Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unfriendly Neighbours

Feelings in the predominantly Christian republic of North Ossetia towards the Chechen war show a strong pro-Russian bias.
By Alexander Dzadzaev

Like a schoolyard bully who has fought one fight too many, Chechnya is fast running out of allies. Caucasian neighbours who were quick to voice their spiritual solidarity in 1994 are openly condemning the Chechens' latest bid for independence. As the war enters its fifth weary month, brotherly love is thin on the ground.


Northern Ossetia -- long regarded as Russia's "lackey" in the Caucasus--is perhaps the most vocal opponent. Now overrun by Russian troops and Chechen refugees, the republic sees itself as a victim of Chechen war-mongering and has accused the rebel fighters of betraying their own people.


However, the Ossetian government also takes exception to its role as a springboard for the Russian military campaign. In a December 4 interview in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, President Alexander Dzasokhov warned that a crisis was brewing in Northern Ossetia which could "not only topple the existing government but seriously weaken the republic's traditional loyalty to Russia."


The Russian media has worked hard to engineer anti-Chechen feelings, pointing at alleged rebel plots to escalate the war across the Caucasus. Terrorist atrocities in Vladikavkaz (March 19, 1999) and Sputnik (May 16, 1999) added fuel to the flames, followed by belated bulletins from the Ossetian authorities, urging the local population to be on their guard. Russian army units were rapidly deployed in Vladikavkaz in response to rumours of a Chechen incursion through the Dzheirakhskoye Gorge in late September.


Days later, on September 23, Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov met with President Dzasokhov and Ingushetian premier Ruslan Aushev, in a bid to carve out a new negotiating channel with Moscow. However, the federal government promptly informed Maskhadov that other North Caucasian leaders had no part to play in Russian-Chechen negotiations. This move effectively drove a wedge between Chechnya and her immediate neighbours.


Thus far, Russia's "anti-terrorist" campaign in Chechnya has enjoyed the passive support of the Northern Ossetians. The distinction between fighting the Chechen people and annihilating the Chechen "fighters" has helped to eradicate any lingering sympathies for their embattled neighbours. Public opinion has also been soured by reports of Chechen bandits crossing the border into Northern Ossetia to steal cattle or kidnap hostages.


Certainly, there are few who consider the rebels to be freedom fighters--as many did at the beginning of the last Chechen war in 1994. In December of that year, political figures in Northern Ossetia held a joint conference, which hit out against "the use of military force to establish constitutional order in Chechnya". The delegates appealed to the President of Northern Ossetia to prevent Russian troops from using the republic as a "springboard" into the Caucasus. There were even attempts to block the federal Kavkaz highway, the main route between the airport at Vladikavkaz and the Chechen border.


As the conflict gained momentum, tens of thousands of refugees fled to Northern Ossetia, with around 2,500 remaining after the Russian army withdrawal. Another 17,000 have crossed the Ossetian border following Moscow's second invasion of Chechnya. The refugees--mainly ethnic Russians--are channelled into a primitive transit camp in Mozdok. After one or two days, they are sent on to temporary refugee camps run by the Federal Immigration Service in neighbouring regions. The total number of displaced persons in Northern Ossetia is nearing the 40,000 mark.


Over the last century, pro-Russian sympathies have become ingrained into the popular consciousness. During the Soviet era, Northern Ossetians were among the most committed troops in the Red Army. Seventy Ossetians were promoted to the rank of general or admiral while 34 were nominated Heroes of the Soviet Union--the highest figures for any former Soviet republic. During both recent Chechen campaigns, wounded Russian soldiers have been treated in hospitals across Vladikavkaz, often benefiting from donations made by the population at large.


It is hardly surprising then that a recent poll of Ossetian attitudes to the war in Chechnya showed a strong Russian bias. The survey, conducted by the Centre for Social and Humanitarian Research at the Vladikavkaz Institute, asked the question, "Will Chechnya remain a subject of the Russian Federation?" Of the 500 people questioned, nearly 70 per cent said yes and only 10 per cent said no.


Respondees were also asked to estimate how long the war would last: over 46 per cent replied that hostilities would continue until the presidential elections while 10 per cent said a police operation against Chechen bandits and international terrorists would be waged indefinitely.


Certainly, Northern Ossetians are quick to quash accusations that, as the only "Christian" republic in the North Caucasus, they present a major obstacle to the creation of an Islamic state in the region. Local religious leaders argue that they have been making concerted efforts to restore their pagan roots and it is, in fact, in-fighting between other Islamic factions that make religious unity an impossibility at the present time.


Northern Ossetians are no less eager to dispel rumours that the republic has aspirations to become the dominant power in the North Caucasus. Northern Ossetia, they counter, survives entirely on state handouts and is one of the most highly subsidized republics in the Russian Federation, coming 65th out of 89 territories listed in the October 1999 edition of Expert magazine. Dependence on Russia has simply become a fact of life.


Alexander Dzadzaev is a journalist based in Vladikavkaz.


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