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Analysis: Are Ingushetia, North Ossetia On Verge Of New Hostilities?

(RFE/RL) It has been more than 13 years since Ingush and Ossetian informal militias, the latter backed by Russian security forces, engaged in a brief but brutal conflict in North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion, to which both ethnic groups lay claim. More than 500 people died in six days of fighting in early November 1992 that precipitated the flight from North Ossetia of tens of thousands of Ingush settlers.

Due partly to a lack of political will and partly to inadequate funding, measures adopted by successive Russian governments intended to enable the Ingush fugitives to return to their abandoned homes in Prigorodny Raion have been implemented only half-heartedly, with the result that the Ingush collective sense of grievance has festered.

The Ossetians, for their part, remain resolutely opposed either to changes in their republic's borders that would hand Prigorodny Raion back to Ingushetia, or to the wholesale return of the Ingush to the district. The two sides have recently launched new propaganda offensives intended to impel the Russian leadership to amend the status quo in their favor.

Origins Of The Dispute

Prigorodny Raion was incorporated into North Ossetia when the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) of which it was originally part was abolished in the wake of the 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia.

When both ethnic groups were exonerated under then-CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and their republic was reconstituted in 1957, its borders were amended to leave Prigorodny Raion within North Ossetia.

In April 1991 the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a Law on the Rehabilitation of the Repressed Peoples that stated that Prigorodny Raion should be handed back to the then-Checheno-Ingush ASSR, but failed to specify how and over what time period this should be done. The Checheno-Ingush ASSR split into separate Chechen and Ingush republics in July 1992, but the borders of those two territories were not formalized.
A detailed new program was unveiled in May 2005 for expediting the return of the Ingush displaced persons to their abandoned homes in Ingushetia by the end of 2006.

Because many of the Ingush who resettled spontaneously in Prigorodny Raion following the passage of the 1991 law failed to register with the North Ossetian authorities, estimates of the size of the Ingush population of Prigorodny Raion on the eve of the November 1992 fighting and of the number of Ingush forced to flee for their lives vary greatly. According to a Human Rights Watch report compiled in 1996, there were 34,000 Ingush officially registered as residents in North Ossetia in 1991; the Russian Federal Migration Service registered 46,000 forcibly displaced Ingush from North Ossetia; while the Ingushetian Territorial Migration Service put the number at 64,000.

In the aftermath of the violence, Moscow imposed a state of emergency in Prigorodny Raion that remained in force until 1995; a joint request two years later by the then-presidents of both republics that it be reimposed was rejected as unconstitutional by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin vowed instead to increase funding to rebuild destroyed homes and create new jobs for those Ingush who wished to return to Prigorodny Raion, but the Russian government apparently failed to make good on that pledge, and in July 1999 Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev threatened to suspend all talks with North Ossetia until earlier agreements on measures to defuse tensions were implemented.

Good-Neighborly Intentions

In October 2002, Aushev's successor, former Federal Security Service (FSB) General Murat Zyazikov, and then-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 Yet that agreement too was ignored rather than systematically implemented, with the result that as of September 2004 an estimated 40,000 Ingush displaced persons from Prigorodny Raion were still living in tent camps in Ingushetia.

In May 2005, Dmitry Kozak, whom President Vladimir Putin named in September 2004 as his representative to the Southern Federal District, unveiled a detailed new program for expediting the return of the Ingush displaced persons to their abandoned homes in Ingushetia by the end of 2006. Kozak's staff initially insisted on implementing that agreement to the letter, according to an article published in "Moskovsky komsomolets" on February 13, but North Ossetian bureaucrats have systematically created obstacles to the displaced persons' return to their homes.

Consequently, as Ingushetian Minister for Nationality Affairs Magomed Markhiyev told "Caucasus Times" on February 27, as of February only approximately 12,500 displaced persons, or some 30 percent of the total number, had returned to North Ossetia. Markhiyev said that Kozak's original plan is being constantly modified by North Ossetian officials who are insisting that the returning Ingush be housed in new settlements constructed specifically for that purpose. For reasons that remain unclear, at a meeting in Rostov-na-Donu in early February with government officials from Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Kozak signed off on a new protocol to his original plan that provides for Ingush returning to North Ossetia to take up residence in such settlements, rather than in their abandoned homes.

The Ingushetian parliament promptly addressed an appeal to President Putin rejecting that proposed arrangement as "pro-Ossetian," the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 20. And in a statement adopted one month later, the People's Assembly called for talks between its representatives, Zyazikov, and Kozak's staff on "constructive and dynamic" measures to resolve the conflict in accordance with the displaced persons' wishes, reported on March 23.

Border Calls

Meanwhile, the North Ossetian parliament is preparing another appeal to the Russian parliament to amend the 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples by removing from it the articles stating that the pre-deportation borders between republics be restored. The Ingush responded to news of that impending appeal by addressing four separate counterappeals to President Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, the Russian Constitutional Court, and the chairmen of the State Duma and Federation Council.
The North Ossetian parliament is preparing an appeal to the Russian parliament to amend the 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples by removing articles stating that the pre-deportation borders between republics be restored.

More ominously, a hitherto unknown group calling itself Patriots of Ossetia posted a statement on March 16 on arguing that measures reportedly adopted by the Ingushetian leadership on March 9 to expedite the return of Ingush displaced persons to North Ossetia herald "a new attack on us.... Clearly if Ingush extremism is not reined in, we shall have to prepare for war! We must not repeat past mistakes! This time no one will catch us unaware...! We are ready to defend our Homeland with weapons in our hands!" that statement concludes.

The March 23 statement by the Ingushetian National Assembly interpreted Kozak's apparent capitulation to pressure from the North Ossetian leadership as predicated on the assumption that, in time, the Ingush displaced persons will abandon hope and accept whatever final solution to the standoff Moscow sees fit to impose. But some of those hypothetical solutions might prove even less palatable than the "ghetto" settlements in North Ossetia envisaged in the most recent protocol to Kozak's original blueprint of May 2005.

Settlement Scenarios

One such solution would be to recombine Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single republic with two titular nationalities, by analogy with the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia republics. True, Zyazikov has rejected that proposal on more than one occasion. But his Chechen counterpart Alu Alkhanov has been less categorical, suggesting that residents of both republics should vote on the issue in a referendum.

A second possibility, floated in an article published in "Rossia v global'noi politike" and reposted on on March 10, would be to merge Ingushetia and North Ossetia into a single republic and thus abolish once for all any grounds for disputing the borders between them, reported on March 10. That approach would have the additional advantage, as journalist Makhmud Malsagov pointed out in a commentary posted on on March 13, of assimilating the "unruly" Ingush with the "loyal" Ossetians.

It is not clear, however, how such a merger would impinge on a putative alternative geopolitical project, namely the unification of North Ossetia with Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. Unlike his predecessor Dzasokhov, who advocated resolving the conflict between the central Georgian authorities and South Ossetia by transforming Georgia into a federation in order to grant more substantial rights to both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Taymuraz Mamsurov, who was named North Ossetian president in June 2005, has repeatedly advocated the unification of the two Ossetian republics.

Whether Kokoity's stated intention on March 22 to petition the Russian Constitutional Court to designate his republic part of the Russian Federation -- a proposal for which Mamsurov and some Russian officials have reportedly expressed support -- reflects top-level Kremlin support for unification is unclear. Those statements may have merely been intended as a way to hit back at the Georgian authorities for their consistent blocking of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization.