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TERRORISM: THE RUSSIAN DILEMMA

Note No. 35

         The fighting in Dagestan since August 7 and the series of devastating explosions in Moscow and other cities since then highlight the serious difficulties of the Russian State in dealing with terrorism, despite its still considerable military and technological capability even after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

         The terrorist violence in Dagestan and its echo elsewhere have many dimensions--- ethnic (ethnic minorities vs the Slavs), religious (Muslims vs non-Muslims), sectarian (Wahabism vs Sufism), political (the dregs of the old communist regime vs the new class of politically ambitious and get-rich-quick businessmen), economic (desire for greater autonomy vs inability to reduce economic dependence on Moscow), administrative  (centralised functioning vs the need for delegation of greater responsibility to local functionaries) and professional (counter-terrorism (CT) in an authoritarian State vs CT in a democratic State).

         Dagestan, roughly equal in area to Scotland, has a population of about two million, consisting of 30 ethnic groups and about 80 sub-ethnic groups, speaking 29 different languages. The ethnic groups are generally classified under four major divisions---the Dagestanis, the non-Dagestani North Caucasians, the Slavs (Russians and Ukrainians) and others.

        The Dagestani division constitutes the largest segment of the population with the Avars forming one-fourth of the population, followed by the Slavs, the non-Dagestani North Caucasians and others. The outbreak of terrorism to achieve an Islamic State is till now confined only to the Chechens of the non-Dagestani North Caucasian division.

         The Chechens are only the ninth largest ethnic group in Dagestan, with a population of 62,000, but their area has been the main centre of fighting. There are no indications of other ethnic groups supporting the Chechens.

         Even amongst the Chechens, most of the fighting is being done by those from adjoining Chechnya. The involvement of the Chechens of Dagestan has been limited till now.

         The Chechen terrorist groups have been able to organise explosions in Moscow and other cities through their ethnic brethren in the Chechen diaspora living in those cities.

         Barring the Slavs (about 175,000) the rest of the population (about 1.8 million) are largely Muslims. Islam was kept suppressed under the communist regime, with all the mosques destroyed in the 1920s and 1930s, and religious gatherings and pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia banned. The revival of Islam since 1991, assisted by Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia, has been accompanied by an outbreak of anger against the non-Islamic Slavs for suppressing their religion for so long.

         The remarkable progress in the revival of Islam could be seen in the fact that whereas there was no mosque in Chechnya and Dagestan before 1991,there is no village without a mosque today, either already functioning or under construction.

         However, Islam has never been a unifying factor. Ethnic and linguistic bonds are still stronger than the religious bond. The appearance of Wahabi-Deobandi sectarian groups from Pakistan such as the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad and its militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LT) in the North Caucasus has injected the sectarian factor, which was hitherto absent.

         Till 1991, the Muslims of the North Caucasus were largely adherents of Sufism, with its emphasis on tolerance, flexibility and adaptability in following the faith. Wahabism, with its stress on restoring the pristine purity of Islam and ridding it of alien cultural and religious influences, whether of Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Communism, Turkish secularism or the Shia faith, if need be by resort to arms (jehad), has introduced a new destabilising factor.

         The Pakistani organisations, with Saudi money, have been able to convert a large number of the Chechens to jehadi Wahabism and make them take to arms against the non-Muslims to achieve an Islamic State.

         The non-Chechen component of the Muslim population still largely sticks to Sufism and is, hence, not yet supporting the Chechen terrorists.

         The collapse of the USSR and the subsequent revival of Islam have not given birth to a new political leadership of moderate Muslims prepared to follow the democratic path and able to unite the Muslims of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds for achieving constructive political, economic and diplomatic objectives.

         As a result, power continues to be wielded by the much disliked dregs of the communist past, who have been facing challenges from an ambitious class of get-rich-quick businessmen.

         The only political leadership with a popular appeal which has emerged is amongst the Chechen extremists, who have been able to intimidate the rest of the Muslim population to acquiesce in their violent activities, even if they don't support them.

         Intimidation has always played an important political role in Russia, whether under the Tsars or under the Communist rule. With the intimidating power of the State weakened after 1991, it is the intimidating power of the Pakistan-trained Wahabi terrorists, which is increasingly holding sway.

         Dagestan is one of the poorest regions of the Russian Federation. It has no important natural resources, is badly connected to the outside world, its infrastructure is poor and the few defence-related industries of pre-1991 vintage are without orders. With the economy largely dependent on sheep farming, the State has meagre tax revenue and about 80 per cent of its budget have to be subsidised by Moscow. Aspirations for greater autonomy from Moscow are thus inhibited by the reality of the almost total dependence on Moscow for economic survival.

         The continuance of the pre-1991 centralised ways of functioning has been nowhere more apparent than in the way the Russian intelligence machinery operates. Despite the post-1991 reorganisation, the machinery is as centralised as it was before 1991 and tends to discourage the federating units from developing their own independent, effective intelligence machinery to supplement that of Moscow.

         The central machinery, being largely Slav-dominated, is deprived of objective inputs from non-Slav analysts. The difficulty in raising non-Slav human sources has resulted in an over-dependence on technical intelligence, which, without corrections from human sources, can be misleading. This should explain why the Russian security forces have repeatedly been caught napping.

         Finally, the Russian military leadership is yet to rid itself of the Afghan syndrome. Consequently, there is a reluctance to engage the terrorists in close-proximity ground actions.

         As we had seen in India's North-East and as we saw recently in Kargil, successful close-proximity ground actions, despite heavy casualties, strengthen the morale, pride and self-confidence of your own forces, enable them to better size up the enemy and demoralise the adversary. At the same time, they provide valuable intelligence inputs from those captured.

         In Chechnya and now in Dagestan, the Russian security forces have shown a marked preference for actions not involving close combat with the extremists--air and helicopter strikes, use of long-distance heavy guns etc.

         Use of excessive firepower is counter-productive in two ways. First, it causes unnecessary civilian casualties and adds to the alienation of the people. Second, they give to the terrorists unnecessary martyrs. Any religious terrorism, particularly the Wahabi kind, thrives on a feeling of martyrdom and by providing such feeling through their actions, the Russian forces unwittingly strengthen the morale of the terrorists.

         A more intelligent and sophisticated approach is, therefore, required in Moscow, but, unfortunately, one sees no sign of it yet.

B.RAMAN                                                          (16-9-99)

         (The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: corde@vsnl.com)

 

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