Two factors, a controversial federal law that carves in stone disputed administrative borders between North Ossetia and Ingushetia and an outbreak of violence, are reigniting tensions between the two neighboring North Caucasus republics.
At the end of November, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a federal law establishing municipalities in Chechnya and Ingushetia (Kremlin.ru, November, 24). The two are the last territories that have had no officially established municipalities since contemporary Russian Federation came into existence in the beginning of 1991. The law designates an interim period until the end of 2009 during which the limits of municipalities in both territories should be firmly established.
Earlier this month, a consortium of Ingush NGOs addressed the authorities, urging them not to implement the law without reclaiming the disputed territories from North Ossetia to Ingushetia (Kavkazky Uzel, December 13). Ingush activists fear that if Ingushetia establishes municipalities according to the existing administrative borders, they will no longer be able to claim the disputed lands.
The Ingush have been laying claims to the right side of the Terek River that cuts across the North Ossetian region of Prigorodny and the region’s capital Vladikavkaz. Part of these lands administratively belonged to the Ingush autonomy before 1944, when the Ingush were deported to Central Asia along with Chechens as punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. After they were rehabilitated and had their rights restored in 1957, some of their former lands remained under the North Ossetian administration.
Land has historically been scarce and highly valued across the North Caucasus. In 1992, after a short but bloody war, most of the Ingush population of North Ossetia, an estimated 30,000-60,000 people, fled or was driven out by the Ossetians into neighboring Ingushetia. Since then, some of the Ingush refugees have returned home, but violence has periodically spoiled relations between the two neighbors.
On November 6, a bomb went off near the central market in Vladikavkaz, killing 12 people, including the female suspected suicide bomber (Lenta.ru and Interfax, November 6). The North Ossetian public was quick to put the blame for the explosion on the Ingush, citing the suspect’s “Ingush accent” (Gazeta, November 9). Even though North Ossetia had experienced other attacks, no suicide attack had taken place in Vladikavkaz before then.
Ten days after the attack, an obscure Chechen militant group Riyadus-Salikhin claimed responsibility for it (Hunafa.com, November 15). This group was created by well-known Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and specialized in suicide bombings. The group did not display any activity after the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004 and was thought to have disappeared after Basayev’s death in the summer of 2006.
Unlike the original Riyadus-Salikhin, the latest incarnation of the group appeared to uphold the Ingush cause as opposed to the previous Chechen-Islamic cause of the group headed by Basayev. Their statement in particular cited the alleged killing of an Ingush civilian by North Ossetian policemen earlier in October, recalled Ingush historic grievances and decried the general mistreatment of the Ingush people in North Ossetia. The statement on the Hunafa.com website was subsequently redacted, making it shorter and less pointedly anti-Ossetian.
Russian interrogators, however, were quick to dismiss an Ingush or Georgian link to the attack: the two Ossetian neighbors, often perceived by the Ossetian public as adversarial, instead attributed the attack to a murky international terrorism ring (Kommersant, November 8).
The reported international terrorism link has not gone down well with the Ossetian public, who see the attacks as directed against them by very concrete neighboring adversaries rather than abstract “international Islamic extremists.” About one-third of ethnic Ossetians are Muslims. Moscow’s unchanging stance against recognizing terror attacks as hate crimes further raised questions among the Ossetian public about its credibility.
On December 8, it was revealed that a suspect from Ingushetia thought to have assisted the suicide bomber had been arrested (Kommersant, December 9).
The terror attack was accompanied by the high profile killing of Vladikavkaz mayor Vitaly Karayev on November 26. The day after he was killed, another Islamic group, calling itself the Ossetian Jamaat or Kataib al Khoul claimed responsibility for the attack while at the same time denying responsibility for the earlier explosion. This came in stark contrast to all previous statements made by the Islamic militant groups, who would not contradict each other so obviously (Rosbalt.ru, November 27). This could mean that forces other than Islamic militants may have been behind at least one of the attacks and corresponding statements—or even, perhaps, behind both.
A fierce and surprising wave of violent events came soon after Ingush President Murat Zyazikov was dismissed from his position at the end of October. The situation in Ingushetia has commonly been referred to for the past several years as a low-grade war. The violent attacks against military and law enforcement personnel, officials and their relatives, as well as human rights abuses against civilians, have become a daily routine in the republic.
Signaling a change of approach, Moscow finally gave in to public pressure and dismissed Zyazikov, an unpopular security services general, as president, and replaced him with military intelligence veteran Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.
The change in government in Ingushetia comes at a decisive time in the future of the Prigorodny district. The new Ingush president’s current tasks seem to be almost irreconcilable. To win over public opinion, he has had to appease Ingush nationalists and at least lay claims to the Prigorodny district or undertake at least some form of action, such as trying to ensure the return of the remaining Ingush refugees. At the same time, he has had to display unconditional loyalty to Moscow, which does not seem to be currently inclined to redraw the contentious administrative border between the two republics. Given these discrepancies, Yevkurov has to deliver on Moscow’s expectations to quell violence in Ingushetia.
In its turn, North Ossetia’s leadership says that the Ossetian-Ingush conflict has been resolved, that all those who wanted to return to their homes have returned and others were resettled.
The latest attacks in Vladikavkaz have only added to the Ossetians’ belief that the Ingush are the main source of their insecurity. This makes it even more difficult for them to reconcile with the Ingush.
However, other forces might be at play here as well. It is well known that the Vladikavkaz mayor was mired in a long battle with alternative political forces, backed by North Ossetia’s deputy in the Russia’s State Duma, Arsen Fadzayev, and that this may have been a factor in his assassination.
Several high-profile police killings preceding the mayor’s murder occurred in North Ossetia earlier this year in which the perpetrators were not found. This may suggest that powerful political forces could be behind these attacks. In the absence of elections and healthy democratic process, political struggles often are prone to take a violent form.
In a highly unusual move, the head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, reached out to the heads of Chechnya and Ingushetia “to coordinate efforts to fight against terrorists.” Expressing his frustration with the law-enforcement agencies, Mamsurov stated in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper that was published on November 28, “It’s enough to walk around and imitate this kind of fight [with terrorists].”
Local alliances like this without the explicit participation of Moscow are very unusual in the North Caucasus, especially if these contacts are related to security issues. In addition, the move suggests that Mamsurov does not fully trust the existing federal law-enforcement bodies and that by reaching out to his counterparts, he is trying to establish a parallel system.