In a surprising statement, Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov said that violence in the republic was rooted in the unresolved Ingush-Ossetian territorial dispute. To stabilize the situation in the republic, Yevkurov promised that all displaced persons from North Ossetia would go back to their homes. According to the president, a total return of Ingush refugees to North Ossetia would deprive the Islamic insurgents of an important card (Rosbalt, May 25).
Since 2007, Moscow has claimed that the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1992 has been effectively resolved. While the North Ossetian side, as well as the previous, unpopular Ingush president, Murat Zyazikov, readily subscribed to this assertion, Ingush civil activists have insisted that the conflict and its consequences still needed to be dealt with. By bringing up the issue of the Ingush refugees, Yevkurov is implying Moscow’s declaration that the Ossetian-Ingush conflict has been resolved was not truthful and that stability in Ingushetia could be a bargaining chip in exchange for Moscow’s assistance in settling the Ossetian-Ingush dispute.
It is unlikely that a career military person like Yevkurov would make statements like these without approval from Moscow. Yevkurov’s remarks coincide with his promotion to the governing body of Russia’s State Council, which provides additional weight to the argument that Moscow approved Yevkurov’s demarche (Kommersant, May 25). This may signal a major shift in Moscow’s approach to the situation in Ingushetia and North Ossetia, favoring concessions to Ingushetia in the Ossetian-Ingush dispute. Yevkurov highlighted the grievances of the Ingush people, claiming that around 40 percent of the Ingush population feels that Russia does not care for them. Yevkurov further stated that the Ingush people felt especially unhappy because of the [excessive] attention that Russia paid to South Ossetia.
Russia’s protectiveness toward South Ossetia during and in the wake of the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia has angered many in Ingushetia and Chechnya. Having witnessed and often experienced the two manifestly vicious counter-insurgency operations that Russia conducted in Chechnya, both Ingush and Chechens widely resented Russia’s official claim to be protecting the small Ossetian people from the nationalist Georgian government. Now, for the first time, this complaint is being voiced by the top Ingush official.
Ossetian-Ingush relations have been strained for most of the period since the beginning of 1990s. Five days of armed clashes between Ingush and North Ossetian paramilitary groups in the autumn of 1992 left over 500 dead, many of them civilians, while thousands of homes were burned down and tens of thousands people were displaced. The disputed territory—part of the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia and part of Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia—underwent ethnic purges, as the Ingush population fled and was driven out by Ossetians forces, reportedly aided by Russian federal military detachments.
Since 1992, various Ingush governments have tried to return the Ingush refugees—at the height of the crisis estimated at 30,000-60,000—back to North Ossetia. Many of the Ingush refugees have returned, but there have been disagreements over the numbers and the exact places where they should or should not return. In addition, the returnees have largely remained isolated in North Ossetia, excluded from holding government office and other employment and educational opportunities.
Following the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004, which the North Ossetian public widely blamed on Ingush terrorist rings, the climate for Ingush refugees return to North Ossetia deteriorated further. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the North Ossetian and Ingush governors to resolve the conflict by the end of 2006, but the process of making outstanding payments to the Ingush refugees extended well into 2007, and it was only then that the conflict and its consequences were solemnly proclaimed resolved.
Disagreements between the Ossetians and the Ingush run deeper than the issue of the Ingush refugees’ return. The North Ossetian government points out that Article 11 of Ingushetia’s constitution explicitly sets reclaiming “unlawfully taken territories” as a top priority goal for the republic. Ingush activists still hope to actually redraw the administrative borders between the two republics. Even Yevkurov himself reserved the right “to hand over the knowledge to our posterity that Prigorodny is ancient Ingush land and Ossetians should not deny that” (Rosbalt, May 25).
Yevkurov originates from village of Tarskoe (or Angusht in Ingush), which is situated in the disputed territory in North Ossetia and may have a personal attachment to the issue. By reviving the issue of Prigorodny, Yevkurov—with tacit approval from Moscow—may be hoping to find greater support among Ingush nationalists and bring about a certain degree of stability that Ingushetia has desperately lacked during the past several years. The recent news from Ingushetia has sounded almost like war reports: on May 25, three policemen were killed in a mine explosion while one insurgent died in street fighting; on May 26, a civilian was gunned down by unknown attackers and another person was kidnapped by the law enforcement personnel. In addition, several people were wounded during that period (Ingushetia.org, May 25-26).
Surprisingly, in playing what seems to be the Ingush nationalist card, the president of Ingushetia is in some measures competing with the Islamic insurgents. Earlier in May, North Caucasus rebel leader Dokka Umarov issued a decree abolishing North Ossetia and merging its territory with Ingushetia (Caucasus Emirate website, May 11). The move perhaps reflected two trends among the insurgents: an attempt to appease nationalist sentiment and an acknowledgement of the Islamic insurgents’ weakness in predominantly Christian North Ossetia.
Countering the insurgents’ appeal to Ingush nationalism by solving the issue of the Prigorodny region is a logical move. Yet, the positions of the Ingush and the Ossetians have become so entrenched during the past 17 years that it is hard to imagine how they can be shaken and fundamentally transformed without destabilizing the status quo.
It is clear that even if all Ingush refugees return to North Ossetia, there will still be unsatisfied Ingush activists who will demand a redrawing of the administrative borders between the two republics. At the same time, North Ossetia will hardly be able to provide equal opportunities and services to the Ingush inhabitants of the republic, because of the deep distrust between the two people and overall poor governance. These circumstances are enough to make almost any quick solutions fail.
Therefore, the expectation that the security situation in Ingushetia will improve as soon as the Ingush refugees return to North Ossetia, is not well founded. In fact, this move may even facilitate the spread of the insurgency from Ingushetia to North Ossetia.