This month’s hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia, and the hundreds of fatalities resulting from officials’ failure to rescue the captives have produced a political standoff in the republic. Inspired by relatives of the dead hostages, opposition forces are demanding the resignation of republic president Alexander Dzasokhov. On September 8, several thousand people gathered near the Government Palace in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. The rally was organized by a local branch of the Russian Communist Party and an Ossetian separatist movement headed by Zaur Tygiev, a radical Ossetian nationalist (gazeta.ru, September 8; Kommersant, September 9).
According to Kommersant newspaper, the crowd was very aggressive and tried to enter the Palace where Dzasokhov had been staying. After minor clashes with the Palace guards, about 15 activists managed to get inside and meet with the president. They forced Dzasokhov to address the crowd. In his speech he promised to fire the Ossetian government and to consider his own resignation. The crowd responded with shouts accusing him of failing to protect Ossetia from terrorists and of conducting a “pro-Ingush” and “pro-Russian” policy. People blamed Dzasokhov for letting Ingush refuges return to the disputed Prigorodny district. To calm the crowd, Dzasokhov promised to provide answers to their demands within three days. At the same time, he tried to explain that he had no power to fire local security forces, which report to Moscow (Kommersant, September 9).
When the rally was over, Dzasokhov rushed to the local Ossetian TV station to give a satellite interview to the Russian TV channel, NTV. Although Dzasokhov never said “Moscow” or “Kremlin” in the interview, most of his criticism was directed towards the federal government. He said that problems should be solved in the regions, which is the source of terrorism, instead of looking for Arabs and Africans. (The chief of the Ossetian branch of the Federal Security Service had said that 10 Arabs and an African were found among the dead terrorists in Beslan.) When an NTV journalist asked where such territories were situated, Dzasokhov answered darkly that as far as he knew there were no such territories beyond the Ural Mountains. The implication was plain: Dzasokhov meant Chechnya. When pressed by the opposition, the Ossetian President reacted exactly like his colleague, Myrad Zyazikov, president of neighboring Ingushetia. After militants raided Ingushetia in June, while the Kremlin mulled whether or not to remove the Ingush President from his post, Zyazikov suggested possible negotiations with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. Thus Dzasokhov appealed to the Kremlin for support in his standoff with the opposition by threatening to raise the Chechen issue, which is so painful for the Russian authorities.
Dzasokhov may have received favorable signals from Moscow because, according to gazeta.ru, he looked very confident at a rally organized September 9 in Vladikavkaz. This was a pro-presidential rally made up of people who had been bused into Vladikavkaz from all over the republic. Every Ossetian settlement leader and company chief received a directive to dispatch some of his or her residents or employees to take part in the rally (Kommersant, September 10). During this demonstration, Dzasokhov again announced the resignation of his government but said that if he resigned himself, he would betray his own people. According to NTV, several infuriated opposition members tried to reach the microphone but were stopped by presidential bodyguards.
Dzasokhov tried to redirect the people’s anger to another target. Fully aware that his position was shaky and being unable to criticize Moscow directly, he instead turned to respected Ossetians who had been loyal to him to speak on his behalf. The famed Ossetian wrestler Tsambulat Tedeyev said in his emotional speech at the rally, “The heads of the Russian security forces must answer for their Beslan blunder” (gazeta.ru, September 9).
The Kremlin also understands that it must offer some concession to the Ossetians. On September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a degree ordering the resignation of the local FSB chief, Valery Andreyev, and the North Ossetian Minister of Internal Affairs, Kazbek Dzantiev. However, the protestors at the September 11 rally (some carrying large photos of children killed in Beslan) were shouting: “This is not enough!” (Moskovsky komsomolets, September 13). However, calls for the resignation of the Ossetian president have waned.
Although Dzasokhov’s position strengthened when the local security leaders were fired, the situation in North Ossetia is still far from normal. Ordinary Ossetians aligned with the opposition leaders and the federal authorities alike are looking for a scapegoat who could be held responsible for the Beslan tragedy. Dzasokhov, one of the leading candidates for this role, is trying to survive by finding a way around them and alternately appealing to both.