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Caucasus: North Ossetia Has New President

Moscow, 20 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In an election that Moscow officials say could change the political landscape in the troubled north Caucasus region, the former Communist Party boss of North Ossetia overwhelmingly defeated the long-serving president of the republic, also a former Communist.

Russian news agencies cited results of Sunday's vote, indicating that Russian State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Dzasokhov, a former member of the ruling Soviet Communist Party Central Committee and Politburo, received about 73 percent of the vote. Incumbent Akhsarbek Galazov won less than ten percent of the vote. Electoral officials said 70 percent of the registered 429,000 voters cast ballots.

Galazov, who has served as president for the last seven years, had succeeded Dzasokhov as North Ossetia's Party First Secretary in 1990.

Five other candidates were on the ballot, including Arkady Kodokhov. Kodokhov is known as a man of influence. He heads an energy company, he's a deputy in the republic's parliament - and, he's also known as one of the "vodka kings," in a republic whose main source of revenue is vodka production.

During the campaign, Kodokhov criticized both front-runners, but especially Galazov.

The Moscow newspaper "Russky Telegraph" noted that, since the federal government's crack down on illegal imports of raw alcohol from Georgia in 1997, the vodka business had virtually collapsed in North Ossetia. Observers say this economic downturn worked against Galazov's re-election, despite last-minute help from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who promised to pay all wage arrears and pensions in time for the election.

Observers note little difference politically between Dzasokhov and Galazov. But, they say, the election attracted close attention from the Kremlin and officials in the region. Analysts say a change in the balance of power in the republic could affect the already tense ethnic relations between Ossetians and their Muslim neighbors across the border in Ingushetia.

The Russian Federation's first inter-ethnic violence erupted between Ingush and Ossetians in North Ossetia in late 1992. President Boris Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in parts of the North Caucasus, and sent in troops, as an estimated 60,000 Ingush fled North Ossetia, mostly to Ingushetia. Repeated Kremlin decrees, and meetings of local leaders, have done little to calm tensions, or lead to a significant return of refugees.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many Ingush homes in North Ossetia have been occupied by Ossetians who fled fighting in Georgia's South Ossetia region. The Ingush have striven since the late 1950s to recover land in North Ossetia, especially the Prigorodny region, from which they were deported by Stalin.

As some Ingush have tried to return home - even accompanied by Russian troops - clashes have erupted.

North Ossetia and Ingushetia signed a treaty in September, 1997, promising to cooperate, but relations remain difficult.

Predominantly Christian North Ossetia - a small republic of about 500,000 people, near Ingushetia and separatist Chechnya - is considered Moscow's strongest toehold in the mainly Muslim north Caucasus region, and has maintained warmer relations than its neighbors with Moscow.

As election results became known, President Yeltsin's press-secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said he hopes the Kremlin and Dzasokhov will establish a "productive relationship."

Moscow's top advisor on the north Caucasus, Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, said Dzasokhov's election will "influence positively regional policy in the Northern Caucasus," and that Moscow views Dzasokhov's victory "with great hope." Abdulatipov, (an ethnic Avar) from Dagestan, said that the election result indicates a "new stage in the creation of regional political elites" in the area. Abdulatipov also said that "old elites, although highly respected, lock their problems in some feudal structures reflecting endless conflicts and disputes." Abdulatipov said he sees in Dzasokhov "another level of understanding of modern processes."

However, Chechnya's new Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov said it is unlikely that a change in the leadership of North Ossetia will influence the situation in the North Caucasus.

Observers say Dzasokhov, although only a few years younger than Galazov, has managed to forge a very different personal image from his former Communist Party colleague. Dzasokhov is viewed as a younger, more dynamic politician with international experience, who can better represent North Ossetia's interests in Moscow.

Dzasokhov, who served as Ambassador to Syria, is the Deputy Chairman of the Russian parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe. During the electoral campaign he pledged to improve the republic's economy, introduction a new, younger government team and adopt a "more European approach."

Yesterday, both Dzasokhov and Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev expressed hope for improved relations between their peoples. Aushev said that Dzasokhov's election would "activate" better relations between the north Caucasus neighbors. And, Dzasokhov said "it is necessary to create mutual political trust" between himself and Aushev.