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The Land of Lost Content

COMMENT: An analysis of the Ossetian-Ingush conflict which continues to blight any attempts to bring the region out of the Soviet wilderness
By Valery Dzutsev

In sharp contrast to the other wars of the North Caucasus, the simmering Ossetian-Ingush conflict has nothing to do with independence, autonomy or tribal identity. It is, at heart, a struggle for prime agricultural land.

In the republic of North Ossetia, where nearly half the territory is mountainous, the rich soils of the Prigorodny district have come to assume an extraordinary political significance for the indigenous population. For many, it has become a matter of life or death.

It was this territorial dispute that erupted into bloody conflict in the autumn of 1992 -- a vicious five-day war which claimed an estimated 500 lives on both sides and left 35,000 homeless. But the seeds of discontent had been handed down from one generation to another.

The most recent chapter was opened by Stalin in 1944, when he deported trainloads of Ingush to Kazakhstan for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. When the exiles were rehabilitated by Khrushchev in 1957, 40 per cent of the territory traditionally held by the Ingush was transferred to North Ossetia.

The next 25 years saw the Ingush struggling to gain political control over part of the Prigorodny district and part of the capital, Vladikavkaz. On the face of it, the Ossetians did their best to play down the problem, resorting to old Soviet platitudes such as "Friendship between Nations". Behind the scenes, however, they made concerted efforts to exclude the Ingush from political and financial institutions.

Things came to a head in the autumn of 1981 when the murder of an Ossetian taxi-driver - allegedly by the Ingush - sparked mass protest meetings in Vladikavkaz. Fighting raged in the streets for nearly three days as interior ministry troops clashed with the crowds. Dozens of people were arrested.

As a result of the troubles, an ethnic Ossetian, Bilar Kabaloev, was replaced as head of the local administration by a Russian, Vladimir Odintsov, who then attempted to dilute Ossetian influence in the corridors of power by appointing Ingush candidates to top government positions. The Ossetians ceased to be masters of their autonomous republic until perestroika began in 1985.

Before 1992, the population of most disputed towns was predominantly Ingush while ethnic Ossetians enjoyed political control. This state of affairs incensed the Ingush who thought they were being deprived of their rightful inheritance. Now, with Communist ideology on the wane and the central government in Moscow tottering, the Ingush took the law into their own hands and launched an armed assault on local government buildings in Vladikavkaz.

The action was prompted by an October 25 resolution adopted by the leading deputies of three Ingush districts, who claimed that the Ossetian authorities were unable to guarantee basic rights for the local Ingush population and urged their people to seize the land that was rightfully theirs.

As the fighting escalated, erstwhile neighbours seized the opportunity to settle old scores whilst others indulged in an orgy of looting.

I personally witnessed an armed Ingush assault on one of the disputed towns on the night of October 31, 1992. I saw the local police building in flames, dead men lying in the streets with their eyes wide open, joy of the faces of my Ingush neighbours, horror on the faces of others.

Hundreds of Ossetians and thousands of Ingush were taken hostage whilst any Ossetians who attempted to flee some disputed settlements were summarily shot. But, although atrocities were committed on both sides, there were many cases of Ossetians saving the lives of their Ingush neighbours and vice versa.

It was three days before the Russians intervened, sending warplanes over the turbulent republic - although they were never more than a deterrent. Then the federal forces were deployed as peace-keeping troops, but the Ingush accused them of siding with the Ossetians and several units were attacked.

Two days later, the Ingush troops were forced to retreat across the border and the civilian population followed closed behind. Thousands more were rounded up by the Ossetians and exchanged for Ossetian hostages. The state of emergency lasted until February 1995.

The conflict has never been resolved. Over the past eight years, there have been literally hundreds of murders, bombings and kidnappings across the republic. In the spring of 1999, an explosion in Vladikavkaz central market claimed more than 50 lives. Six more died when another bomb was detonated in the same location earlier this year. Last month, three Ossetian police officers were shot dead near the Ingush-dominated town of Maiskoe. Two weeks ago, President Alexander Dzasokhov's crime-fighting chief was taken hostage near Vladikavkaz.

In other words, the unrest is already endemic in North Ossetian society and this phenomenon has its roots in the republic's economic make-up. Neither North Ossetia nor Ingushetia has the industrial capacity to support its population so that, for many families, small-scale cultivation is a prerequisite for survival. However, both nations are short of fertile land while industrial development is hampered by the unstable situation - potential investors are unwilling to commit themselves to a region where internecine violence has become an occupational hazard.

Of course, thousands of Ingush have returned to their homes in North Ossetia - primarily to their former enclaves -- and many walk openly through the streets of Vladikavkaz without feeling the need to conceal their ethnic identity. But the Ossetians are anxious to live apart from their Ingush cousins, appalled by the prospect of renewed fighting.

The official position of the Republic of Ingushetia is stated in its constitution: "The Prigorodny district should be returned to Ingushetia". No one can guarantee that the Ingush will not try to take the law into their own hands once again.

Naturally, much of the onus for resolving the conflict falls on the shoulders of the two leaders - Ruslan Aushev, president of Ingushetia, and Dzasokhov, his counterpart in Vladikavkaz. Both men, however, are prisoners of popular opinion - which itself is largely an emotional response to the upheavals of the last decade.

Aushev has been pressing Moscow to introduce direct presidential rule in North Ossetia and enable the Ingush refugees to return to their homes - calls that provoke widespread resentment in the neighbouring republic.

Moscow has already offered the Ingush the opportunity to open bank accounts and draw allocated sums from the federal treasury. In theory, the recipients are free to use this money to build homes either in the Prigorodny region or in Ingushetia but many choose the latter option for security reasons.

Meanwhile, Dzasokhov appears to look on the conflict as an unwelcome distraction from the real task in hand - accelerating North Ossetia's economic development - and, like most Ossetians, views Aushev's position as a patriotic drive to reclaim traditional Ingush territories.

Certainly, there is no ready solution to the stalemate beyond sustaining an ongoing dialogue and changing certain priorities. The politicians must learn to value people rather than land - or else there may be no one left to give the land its value. It is vital for the leaders of both nations to take responsibility for their people's future and to realise that peace is in their own best interests.

It is also important to avoid excessive interference from Moscow which may be tempted to use the dormant conflict for its own ends - whether that be a resolution of the war in Chechnya or for other geo-political goals.

Valery Dzutsev is the coordinator for an international NGO in North Ossetia

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