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The Pariahs of the North Caucasus

Virtual isolation and bleak economic conditions have forced many Ingush to turn to a life of crime and drug-dealing
By Musa Alibekov

Since the fall of Communism, the Ingush have gained an unenviable reputation as the black sheep of the North Caucasus. Neighbouring republics complain that Ingushetia has become the hub of the local drugs trade whilst Moscow suspects the entire population of collaborating with the Chechen rebels. In short, the Ingush are rapidly becoming pariahs.


In Soviet times, the Ingush shared an autonomous republic with the Chechens as the two peoples were thought to share a similar culture and language. Together with their ethnic kin, they were deported to Central Asia in 1944, losing at least a quarter of their population in transit. Although they were rehabilitated in 1956, they were deprived of large chunks of their territory -- notably the Prigorodny region in what is now North Ossetia.


The Ingush have since been the subject of constant discrimination, both officially and unofficially. During the Khrushchev thaw, the dispossessed exiles were forced to buy back their property from the Ossetians while the authorities in Vladikavkaz denied them both employment and official status.


During the ethnic conflict of 1992, the Russian media portrayed the Ingush population as a heavily armed fighting force poised to attack and disown their Ossetian neighbours. In fact, thousands of Ingush settlers were driven forcibly from their homes and have been living in refugee camps ever since.


Since that time, the border with North Ossetia has been guarded by Russian troops who prevent the Ingush from transporting products to markets in Vladikavkaz. This has resulted in economic collapse and widespread unemployment across the tiny republic.


When Moscow invaded Chechnya in 1994, the Ingush people and their president, Ruslan Aushev, were vocal in their support of the embattled separatists.


The Russians claimed their support went further than words. In 1994, the destruction of a Russian armoured column near Gazi-Yurt was blamed on Ingush separatists. In the following year, Moscow accused the republic of sending volunteers to fight against the federal army.


But, true or not, the impact of these suspicions on the population at large has been devastating. Ingushetia now finds itself trapped between hostile Ossetians in the north and federal checkpoints to the east. Worse still, Caucasian neighbours are blaming the Ingush for smuggling drugs across the region and profiting from their misfortunes.


Saidom, 46, from Nazran, explains, "They all say that the Ingush are bandits, hostage-takers and drug-dealers. Of course, there are people who deal in drugs. What do you want them to do? There's no work here, no work at all. No one here is going to work for 300-400 roubles a month -- we've got big families. That's why we turn to drug-dealing, no one wants to die of hunger.


"A few years ago we were ecstatic when they declared Ingushetia an offshore zone. We thought foreigners would come and set up new industries. But in the end, they didn't build anything except Magas and a couple of schools to keep people happy. Then the authorities just carved up the remaining cash between them."


Vladik, 36, a Nalchik drug addict, makes regular trips to Nazran to buy supplies from local dealers. "Two hours on a bus and you're in Columbia," he says. "My dealer, Alik, had a huge brick house with six or seven rooms and a new BMW in the courtyard."


The legendary wealth of the Ingush drug dealers has sparked the envy of neighbouring republics, crushed by poverty and economic collapse.


Aslan, 30, from Terek, in Kabardino-Balkaria, said that many Ingush made fortunes in Central Asia where they forged links with local drug barons. "The Asia-Caucasus drugs line was established in the 1970s and controlled by the Ingush and the Chechens. Now they smuggle them along the Terek River and the Lower Kurp and the police do nothing to stop them because they're all on the payroll.


"Later on, they got to the gold mines in Kolyma and today the bulk of the bootleg gold is controlled by families from the Surkhakhi region of Ingushetia. They like to quote the old proverb, 'There are no shameful ways to make money, it's only shameful to have none.'"


"Just go to Nazran and see what sort of houses they're building there. They're not houses but palaces."


Memories of 1992 conflict between the Ingush and the North Ossetians are generally more sympathetic to the latter -- although the Ingush still consider themselves to have been the victims.


Suleiman, 52, a refugee from the Kartsa village of the Prigorodny region, remembers, "In our village, we lived in complete harmony with the Ossetians. It's hard now to explain how it all started. The Ossetians threw us out and now they won't let us return although neither I nor my family ever did them any harm.


"They say, 'You knew it was all going to happen and one night you just left so that your own people wouldn't shoot you by mistake.' Now our homes are occupied by South Ossetians who have been thrown out of Georgia. And six of us live in one room while the children don't go to school and grow up wild.


"We know now that there's no way back but we can't go forward either because they won't give us official status in Ingushetia."


There is, however, little in Ingushetia that would improve Suleiman's standard of living. Prices at the market in Nazran are two times higher than in Vladikavkaz or Nalchik. Towns like Karabulak and Sleptsovskaya have become massive refugee camps for Chechen families.


Aslanbek, 40, in Nalchik, comments, "We're tired of promises, hopes, commissions and journalists. Just as in 1992, we can only put our trust in God."


Musa Alibekov is a political commentator in Nalchik


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