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Chechnya: Outspoken Ingush President Puts Pressure On Moscow

The war against Chechnya is putting a strain on neighboring Ingushetia -- both physically and politically. As RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports, Ingush President Ruslan Aushev is having difficulty balancing his republic's allegiance to Moscow against its sense of kinship with Chechnya.

Moscow, 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The tiny republic of Ingushetia has not yet been drawn into the war in its neighbor to the east, Chechnya. But it has been hit by the war nonetheless, with up to 200,000 displaced Chechen civilians pouring into the republic to flee the Russian bombing of Chechen villages. The conflict has put the traditionally tense relations between Moscow and the Ingush capital of Nazran under increased pressure.

Ingush President Ruslan Aushev has been walking a tightrope between his separatist neighbors and the federal center.

The 45-year-old veteran of the Afghan war, with his thick mustache and his penchant for wearing military fatigues, has been Ingushetia's voice and face. Aushev is one of the very few Russian leaders to contradict the official explanation of the war. Moscow says it is running an anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya, but Aushev accuses the Russian army of killing civilians and of neglecting tens of thousands of refugees.

Aushev has been calling for negotiations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. While he expresses no love for the Chechen field commanders who led raids on the Russian republic of Dagestan this summer, he also says this war does not appear to be aimed only at eliminating the rebel commanders but are also linked to Russian elections.

Last week, Aushev's strained relations with Moscow took a turn for the worse when the Russian military refused to open the Chechen-Ingush border, where some 10,000 civilians were massed. Several died in the crush. Aushev lashed out at the Russian military for not keeping their promise to open five corridors for the fleeing civilians. He also implied doubt about the constitutionality of the military's actions in Ingushetia.

The Russian military retaliated by accusing Ingushetia of profiting from the Chechen contraband economy. Russian officers interviewed on Russian television said that Ingush border guards are taking bribes and allowing Chechen black market traders to cross the border disguised as refugees. They also said that humanitarian aid is being diverted. Those charges echoed similar allegations published in the Russian press.

But the Russian government seems to be trying to defuse the tension with Nazran. The minister of emergency situations, Sergey Shoigu, admitted that it was lack of coordination by Russian authorities that caused the crisis at the Ingush border. And he praised Aushev's efforts to solve the refugee problem.

Those efforts stem not only from a desire to halt the destabilizing flow of displaced persons, but also from the historic ties between the two republic's peoples. The Ingush and the Chechens are part of the same larger ethnic group, the Vainakh people. They shared a common republic within the USSR (except during the years after 1944, when both groups were deported to Kazakhstan for alleged collaboration with the Nazis). The Chechen-Ingush republic declared independence in 1991 shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed. It then formally split into two republics in the summer of 1992.

Another potential reason for empathy with the Chechens is that Ingushetia also feels it has been victimized by Moscow. Shortly after the split with Chechnya in 1992, a long-simmering territorial dispute with North Ossetia, the republic west of Ingushetia, erupted into bloody fighting that displaced almost the entire Ingush population of one district in North Ossetia. That disputed district had previously been part of Chechen-Ingushetia. In the fighting, Ingush militias were pitted against North Ossetian forces, which were backed by Russian troops. Moscow has promised to help those displaced Ingush return to North Ossetia, but has done little to help them do so.

Moscow granted Ingushetia off-shore status in 1993, a move seen as a concession to keep the republic inside Russia. But the special status turned Ingushetia into a tax haven, depriving Moscow of revenue and control over the often shady transactions. The off-shore status has been partially revoked.

Still, Aushev's declared determination to stay in the Russian Federation made him a key ally of the federal authorities in the North Caucasus region. He did, however, make several attempts at winning more autonomy for Ingushetia. Aushev argues that Russia's laws do not sufficiently take into account ethnic and regional diversity.

To make this point last summer, he instituted polygamy in Ingushetia, referring to local tradition. When the federal government protested that Russian law allows men to have only one wife at a time, Aushev answered that he planned to push for changes in federal law to allow local variations. Also last year, Aushev clashed with Moscow when he tried to assert control over law-enforcement organs in the region by a referendum. The Russian Supreme Court slammed the initiative, and Moscow and Aushev agreed to a compromise.

Oksana Orecheva of the East-West Institute in Moscow told RFE/RL that Aushev's earlier fallouts with Moscow were the same type of clash that many other regional leaders have had with the federal government. But she sees the present tensions set off by the refugee crisis as a separate phenomenon.

The tension is growing, and one Russian newspaper says that Aushev feels threatened by the increasing Russian military presence in the region.