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Moscow Times
October 13, 2004
In the Wake of Beslan, Open Debate Is Key
By Valery Dzutsev

Valery Dzutsev, North Caucasus coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

As Beslan marks the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period for the hundreds who died in the attack on School No. 1, many fear that victims' relatives will seek revenge. It is widely believed in North Ossetia that their old enemies, the Ingush, took the lead in the Beslan tragedy. This belief has gained some credibility from the accounts of surviving hostages.

According to sources in North Ossetia, many Ingush began leaving the region the day after the militants seized the school. On Sept. 4, the day after the siege ended, a group of young Ossetians from the contested Prigorodny district attacked Ingush homes near Vladikavkaz.

Four days later, a large crowd gathered in Vladikavkaz, demanding that North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov expel all Ingush from North Ossetia within three days.

The attack in Beslan reignited old tensions between the Ossetians and Ingush. As Beslan grieved, memories of the five-day war between the two peoples in 1992 were revived. More than 500 Ossetians and Ingush died in the conflict and thousands were taken hostage. Tens of thousands -- mostly Ingush -- fled from the Prigorodny district and Vladikavkaz.

The Ossetian-Ingush conflict revolves around disputed territory currently located in North Ossetia. Some of the land belonged to the Ingush before Josef Stalin deported the Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia in 1944. The most hotly disputed areas include the eastern bank of the Terek River in the Prigorodny district and Vladikavkaz.

According to a popular local account, the Kremlin attempted to use the 1992 conflict as a pretext for invading Chechnya, by then already controlled by Dzhokhar Dudayev. But the Chechens did not rally to the aid of the Ingush, with whom they share strong ethnic and cultural ties. Federal forces therefore remained within the borders of North Ossetia and Ingushetia.

The Kremlin's influence over many regions was extremely weak in the early 1990s, especially in the North Caucasus. As a result, Moscow seemed to revert to the tested tactics of divide and rule. The Kremlin established itself as the judge between two small peoples, and the federal authorities gained a valuable pretext for retaining a sizable military force in the region -- next door to rebellious Chechnya.

In the Soviet era, state funds were allocated primarily to major population centers. Largely rural Ingushetia was marginalized within the Soviet Chechen-Ingush republic. When Ingushetia broke away from Chechnya, it had little to work with, and the idea of acquiring valuable assets in the North Ossetian capital must have held enormous appeal. The areas of Vladikavkaz claimed by the Ingush contained most of the town's government buildings and factories, as well as its historic city center.

Under a federal law passed in 1991, repressed peoples such as the Ingush were entitled to the restoration of their former territory. But because the law did not spell out how this restoration was to take place, it merely increased tensions in the region. Then-presidential candidate Boris Yeltsin, on a campaign swing in the North Caucasus, said in Vladikavkaz that the borders between the two republics would not be changed. The next day in Nazran, the Ingush capital, he declared that the territory of repressed peoples should be returned.

The leaders of North Ossetia and Ingushetia in 1992 were as different as night and day. The North Ossetian leadership was out of touch and largely Soviet in its outlook, while the newly formed Ingushetia had leaders with new ideas.

As the Ingush nurtured hopes of regaining land lost under Stalin, Moscow and the North Ossetian government continued to use Soviet-style rhetoric about the friendship of peoples. It was only a matter of time before people on the ground began to take matters into their own hands.

A week before the conflict started, officials from three districts in Ingushetia met behind closed doors. They decided that the Ingush population of North Ossetia was discriminated against and needed protection. On Oct. 31, 1992, groups of Ingush fighters entered North Ossetia, where they were reinforced by local Ingush. This force seized villages in the Prigorodny district. Sporadic fighting also broke out in Vladikavkaz.

The Ossetians retaliated, rounding up most of the Ingush population of North Ossetia and forcing them to flee into Ingushetia. The Ingush accused federal troops, deployed in the area after two days of bloody fighting, of taking the Ossetians' side. The Ossetians considered it natural for Moscow to defend them from the Ingush attackers.

After the fighting was over, large areas of agricultural land in North Ossetia and Ingushetia lay fallow for years -- the very land that each side had considered vital to its survival.

In the next few years some Ingush refugees returned home with help from Moscow. Some 21,000 Ingush currently live in North Ossetia, though Ingush migration authorities say that another 19,000 are waiting to return home from Ingushetia.

Twelve years on, the Kremlin has a much tighter grip on North Ossetia and Ingushetia, making it unlikely that Moscow will try to turn any local conflict to its advantage. Though it is feared that local Ossetians will seek revenge, they have no organized armed force at their disposal.

The future of this region is difficult to predict, especially now that the Beslan tragedy has stripped the leadership in both republics of credibility. Tight control of the press makes it difficult to gauge public opinion, and elections are routinely rigged.

But it is highly unlikely that the Ossetians will enter into a large-scale conflict with the Ingush. Ossetian authorities are far more likely to use Beslan as a lever for securing increased funding from Moscow and to secure concessions in their dealings with Ingushetia, such as President Vladimir Putin's Oct. 7 decree closing the special office in charge of resolving the Ossetian-Ingush conflict.

The North Ossetian government has long wanted to disband this agency, which it saw as mainly profiting Ingush refugees displaced by the 1992 conflict. In addition, the agency's $7 million annual budget bypassed republic authorities.

The main risk of further violence derives from the lack of an outlet for opposition voices in North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Both governments have traditionally suppressed discussion of the problems between North Ossetia and Ingushetia rather than encourage an open debate.

With confidence in the authorities at a low ebb, local calls for justice are being ignored and even silenced. In this unstable situation, serious outbreaks of ethnic violence cannot be ruled out.