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Ossetia Prepares for Presidential Elections

North Ossetia's embattled president has failed to live up to expectations
By Valeri Dzutsev

A recent shake-up in the North Ossetian government has prompted speculation that President Alexander Dzasokhov's political future is hanging in the balance.

Three years after he swept to victory on an 80 per cent majority, Dzasokhov has come under heavy criticism for failing to deliver on his election promises.

Now there are signs that North Ossetia's political elite are marshalling their forces in preparation for the forthcoming presidential elections. And Dzasokhov could be left out in the cold.

The first changes came last autumn when Victor Ishchenko, head of the Mozdok region, was appointed North Ossetian representative in Moscow. Ishchenko was replaced by Vyacheslav Parinov, a native of Mozdok, who had just resigned as chairman of the Vladikavkaz parliament.

Meanwhile, the prime-minister, Taimuraz Mamsurov, was elected to parliament and was therefore obliged to resign from his post. He was promptly voted parliamentary chairman by a landslide majority.

However, replacing Mamsurov as prime-minister has proved problematic - and the chair has been temporarily filled by a vice-minister, Kazbek Karginov. Some observers speculate that Dzasokhov has reserved the job for himself in case the Kremlin decides to abolish the practice of electing presidents in the Russian republics.

Others believe that Ossetia's real power-brokers are hoping to repeat the scenario enacted in Russia last year when Vladimir Putin's presidential campaign was launched from the prime-minister's post. According to this theory, the next politician to step into Mamsurov's shoes will be the republic's next leader.

A third lobby holds that Dzasokhov is simply removing potential rivals from top government jobs in the run-up to the elections. Backed by the powerful vodka industry in his native Pravoberezhny district, Mamsurov would certainly have been well positioned to mount a strong bid for the presidency.

People in North Ossetia pinned high hopes on Dzasokhov when he won the 1998 elections, scooping around 80 per cent of the vote.

However, the new president was immediately faced by three overwhelming problems - the still unresolved conflict with Ingushetia, suspended since the autumn of 1992; the phenomenally high crime rate and the phenomenally low standard of living. At the time, the average income in North Ossetia was one of the lowest in the Russian Federation whilst a few vodka magnates had turned entire regions into virtual fiefdoms.

Dzasokhov's term of office got off to an inauspicious start with the abduction of the UN commissioner in Vladikavkaz by a Chechen gang. Over the past three years, kidnapping has been rife in North Ossetia - one of the latest victims was the president's own advisor, taken hostage in September 2000.

The republic has also been the scene of several terrorist attacks, most tragically in March 1999, when a bomb exploded in the capital's central market, claiming 56 lives.

The government has devoted strenuous efforts to fighting organised crime. The notorious Ges cartel has been particularly hard hit whilst several gangs specialising in hostage taking have been tried and jailed. But the state is often powerless to protect ordinary people and small businessmen from the racketeers.

Various initiatives to boost the local economy have had little impact on general living standards. The Russian rouble crash in August 1998 was further exacerbated by a sharp fall in vodka production - the main source of income for most North Ossetians. With no viable industry to replace the distilleries, the economy was left in a state of virtual collapse.

The decline in the average income has been reflected by plummeting property prices in Vladikavkaz. At the beginning of 1998, a one-room flat was worth between $8,000 and $10,000 - now it would cost no more than $5,000. Properties are sometimes sold for less than the value of their component materials.

Policies aimed at improving relations with Ingushetia have also met with widespread controversy. Fierce fighting in 1992 forced thousands of ethnic Ingush to abandon their homes in the Prigorodny district and flee across the border with Ingushetia.

Dzasokhov's decision to allow some Ingush to return to their villages (over 800 families in the last two years) has pleased neither side. The Ossetians have accused their president of selling out while the Ingush remain dissatisfied with what they see as half-hearted measures.

Consequently, the three years of Dzasokhov's presidency have produced few tangible results. Most observers agree the president's failure is largely due to his own communist past and his lack of practical political experience. Certainly, he is likely to lose the forthcoming presidential elections if the opposition can consolidate its ranks and produce a viable alternative.

Valeri Dzutsev is the coordinator for a non-governmental organisation

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