Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 8

Moscow faces another intractable ethnic confilct in the North Caucasus

by David Nissman

North Ossetia, a republic in the Russian Federation’s troubledNorth Caucasus region, is confronted by three distinct challenges:

–challenges to its borders from the Karbardinians who believethat they should be given the North Ossetian city of Mozdok;

–challenges to its control by the Ingush who after being deportedby Stalin returned to find that much of their former territoryhad been occupied by the Ossetians; and

–challenges to its stability as the result of the influx ofthousands of refugees from South Ossetia, a region in Georgiathat has been wracked by sporadic fighting between the South Ossetiansbacked by the Russians, and the Georgian government in Tbilisi.

How these challenges are dealt with in North Ossetia will likelyserve as a model for how Moscow will seek to reimpose its orderon what, by all accounts, continues to be a most disorderly region.

The most important of the three is the continuing conflict betweenthe North Ossetians and the Ingush. It has its roots in the impositionof administrative-territorial arrangements by the Soviets in the1920s and the subsequent deportation of the Ingush from theirhomeland at the end of World War II. From 1921 to 1924, bothpeoples were part of the Soviet Mountaineers Republic, but in1924, they became separate autonomous oblasts. In the mid-1930s,the Ingush were united with the Chechens, and their joint territorywas renamed the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. For the Chechens, this meantthat the internal borders were eliminated, but for the Ingushthis set the stage for claims, and then counterclaims, over whoowned what–particularly after both groups returned from theirdeportations to Central Asia, and even more after the collapseof Soviet power in the region.

After the deportations of 1944, the Chechen-Ingush region wassubdivided into four parts: much of it became the Grozny oblast,with the remainder divided among the North Ossetian ASSR, theDaghestan ASSR, and the Georgian SSR. When the deportees wererehabilitated in 1957 and returned to their homes, they discoveredthat the political-territorial arrangements had been completelytransformed in their absence. Most important for what followedwas that the Ingush Prigorodny rayon had been transferred to NorthOssetia. Some Ingush returned–the rehabilitation act allowedfor that–but most were blocked by the new residents. That divisionand return, and efforts to repeal the consequences of both arebehind almost all the conflicts and refugee flows which NorthOssetia and her neighbors are experiencing today.

Even before the Soviet Union collapsed, experts and politiciansin the region and in Moscow recognized that the existing territorialarrangements were not sustainable but they were unwilling to advocateany changes in borders there lest they open a Pandora’s box ofproblems throughout the USSR. Once the USSR ceased to exist,however, the question became more urgent because Moscow had lostmany of its levers of control in the area and local peoples–particularlythe Ossetians, the Ingush and the Chechens–had been mobilizedby new local elites who were prepared to use claims on other republicsto generate support at home.

In September 1992, a conference of regional leaders met in Cheboksaryto discuss this sensitive issue of power and territory. Mostparticipants suggested avoiding the big questions by devolvingas much power as possible downward as far as possible–even toindividual villages. But few of the participants seemed to besensitive to the fact that such a devolution–which in fact happened–putmany ethnic communities at risk, increased the desire of eachto use force to defend themselves, and guaranteed that the newelites would press for defending their ethnic brethren againsttraditional and Soviet-sponsored ethnic competitors and enemies.

When fighting broke out in the Prigorodny rayon, officials inRussia’s ministry for nationality and regional affairs attemptedto deal with the crisis, but in fact their proposal did not evenaddress the underlying problem, plumping instead for a Band-Aidapproach to the matter: rebuilding housing, disarming local units,providing the Ingush republic with more trappings of statehood,withdrawing the Russian army, establishing a special commissionto discuss the matter and to decide who was guilty of initiatinghostilities; and thus putting off any decision on the status ofthe disputed territory.

Given the complexity of the ethnic mosaic in the North Caucasus,and the conflicts inherent in both geography and Soviet-imposedterritorial divisions, it is no accident that some groups in theregion began to talk about the creation of some supra-ethnic politicalunity that could overcome the existing conflicts by wrapping theparties involved into something larger. One attempt in this directionwas the proposed establishment of a Confederation of MountainPeoples of the North Caucasus (CMPNC). As originally envisaged,this grouping would include the Abkhaz ASSR, the Chechen Republic,the Ingush Republic, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia,and would play the major role in resolving conflicts among itsindependent members. It would thus be the direct successor ofthe 1921-24 Mountaineers Republic.

While this idea attracted some support, it was opposed by threegroups: local Cossacks who feared that it would soon seek to expelthem, local Russians and others from outside the region who believedthey would be oppressed, and Moscow which continued to fear thatsuch an organization would severely limit its influence in theregion. To date, Moscow and its minions have been relativelysuccessful in preventing the CMPNC from taking off, both by exertingdirect military pressure as in its peacekeeping activities inNorth Ossetia (now called Alania) and by using economic carrotsand patriotic appeals to local Russians.

However Moscow’s problem, and hence the problem of the peoplesof this region, remains the same. The existing borders are possibleunder only two conditions: enormous coercion from outside whichwould both isolate Moscow from the West and prevent economic growthin Russia, or a de-ethnicization of a region where communal attachmentsare both ancient and strong. Thus it is almost certain that challengesto the borders and other political arrangements in the regionwill continue, and that they will be increasingly bloody, preciselybecause no one in Moscow is willing to look into Pandora’s box.