POWER CHANGES HANDS IN NORTH OSSETIA: FIRST STEPS AND FUTURE PROSPECTS
Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 11
By Anna Matveeva
North Ossetia is the only republic in the North Caucasus which has managed to achieve the transfer of power by Constitutional means at the ballot box. Aleksandr Dzasokhov, a State Duma deputy, won an impressive victory, taking 76 percent of the vote in the republic’s January 1988 presidential elections. His rival, former president Akhsarbek Galazov, got only 13 percent. The election marked a new political era in the republic, and produced a “domino effect”: neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia, which has never experienced presidential elections, will hold them as soon as possible.
Aleksandr Dzasokhov was born in 1934 in Vladikavkaz. His father was a railway worker. He graduated from the North Caucasus College of Mining and Metallurgy in Vladikavkaz in 1957, but never actually worked as an engineer, since he was promoted to a career in the Komsomol, first at home, and then in Moscow. In the 1980s, he was appointed ambassador to Syria. He returned to North Ossetia in 1998 to become the first secretary of the republic’s party committee, but did not hold the position long. He was coopted into the Politburo in June 1990. Galazov replaced Dzasokhov as the republic’s party chief.
Since that time, Dzasokhov made his career in the legislature. He became a member of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, and later, a State Duma deputy. He chaired the Russian parliament’s delegation to the Council of Europe. He is a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and is still registered for party purposes in Moscow, but rejected the support of the party’s local branch during the presidential elections, because he wanted to be seen as a national leader, not a Communist nominee.
THE ELECTIONS: A DEFEAT FOR GALAZOV
The feeling in the republic, however, is that this was not so much a victory for Dzasokhov as a defeat for Galazov. Galazov was not seen as having done very much for the republic over his time in office (he was appointed first secretary in 1990, and was elected President in 1994). The republican budget is heavily subsidized (up to 70 percent) by the center. But the funds Galazov managed to obtain from the federal authorities did not bring economic restructuring or create jobs.
Galazov’s administration was guilty of gross financial management, and perhaps, of corruption as well. It has come out that Galazov borrowed 398 million new rubles in credits from commercial banks, a sum which is roughly equal to the republic’s entire annual budget. The money presently required to service the debt could have covered the salaries of one-third of the republic’s government employees.
Unemployment has reached 70,000 or ten percent of the population. Most of the unemployed are young people.
North Ossetia is one of Russia’s most heavily militarized republics (second only to Rostov in southern Russia), with at least seven major defense enterprises and three military institutes on its territory. The crisis in the Russian military-industrial complex hit the republic hard, and Galazov and his team did not show enough initiative and skill to adapt the republic’s industrial potential to modern needs.
On the other hand, Galazov’s greatest achievement was that no merger between the criminal and political world took place on his watch, and that the gap between formal and informal power did not expand to unmanageable proportions.
DZASOKHOV IN OFFICE
Dzasokhov has shown energy and initiative since he has taken office, but it is still too early to expect any tangible results. He has appointed Teimuraz Mamsurov as prime minister, and seventeen members of the new cabinet who do not require Moscow’s approval. Many of the new ministers are graduates of the same Mining and Metallurgy College from which Dzasokhov graduated, and worked with him during his Komsomol days.
The new government is seen as less corrupt, and, except for the ministers of health care and social security, is made up of popular figures in the republic.
Relations between the president and the parliament, which were strained under Galazov, are likely to become more constructive. Dzasokhov appointed Stanislav Kisaev, a widely respected politician, as his personal representative to the parliament–a move which was greeted with widespread approval.
Dzasokhov often appears on television to communicate directly with the people and to explain new policy undertakings.
During the campaign, Dzasokhov refrained from making firm promises, and therefore cannot be held responsible for not delivering on his electoral agenda. But he believes that the republic’s most serious problems are internal.
Two policy priorities were declared soon after his inauguration: fighting crime and revitalizing the economy.
Crime is rampant in the republic: 28 cases of kidnapping were reported in 1997 (and this is probably only the tip of the iceberg), but this is more of a regional problem than a republican problem. Without the concerted effort of the leadership of neighboring republics, it is unlikely that there will be any substantial improvement.
But a number of steps have been taken to combat police corruption and improve efficiency. Police officers now work up to 13 hours a day. Policemen now do not hesitate to stop anyone on the street who looks suspicious.
In order to prevent the “magical” disappearance of federal subsidies and financial mismanagement, it was decided that budget information would be regularly published. And people believe that because of Dzasokhov’s connections in Moscow, he is in a good position to ensure the smooth flow of subsidies to the impoverished republic.
So far, there are no signs that Dzasokhov has been made hostage to the agenda of local interest groups. But doubts remain as to the extent to which he can resist their power. He has limited experience in working with people in the republic, and it is unclear whether he will be able to take firm control over the executive branch.
There have been some signs of improvement in the situation regarding the Ossetian/Ingush conflict, which started in 1992. Dzasokhov’s election was welcomed by the Ingush side, because he is not associated with the conflict. (In 1992, he was outside the republic.) On October 15, 1997, Dzasokhov and Ingushetia’s President Ruslan Aushev signed a Joint Action Program to ensure the return of refugees. On the recommendation of the Office of the Presidential Representative in the North Ossetian/Ingush Conflict Zone, the Ossetian side has repealed legislation which obstructed the repatriation of refugees. The Program envisages repatriation to all places of settlement, including Vladikavkaz, not just to the Prigorodny district.
But in reality, the repatriation is taking place more slowly than it appears on paper. Of the 12,000 people officially claimed to be returnees, only about 6,000 actually live in the republic. Although dialogue at the highest level–between Dzasokhov and Aushev–is firmly established, the main problem is the nationalist mood of the Ossetian side at lower levels, which remains anti-Ingush.
According to Viktor Soloviev, the adviser to the Presidential Representative in the Conflict Zone, since Dzasokhov came to power, the Ossetian side has started to pursue initiatives to improve the psychological climate. But it remains to be seen whether the new government will show the political will to change attitudes radically and provide real security guarantees for the returning Ingush.
The conflict in South Ossetia remains a burden for the republic which is unlikely to be relieved soon. Officially, there are 38,011 refugees from South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia in the republic. But in reality, many more migrants from across the border are now registered as living in North Ossetia. (As soon as a refugee finds a place to live, he is no longer officially regarded as a refugee and no longer receives aid–he is then classified as “registered on the territory of the republic.”)
Although the Georgian government has taken steps to make repatriation possible, most refugees are unwilling to return. Many have made money controlling the cross-border trade, and presently occupy lucrative positions in the new market economy. Some have benefited from acquiring the property of ethnic Ingush who fled after the 1992 conflict.
Meanwhile, emigration from South Ossetia continues. According to South Ossetia’s president, Ludwig Chibirov, 50,000 people now live in the republic–35,000 Ossetians and 12,000 ethnic Georgians.
Dzasokhov is in regular contact with the Georgian authorities on this issue. On April 16, he visited Tskhinvali and Tbilisi to meet with Eduard Shevardnadze to discuss South Ossetia’s future and the rebuilding of its economy. But the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.
TOO BIG FOR NORTH OSSETIA?
A potential problem is that Dzasokhov regards himself as a politician on a European scale, and the political space of North Ossetia is probably too limited for him. His exposure to international politics makes him interested in issues far beyond the mundane problems of governing North Ossetia; he frequently expresses his views on the partition of the Caspian Sea, the Iraq crisis and resolution of the conflict in Chechnya. His ambition to be the number one leader in the North Caucasus may undermine his ability to concentrate on matters closer to home.
Clearly, Dzasokhov aspires to make a career for himself as the regional leader who succeeded in solving the Chechen problem. His ambition is extremely convenient for Moscow, which is trying to shift the problem to a regional level. Dzasokhov was one of the initiators of the meeting of North Caucasus leaders in Chechnya’s capital Djohar on April 4, and launched the idea of rebuilding Chechnya’s economic and social infrastructure through the direct assistance of the North Caucasus republics. On April 15, Dzasokhov and Aushev appealed to President Yeltsin to hold a second meeting in Kislovodsk, to promote this dialogue.
His commitment to the republic is sometimes called into question. Some point out that when the “Law on Repressed and Deported Peoples” was debated in the Supreme Soviet (of which he was a member) in 1991, his voice was not heard lobbying for the republic’s interests; he was often absent during important hearings. When five Ingush refugee families were prevented, on March 23, from returning to their native village of Tarskoe by a decision made by the village’s Ossetian inhabitants, Dzasokhov should have been present on the ground, or, at least, should have sent his prime minister, to mark the first organized return within the framework of the program. Instead, the most senior official present was the district chief of administration, who could do nothing to pacify the crowd. There is reason to believe that this embarrassing turn of events could have been averted if Dzasokhov had publicly demonstrated his commitment to the peace process.
A “PERSONALITY CULT”?
A certain trend to create a “personality cult” around Dzasokhov is already visible. For example, S. Aguzarov, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of North Ossetia’s State Broadcasting Company, said that he is looking forward four years from now to the next presidential election, when only one candidate will be registered, and the turnout will be 100 percent, 99.9 percent of whom will vote for Dzasokhov. Although such pronouncements are not orchestrated by the president, the new government is clearly concerned about its image. An implicit instruction was circulated to the press that it was undesirable to publish any negative information about the Ingush or South Ossetian conflicts.
But despite present doubts and fears, the mood in North Ossetia is more positive. There is hope that the present authorities will unleash the creative potential of ordinary people, on which the success of economic and social development depends.
Anna Matveeva is a Research Fellow for the Royal Institute of International Affairs’ Russia and Eurasia Program. Before that, she worked as a Research Fellow at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.