Once the most stabile republic of the North Caucasus, North Ossetia is increasingly turning into a region of conflict. Demands for the resignation of North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov, heard practically everywhere in the immediate aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, are not the only threat to stability there. The relationship between Muslim communities and the authorities have suddenly become very tense as well.
Newspaper reports indicate that at least one of the militants who participated in the school seizure in Beslan was an ethnic Ossetian named Vladimir Khodov. A resident of the Ossetian village of Elkhotovo, Khodov joined a group of Chechen militants after graduating from a local madrasa, and at one point served as a cook in the detachment of Ruslan Gelaev. While there is substantial evidence that suggests that other members of Ossetia’s Muslim communities have also joined the ranks of Chechnya’s resistance, very little known about the Muslims of North Ossetia beyond the borders of the republic.
While the majority of Ossetians are Christian, according to official estimates, 15-30 percent of the population is Muslim. The Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz houses the central mosque, built in the beginning of the 20th century. Money for the construction of the mosque came from Azeri oil magnate Murtuza Mukhtarov, who married an Ossetian woman named Tuganova. (The mosque was built in the Egyptian style and has no architectural analogies in the North Caucasus.) But it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that a massive religious revival occurred. Islam began to be practiced more openly, with many Muslims adopting so-called Wahhabism, which is what fundamentalism is referred to in the North Caucasus.
In recent years, the followers of a fundamentalist version of Islam in North Ossetia have created an informal association of believers, a jamaat, which is headed by Ermak Tagaev, who carries the title of emir. The ranks of the jamaat, according to vice-emir and the imam of the central mosque of Vladikavkaz Suleiman Mamiev, with whom the author met on a number of occasions, include Muslims from the town of Beslan and the village of Elkhotovo. The Ossetian jamaat also has close relations with the jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria headed by Imam Musa Mukozhev, who is very popular among the local youth. Suleiman Mamiev has told the author that there are 500 members in the Vladikavkaz commune, most of them ethnic Ossetians.
Jamaats are not subordinated to the official Islamic hierarchy, the so-called Spiritual Board of Muslims. This state-controlled structure was created in the Stalinist era, in the 1940s. Sensing its declining influence among believers, the Spiritual Board of Muslims declared a war against the jamaats, and has carried out actions to limit their ability to operate with the help of local police and special services.
According to the Muslim newspaper of North Ossetia, Dawaa (The Call), on February 2 operatives from the FSB Directorate for North Ossetia, in a joint operation with the officers from Organized Crime Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, searched the house of the chairman of the Islamic Cultural Center, 48-year-old Ermak Tegaev. According to Dawaa, in full view of the several witnesses, law enforcement officials planted an explosive in Tagaev’s belongings that served as an official pretext for his arrest. Based on information provided by law enforcement agencies in North Ossetia, the Caucasus Times reported on February 2 that when Ermak Tagaev was apprehended, law enforcement officials “discovered” at his residence 270 grams of plastic explosive and three electric detonators as well as religious literature and video/audio material of an “extremist” orientation.
Tegaev’s supporters immediately denounced his arrest as a deliberate instigation by the Spiritual Board of Muslims of North Ossetia, headed by the 30-year-old Ruslan Valgasov. Valgasov is the former head of the State Service of Automobile Inspection (traffic police) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, traditionally considered one of the most corrupt police structures. He was elected mufti in May 2004 in accordance with a direct order from the government of North Ossetia, which was not satisfied with the independence of the Muslim communities in the republic.
After Tegaev’s arrest, Valgasov targeted another leader of the jamaats, Mamiev. In early March of this year, Suleiman Mamiev told the on-line publication News from the South of Russia (yufo.ru), that while at his residence on February 12, he was severely beaten by Ruslan Valgasov himself. As evidence of this statement, the yufo.ru website reported on February 24 that Mamiev’s face bore the marks of physical violence. According to Mamiev, the mufti suddenly entered his residence and “without any conversation started a brawl.” The imam of the central mosque of Vladikavkaz assessed the entire incident as “a provocation aimed at making us commit some kind of actions in response, which would allow the authorities to shut down our jamaat under the pretext of religious extremism.”
According to Mamiev, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of North Ossetia wants to assume control over the religious activities of all Muslims, and as an organization it is under the tacit patronage of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Apart from the close ties between the authorities and the Spiritual Board of Muslims, the North Ossetian government apparently has personal scores to settle with the Ossetian jamaat. According to Mamiev, “Islam in Ossetia contributes to social purification and none of the criminal ties lead to the mosque, and the gatherings at the mosque were frequently attended by representatives of the government, who did not find anything warranting caution.” But in official circles the Imam of Vladikavkaz enjoys a solid reputation as the main ideologue of local Wahhabis.
Perhaps this is the result of Mamiev’s strong position in regards to defending the interests of the Muslim community. Mamiev explains the situation further: “The call for prayer, whether it is in the form of a Muslim azzan (the call for prayer by the Mullah) or Orthodox Christian bell ringing, is not prohibited by the law, but the situation here is more difficult. The mosque is located in the center of the city, and azzan can be heard well by the members of the government and high-ranking officials. Many of them do not like this, including the President of North Ossetia Aleksandr Dzasokhov. Our electricity was cut off on a number of occasions because azzan was broadcast by loudspeaker across the city. We find the melody of azzan beautiful, but it appears that others think otherwise.”
Perhaps there is also another reason for attacking the Muslim leader. Recently Mamiev and Ermak Tegaev read a series of lectures on Islam for Interior Ministry operatives and officers of the 58th Army, who fight in Chechnya. “We reminded them that they bear responsibility for their actions in front of Allah,” said Suleiman Mamiev. Perhaps this is what caused such a harsh reaction among the special services against one of the leaders of the Ossetian jamaat. Mamiev thinks that “today when the reigns of power in Russia are firmly held by the former military and intelligence officers, further destabilization of situation in the North Caucasus appears to be almost inevitable.”
At the same time, the concern of Russian and Ossetian authorities is understandable: the strengthening of Muslims in the most loyal of Moscow’s North Caucasus republics can negatively affect Russia’s already tenuous position in the region. However, attempts by local authorities, who largely lost their reputation after the terrorist act in Beslan, to shift the attention of the aggravated population to “Muslim extremism” does not look like the best option for solving their problems. The Muslims in North Ossetia are a minority but they are a relatively substantial minority. Putting pressure on their leaders may well contribute to the radicalization of their position, especially in relation to the spreading of the conflict zone from Chechnya to the entire North Caucasus.
Mikhail Roshchin is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.