who had ended up in exile in the border area in Basayev's control. The Congress was primarily directed against nationalism (splitting up Muslim unity by separatist movements), although as an Islamist organization, it also opposed Russian colonialism.
In May, 1998, "the Union of Russian Muslims", led by Nadirshah Hachilayev, gathered a couple of hundreds of men and occupied, without significant resistance, the government palace of Mahachkala. The operation was a reaction to a change of Dagestan's constitution, by which the Dargin minority was given a secured power position. Although Hachilayev was also the leader of the national movement of the ethnic group of the Laks, he led an Islamist organization with the aim of preserving the unity of Dagestan as a part of the Russian Federation. He also acted as a Russian Duma deputy, but he had been sacked from the "Our Home is Russia" party, because he opposed the war in Chechnya. Hachilayev's men who occupied the palace, demanded Dagestan's government to step down, and new election to be arranged. The incident ended without violence, but in September 1998, Hachilayev had to flee the internal power struggle of Dagestan to Chechnya, where he came to contact with Basayev.
In summer and autumn 1998, a quite large number of other members of the Dagestani Islamist opposition had been forced to exile in the border area of Chechnya, which was controlled by Basayev. There they united their forces with the Islamist opposition of Chechnya, led by Basayev. The IRP was represented by the Salafi Islamists of Dagestan, led by their spiritual leader Bahauddin Kebedov. Nadirshah Hachilayev led his own distinct Islamist party. Both Dagestanis made strong influence to the functioning of Basayev's grouping.
Inspired by Hachilayev's palace occupation in Mahachkala, the Dagestani Wahhabis occupied the town of Buinaksk for a short time, but they soon withdrew back to the nearby villages. In summer 1998, an Islamic Council (Shura) was elected in Karamakhi, and it declared the village and its surroundings to constitute an autonomous sharia zone. Besides the Dargistan highland, another Wahhabi zone was formed in the mountains of Avaristan, which split from the control of the central administration, and imposed sharia.
A German journalist, Christian Neff, visited the Wahhabi villages and reported that their sharia courts were functioning peacefully and justly. According to Neff, the sharia had first time in ages provided stability and order to the area, which the corrupt Russian colonial administration had failed to provide. A woman, whose cow had died as a result of the neighbor's action, appealed to the court, and got immediately a compensation for her cow, whereas in the official system the issue would have taken years, and the demanded bribes of hundreds of rubles would still not have guaranteed that the woman would have got justice. Now the man had to pay his neighbor's cow without complaints, and the village considered the court decision to be fair.
Neff also described that the sharia had brought about security and order, when the Wahhabis had expelled the corrupt militia. The men of the sharia court's General Sharullah "have also cut down the fields in the neighboring village, Varukh, where six peasants were growing opium for the mafia of the Buinaksk county center. For years, the police had watched this without doing anything. Next, Sharullah's men took care of the problem of blackmailing protection money on the county highway, where the criminals used to rob bypassing trucks. Sharullah found out who the blackmailers were, brought them to the square in front of the Karamakhi mosque, and threatened to beat them into pieces in front of the crowd, if they would not stop their business. As a result, highway banditry decreased radically."
The pro-Moscow regime of Dagestan, however, hated the Wahhabis: As early as in 1997, the supreme religious leader of the official clergy, Said Muhammad Haji Abubakarov had promised that anyone who would kill a Wahhabi, or be killed fighting them, would get directly to the paradise. Abubakarov was assassinated with a car bomb in August 1998, and the Wahhabis were blamed, although later also rivals among the higher clergy have been suspected.
In December 1998, Dagestan adopted a new law on religion, ordering all religious communities less than 15 years old into state control, as well as all publishers, printing houses, and book imports. Those religious movements, which were considered "dangerous", could not have meetings or build mosques (the religion laws were also used against "non-traditional" Christian churches). An opposition newspaper was banned on the basis that it was claimed to be Wahhabi. All this meant that Dagestan ended up in the same path Karimov's Uzbekistan had taken earlier, and also the results were similar: the Islamist opposition was radicalized, and the Wahhabis started to move from their original fundamentalist piety movement towards militant jihadism.
In July 1999, the storm clouds started to gather, as the Russian Interior Ministry troops suddenly violated the peace treaty with Chechnya, destroyed a Chechen border post, and on 29th July, captured a road section of 800 meters. Chechens replied by shooting in nights to Russian positions. On 2nd August, 1999, Bahauddin Kebedov and Nadirshah Hachilayev, with their men, tried to return from their exile to the Tsimudin district and the Avar villages of Rikvan, Gagatli and Dacha in Dagestan. However, the returnees met Dagestani security troops, and a clash broke out. The Dagestani authorities, too, confirmed that they clashed with Dagestanis attempting to return, not with Chechens. Moscow, however, immediately seized the opportunity and started creating a myth about "Chechen" incursion to Dagestan. The myth turned into reality, when a mixed group of about one thousand men (mostly Dagestanis but including some 300 Chechens), led by Basayev and Khattab, and invoked by the appeals of Hachilayev and Kebedov as well as the Russian propaganda, rushed to the aid of their Dagestani comrades.
The decision that Basayev and Khattab had made to intervene in Dagestan was decisively provoked by Russia's cruel bombing of the peaceful Wahhabi villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, which had no part in the clash between the militants of the Kebedov-Hachilayev opposition and the Dagestani nomenclature. The bombing of the villages raised great anger among Dagestanis as well as among the troops of Basayev and Khattab, because the villagers had done no other crime except being pious Muslims. They had been associated with the politically active Islamists, Kebedov and Hachilayev, in propaganda. Besides, there were probably relatives of Khattab's wife among the victims. There have also been theories about Boris Berezovski having paid Basayev for the provocation, or the FSB having lured the provocateurs into a trap. The President of Ingushetia Ruslan Aushev has announced he knew that Berezovski had been in keen contact with Basayev and Udugov before the provocation.
According to Professor Vahid Akayev, there were two overlapping reasons for the course of events: On one hand, Moscow had been planning for starting a new war against Chechnya for some time already. On the other hand, the internal power struggle within Dagestan had tempted the Islamists to start a provocation, which they hoped would help to overthrow both the Dargin communists holding power in Mahachkala, and Maskhadov's government in Djokharkala (Grozny). Both these governments were on the way of the plans of the internationalist Islamists.
Basayev explicitly told that he had went to Dagestan, in summer 1999, to liberate the country from Russian imperialism. The Chechen President Maskhadov, however, immediately condemned Basayev's operation, accusing foreign secret services for it. It was then not obvious whether Maskhadov meant Russia or the Arab countries, but Chechens whom I have interviewed later, have referred to the Russian FSB and GRU as well as the agents of Saudi Arabia (maybe rather the agents of the Saudi radical Islamists). Maskhadov tried his best to get his government's unambiguous condemnation of extremist activity heard, and he even gathered a demonstration of 5'000 people in Djokharkala to protest against Basayev's operation. According to Williams, "Maskhadov, like most Chechens, was horrified of Basayev's military operations on Russian soil, and the Chechen government was strictly critical against Basayev, making all possible efforts to distinguish from his dangerous activities against the Russian Federation".
Christian Neff again reported on the atmosphere in Dagestan, this time in the historical village of Himri: "Now the inhabitants of Himri are silently standing in front of their houses and observing how a Russian armed column is breaking up the road that was paved with great hardship. Not that they would feel overwhelming sympathy for the Chechen Shamil Basayev, whose volunteer troops have kept Dagestan in the state of anxiety for weeks. But Russians are even less welcome here. What have they brought to Dagestan so far? ... Dagestan, the Caucasian Babylon, on the third-last position of the Russian welfare statistics among all the 89 provinces, is sunk in corruption and crime. Without baksheesh nothing works in Mahachkala. ... Like the neighboring village Chabanmakhi, also Karamakhi is considered as a cradle of puritan Islam - a center of 'Wahhabism', like the Russians say, grotesquely oversimplifying."
From the second week of August on, events rushed forward, as the Russians first attacked the villages of Dagestan's Botlikh district, which were besieged by the guerrillas. Two weeks earlier, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin had promised that there would not be a new Chechen War, but he was sacked and replaced with a supporter of the hawkish approach, the head of the secret service, Vladimir Putin. First thing Putin did was to vow he would destroy all the rebels, and he declared the Moscow Treaty between Russia and Chechnya to be abolished. All promises were torn in pieces within a couple of days, and a wave of terror began in Moscow against "persons of Caucasian appearance". In the Wahhabi villages, the Shura declared the Islamic Republic of Dagestan founded.
Next week, from 15th August on, Russia started to shoot missiles also to Chechnya. Maskhadov declared martial law. Russia started to limit radically the activities of the media, and Dagestan was entirely isolated from electronic communications. Still on 20th August, the AFP told that fighting continued in Dagestan of the control of Rakhata, Ansalta, Shadrota, Askhino, Ziberkhali, and Tando. At this stage, it was told that the commander of the guerrilla troops was Rahmatullah Mahomedov, the "prime minister" was Sirazhdin Ramazanov, and the head of information was Mahomed Tahayev. Less than a week later, Russia started to bomb the town of Serzhen-Yurt in Chechnya, as well as a number of Chechen villages.
At the same time, the nearby training camps of the radical Islamists, headed by Basayev and Khattab, remained in peace, and Russians did not attack them. Instead, Russian troops were ordered to secure safe passage for the Islamist provocateurs back into Chechnya. The new Russian invasion to Chechnya was clearly directed against the moderate, secular government of President Maskhadov, who had unambiguously condemned Basayev's provocation, and some time earlier, clashed against the Islamists, even asking Moscow's help for the struggle against Islamist extremists.
In Dagestan, fighting was still going on around Karamakhi in September, although Russia had declared the rebellion crushed for several times. Masses of non-militant Wahhabis were arrested in the counties of Gubden, Ghunib, Kizilyurt, Tsumada, and Kazbek. Russia repeatedly claimed that it was not its intention to start a full-scale war against Chechnya, but it was clear by then that this was happening, and the war was directed against the very government and troops, who had from the beginning condemned Basayev's incursion to Dagestan. Basayev, in turn, was not prevented from returning to his support area in Chechen mountains.
Nadirshah Hachilayev continued his political activity both in Dagestan and in Russia, until he was murdered in August 2003, soon after the US administration had added Basayev to its terrorist list, as the first and only Chechen so far.
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BBC (British Broadcasting Company)
CACI Analyst (Central Asia and the Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University)
Central Asia and the Caucasus (Information and Analytical Centre, Sweden)
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RFE/RL, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
The Chechen Times
The Eurasian Politician
The Globe and Mail
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Turkish Daily News