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Russia: Moscow's Ostrich Policy In North Caucasus

Prague, 11 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Until recently, the 1994-96 war in Chechnya and the uneasy peace that followed have eclipsed the unresolved conflict between Chechnya's western neighbor, Ingushetia, and the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania. The leaders of the two republics, Ruslan Aushev and Akhsarbek Galazov, met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow on 8 August in an attempt to forestall new violence in North Ossetia's disputed Prigodonyi Raion.

The conflict there, like so many on the territory of the former Soviet Union, is the consequence of Stalin's nationality policy. When the North Ossetian and Ingush autonomous oblasts were created in 1924, Prigorodnyi Raion formed the westernmost district of Ingushetia. In 1936, Moscow merged Ingushetia with Chechnya to form the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic. This formation was abolished following the 1944 mass deportation of both the Chechens and the Ingush to Central Asia under suspicion of collaborating with Nazi Germany.

At the same time, Prigorodnyi Raion was incorporated into North Ossetia. Following Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a green light was given for the repatriation of the exiled peoples and for the reformation of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, albeit within different borders. Prigorodnyi Raion, however, remained part of North Ossetia.

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 late1981, tensions did not escalate into violence.

In the late 1980s, 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 RSFSR Supreme Soviet, endorsed the first of those Ingush demands.)

The Ossetian population, 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 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. Almost the entire Ingush population of the district (estimates range from 34,000 to 64,000 people) were 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. But direct rule by Moscow has failed to contribute significantly to defusing tensions and creating conditions for the return of the Ingush. Most Ingush fugitives are living in temporary accommodation in Ingushetia. Only an estimated 2,000 have returned to Prigorodnyi Raion.

Since early July, interethnic clashes in Prigorodnyi Raion have risen dramatically, prompting Aushev to appeal to President Boris Yeltsin to impose presidential rule there. Galazov, however, rejected that proposal as potentially counterproductive, arguing instead for increased funding to rebuild destroyed homes and create new jobs for both Ossetians and returning Ingush. Yeltsin rejected presidential rule as unconstitutional and "contrary to the direction in which Russian federalism should develop."

Meeting with the two republican presidents on 8 August, Yeltsin proposed tension-defusing measures similar to those agreed on last year in Chechnya. Those measures include a moratorium of 15-20 years on territorial claims and the creation of Ossetian-Ingush militia patrols to maintain the peace. Moscow will allocate 200 billion rubles ($34.5 million) annually for the next two years toward reconstruction in Prigorodnyi Raion. Galazov expressed satisfaction with those measures, but Aushev warned the moratorium is tantamount to "burying one's head in the sand."

Nor do Yeltsin's proposals address two factors that Russian observers identify as contributing to the recent upsurge in violence. First, presidential elections are scheduled for April 1998 in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, which means both the incumbents and their prospective rivals risk alienating potential voters if they appear too conciliatory. Second, the Russian government in early July abolished the special economic status granted to Ingushetia in June 1994, whereby the republic is exempt from federal taxes. That move threatens to undermine the republic's economy and thus create new tensions.