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Analysis & Opinion
29.09.08 Begging To Disagree
Comment by Ivan Sukhov

Ingushetia, a Russian autonomy in the North Caucasus with a predominantly Muslim population and close ethnic ties to the neighboring republic of Chechnya, is widely believed to be a “weak link” in the chain of Muslim regions in Russia’s North Caucuses, due to a high level of violence and the unresolved ethnic conflict with neighboring North Ossetia.

“The Russian propaganda is yelling about genocide of the Ossetian nation, purportedly organized by the Georgian authorities. These allegations are used for justification of an armed intrusion into Georgia, with the aim of saving and protecting our ‘compatriots’ there, reportedly ‘destroyed by the Georgian army.’ But recent checks have shown that in fact there was no genocide of the Ossetian people. What indeed happened is now difficult to fathom because of propagandistic trumpery and a certain fog of secrecy. But even despite the bias of all interested parties, it is clear that the number of Ossetian victims in this ‘five-day-long war’ is considerably smaller than the number of Ingush victims of a much more intensive four-day-long butchery, inflicted upon us by the same parties and forces which opposed Georgians in August this year,” the letter claimed.

Since the Georgians were opposed by the Russian army and the Ossetians, it is quite clear whom the authors of the letter hold responsible for the casualties of October 1992, when a simmering animosity between the Ossetians and the Ingush escalated into an open conflict.

The NGOs headed by those who signed the letter to Medvedev do not project much power or influence in the republic ruled by President Murat Zyazikov, known for his loyalty to Moscow. Most of these NGOs represent the victims of the 1992 conflict with North Ossetia, or are small Western-supported civil society groups. However, the letter is indicative of the way the events in South Ossetia are perceived by at least a part of the North Caucasus society.
The Ingush critics of the five-day-long war are certainly not in the majority. In fact, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was not far from the truth when he said that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia brought about a wave of patriotism not only in central Russia, but also among the population of the mostly Muslim autonomies of North Caucasus. But the height and the longevity of this wave, as well as its general character for all of North Caucasus, needs not be overestimated.

In fact, Moscow was put between two evils. A continued silence on the Abkhazian and South Ossetian problem could further damage the image of the federal center in the eyes of the population of the North Caucasus. In the Caucasus, a political actor who fails to protect his partners or, worse, his allies, even risks losing some of his old friends. It is no secret that some of Russia’s North Caucasian autonomies are linked to Abkhazia and South Ossetia by close ties of cultural and ethnic kinship. North Ossetia and South Ossetia are not exceptions, as a whole constellation of Circassian ethnic groups are closely watching the developments in Abkhazia, ruled by a “fraternal” ethnos – the Abkhazians. During the last several years, the perception of the events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the North Caucasus boiled down to one question – will Moscow betray its allies in Georgia, or not? It goes without saying that a “betrayal” would mean recognition of Moscow’s weakness and a total loss of face in the eyes of the North Caucasian elites.

The decision not to betray South Ossetia and Abkhazia, naturally, led to the opposite reaction in the form of a “wave of patriotism.” However, there are several circumstances which reduce the PR value of Russia’s help to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is clear that diplomatic recognition of these two separate states is tantamount to renouncing the principle of the inviolability of borders. And renouncing this principle in the North Caucasus is indeed a dangerous precedent, since there are many nations in the region which consider even the formally administrative borders inside the Russian Federation to be unjust and absurd, dividing small ethnic groups in the region instead of uniting them. Having questioned Georgia’s right to territorial integrity, Russia should be ready to face the same doubts regarding some of its own borders. Such doubts have arisen in the not too distant past. In the early 1990s, movements for seceding from Russia were active not only in Chechnya, but in all of the North Caucasus. The carriers of the ethnic separatism ideology are still alive and pretty active. Some of them, naturally, will ask themselves the question: why are not we allowed to do something that Russia is allowed to do in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
The letter of the Ingush NGOs bears some traces of this attitude, referring to the Prigorodny district and the city of Vladikavkaz as the “historic motherland of the Ingush,” which is “currently a part of North Ossetian republic.” The letter also refers to “genocide” perpetrated against the Ingush in 1944 (during Joseph Stalin’s deportations) and in 1992 (during the conflict with Ossetians). The authors of the letter go even further, accusing the Russian armed forces of participating in the genocide of 1992 and calling the actions of North Ossetia “fascism, which for two decades has been covered up or even endorsed by the federal authorities.”

The 16 years that the Ingush refugees from the Prigorodny district had to live in refugee camps without proper access to education and medical aid led to what the ethnologists call “archaization” of this part of the Ingush society, which led to the growth of radical Islam. In the wider framework of North Caucasus, radical Islamist movements are opposed to continued Russian rule in the region. These movements’ aim is the establishment of Sharia law on the whole territory of the North Caucasus and the return to the values of the early community of prophet Mohammed’s supporters. This rebirth of “people’s Islam” does not in any way contradict the growth of small ethnic nationalisms: on the contrary, in many cases ethnic movements “ride the wave” of Islam’s popularity. It is not accidental that the “Caucuses emirate,” declared from the underground by the Chechen anti-Russian guerillas in 2007 on the Internet, is divided into “vilayats,” thus named after the regions in the now defunct Ottoman Empire. The borders of vilayats geographically coincide with ethnic borders of the North Caucasus. In the cases when Moslem vilayats are separated from each other by Orthodox Christian areas (North Ossetia in the first place), the inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict appears to be hard to avoid.

All of these facts need to be born in mind before the Western community of nations, as usual, gives full credence to the demands and assertions of the Ingush NGOs.

Ivan Sukhov has a Ph.D. in history (specialization - ethnology) and currently works at the Vremya Novostei daily where he covers the North Caucasus.
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