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Battle in Dagestan Revives Russian Worries of Larger Caucasus War

January 16, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ The battle between Russian troops and Chechen gunmen in Dagestan marks the first time that major fighting has spilled over from Chechnya into another North Caucasus republic, and Moscow is worried that the conflict could draw other republics into war.

``The most important thing now is not to let the events in Dagestan turn the war in Chechnya into war all over the North Caucasus,″ lawmaker Grigory Yavlinsky said Tuesday, echoing comments from across the political spectrum.

The Kremlin is afraid that if Chechnya is allowed to break away, the rest of the North Caucasus could follow, encouraging other regions to bolt and leading to Russia’s dissolution.

Throughout the war in Chechnya, the tiny mountainous republics around it have been relatively quiet bystanders. But the potential for spreading separatism has affected the Kremlin’s every move.

Sympathetic to the Chechen separatists’ cause, villagers in Dagestan and Ingushetia, which also borders Chechnya, tried to block Russian troops at the war’s start.

Dagestan, an ethnic patchwork of more than 40 mainly Muslim peoples, has been an arms-smuggling route to Chechnya, and Ingushetia has lodged protests against Russian air attacks on its territory near the Chechen border.

But they and other North Caucasus republics have stuck with Moscow, rebuffing the rebels’ calls to join the battle.

At first, it seemed the raid by Chechen gunmen on a Dagestani city and the seizure of mainly Dagestani hostages succeeded mainly in inflaming anti-Chechen feelings in Dagestan. Many Dagestanis talked of revenge.

But the Russian refusal to let the gunmen go in exchange for the hostages’ release turned much of the Dagestani anger against Moscow.

``The very shaky equilibrium in favor of Russian authorities could easily change against them,″ said Alexander Konovalov, a political analyst at the Institute of USA and Canada, a Moscow think tank.

Many Dagestanis simply feel trapped in the middle.

``Nothing good will come of this _ neither Russians nor Chechens will gain any profit,″ said Magomed Zagirov, 28, who watched from his village, Sovetskoye, as Russian troops battled the Chechens in nearby Pervomayskaya.

For two centuries Moscow has taken advantage of the divisions between Caucasus peoples to maintain control of the region.

The czars conquered the Caucasus in the 19th century in a decades-long war by siding with some groups against others. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported some ethnic groups _ including the Chechens _ and gave their land to others.

Today, the Caucasus has emerged as Russia’s most vulnerable flank _ a tinderbox of overlapping peoples, religions, feuds and legends.

Aside from their war in Chechnya, Russian troops keep the peace between the Ingush and North Ossetians. Outside Russia, there are about 3,000 Russian troops as peacekeepers under a U.N. mandate in Abkhazia, which is in political limbo since a 1993 war to secede from Georgia.

Georgia put down another separatist challenge, from South Ossetians. Armenians and Azerbaijanis are at odds over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Dagestan, meanwhile, has been relatively free of such ethnic and civil strife.

As Russian troops battled the Chechen rebels, 56-year-old Sharodan Batyrbiyev watched from a nearby village in Dagestan with disgust.

``This situation is just an attempt to set a quarrel between Dagestanis and Chechens,″ he said.

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