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Ingush Leader's Refugee Pledge

Ingushetia's new president insists Chechen refugees will not be forced to go home against their will.
By Thomas de Waal

The President of Ingushetia Murat Zyazikov has quashed rumours that tens of thousands Chechen refugees sheltering in the republic may driven back to their war-torn home.

"There was no question before and there is none now," Zyazikov insisted when asked to confirm reports that the camps will be closed before winter, in an interview with IWPR in the Ingush capital Magas,

Russia drew up a plan for the phased return of the refugees, with the approval of the pro-Moscow authorities in both Chechnya and Ingushetia, on May 29 in Grozny. Under the agreement, the majority of displaced people living in Ingush tent villages, estimated to number around 150,000, would be repatriated by the end of October.

But almost no one has gone back - and Zyazikov said they will not be forced to do so. "The principle of return should be exclusively voluntary," he told IWPR. "Here's a red marker pen, you can mark it three times - once again, only voluntarily."

Ingushetia is currently in the eye of the Chechen storm. Late last month, Chechen fighters and Russian forces clashed near the village of Galashki, only 30 km from Magas. Dozens were killed - including the British cameraman Roddy Scott.

Zyazikov, a former general with the federal intelligence service, FSB, was elected president of the tiny North Caucasian republic in April. His victory stemmed partly from his distinguished ancestry - his relative Idris Zyazikov was party leader in Ingushetia from 1924 - 1934 before the republic was united with Chechnya (it separated again in 1992).

Zyazikov's main trump card, however, was his reputation as a decent man, and his good relations with Moscow and President Vladimir Putin. Independent Ingush deputy Azamat Nalgiev said people are looking to their new leader to "end the syndrome of the long-beaten bottom" - a reference to Moscow's perceived punishment of Ingushetia for its independent line on Chechnya.

Zyazikov's predecessor Ruslan Aushev sought to keep on good terms with the Chechen rebels and maintain friendly ties with Russia at the same time. But he found the balancing act hard and was routinely criticised by the Russian media and Moscow officials.

While the new president's style and profile are very different, he has stayed closer to the Aushev line than many expected. His stance on the refugee issue also suggests that he is sensitive to the opinion of his people, who are close ethnic kin of the Chechens.

As the refugees no longer receive federal aid, Zyazikov believes that the time has come for Chechnya to become the centre for humanitarian relief from foreign donors. This, it is hoped, would encourage displaced persons to return to their homeland.

This is an ongoing headache for the Ingush authorities, which have borne much of burden of caring for the uprooted Chechens. And while there have been reports of some refugee settlements having their gas and electricity cut off, most of their residents are still choosing to take their chances in Ingushetia rather than return to an uncertain future in their homeland.

In the IngAvto camp outside the town of Karabulak on the Chechen border, one family had come back from Chechnya four days before. "We would go back with pleasure but we can't," said Brilant Demilkhanova, a former resident of the town of Urus-Martan. "My brother-in-law Muslim went home two years ago, and has just returned with his family."

Muslim told IWPR that during a recent Russian "mop-up" operation, masked men had burst into his house, laid him on the floor, then set about beating him and his relatives and stole all their valuables. He spent five days in detention before he bought himself out.

The refugees pointed out a shy sixteen-year-old girl called Kheda wearing a black-and-pink flowery dress. "She was bruised all over when she came back," said Demilkhanova.

The life they have returned to is a hard one. Thirty-six people live in three large echoing rooms in a former truck depot. The only food visible was three buckets of tomatoes on the concrete floor and a pile of flour-sacks - courtesy of the Danish Refugee Council.

Decay is all around. Large rusting trucks stand in the yard. The school is a tarpaulin tent, its only decoration a scratched picture of a military helicopter drawn on the wall by children.

The Chechens have further difficulties ahead of them. In order to keep their refugee status, they have to be registered on both the federal migration service computer and its written list of refugees. But due to careless filing or bureaucratic incompetence, some names have been dropped from one or the other. Twelve refugees out of 110 in IngAvto have fallen foul of this rule and have been denied registration.

"I've lived here for three years, and while my details are logged in the computer, I'm not on the list," said Zuleikhan Tunkayeva from Urus-Martan, who shares a damp concrete outhouse with her elderly mother and is now deeply worried about their future.

Ruslan Badalov, chairman of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, believes this mix-up is part of a coordinated Russian policy to put pressure on the refugees. "They are subject to daily obstructions," he claimed.

Zyazikov says he's keen to see a peaceful resolution of the Chechen conflict, and a safe return for all displaced persons. He calls the situation a war, rather than using Moscow's preferred term "counter-terrorist operation", and said he was even prepared talk to any leader of Chechnya, including rebel president Aslan Maskhadov, on condition they were elected.

"In general, I have a respectful attitude to whatever choice the Chechen people makes, so when they have elections I will deal with whomever they elect," he said.

Economically, Ingushetia is in a desperate state, with unemployment at 85 per cent and the highest infant mortality rate in Russia. Zyazikov said he was planning to ask Moscow to restore the special tax-free economic status, which Ingushetia enjoyed in the mid-1990s.

The republic has paid a heavy price for almost eight years of conflict across the border in Chechnya. A third of its population now consists of refugees. And it is always vulnerable to fighting, as was proved by the recent battle in Galashki on Ingush territory.

Apart from Chechnya, the new president is working toward a resolution of the dispute with neighbouring North Ossetia over the Prigorodny region - part of Ingushetia until 1944 - after ethnic Ingush were expelled from the territory in 1992.

Zyazikov said he was certain that the dispute was moving towards a successful resolution. Later this month, he is due to sign an accord with North Ossetia intended to improve relations between the two republics.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus editor. Timur Aliev in Nazran contributed to this


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