PERVOMAYSKOYE, Russia — When Magomed Takovdina died in his sleep in nearby Terechnoye last month, fellow elders of the Muslim hamlet cautiously approached the masked Russian paratroopers cordoning off this Dagestani village.
Takovdina had been born in Pervomayskoye six decades ago, and by religious tradition he was to be buried in his native village by sundown.
But the Russian soldiers barred the funeral party without a flicker of regret, deeming their looming fight with Chechen guerrillas holed up in Pervomayskoye more important than the mourners' need to follow their faith.
Takovdina was laid to rest in Terechnoye. His kith and kin chalked up another grievance against the hated Russians who have long imposed their will on the myriad minorities of the Caucasus Mountains.
"The Russians have never brought anything but trouble to us," lamented Jusup Dibirov, who headed the thwarted burial delegation. "They have never understood our ways."
Moscow's war against rebellious Chechnya has run roughshod over the ancient customs and culture of the multiethnic Caucasus region since Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin sent in troops to quash the tumult in the breakaway republic 14 months ago.
But since the debacle last month at Pervomayskoye, where a Russian federal assault killed more Dagestani hostages than enemy gunmen, an always tense relationship between the Kremlin and its southern peoples has declined from weary resentment to poisonous hatred and vows of revenge.
Fear, deprivation and isolation have conspired to persuade the predominantly Muslim peoples of the Caucasus that Yeltsin is using their poor and powerless homeland to stoke ethnic frictions in a desperate attempt to stay in power.
Even in the hallowed halls of Moscow academia, suspicion is rife that the Kremlin eagerly engaged Chechens in neutral Dagestan in hopes of provoking a new conflict that would justify a state of emergency and postpone a presidential election that few believe Yeltsin can win.
"The latest steps by Yeltsin and his entourage bear witness to the fact that they are trying to aggravate the current situation in the Caucasus to boost their ratings on the eve of the presidential election," said Dzhabrail D. Gakayev, a professor of Caucasus studies with the Russian Academy of Sciences. "He's pandering to the patriotic sentiments of the electorate."
Despite recent rumors of a peace initiative, analysts of the Kremlin's military and ethnic policies believe that Yeltsin has taken a harder line against Chechen rebels in recent weeks in an attempt to persuade Russians that he is resolute enough to eradicate the guerrillas who have spread fear across the federation with a campaign of random terror.
In Pervomayskoye, the federal military machine deployed 10,000 troops to counter fewer than 300 Chechens. Despite that huge advantage and the utter disregard shown for the lives of the Chechens' innocent captives, as many as half the gunmen slipped the federal cordon and got away.
Dagestani villagers watching in horror as the federal troops pounded Pervomayskoye with rockets and artillery shells saw the assault as evidence that Moscow considers those in the Caucasus more expendable than Russians.
When Chechen gunmen grabbed Russian hostages in the southern town of Budennovsk in June, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin allowed the guerrillas to escape unhindered in return for the safe release of the captives.
Here, though, the gunmen were ambushed before they could cross the border into Chechnya, prompting them to use the more than 100 Dagestani captives as a human shield during a four-day artillery bombardment.
"This crisis was resolved so ruthlessly because the victims were not Russians but Dagestanis," importer Vazir Ismailov insisted, spurring a chorus of assent and fist-clenching from other ethnic Avars gathered around him.
Abdulkhalik Magomedov, 39, an economist educated in Moscow, accused the Kremlin of even more sinister motives, insisting: "The Russians want to pit the Dagestani peoples against the Chechens. Yeltsin is stirring up trouble in the Caucasus for his own benefit because, if a bigger war erupts, he can declare a state of emergency and rule for another five years."
That is also the wary view of many analysts of ethnic relations in Moscow, where the president's recent actions have sounded alarms among those still committed to democracy and reform.
Sergei A. Kovalev, Yeltsin's human rights commissioner, resigned in protest against the Kremlin's latest actions and denounced the president as a tool of power-hungry security men and bureaucrats.