Northern Caucasus on the brink of a new conflict
Alikhan Batayev, special to Prague Watchdog
The Northern Caucasus is on the verge of becoming a new conflict zone, most people in Ingushetia and North Ossetia think. The tragic events in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in early September have rekindled the hatreds between Ossetians and Ingush, with the latter being blamed by the first for the deaths of hundreds of hostages.
Up until now, the Russian government has managed to keep in check anti-Ingush and anti-Vainakh feeling in Ossetia (Chechens and Ingush are collectively called Vainakh), avoiding widespread popular alarm. However, the graffiti on many of the walls in Beslan suggests the peace is an illusion. “Death to the Ingush”, it says. “Ingush should have no place on earth”, and so on.
Calls for vengeance on the Ingush are heard almost whenever even a small number of people gather and at the moment, the authorities are doing nothing to suppress such opinions, since the wound inflicted at Beslan runs so deep. Yet this is in spite of the fact that when the Russian president visited Beslan immediately after the siege, he strictly declared that anyone who yielded to provocation and took revenge, was to be regarded as an accomplice to the terrorists.
Thus, President Putin brought to an end any possible doubt within the Ossetian leadership as to how to respond when residents of the republic demanded decisive action, and managed to cool the hot heads of Ossetian nationalists who were urging for something to be done in Ingushetia. But this was only temporary.
In any event, Ossetians are ready to take revenge. Information exists that at first it will be directed against the closest relatives of those who took part in the hostage taking, a popular enough practice in Chechnya where security forces compel a fighter to give himself up by taking hostage his nearest relatives.
This also happened during the events in Beslan. The families of Aslan Maskhadov’s sister, field commander Doka Umarov and numerous relatives of Shamil Basayev were seized in Chechnya by Russian soldiers and kept at the main military base in Khankala. After the tragic denouement in Beslan, all were released.
In the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia, which is largely inhabited by Ingush, there have already been several incidents of assault and attacks from Ossetians. One Ingush had his car burnt by teenagers, another young Ingush working in the Ossetian police force was cruelly beaten, and another, a flour mill director, has disappeared in Vladikavkaz.
Such violence aims to hasten the renewal of conflict and the beginning of a war between the two peoples, who, since 1992 have accused each other of widespread slaughter during the Ossetian-Ingush conflict 12 years ago.
In 1992, nationalist movements began to operate in Ingushetia, which in this year formally became a republic within the new Russian Federation. The nationalists accussed Ossetians of seizing Ingush territories after the repatriation in 1944. A dispute between the Ossetian and Ingush youths effectively turned into a war.
Although this conflict was officially declared over, up to 19,000 Ingush refugees from North Ossetia are still living in various camps in Ingushetia, their return home impeded by various pretexts of the Ossetian authorities.
Ingush take up arms
Now, any Ingush travelling across North Ossetia drives without making any contact with the local population, but even this is risky. Incidents of arrests, assaults and disappearances are not rare, and if they become more frequent, then the Ingush will hardly sit around with their arms folded.
Ingushetia has its own share of hotheads, calling for a return to originally Ingush villages which were settled by Ossetians after the forced exile of the Ingush in 1944. This in fact was the main cause of the conflict 12 years ago.
Ingush, especially in villages next to Ossetian villages, are secretly arming themselves. Murad is a young man who lives in the village of Dolakovo, about three kilometres from Beslan. The administrative border is easily crossed over a field.
“Every night I wake up, go out into the yard and listen. It seems as if an Ossetian lurks behind every noise. We are completely defenceless. Ossetians could steal into any house and butcher the whole family. That’s why I always carry a weapon for self defence,” says Murad.
Murad says it’s the same in other neighbouring villages. He says many of the people he knows took up weapons after Beslan.
The cost of further conflict
The situation is fraught with serious consequences, both for the North Caucasus and for Russia as a whole. If a conflict were to begin, it would drag in many other republics, and would widen the area subjected to counter-terrorist operations, limited up until now (and without any particular result) to Chechnya.
For Russia, this would mean additional losses which it can ill afford. It could even lose the region.
Year by year, the ranks of the Chechen resistance are becoming more and more internationalised, and the fighters more and more uncompromising. The era of clear thinking field commanders, who grew up under the Soviet Union and did not harbour such ferocious hatred for the Russians, is coming to an end. Now there are few left, if any. Taking their place are young people who have seen nothing but war, and it is they who are most likely to determine the politics of the fighters.
If so, then it cannot be ruled out that the fighters will become ever tougher and crueller. In Chechnya, there are Cherkessians, Kabardinians, Ingush, Ossetians and Balkarians fighting against Russian troops. In the event of an Ossetian-Ingush conflict, the epicentre will simply shift 100 kilometres west.
There is a fear that the terrorist attack in Beslan was not the region’s last, but that the ultimate goal is the tearing away of the North Caucasus from Russia and the establishment of an independent Islamic state there.