Russia returns to region's dark past

Faith and revenge fuel anger as war looms in Chechnya

October 03, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Peter the Great grabbed the first piece of the Caucasus for Russia in the 18th century when he took over Dagestan, but shortly after he died the court at St. Petersburg, realizing how defiant and difficult the Dagestanis were, engineered a way to give the territory back to the shah of Persia.

No one who followed has ever been so level-headed, as the present turmoil in the Caucasus demonstrates.

Intent on subjugating the Muslim people of the mountains to the Russian crown, Peter's successors gradually, and bloodily, extended their sway over the region. They came to the rescue of the Christian kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia by absorbing them, recaptured Dagestan and, by the 1840s, believed that the final conquest was at hand.

Beyond the Caucasus lay imagined glory and untold riches in Turkey, Persia and India. The only obstacle the Russians faced was a pesky mountain war being waged against them by Muslim firebrand Imam Shamil.

Before the decade was over, Shamil had pinned down half of the Russian army in a war that was peculiarly vicious on both sides, full of blood and betrayal. He carved the legend of his name that still resounds in the Caucasus.

It wasn't until the 1860s that Russia cemented its hold on the mountain redoubt. By then dreams of further expansion into the Near East had withered, and the army that had beaten Napoleon had been humbled.

Russians are living with that history today.

A namesake of the legendary warrior, Chechen Shamil Basaev, began to stir up trouble in Dagestan in August. His men seized villages, fought with Russians, withdrew, returned and withdrew again. Five bombs went off in Russian cities, killing 300, and the government blamed it on Chechens. The air force began bombing Chechnya, and troops have moved into the republic.

The northern Caucasus is nearly aflame once more, and Russian soldiers have begun to die over it for the second time this decade. Old ways of thinking are coming to the fore.

The Chechen war of 1994-1996 was fought over the ostensibly modern questions of Chechen independence and whether the newly post-Soviet Russian Federation would be able to hold together. This war, by comparison, is practically tribal.

Basaev says he has taken up arms in the cause of Islam, to drive the infidel Russians out of the Caucasus. The Russians say they are holding the line for the West, dusting off a view of themselves that goes back hundreds of years, as the front-line defenders of Europe (that is to say, Christendom) against the Asian hordes (the soldiers of Islam).

"Against Russia, we will help anybody," Basaev told a Czech reporter recently. "Russia is our enemy, Russia sucks our blood, Russia is in agony today, and we want to deal it the final blow. We are fighting the nonbelievers."

In Moscow, Sergei Arutyunov, a specialist on the Caucasus at the Institute of Ethnology, puts the Russian case this way: "All the Western world is facing the menace of Islamic fundamentalism, of Islamic extremism. Due to the considerable stupidity and shortsightedness of Russian leaders, Chechnya was made the weakest point of Russia and thus of the whole Western world."

Russian television has hammered away at the theme that the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York, of the subway in Paris and of apartment houses in Moscow are of one piece.

A popular fight The previous Chechen war was generally unpopular among ordinary Russians, who couldn't see why their young men should die in a faraway place that seemed to matter little to the country. This time, public opinion is strongly anti-Chechen, strongly in favor of the latest prime minister, tough-talking Vladimir V. Putin, and genuinely concerned about what are seen as attacks on Russia itself.

Russian generals are talking about cleaning out the "snakes' nest," and up to now the Russian public has been applauding.

Nobody is questioning why Moscow should care about the Caucasus.

The stakes What is at stake? To some extent, Caspian Sea oil is. If the Chechen rebels can block Russia's access to the Caspian, or at least disrupt the flow of oil into Russia, it would be a blow to Moscow's prestige and wealth. But most here agree that oil is not the main motivator. Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a former prime minister with ties to the natural gas industry, argued recently that reserves of Caspian oil have been overestimated.

To some extent, what Arutyunov called "the old imperial ideology" still holds sway among Russia's politicians. They still see the Caucasus as a means of access to the Near East, not in a military sense so much anymore as a commercial one. They also still see Turkey as a naturally hostile neighbor, and the Caucasus provides a welcome buffer.

What really ties Russia to the Caucasus is the Caucasus itself.

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