Chapter 1: Ossetia-Ingushetia

by Alan Ch. Kasaev *


The conflict between Ossetia and Ingushetia that exploded on October 30-November 6, 1992 was the first large-scale ethnic war on the territory of the newly-reconstituted Russian Federation. The basic source of this conflict was the prolonged dispute between the local populations and authorities of North Ossetia and Ingushetia concerning the administrative status of the Prigorodny region. The immediate precipitant was the unwise application of the Russian "state of emergency" statute in the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia (now the Alanlya Republic of North Ossetia). After the bloodshed subsided and the conflict dissipated, the Russian government faced problems that it had never dealt with, or even thought about, before. These included:
  • defining the legal status and organizing the return of refugees and displaced peoples;
  • restoring residential areas and vital infrastructures that its forces had destroyed; and
  • re-establishing political and socio-psychological bonds between and among the diverse peoples of the Russian Federation and between the federal government and subjects of the federation.

Historical Origins

To understand the fundamental sources of the conflict that broke out between the Ossetian and Ingushetian communities in the fall of 1992, and the circumstances that led the Russian leadership to suppress the unrest by force, we need to briefly examine the history of Ossetian-Ingushetian relations. Until 1917, these relations were relatively calm and stable.[1] With the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, however, their relations sharply deteriorated. The majority of Ossetians, who received more privileged treatment than the other nations from the Tsarist government, supported the anti-Bolshevik "White Guards." The people of Ingushetia, in contrast, reacted positively to the Bolshevik appeal to redistribute land and property. In August 1918, the trans-Caucasus were the locus of intense fighting between "White Guard" troops, who were defending the Tsarist regime, (consisting mostly in this region of Ossetians), and Bolshevik units, which included many Ingushetians. The Bolshevik victory led to bloody repression against the "White Guards" and their supporters; Ossetians tended to view this repression as "the slaughter of Ossetians by Ingushetia."[2]

Something similar, but with an opposite effect, took place during World War II. In 1944, the Ingushetians and the Chechens, with whom they shared a so-called autonomous republic, were among several ethnic groups of the Caucasus that were forcibly relocated to the eastern regions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). One of the consequences of these deportations was the transfer to the North Ossetian autonomous republic of the Prigordny region, which had been inhabited almost entirely by Ingushetians but was now resettled by Ossetians. As a result, the Ingushetians concluded that they were victims of an Ossetian conspiracy--a conclusion supported by rumors that Stalin and several of his closest advisors were of Ossetian origin.[3]

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev subsequently allowed the Ingushetians (along with the Chechens and the other peoples who were similarly subjected to repression by Stalin) to return to their native lands. This, however, was not accompanied by a decision to return the Prigorodny region to the Chechen-Ingushetian Republic. As a result, the majority of Ingushetians continued to believe that Ossetians enjoyed "privileges" at their direct expense.

The Political Bombshell: "Territorial Rehabilitation"

Throughout the waning years of the Gorbachev era and early post-Soviet transitional period, the political climate shifted in favor of the peoples that had been subjected to mass repression and deportations during the Stalinist period. Most liberal Russian politicians advocated not only the political rehabilitation of these people--i.e., return of all the rights of which they had been deprived, including the rights to own land and property--but also their territorial administrative rehabilitation--i.e., their right to communal control over their ethnic homelands. In this climate, the Russian Supreme Soviet adopted a statute on "The Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples" that proclaimed the restoration "in accordance with the will of the previously repressed peoples" of the nation-state borders that had existed prior to the unconstitutional Soviet policies of deportation and relocation. Unfortunately, in an omission that was typical for this period, this statute, which was adopted in April 1991, failed to specify how it was to be implemented or how and to what extent the will of other peoples now living on the disputed territory was to be taken into account. In short, by restoring rights to the victims of previous discriminations, the statute, in practice, raised the specter of gross violations of the rights of other citizens, who were not responsible for committing the original unlawful acts. In fall 1991, this specter became a reality when Ingushetian extremists attempted to reclaim the territory of the Prigorodny region by force, thereby transforming latent Ossetian-Ingushetian animosities into a bloody conflict and confirming the warnings of the many independent experts who had predicted that territorial-administrative rehabilitation would cause an explosion of competing territorial claims and create a real threat to the internal stability of the Russian Federation.

A Republic Without Borders Or An Administrative Apparatus

Another ingredient in the tragic breakdown in Ossetian-Ingushetian relations was the dismemberment of the Chechen-Ingush Republic as a result of Chechnya's de facto separation from the Russian Federation following Dudayev's rise to power in the fall of 1991. For many months thereafter, Ingushetia lacked any legitimate governing authority since Moscow refused to recognize Dudaev's regime (which it expected to collapse in short order), and was content to leave Ingushetia in legal limbo.[4] In consequence, Ingushetia was not included among those Russian regions that, at the end of February 1992, signed the Union Treaty, which provided the legal basis for the coexistence of regions and republics of the Russian Federation, and which stipulated that the borders of the constituent parts of the federation could not be amended without popular consent.[5] This left the Ingushetians completely free of any constitutional or legal constraint in pressing their claims for control over the Prigorodny region.

The Politics Of Military Intervention

The Course Of Events

During the summer and early fall of 1992, there was a steady increase in the militancy of Ingushetian nationalists, culminating in an October 1992 decision by an ad hoc meeting of "representative governing authorities of Ingushetia" (including Ingushetian communities in North Ossetia) to implement the statute on "Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples" by force. More precisely, it was decided "to form armed detachments in all Ingushetian communities in North Ossetia . . . [in order to ensure] that all the Ingushetian territories seized by Stalin are returned to the Ingush Republic." At the same time, there was a steady increase in incidents of organized harassment against Ingushetian inhabitants of North Ossetia by their North Ossetian neighbors and North Ossetian police. Instead of reacting promptly to prevent a full-scale explosion, however, Moscow temporized, relying on the attempts of local authorities to stabilize the situation through half-hearted negotiations. As a result, the conflict continued to escalate, until, by the end of October, Ingushetian separatists were in control of a sizable part of the Prigorodny region, large numbers of Ingushetians from elsewhere in North Ossetia had been forcibly evicted from their homes, pitched battles between Ossetian and Ingushetian military formations were raging on the outskirts of the North Ossetian capital (Vladikavkaz), and Ingushetian volunteers were pouring across the Ingushetian-North Ossetian border. It was only at this point that Moscow finally decided to take action.

On October 31, a high-level Russian delegation, comprised of Deputy Prime Minister Gregory Khiza, Chief of General Staff Colonel-General Mikhail Kolesnikov, Deputy Commander of the Air Force Major General Aleksey Chindarov, and the Commander of the Internal Forces Lieutenant-General Yury Savvin, arrived in Vladikavkaz, along with nearly 8,000 troops from the Pskov airborne division and special forces and police units from Komy, Nizny Novgorod, and Tula. Even then, however, the mission of these forces remained unclear. While the press reported that they were to be deployed as militarily proactive peacemakers on the basis of a presidential decree that had been signed that very day (October 31), no such decree was officially published until November 2. It is unclear whether this further delay was the result of last-minute doubts on President Yeltsin's part about using Russian troops to suppress a domestic conflict (the sort of doubts that had led him to repeal an earlier (October 1991) decree deploying troops in Chechnya) or whether it was the result of last-minute changes that Yeltsin was persuaded to make in response to the objections of Kremlin enemies of Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai, who had almost certainly drawn up the original decree and may well have incorporated both a larger role for himself than his enemies wished him to have, and a more evenhanded approach to the conflict than his generally anti-Ingushetian enemies desired. Whatever the explanation for the delayed publication of the presidential decree, however, the first deployment of Russian peacekeepers did not begin until early November.

When federal forces did finally deploy, they took up positions on the border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. By doing so, they did more than symbolically underscore the clear implication of the November 2 presidential decree that the Prigorodny region was to remain part of North Ossetia (an implication that may not have been so clear in the original decree of October 31). They also cut off any possibility that the Ingushetian insurgents in North Ossetia could receive significant supplies or reinforcements from Ingushetia, and virtually guaranteed that Ingushetian communities in North Ossetia would be subjected to brutal reprisals, if not ethnic cleansing. Although Russian troops often intervened to prevent horrendous acts of violence by Ossetian police and republican guards, the stance of the Russian peace-keeping force as such was strongly pro-Ossetian not only objectively as a result of its deployment, but subjectively as well.

The prevailing viewpoint of the Russian leadership was well expressed by Deputy Prime Minister Gregorg Khiza, who was appointed to oversee the peace-keeping operation on behalf of the Kremlin. According to Khiza, the conflict he was charged to terminate was caused by "an aggressive armed attack by Ingushetian forces on a sovereign state . . . that is part of Russia" and that Russia was required to repel, "so that nobody else will infringe on his neighbor's land."[6] Lurking behind this simplistic understanding of the origins of the conflict was an assumption, shared by many of Russia's senior military and political leaders, that North Ossetia was more reliable than Ingushetia and the other North Caucasus republics because the Ossetians were Christian and "the others" were Muslim--an assumption that North Ossetian President Galazov did his best to confirm by repeated declarations of loyalty to Moscow. Assumptions and declarations apart, moreover, North Ossetia actually became an important Russian outpost after the de facto secession of Chechnya, when the North Ossetian cities of Vladikavkaz and Mozdok became the primary Russian military bases in the region.[7] For all these reasons, it was almost inevitable that most Russian leaders would favor the "always loyal Ossetians" over the "permanently discontented Ingushetians," especially at a time when even the democrats among them had shed their romantic illusions about the unqualified benefits of national self-determination.[8]

The Political Consequences Of Armed Intervention In the Conflict

The deployment of Russian peacemakers brought a close to mass violence in the Prigorodny region, but it did not resolve the underlying Ingushetian-Ossetian conflict. Nor have Russia's subsequent diplomatic efforts to broker a political settlement enjoyed much success. Rather predictably, they have foundered on two key issues: the return of refugees, and the status of the Prigorodny region.

The hostilities and reprisals in North Ossetia produced between 40,000-60,000 Ingushetian refugees, almost all of whom fled to Ingushetia. Although pressure from Moscow finally induced the North Ossetian authorities to allow refugees from four settlements in the Prigorodny region to return to their homes, the return of most refugees has been blocked by North Ossetia's insistence that "the time has not yet come for Ossetians and Ingushetians to try again to live together" and its demand that Ingushetia officially acknowledge its responsibility for initiating hostilities. Meanwhile, the erstwhile homes and settlements of these refugees are gradually being occupied by South Ossetian refugees who have fled war and persecution in Georgia and whom the North Ossetians are now resettling in the Prigorodny region--despite Ingushetian protests.

While negotiations on the return of refugees have made at least some progress, negotiations on the status of Prigorodny region have been deadlocked from the start. Indeed, the North Ossetians have continued to insist that such negotiations are unacceptable in principle, since the region's status as an unalienable part of North Ossetia is authoritatively recognized in the Russian constitution. For their part, the Ingushetians took until July 1995 to drop their demand that the region be returned to Ingushetia under the terms of the ill-fated statute "On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples," and have since held out for subordinating the region to direct federal control--a proposal that the North Ossetians have adamantly rejected.


Moscow's decision to preside over drawn out Ossetian-Ingushetian negotiations rather than impose a settlement indicates how much its outlook and behavior have changed in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In assessing the magnitude of this change, however, one must take account of Moscow's fear that Ingushetia could become "another Chechnya" if it lost all hope of redressing its grievances through negotiations. This fear has undoubtedly played an important role in the belated and partial rectification of Moscow's earlier pro-Ossetian tilt, and present indications are that it will continue to play a role for the foreseeable future. Given past history, however, it will take a very long time indeed to convince the Ingushetians that Moscow is really able and willing to act as an honest broker in resolving their conflict with the Ossetians. Even allowing for the distinct possibility that Moscow has drawn valuable lessons from its erratic, arbitrary, and heavy-handed efforts to manage the Ossetian-Ingushetian conflict, and has made progress in creating and institutionalizing a more rational and responsible policy-making process, Ingushetia is likely to be a zone of instability and potential flash point for many years to come.

[*] Alan Ch. Kasaev is editor for regional affairs, Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

[1] A.B. Fadeev, "The Social Structure of Caucasian Mountain Peoples of 18-19 Centuries in New Publications of Soviet Historians," in The Problems of History, 1958, No. 5, p. 135; The Collection of Data About Caucasian Mountain Peoples, 1972, No. 7, pp. 29-35.

[2] Vladikovkaz, The Social-Political and Arts Magazine, 1993, No. 1, p. 18.

[3] Zamanho, Contemporary, September 17, 1994; The Voice of Nazaran, September 24, 1994.

[4] In February 1992, in the absence of a formally demarcated Ingush republic, Special Representatives of the Russian President and Parliament General Ermakov and Deputy Kostoev (who had been appointed by Moscow), respectively, served as the de facto governing authorities in the region. They did not show any capacity, however, to control the situation in the territory.

[5] Rossiyskaya Vesti', February 12, 1992. On December 10, 1992, the status of Ingushetia was finally clarified by the decree of the RSFSR Congress of People's Deputies that proclaimed the formation of the Chechen and Ingush republics as constituent parts of the Russian Federation. This occurred, however, only five months after the bloody Ossetian-Ingushetian confrontation erupted in the Prigorodny region.

[6] "In the Fog on the Verge of Disaster," Vladikavkaz, 1994, p. 684.

[7] After the fighting started, the "Chechen card" came into play in a different fashion. As early as November 1992, Chechen leaders suggested that Russian troops were deployed in the Ossetian-Ingushetian combat zone in preparation for an assault on Chechnya. The plan was supposedly for Russian airborne units to move rapidly through the territory of Ingushetia, enter Chechnya and capture the capital (Grozny). The absence of an established border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, as well as the fact that the Dudaev regime in Chechnya was not recognized officially by federal authorities, were offered as the grounds for legitimizing the incursion. Although there was no evidence to confirm such ambitions of the federal authorities at the time, Russian tanks, in alleged hot pursuit of Ingushetian fighters, advanced all the way to the Ingushetian border with Chechnya. Therefore, it is difficult to exclude the possibility that an improvised decision was made at some executive level (for instance, by the High Command of the Ministry of Defense) to "expand" the military operation and to use it to demonstrate Russia's military power to the Chechen separatists. That such an improvisation could take place (if in fact it did) shows the existence of serious problems in the federal government's procedures for formulating and implementing key decisions with respect to ethnic conflicts.

[8] The Russian media, spearheaded by democratically-oriented newspapers and magazines, were generally critical of the position assumed by the Russian leadership. Many independent-minded journalists were put off by the striking solidarity between the Kremlin and the "White House" (i.e., the Russian Parliament) on the issue. The latter, despite its opposition to President Yeltsin, preferred "not to mention" the behavior of Russian armed forces during the conflict, or the fact that units under the command of the Ministry of Defense had no legal right to participate in a domestic conflict. Hence, in many leading publications, the terrifying descriptions of the slaughter carried out by Ossetian fighters was described as having been organized and supported by the Russian Army. This negative reaction of the press (along with the pressure applied by Ingushetian President Aushev) prompted Yeltsin's decision to discharge Khiza and to appoint Shakhrai as a deputy prime minister.

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