A nasty new separatist conflict in a remote southern region of Russia presents Moscow with both an unwelcome military challenge and the threat of political disruption as the nation prepares to elect a new parliament and choose a successor to President Boris Yeltsin.

Islamic rebels have begun a secessionist campaign in the north Caucasus mountain region of Dagestan, next door to a previous trouble spot, Chechnya. Three years of war there ended in 1996 at a cost of tens of thousands of Chechen lives. Russian forces also suffered thousands of casualties and retreated in humiliation, leaving Chechnya effectively independent of Russia.

Stoking anxiety now is the fact that Chechen commanders are leading the fighting across the border, evidently trying to include Dagestan in their struggle for an Islamic state.

In Moscow, new Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised to end the conflict within days, but almost no one believes him. Part of the popular skepticism stems from a lack of faith in Russia's military and police forces.

The fighting has not yet reached a stage where it could derail election plans, despite persistent suspicions that Yeltsin might use the conflict to declare a state of emergency and prolong his stay in power.

Nonetheless, with the country preparing for a democratic transition from its first elected president to the next, anything that might upset the process is viewed with particular concern by Russian democrats.

"It would have been nice to go into elections without distractions," said political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, "But it seems that Russia can't do without a complicated scenario."

Memories of the disastrous 1994-96 war against separatist Chechnya make Russians fearful. That conflict left an indelible stain on the moral authority of Yeltsin's government and embittered society.

Both Chechnya and Dagestan are impoverished, and Dagestan relies heavily on subsidies from Moscow. There are many differences between the two regions, and some of them work to Moscow's advantage.

In Chechnya, almost the entire population was united against Russia, whereas in Dagestan, many of its numerous ethnic groups are loyal to Moscow. Defenseless villagers have clamored for Moscow to supply them arms to protect themselves.

Moreover, during the Chechen war, even some Russians felt the Chechens were justified in trying to throw off Russian rule; the region's population had been brutally suppressed by Joseph Stalin's dictatorship and sent into exile, only to return years later under Nikita Khrushchev. Many were appalled by Russia's destruction of Chechen towns and villages.

Any sympathy with the Chechens has since evaporated. Kidnappings are rife, with some victims dismembered or beheaded for lack of a ransom payment. On Monday, two Polish biologists, both women, were reported kidnapped in Dagestan, not far from the western combat zone.

Despite Putin's predictions of a quick victory, the Russian military is taking a cautious approach. The army is trying to occupy high ground and rain artillery and helicopter fire on villages where it believes the rebels are holed up. Sukhoi jets are peppering the countryside with cluster bombs. It is not known exactly how many soldiers and police Moscow has dispatched to Dagestan.

News from the front is contradictory and analysts suspect the army and Interior Ministry police are having trouble coordinating their actions. Monday, for example, Russia's military commander in Dagestan, Viktor Kazantsev, was shown on television assuring troops that "everything is under control. Everything is normal."

As he spoke, he stood over 13 captured rebel "collaborators," who lay prone on a dusty ridge, pleading with reporters that they were innocent. Nearby, helicopters poured rocket fire on villages occupied by the rebels, and Russian officials claimed that government troops controlled strategic highlands. Only two Russians were killed and three wounded in the day's fighting, Kazantsev said with assurance.

Russian officials said 22 of their soldiers died in 11 days of fighting, and Russian troops killed 450 rebels.

Then came televised reports from a military airfield in Rostov on the Don, showing 15 Russian soldiers being carried off troop transport planes on stretchers or limping away from the aircraft. The soldiers said they were draftees and described being attacked on the same highlands where Kazantsev had said everything was normal.

In addition to the lack of coordination, observers said the army and police may lack the desire to carry out an effective anti-guerrilla campaign. "The army does not like to fight within Russian borders. On the other hand, the Interior Ministry police, whose job it is to fight, don't have bombers," said Dmitri Trenin, a military analyst at the office here of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It is not even clear if they have the will to fight."

In an apparent effort to improve their interaction, the army formally assumed command of the Dagestani operation from the Interior Ministry today, although the ministry's troops will still be heavily involved.

Beyond the military aspect lies a political quandary. Dagestan is an impoverished republic sandwiched between the Caspian Sea and Georgia and is a patchwork of more than 30 mostly Muslim ethnic groups whose members are young and largely unemployed.

Dagestan has long depended on subsidies from Moscow--often amounting to 85 percent of its budget. But money from the central government has been gradually drying up, weakening local officials' allegiance to Moscow. Moreover, political infighting has upset the traditional balance of power in Dagestan's government in Makhachkala, the capital, with some ethnic groups excluded from positions of power. One of the groups, the Avaris, are concentrated along the frontier with Chechnya.

Putin, in his inaugural address to parliament Monday, emphasized the social and political roots of Dagestan's problems. "We will not only struggle against terrorism, but resolve socioeconomic causes."

The guerrillas, about 1,200 strong, are led by Chechen commander Shamil Basayev. He is seconded by a shadowy Jordanian guerrilla named Khattab. Their pledge to establish an Islamic republic in Dagestan, with its flavor of pan-Islamic solidarity, causes concern not only in Russia, which is home to millions of Muslims, but also several autocratic, former Soviet republics: oil-rich Azerbaijan to the south and Kazakhstan, Uzkbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to the east.

Russia cannot afford to let Dagestan go, Trenin asserted. A domino effect is likely in other poor republics of the Caucasus. Not only could Russia lose its hold on part of the oil-rich Caspian coast, but its ports on the Black Sea would be threatened.

Chechnya may not be a stable sponsor for revolt in Dagestan. Analysts say the Chechen government has little control over warlords who have maintained their militias since the end of the war with Russia.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov accused Russia of using Dagestan as a way to attack Chechnya and reversing the results of the civil war.

The issue for Russia appears to be how to wage a difficult war while pursuing its democratic transition and moving the economy forward. Members of all political parties spoke out against rumors that Yeltsin would declare a state of emergency. Monday, Yeltsin said he had no intention of ruling by decree. But it is still early in the war, analysts said.

"I don't think we can conclude this conflict fast," said Galina Sergeva, an anthropologist at the Academy of Sciences here. "Remember, this is mountainous terrain where every stone fires a shot. This may stretch for several years."

Three years after Russian troops were bloodied and humiliated in their attempt to put down a rebellion in Chechnya, Moscow is now fighting an insurgency in neighboring Dagestan, led by a Chechen commander and his rebels.

The Rebels

Chechen guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev and his followers began seizing Dagestani villages along the Chechen border a week ago. The rebels' declared goal is to drive Russia out of the northern Caucasus and unite Chechnya and Dagestan as an independent Islamic republic. But unlike Chechnya, there is no strong popular sentiment for independence in Dagestan.

The Russian Army

Although the Russians had to sue for peace in Chechnya, which became quasi -- independent in 1996, Moscow insists that Dagestan must remain part of Russia. Moscow officials say that they have enough troops in Dagestan to smash the rebels. Russia withdrew its last troops from Chechnya in 1997 and says it does not plan to invade the region again to stop more guerrillas from entering Dagestan.