Washington, 6 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Some Russian officials are beginning to classify the nations of the North Caucasus as "reliable" or "unreliable," a division introduced at the beginning of the Soviet period and one that contributed to some of the worst excesses of the Stalinist era.
Last week, Ruslan Aushev, the president of Ingushetia, told the Moscow newspaper "Vremya-MN" that he resents the inclination of the Russian government to assess the loyalty of each of the nations of his region.
Aushev said that Moscow still considers the Ossetians a "reliable" nationality because that ethnic group has typically supported Russian aims. But the Russian authorities even now tend to classify all the peoples who were deported to Central Asia by Stalin in the 1940s as still "unreliable."
"We should not remain a deported nation indefinitely," the Ingush president insisted.
On the one hand, the tendency of central governments to categorize peoples in this way is typical of many countries around the world. Cynthia Enloe, a longtime student of ethnic relations in Asia, has pointed out that governments routinely construct what she calls ethnic security maps.
Such mental maps, Enloe argues in her book "Ethnic Soldiers," reflect how national elites view the ethnic communities living under their control. Central elites almost inevitably tend to view some groups as probable supporters and others as likely opponents.
But on the other hand, the specific history of this kind of classification in regions under Moscow's control and the ways in which it was used by Soviet-era officials raise some more serious questions.
Recently declassified documents from the early 1920s until the death of Stalin in 1953 suggest that Soviet leaders routinely classified whole peoples as either loyal or disloyal and hence as "reliable" or "unreliable."
Groups with no history of resistance to Soviet power and with no anti-Soviet diasporas or connections abroad were generally viewed as "reliable." But groups which had resisted Soviet occupation or which had large and active anti-Soviet emigrations were viewed as "unreliable."
Initially, this classification appears to have had relatively restricted consequences both for the groups and for individual members of each.
Groups classified as "reliable" were more likely to be given somewhat more autonomy in the Soviet system, while those considered "unreliable" were generally given a lower status and fewer rights.
Members of groups classified as "reliable" often found it easier to enter prestigious universities, obtain residence permits and get good jobs. But members of groups deemed "unreliable" tended to face greater obstacles in gaining such advantages.
But over time, these divisions came to have ever greater significance for both individuals and groups. Because Stalin described whole peoples he considered to be unreliable as enemies of the state, Soviet officials openly discriminated against individual members of such groups.
And by World War II, Stalin ordered the deportation of entire nationalities whom he believed had proved "unreliable," a process which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and whose consequences continue to reverberate especially in the North Caucasus.
Between 1953 and 1991, Soviet leaders avoided such a classification of peoples at least in public. But more recently, as Aushev's remarks suggest, some Russian officials are once again employing these terms.
The first indication that some post-Soviet Russian leaders were prepared to do so was the October 1993 decision by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov calling for the expulsion from the Russian capital of all "persons of Caucasian nationality," an order that is still being enforced.
The implicit suggestion that all North Caucasians were somehow unreliable immediately recalled Stalin's use of the term "persons of Jewish nationality" when the Soviet dictator launched his anti-semitic attacks in the last years of his rule.
And as was the case against the Jews under Stalin, the official sanction of this classification now has convinced many Russians that it is acceptable to discriminate against North Caucasians as a group.
Obviously, the classification of peoples as reliable or unreliable now is unlikely to have the same impact that it had a half century ago. But the use of such terms entails at least the risk of heightened interethnic tension if not more serious consequences.