Nations battle for Moscow's lost empire: Tony Barber reports on the struggle for territory among peoples emerging from the shadow of communism

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far- away country between people of whom we know nothing

Neville Chamberlain, in a radio broadcast about Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, 27 September 1938

IF THE Germans and Czechoslovaks seemed far away in 1938, how about the Kumyks and Laks of Karaman-Tyube in 1992? In the former autonomous Soviet republic of Dagestan, across the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan, these two Caucasian peoples have been going at it hammer and tongs in recent months.

The Kumyks want the annulment of a decree that awarded the Laks a patch of what the Kumyks say is their historic territory. The Laks think justice is on their side because the Dagestan parliament bounced them out of the nearby Akin district in favour of the Chechens, a nation deported by Josef Stalin in 1944.

However obscure these quarrels seem, they typify the ethnic rivalry and political disorder that have swept over the former Soviet Union since its collapse last December. Scores of national and territorial disputes have burst into the open, provoking a breakdown of law and order in some areas and virtual civil war in others. To take another example in Dagestan: local authorities imposed a state of emergency in May after the Shamil Popular Front, a group named after a nineteenth- century hero of Caucasian resistance to Russian imperialism, kidnapped the public prosecutor of the capital, Makhachkala.

Many disputes are rooted in rivalries that existed long before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Stalin, who ruled from 1924 to 1953, made things worse by drawing up internal Soviet borders that ignored ethnic boundaries, and by sheer terror - killings, forced collectivisation of farms, and the removal of entire nations to Siberia and Central Asia.

In the Baltic states - not members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - heavy Russian immigration and the Soviet army's presence kept tensions high after Stalin's death. Latvians, who made up 77 per cent of their republic's population when Moscow annexed it in 1940, are now down to 52 per cent; Estonians are not much above 60 per cent. New problems have arisen since independence because the non-communist governments have adopted citizenship and voting laws that Slavs who arrived after the annexations say will work against them. In Lithuania, the Polish minority that lives in former Polish land around Vilnius also alleges discrimination.

A serious problem rests in the presence of 120,000 ex-Soviet soldiers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which have a combined population of only 8 million. Russia says it will withdraw the men but needs time, because the pull- out of hundreds of thousands of troops from Germany, Eastern Europe and Mongolia means that there is a shortage of jobs and housing back home. The Balts fear a plot to keep the 'occupation armies' in place. Should the withdrawal be delayed for much longer, it is not hard to imagine violence between Russian soldiers and local people.

In the CIS itself, some Russian politicians would feel tempted to intervene if ethnic Russians in other republics were in danger. The protection of Russians - in Ukraine, where they are more than 20 per cent of the 52 million people, in Moldova, where they fear assimilation into an enlarged Romania, or in Kazakhstan, where many support Cossack autonomy movements in the Uralsk region - has assumed great importance for Russian leaders since the Soviet Union's demise. Boris Yeltsin's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, said recently: 'Until Russia guarantees the protection of its citizens wherever they live, there will be conflicts on the former territory of the Soviet Union and there will be thousands of refugees.'

Russian and Ukrainian leaders have so far contained their dispute over the Crimean peninsula, transferred to Ukraine in 1954 in an act many Russians regard as illegal. But a Russian autonomy movement is active in Crimea, and the problem is complicated by the return of Crimean Tatars to their homeland almost half a century after Stalin deported their parents and grandparents, accusing them of supporting the Nazis.

Mr Yeltsin faces a variety of separatisms in Russia itself - a response to the crushing centralisation of the Soviet period. Tatarstan, 500 miles east of Moscow, voted for independence last March, though it seems to have in mind something short of full statehood. Some Tatar politicians hope for a confederation with neighbouring Bashkortostan, a proposal that has stoked Bashkir fears of assimilation by the more numerous Tatars and put on guard the 40 per cent Russian minority in both republics.

Further east, an Independent Siberia Party has sprung up and prosecutors in Tomsk have said they may file charges against Siberian secessionists. Pressure for autonomy in Yakutia has arisen because the Yakuts resent having to sell gold and diamonds to Russia at prices below world levels. There are also calls for a Urals republic and a Far Eastern republic on Russia's Pacific coast. Ethnic Germans - whom Stalin also deported - are meanwhile aiming for autonomy in the Volgograd and Saratov regions.

For the most part, little outright violence has broken out in these areas. The worst conflicts are raging to the south, in Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Moldovan war has turned especially nasty, with hundreds believed to have died in recent weeks. Russian-speakers set up a breakaway Dnestr republic in 1990 and have won support from the former 14th Soviet Army still based in Moldova. Mr Yeltsin has warned Moldova's leaders that Russia 'cannot remain idle' if the fighting continues.

Thousands have died in four years of war between Azeris and Armenians over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. Armenian forces opened a corridor this year between the enclave and Armenia, but Azeris counter-attacked. Elsewhere in Azerbaijan, clashes broke out in May between Azeris and Kurds who want the restoration of the autonomous Kurdish region that existed from 1923 to 1929. Georgia faces problems on several fronts at once. It is at war with its South Ossetian minority, who are fighting to join North Ossetia in Russia, and has had to grapple with unrest in Abkhazia as well. Fighting has gone on for months between allies and foes of the ousted president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia; there was an attempted coup in his favour last month.

The mountain peoples of the Caucasus - Abkhazi, Adigei, Abaza, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush and Kabardians - have tried to solve their problems by forming a political union, but the potential for conflict is still high. The Chechen-Ingush republic has split in two, and the Ingush continue to lay claim to the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia.

In Central Asia, Tajikistan may be close to breaking up: the Uzbeks of the Leninabad region have threatened to secede to Uzbekistan, and there is an independence movement in Badakhstan. Two years ago about 200 people were killed in Kyrgyz-Uzbek violence in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan, where there is also pressure to merge with Uzbekistan.

Across the CIS, a serious risk is that the conflicts will not just set one nation against another but will suck in outside powers such as Turkey and Romania. Against that, few countries want to damage the improved international climate of recent years and get embroiled in expensive, murderous conflicts. Inside the former Soviet Union, however, the passions unleashed by the collapse of a repressive empire are proving too intense to contain.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum