TWENTY-FOUR hours after sacking his prime minister and appointing a former spy to lead the government, President Boris Yeltsin held a council of war yesterday over Dagestan, where fighting poses the greatest immediate threat to Russian stability.
After the latest political crisis, Mr Yeltsin's assurances that he was committed to democratic elections only made weary Russians suspect the opposite. However, if any state of emergency was about to be declared, it seemed likely to be a local one.
Islamic fighters from Chechnya, where Russia was humiliated in a war from 1994 to 1996, infiltrated neighbouring Dagestan last week and seized several mountain villages. Early yesterday, in an act tantamount to showing a red rag to a bull, the rebels declared Dagestan an independent state and said a Jihad or holy war was the duty of every Muslim until "all unbelievers had been driven out".
Hours later, Mr Yeltsin summoned his new Prime Minister, the former security- service chief, Vladimir Putin, and the Defence Minister. Dagestan, wedged between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, is of vital economic significance to Moscow.
After the meeting, the Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, announced the creation of an operational headquarters to deal with the Dagestan crisis. Mr Putin said the Kremlin leader had approved a series of measures to increase "order and discipline" in the area. "Normalisation" was going on and he expected an improvement in the security position in the next week or two.
This was old-style Soviet-speak. On the ground, Dagestan was moving closer to full-scale war. As Russian forces built up, the news came that a decorated Russian hero, General Naumov, and four of his men had been killed.
The regional capital, Makhachkala, is filling with refugees after Russian helicopters pounded rebel positions. Reports from the area were conflicting. Some spoke of the rebels, led by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and Khattab, a fundamentalist originally from Jordan, taking another village that brought them within two miles of the town of Botlikh. However, Russian officials said they had rebel bands surrounded in two settlements.
"The situation in Dagestan has changed and is controllable now," said Anatoly Kvashnin, Chief of the Russian General Staff. He survived a rebel attempt to shoot down his helicopter. Other servicemen were not so lucky and Russian casualties since the weekend were put at six dead and 18 injured, not including General Naumov's group.
With parliamentary elections due in December and a president ballot next year, the last thing popularity-conscious Russian politicians want is another war in the Caucasus. On the other hand, the Kremlin has made clear it is no longer prepared to tolerate lawlessness, emanating from Chechnya, where kidnappings and killings have become frequent.
Mr Putin said he intended to continue his predecessor's policy in Dagestan. The new Prime Minister seems more of a hawk, however, and, although he has promised to retain the members of the old cabinet, speculation is rife that he might toughen his team.
The declaration of Dagestan's independence was made by an Islamic body calling itself a "shura" or council of elders. Dagestani officials loyal to Moscow not only repudiated the declaration but also denied the existence of any shura. The declaration was mere propaganda, they said.
Aslan Maskhadov, the moderate leader of Chechnya, meanwhile denied that any Chechens were in Dagestan and said Moscow had provoked the emergency. If Mr Yeltsin, alarmed by the growing popularity of his opponents, wanted an excuse to cancel elections and declare a nationwide state of emergency, the new war could provide it.
Land of the
n Size of Scotland
n First annexed by Imperial Russia in 1722
n Fiercely resisted Russian rule until the mid-19th century
n Home to at least 32 ethnic groups
n Fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims seek to unite Dagestan and Chechnya in a single Islamic state
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