In a recent interview with the Russian daily Kommersant, Russian presidential administration deputy head Magomedsalam Magomedov cited unspecified sociological polls in which 79.7 percent of respondents assessed relations between Russia's various nationalities as "well-intentioned."
Magomedov did not, however, mention what is arguably one of the most glaring exceptions: the enmity between the Ossetians and Ingush that still persists 25 years after the violence in October-November 1992 in which according to official statistics some 600 people, predominantly Ingush, died and between 30,000 and 60,000 Ingush were forced to flee their homes in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny district.
Participants at a recent conference in St. Petersburg singled out several reasons why, a quarter of a century later, the mutual distrust and suspicion between the two nations still persists. Of those reasons, arguably the most important was said to be the failure to hand over to their families for burial the remains of many of the Ingush killed during the conflict who were interred in unmarked mass graves.
The roots of the conflict date back to the early days of the Soviet Union, specifically, the redrawing in the 1920s and 1930s of the borders between the various territories of the North Caucasus. In 1934, the Chechen and Ingush autonomous oblasts were merged to form the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Oblast, which was upgraded two years later to the status of an autonomous Soviet socialist republic (ASSR).
The Checheno-Ingush ASSR was formally abolished in 1944 following the deportation at the behest of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia. Part of its territory was renamed Grozny Oblast and the remainder divided between Georgia and the Daghestan and North Ossetian ASSRs, with the latter receiving Prigorodny Raion, a narrow strip of particularly fertile land on the right bank of the River Terek in the extreme west of the republic.
In his landmark "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemned the Stalinist deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Karachais, and others, and exonerated the Chechens and Ingush of the suspicion of collaboration with advancing Nazi German forces that Stalin had adduced as the rationale for them. But when the Checheno-Ingush ASSR was formally reconstituted in 1957, its borders were revised, leaving Prigorodny Raion part of North Ossetia.
The Ingush never came to terms with that decision. In early 1973, they staged a mass protest in Grozny to demand the return of Prigorodny Raion, the organizers of which were apprehended and put on trial.
In the late 1980s, CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost" made possible the public discussion of the wrongs and horrors of the Stalin era. As a consequence of that broad debate, in April 1991 the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet adopted a Law on the Rehabilitation of the Repressed Peoples that stated that Prigorodny Raion should be handed back to the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, but the Ossetians pressured Moscow to impose a five-year moratorium on implementing it.
The split in July 1992 of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR into separate Chechen and Ingush republics played into the hands of the North Ossetian leadership, which according to former Russian Nationalities Minister Valery Tishkov began forging clandestine plans to provoke a clash in Prigorodny Raion between the Ossetian and Ingush communities in order to create a pretext to expel the Ingush en masse and neutralize the perceived threat posed by the Ingush demands to hand the district back.
As part of those preparations, North Ossetian President Akhsarbek Galazov oversaw the distribution of weapons to illegal Ossetian paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, the Russian leadership demonstrated seeming indifference to the imminent crisis. Tishkov, who personally met with officials from both sides in a bid to defuse mounting tensions, suggests that one reason for that apparent lack of concern may have been the anticipation that in the event of armed hostilities between Ossetians and Ingush the Chechens would come to the aid of their Ingush ethnic cousins, thus providing the perfect pretext for ousting separatist Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who in 1991 had refused to sign the new Federation Treaty on relations between Russia's various territorial entities.
A series of incidents in late October 1992 in which Ingush died at the hands of Ossetians spiraled within a week into fighting between Ossetian paramilitaries and bands of young armed Ingush men who Galazov told Moscow were trying to wrest military control of Prigorodny Raion. Russian officials (including then-Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, currently Russia's defense minister) dispatched to Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, and gave the green light for the deployment of Russian Army troops, which made no effort to protect Ingush civilians. In Tishkov's words, "preventing casualties and destruction and trying to separate the conflict parties was not the primary motive behind the federal center's actions." Consequently, tens of thousands of Ingush fled for their lives to Ingushetia as marauding Ossetians systematically destroyed their homes. Both sides took hundreds of hostages, some of whom are still unaccounted for.
The Russian authorities imposed a state of emergency in Prigorodny Raion and neighboring districts of North Ossetia and Ingushetia after the fighting died down, but made no effort to determine the chain of events and decisions that precipitated it or call to account the officials responsible. As for the Ingush displaced persons, they were mostly left to fend for themselves. Two years later, their plight was eclipsed by the start of Moscow's military intervention in Chechnya in the name of "restoring constitutional order."
No Attempt At Resolution
In August 1997, in response to renewed interethnic clashes in Prigorodny Raion, Russian President Boris Yeltsin summoned Galazov and his Ingush counterpart, army General Ruslan Aushev, and offered 200 billion rubles (then worth $34.5 million) annually for the next two years to finance reconstruction in Prigorodny Raion and thus enable Ingush families to return. At the same time, Yeltsin also called for a 15-20-year moratorium on Ingush territorial claims, which Aushev deplored as tantamount to "burying one's head in the sand."
A program unveiled in May 2005 for expediting the return of the Ingush displaced persons to their abandoned homes in Prigorodny Raion by the end of 2006 was only partially implemented. Consequently, as of October 2016, just 23,430 Ingush had succeeded in returning, with a similar number still in Ingushetia, according to Magomed Mutsolgov, head of the NGO Mashr. Those who have returned experience problems finding work; Ingush and Ossetian children attend separate schools.
Neither has the Russian leadership undertaken any serious effort to promote reconciliation. As a result, as Tishkov points out, deep-rooted stereotyped perceptions of "the adversary," often based on a distorted or mythologized perception of past events, continue to poison relations between the two ethnic groups.
Those negative perceptions surfaced late last year when Rustem Kelekhsayev, the head of the North Ossetian presidential administration, called for a more concerted effort to integrate into North Ossetian society young Ingush from Prigorodny Raion. Kelekhsayev was denounced on social media as a traitor, and in the region's parliament by lawmaker Dzhambolat Tedeyev, the trainer of Russia's free-style wrestling team.
Meanwhile, the Ingush collective hostility toward Ossetians has been compounded by the periodic abduction and subsequent disappearance of Ingush in North Ossetia. The human rights watchdog Memorial chronicled 18 such cases between mid-2005 and mid-2007.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL