The Ingush-Ossetian crisis: A concession by the Kremlin to either of the squabbling republics threatens to destabilize the situation in the other
By Igor Rotar
Tensions in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia have flared up since the middle of July. Ingushetia’s president Ruslan Aushev has accused the North Ossetian leadership of deliberately preventing ethnic Ingush from returning to the homes in Prigorodny district from which they fled following the ethnically-motivated violence of 1992. Aushev asserts that only about a quarter of the 40,000 Ingush who lived in the district prior to the 1992 conflict have so far been able to return.
Aushev told Prism that "The Ingush in Prigorodny are living in what can only be called reservations. Anyone who strays outside the Ingush section of his village risks being killed. This situation suits the Ossetian authorities. But it is President Yeltsin’s duty to protect Russian citizens, and that includes the Ingush of Prigorodny. Direct rule is the only solution. Otherwise, the murders of peaceful residents will continue. The patience of the residents of Ingushetia is not boundless, and it will be very hard for me to keep the situation under control."
Aushev has called on President Boris Yeltsin to impose direct rule to protect the Ingush returnees in Prigorodny. The reaction from Vladikavkaz was predictable. President Akhsarbek Galazov declared that, if Moscow complied with Aushev’s demand, North Ossetia might secede from Russia.
The Origins of the Conflict
The conflict has its roots in the events of 1944, when Stalin deported the Ingush and the Chechens to Central Asia and Kazakhstan and divided the territory of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR between Georgia, North Ossetia, Dagestan and Stavropol krai. The Chechen-Ingush ASSR was restored by Khrushchev in 1956 but Prigorodny, which had previously been part of it, remained in North Ossetia. Moreover, special regulations (Act No. 063 of the North Ossetian Council of Ministers in 1956, and Act No. 183 of the USSR Council of Ministers in 1981) restricted the registration of Ingush in Prigorodny. Nonetheless, Ingush settlers began gradually to buy homes there and to move back. By 1992, Ingush settlers made up 65 percent of the local population.
In 1991, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet passed a law on the "Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples," Article 3 of which provided for the "restoration of territorial integrity" in the form in which it had existed before Stalin’s deportations. This gave the Ingush fresh hope of regaining their lost territory and they began to demand the immediate transfer of Prigorodny district to Ingushetia. Violent scuffles between Ossetians and Ingush began to occur. Ingush from Ingushetia came to the aid of the settlers. In response, the Kremlin sent troops to Prigorodny. Detachments of Ossetian fighters, following on the heels of the Russian troops, carried out the first instance of ethnic cleansing in post-Soviet Russia: more than 3,000 Ingush homes were destroyed, 419 Ingush were killed, and virtually all of the ethnic Ingush inhabitants of Prigorodny fled to Ingushetia. A state of emergency was imposed. Since this was lifted in February 1995, some Ingush have returned to their homes, but most have not. The Ingush accuse North Ossetia of stalling and say Moscow is taking North Ossetia’s side.
"By about the end of last year, the situation had calmed down a little; people had even begun to risk leaving the Ingush part of their villages. Since then, the situation has again grown heated: homes built by Ingush returnees have been burned down and the Ingush themselves have been fired on. Now, we are back where we were in 1992. But the new war will be much bloodier than the last one. Now, we have nothing to lose, and we will defend ourselves to the last!" Prism was told by Beslan Yandiev, deputy chief of administration of the Ingush-populated part of the village of Dachnoe in Prigorodny district.
"I don’t deny that it isn’t safe for returnees to leave the areas where they are compactly settled. Don’t forget that a terrible tragedy took place here in 1992. It will take time for that wound to heal. Forcing the repatriation process could push our peoples into a new tragedy!" the chief of administration of Prigorodny, Pavel Tedeev, told Prism. According to Tedeev, of the 200 billion rubles allocated by Moscow for the rebuilding of destroyed homes in Prigorodny, his administration has received only 14 billion. "If the money continues to be allocated at such a pace, it will take 40 years to rebuild everything!" says Tedeev. He says the reason why the Ingush are not returning to Prigorodny is because they have nowhere to live.
The author has visited all the villages in the region and can testify that the real number of returnees is far lower than the 16,000 officially reported by the North Ossetian authorities. Not a single person lives in the Ingush part of the village of Kurtat, for example, though the official figures say that 80 percent of the Ingush population have already returned.
Vladikavkaz claims that 11,000 former Ingush residents have received permission to return to Prigorodny. However, this number includes only those Ingush who were registered to live in Prigorodny before the outbreak of violence in 1992. According to the authorities in Ingushetia, the real number of Ingush who lived in Prigorodny before the conflict was about 40,000. The discrepancy in the numbers is explained by the fact that, as mentioned above, the number of Ingush allowed to settle in Prigorodny was restricted by law. "The Ingush who lived here illegally, without residence permits, can claim no right to return. We do not consider these people to be forced migrants," Tedeev told Prism.
The main obstacle to Ingush resettlement is, as the Ossetian authorities confirm in private conversations, the problem of security. In the opinion of Ingush returnees, staying for the night in the Ingush part of the village of Kurtat, which is located between two settlements of Ossetians, would be tantamount to suicide.
There can be little doubt about the accuracy of Aushev’s assertion that Vladikavkaz is deliberately slowing the repatriation process. The Ossetians fear that, if the Ingush return to Prigorodny, demands for the territory’s transfer to Ingushetia will arise once again. The loss of Prigorodny — a flat land that acts as the breadbasket of the mountainous republic — would be an economic catastrophe for North Ossetia.
But there may be another reason why the repatriation of the Ingush is not in the interests of Vladikavkaz. About 10 percent of North Ossetia’s population is made up of refugees. After Ingushetia, indeed, this is the highest percentage in the whole of Russia. The overwhelming majority are Ossetians who fled from Georgia when the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia was president. Very few of these people have the possibility or the desire to go back to Georgia. After the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, Ossetian refugees, with the Ossetian authorities’ blessing, often occupied the homes of the Ingush who had fled.
It is apparently for this reason that this category of inhabitants of North Ossetia is the most radical on the "Ingush question." The political significance of these refugees from Georgia is much greater than their actual percentage in the republic’s population. And they are the main environment for radical extremist and criminal organizations. "We have nothing to lose. If Galazov kicks us out of our homes, to free up space for the Ingush, then we’ll fight on two fronts," Ossetian refugees from Georgia, who have resettled in Prigorodny, told Prism.
The Moscow Factor
All the evidence suggests that, just as in 1992, the Kremlin is giving Vladikavkaz preference over Nazran. Both President Yeltsin and the federal Security Council have dismissed the idea of direct presidential rule in Prigorodny as unacceptable. An analysis of the visit to Prigorodny by Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin and federal Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov makes it possible to draw conclusions about Moscow’s support for Vladikavkaz. Prior to the trip, Rybkin held consultations with North Ossetian president Akhsarbek Galazov but not with Ingushetia’s President Aushev. Then, Galazov flew from Moscow to the North Caucasus on the same plane with Ivan Rybkin, but Aushev was not included on the delegation. (1)
Discussing his impressions with journalists after his trip to Prigorodny, moreover, Rybkin used the Ossetian side’s statistics. Rybkin said for example that 16,700 Ingush lived in the district before the conflict — thereby indicating that, like Vladikavkaz, he did not view the Ingush who lived there without residence permits as repatriates. Rybkin also cited Ossetian statistics on the number of repatriates (that is, figures that Nazran views as exaggerated) and said nothing about what Nazran sees as the key issue — the security of those who have returned. "It’s not even a matter of how many Ingush have actually returned to Prigorodny, but the fact that these people do not have even the most elementary protection and are living under absolutely inhumane, humiliating conditions! But both Moscow and Vladikavkaz are always trying to examine the problem from another perspective," Aushev told Prism.
Moscow’s support for Vladikavkaz is easily explained. Ossetia has traditionally been a bulwark of the Russian and Soviet empires in the Northern Caucasus and, unlike the majority of its Muslim neighbors, is predominantly Christian. It is worth noting that, of all republics in the Northern Caucasus, only the North Ossetian leadership welcomed the introduction of federal troops into Chechnya in 1994. The Kremlin evidently fears that, if it ignored the Ossetians’ viewpoint, it could spoil relations with the most loyal federation subject in the Northern Caucasus.
"Everything Is Coming Full Circle"
Moscow cannot, however, entirely ignore the opinion of the other participant in this dispute. Passions are running high in Ingushetia, where demonstrations have been held at which Aushev has been accused of being too conciliatory on the issue of Prigorodny. There have been calls for the Ingush to arm themselves and go to the aid of their brethren in North Ossetia. "Everything is coming full circle. In 1992, on the eve of the conflict, 26 Ingush had been killed. Now, 24 have been killed. We can’t restrain people by force. We have only 800 policemen," the secretary of Ingushetia’s Security Council, Ali Dzaurov, told Prism.
Ingushetia is sandwiched between two flashpoints: Prigorodny and Chechnya, which is independent in all but name. And although, even in 1992, Chechnya was already an armed enclave with a criminal tint, the present situation in that republic is incomparably less stable. Chechnya is divided up into zones of influence of individual field commanders of the most exotic political persuasions (from Salman Raduev’s "Army of General Dudaev" to the "Wahabi" detachments of Khattab, a Chechen of Jordanian origin). Many zones are ruled by criminal gangs. In view of the fact that the Ingush and the Chechens are closely-related, and that the borders between the two republics have never been demarcated, the possibility that the "Chechen troubles" will spread to Ingushetia is high.
In such circumstances, any delay on Moscow’s part in resolving the Ingush-Ossetian crisis could lead, regardless of Aushev’s wishes, to Ingushetia’s reorientation toward Chechnya. Equally, the Ingush returnees could be provoked to appeal for protection to a maverick Chechen field commander. In fact, joint raids on Prigorodny by Ingush and Chechen fighters have already begun. On the night of July 30-31, there was a battle between Ossetian policemen and a group of armed Ingush fighters. One of the three Ingush killed turned out to be a battalion commander in Raduev’s "Army of General Dudaev."
The Kremlin faces a dilemma: a concession to either of the contending republics threatens to destabilize the situation in the other.
1. Kommersant-daily, July 26, 1997
Translated by Mark Eckert