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North Ossetia Boils With Anger

Grieving Ossetians are venting their rage both against the local government and the neighbouring Ingush.
By Valery Dzutsev

“We will bury our dead, do our duty by them, and then the time will come to ask questions and find answers to why this could happen, and what to do now,” said Ruslan Bzarov, a university professor, standing in front of the school gym in Beslan, where more than 300 people died on September 3.


North Ossetia is only just beginning to count the cost of the enormous tragedy that has overtaken it. But slowly two targets for public anger are taking shape: the North Ossetian authorities and the Ossetians’ ethnic neighbours, the Ingush.


The political consequences of the Beslan crisis are already coming thick and fast.


At a big rally in front of the North Ossetian government building in Vladikavkaz on September 8, President Alexander Dzasokhov pledged that the government would be sacked within the next two days. Unconfirmed media reports said that Dzasokhov had promised those around him that he would step down as well.


Criticism of the authorities’ handling of the siege and the assault on September 3 has been loud and sustained. The local government seemed unprepared for either the scale of the crisis or its aftermath.


Just after the school building was stormed and the wounded started pouring out, IWPR saw only a few ambulances taking away injured hostages. Most were ferried away by volunteers.


But the most controversial question is why so many people died, and why such a low figure was given for the number of hostages inside the school. On the second day of the crisis, North Ossetian government spokesman Lev Dzugayev said there were only 354 people inside the school. Just before the assault began, president Dzasokhov gave a higher figure of “more than 500 people”. This was despite the fact that both those who fled the school and Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia who went inside the building, put the figure – accurately, it now seems - at more than 1,000.


On September 6, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted freed hostages as saying that the attackers were "enraged" by inaccurate information that they saw in TV reports both about the number of people inside the school and the nature of the militants' demands – and after this they forbade their captives to drink water.


Local human rights activists have suggested that the authorities are hoping to profit from all the attention North Ossetia is receiving.


One activist, Ruslan Magkayev, said, “They are collecting money all over the world. Where will this money go? Everyone knows that in Ossetia money never reaches the victims, everything is stolen by the people up at the top.”


Magkayev praised Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot for apparently daring to criticise the Russian authorities for their handling of the assault on the school.


Some are also criticising President Putin for not allowing a public enquiry into the Beslan siege. Dzasokhov has announced that a federal commission will arrive in Vladikavkaz to begin an internal government investigation on Saturday, September 11.


President Putin paid a brief early morning visit to Beslan the morning after the school was stormed. He visited the Beslan hospital where many of the wounded were being treated and talked to local officials, but decided not to go out onto the streets and talk to people. Apparently he was aware of the anger he might face in Beslan.


The anti-Ingush sentiments that have been voiced are potentially more dangerous. They have been fuelled by the apparent presence of Ingush among the hostage-takers.


During the September 8 rally, calls were heard for all Ingush people resident in North Ossetia to be expelled within three days. This was all the more alarming given that most of the demonstrators were from Vladikavkaz, not from the more volatile Beslan or Prigorodny district.


“It’s them who are doing it – the Ingush and the Chechens,” said Artur Dzgoyev, a 77-year-old Ossetian on a bus near Beslan. “We are friends with Russia, we can’t survive without Russia. And if Russia leaves Ossetia now, they will crush us.”


Prigorodny district, which has a mixed Ingush and Ossetian population and is still disputed by the two communities, saw violence in 1992 that resulted in about 800 deaths. But the situation there has improved markedly over the past 12 years.


On September 4, there was unrest in Vladikavkaz. Eyewitnesses reported that hundreds of young people tried to get to the city's suburb of Kartsa, which has an Ingush community, planning to beat them up and then move on to the government building in Vladikavkaz to demand Dzasokhov’s resignation.


Police, local government officials, and a small group of Russian interior ministry troops were unable to halt them, but luckily the president of neighbouring South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, was on the scene and persuaded the crowd to turn back.


Vyacheslav Gobozov, editor of Zerkalo newspaper, “I am afraid that a process of destabilisation may start. These spontaneous demonstrations will almost certainly continue on an ever-increasing scale. Someone has to take responsibility - and that should be the president and the government, above all. Otherwise, I’m afraid the situation will deteriorate. I’ve already heard anti-Russian and anti-Putin slogans.”


One of the demonstrators, who gave his name as Batraz, said a solution was possible if there was greater openness. He said, “It is possible to reach a settlement with the Ingush, but not as the government does it – in secret, by stealth. If our president was to address the people, they too would have a different attitude towards the Ingush and others.”


Meanwhile, the demonstrations are continuing and those who are emerging as leaders are making increasingly strong demands for Dzasokhov to step down and for the expulsion of Ingush from the republic. These individuals were previously virtually unknown to the general public – yet they are attempting to fill what looks like a very big vacuum within North Ossetia.


Valery Dzutsev is IWPR’s North Caucasus coordinator in Vladikavkaz.


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