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Analysis: Beslan Fuels Antipathy Between Ossetians, Ingush

  • Liz Fuller

Initial reports on 1 and 2 September that the militants who seized over 1,000 hostages in the North Ossetian town of Beslan included Chechens and Ingush immediately sparked concern that the incident could trigger major clashes between the Ossetians and Ingush. While reports of Ossetian reprisals against Ingush in North Ossetia have so far proven false, both ethnic groups fear that tensions could erupt into violence at any time.

Animosity has existed for decades between the Christian Ossetians, whose leaders voluntarily petitioned Tsarist Russia in 1774 to incorporate the region into the Russian Empire, and the Ingush. The Ingush, together with the Chechens, were deported to Central Asia in February 1944 on orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who suspected them of collusion with Nazi Germany. The Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was abolished, and its western-most district, Prigorodnyi Raion, was incorporated into North Ossetia.

In 1957, following Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev's "Secret Speech" the previous year to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the green light was given for the repatriation of the deported peoples and the restoration of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, albeit within different borders: Prigorodnyi Raion remained part of North Ossetia.
In six days of violence, up to 700 people were killed, hundreds of hostages taken by both sides, and thousands of homes (mostly belonging to Ingush families) destroyed.


The return of the deported Ingush to Prigorodnyi Raion inevitably created tensions between the Ossetians and the repatriates, many of whose homes had been occupied by settlers from elsewhere in the North Caucasus. The Ingush claim that they were routinely subjected to discrimination on ethnic grounds. But with the exception of fighting in the North Ossetian capital in late 1981, tensions did not escalate into violence.

In the late 1980s, then CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost created the illusion that the Soviet leadership was prepared to redress the most egregious injustices inflicted by Stalin on the non-Russian peoples. Beginning in 1991, the Ingush staged repeated demonstrations to demand that Checheno-Ingushetia again be divided into its two constituent parts and Prigorodnyi Raion returned to Ingushetia. (In March 1991, Boris Yeltsin, then chairman of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic [RSFSR] Supreme Soviet, endorsed the first of those Ingush demands.) The population of North Ossetia, for their part, rallied to protest the proposal to hand over the raion to Ingushetia. In April 1991, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet adopted a law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples that implicitly promised territorial reparations, thereby fueling Ingush hopes. But the Ossetians succeeded in pressuring Moscow to impose a five-year moratorium on implementing the legislation. Checheno-Ingushetia was finally divided into two republics in July 1992.

Several months later, in late October 1992, the accumulated tensions erupted into fighting in Prigorodnyi Raion between Ingush informal militias and North Ossetian security forces backed by Russian Interior Ministry and army troops. In six days of violence, up to 700 people were killed, hundreds of hostages taken by both sides, and thousands of homes (mostly belonging to Ingush families) destroyed, according to a Human Rights Watch study published in 1996. Almost the entire Ingush population of the district (estimates range from 34,000 to 64,000 people) was forced to flee.

The Russian leadership responded by imposing a state of emergency in Prigorodnyi Raion and adjacent areas of both North Ossetia and Ingushetia, which remained in force until February 1995. Sporadic clashes have occurred since then, necessitating Moscow's intervention on several occasions. In July 1997, President Yeltsin rejected as "unconstitutional" an appeal by the presidents of North Ossetia and Ingushetia, Akhsarbek Galazov and Ruslan Aushev, to reimpose presidential rule. Instead he promised increased funding to rebuild destroyed homes and create new jobs for those Ingush who wished to return to Prigorodnyi Raion.

The Russian government, however, apparently failed to make good on Yeltsin's promise of increased aid. Two years later, in July 1999, Aushev threatened to suspend all talks with North Ossetia until earlier agreements on measures to defuse tensions were implemented. In April 2001, between 5,000-10,000 Ingush staged a rally in the Ingush capital, Nazran, to demand that President Vladimir Putin take steps to facilitate their return home, including declaring presidential rule in both Vladikavkaz and Prigorodnyi Raion.

Aushev, however, alienated Putin by his support for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov after Russia launched a new war against Chechnya in the fall of 1999, and in December 2001 he announced his resignation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2002). Aushev's successor, former FSB General Murat Zyazikov, has been less vocal in lobbying the interests of the Ingush displaced persons. True, in October 2002 Zyazikov and North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov signed a major "Agreement on the Development of Cooperation and Good-Neighborly Relations" intended to "mark the beginning of a new stage" in bilateral relations. That document obliged both sides to take the necessary measures to eliminate the consequences of the 1992 clashes, including expediting the repatriation of Ingush fugitives; preventing the creation of illegal armed or separatist groups; and establishing mechanisms for consultations to prevent the emergence and escalation of new tensions, according to ingushetia.ru. It also stressed the commitment of both republics to peace throughout the North Caucasus and to preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

Yet despite that top-level affirmation of goodwill (according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 3 February 2003, it was the 160th document signed between representatives of the two republics over a period of 10 years), thousands of Ingush fugitives are still unable or unwilling to return to North Ossetia. The precise number is unclear. In an interview on 7 September with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Maskhadov representative Akhmed Zakaev said that up to 40,000 Ingush from Prigorodnyi Raion still live in tent camps and trailers in Ingushetia. A whole generation of Ingush children has grown up in appalling conditions, Zakaev continued, implying that such young men are ripe for recruitment by the militant wing of the Chechen resistance. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" estimated in February 2003 that some 28,000 Ingush still have not returned to their abandoned homes. By contrast, Russia's presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District, Vladimir Yakovlev, announced three months ago that some 80 percent of the Ingush displaced persons have returned to North Ossetia, according to Interfax on 17 June.

One major obstacle appears to be that the Ingush insist on returning to their old homes, many of which have since been taken over by Ossetian refugees from Georgia, while the North Ossetian authorities are eager to persuade them to move to new housing in other districts of the republic. Nor is it clear precisely how much new housing has been made available, and whether federal funds earmarked for that purpose are being embezzled in North Ossetia as they are in Chechnya.

For more on this topic see also Russia: Beslan Hostage Crisis Rekindles Tensions Between Ossetians And Ingush
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