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Rebellion Creeping Through Caucasus

Russia has tried to tame this southern region for decades, but its policies seem to only stoke anger fueling a militant Islamic movement.

October 23, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GHIMRI, Russia — A dripping and cavernous tunnel, three miles through the belly of the mountain and lighted only by a spindly strand of dim bulbs, marks the entrance to the land of deep gorges and outlaw villages of the Caucasus range.

Emerging in the bright daylight on the other side is like entering another world, a Russia that is not Russia. Road signs every few feet are bright green with Arabic script: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." Several dozen signs bear the words of a legendary Caucasian warrior: "He who thinks about consequences is not a hero."

Since the 19th century, Russia has tried to tame the 650 miles of snowy peaks and fertile lowland slopes between the Caspian and Black seas. Today, the Caucasus wars seeping out of Chechnya through the surrounding, predominantly Muslim republics are increasingly being waged under a banner of militant Islam.

This creeping Islamic revolution, analysts suggest, is the latest outcome of the Kremlin's failure to adopt a coherent policy for combating religious extremism in a nation with 23 million Muslims.

Moscow's disorganized and violent attempts to suppress Caucasian Muslim insurgents have swept up thousands of innocent believers in the process. The brutal arrests, police raids and mosque closures appear to be alienating a population that until now had largely sympathized with Russia's attempts to quash terrorist attacks and bring peace to the region.

In areas like this mountainous region of Russia's Dagestan republic, the battle for hearts and minds may be lost. Ghimri, a tiny village of terraced gardens on the slope of a 5,000-foot abyss, is known as a lair of insurgency that outside police rarely enter except in force.

Islamic militancy is no stranger to Ghimri, from which 19th century warrior Imam Shamil fought under the banner of Islam against Russian troops until his surrender in 1859.

Today, women and even young girls wear head scarves, and some cover their faces. Arabic, the language of the Koran, is taught to all students. The local imam moved last year to establish separate schools for girls and boys and was thwarted only when no second building could be found. The mosque in the neighboring village, where the imam is chairman of the town council, broadcasts two hours of Islamic programming four days a week.

The village of 3,800 has also imposed many aspects of Islamic Sharia law as a supplement to Russian law. Thieves may be asked to make a public apology at the mosque, rather than going to a government-run jail.

Residents here have unabashed contempt for the regional government.

"People turn to Sharia law because the authorities who are supposed to represent the law breed lawlessness. People have very little hope of getting any justice from the secular authorities, so they turn to the muftis for support," said Kazimagomed, 38, an unemployed construction worker who declared "it will be the end of me" if his last name were published.

Already, Kazimagomed said, there are signs of a clash of civilizations at his own doorstep. "If we don't change everything from the roots to the very top in Dagestan, then war will be inevitable -- and not war like Chechnya, or some of those other places, those small run-ins, but a war that will last for centuries."

In a report to the Kremlin leaked to the Russian media this year, President Vladimir V. Putin's envoy to the region, Dmitry Kozak, warned of a backlash over corruption and poverty that he said could lead to instability across the northern Caucasus.

"Sharia enclaves" -- a logical projection of what is starting to happen in Ghimri -- could lead to the emergence of an Islamic state in Dagestan's mountains, the report predicted.

"The unsolved social, economic and political problems are now reaching a critical level. Further, ignoring the problems and attempts to drive them down by force could lead to an uncontrolled chain of events whose logical result will be open social, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts in Dagestan," said excerpts of the report published in July by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

That's the openly declared goal of Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, who unsuccessfully tried to invade Dagestan in 1999.

Basayev has made no secret of his hope of sparking a regional uprising that would lead to Russia's pullout from the Caucasus and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate across the mountainous republics. He miscalculated in 1999: Dagestanis fiercely fought the Chechen incursion, and Russia declared its second war on Chechnya.

Now, many observers here believe Basayev's strategy is to wait for Islamic revolution to seep in of its own accord.

In Dagestan, where 90% of the 2.6 million people are Muslims, the greatest frustration is with the Moscow-backed authorities, whose pervasive corruption has established a stranglehold on nearly every conceivable form of economic enterprise.

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