SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )


Sergei Arutiunov
(Institute of Ethnography, RAS)

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

5. The knot of the Central Caucasus - Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechenia.

So far, in all ethnic conflicts which took place on the territory of Caucasus, both Northern and Southern (in Chechenia, in Abkhazia, in South Ossetia, in Nagorno-Karabagh) there has been one striking regularity. These conflicts began as a movement of an oppressed minority against the oppressing majority- Chechens against Russians, Abkhaz against Georgians, Ossetes against Georgians, Karabaghtsi Armenians against Azeris. They began rather peacefully, by a declaration about intentions to secede and to exist independently. Of course, the degree of real oppression, the size of the gap between reality and a propagandistically created victimized image of a minority might differ in each case, but in each case there were some reasons for the decision to secede. What followed was an attempt by the oppressor's side to crush these intentions by military force, and after months or years of bloodshed, inevitably the little secessionist David would turn victorious, at least, temporarily, over the oppressing Goliath, in spite of the tremendous inequality in numbers and resources. The only exception to this general pattern so far has been the situation in the Republic of Ossetia-Alania (North Ossetia), and the conflict that took place between Ingushes of its Prigorodnyi Raion ('Suburbian District') and the authorities of the Republic, unequivocally supported by all factions of the non-Ingush population.

Here, in Ossetia, we can see a striking contrast to the relatively non-violent attitude, inclined to a peaceful solution to rising tensions which is, luckily, more typical for the territories west of Ossetia. In the fall of 1991 Ossetia was the scene of the worst conflict in the North Caucasus, surpassed later only by the horrors of the Chechenian War of 1994-1996.

The confrontation between Ingushes, oriented towards tribal and patriarchal values re-enforced by the adoption of Islam, and predominantly Orthodox Christian loyalty- oriented Ossetes and Russian Cossacks goes far back in the history of their relations, maybe back to the 18-th century.

It was significantly aggravated by a very unwise decision by Khrushchev, when in 1957, his government, having reasonably granted the Chechenians and Ingushes a repatriation to their homeland and a restoration of the dual Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia, nevertheless failed to return to this republic the territory of the so-called Prigorodnyi Raion, allotted in 1944 after the expulsion of Ingushes to Ossetia, and gave instead to the restored dual republic two Cossack-settled districts carved out against the will of the population from the Stavropol territory.

In spite of all these obstacles, many thousands of Ingushes resettled in what was formerly the center of their ethnic territory. By 1991 Ingushes constituted here about 60 % of the population, the rest being composed of Ossetians and Russian Cossacks.

Ingushes tried by all means, very often violent means, to establish in the area an Ingush power base, based on their customary law (adat), the moral justification of these attempts being the presence in this area of the tomb-stones of many generations of their ancestors. Illegal actions were frequent on both sides and led to the further growth of mutual distrust and antipathy between Ingushes, on one side, Ossetians and Pussians on the other. Ingushes blackmailed and molested Ossetians, forcing them to sell their houses (in practice together with agricultural land-plots) to arriving Ingushes, while the local authorities tried to persuade the Ossetian owners not to sell them anything and set up all kinds of obstacles even to perfectly legal transactions. Thus, they tried to enforce Soviet power based not only on the law but on an undisguised policy of ethnic discrimination.

There have been many clashes since the early 1960's, and in 1981 in the capital of North Ossetia, there were ethnic riots on such a scale that army troops had to be sent in, but due to lack of any freedom of press at that period this remained little known to the outside world.

In 1992, when conflict erupted again, it resulted in the complete eviction of 60 thousand Ingushes not only from the area disputed between Ingushes and Ossetes, but also from the rest of Ossetia-Alania and from its capital city of Vladikavkaz. Their houses were burnt and demolished, their property plundered. With some 60 thousands more refugees from Chechenia, the current population of Ingushetia numbers more than 250 thousand of whom approximately 50 % are refugees. Consequently, social- economic challenges and economic adjustments proceed in quite different ways in Ossetia and Ingushetia. This difference again reflects the prevailing orientation of Ingushes to a more or less traditional economy, based on the exploitation of natural agricultural and pastoral resources, while the population of North Ossetia, both aboriginal and 'Russian-speaking,' is much more oriented towards more sophisticated, urban, industrial and technological modes of production.

Ossetia-Alania (North Ossetia), which is located North of the Caucasus Mountain Range and is a constituent part of the Russian Federation, is only a part (true, a larg one) of the whole ethnic territory of Ossetes. The other part is Southern Ossetia which is de-jure a part of Georgia but practically, for some eight years, since 1989, has turned into a little de-facto independent republic with Russian peace keepers guarding its provisional armistice with Georgia. Very recently (January 1997) there have been reports, that intensive negotiations have started between the Government of South Ossetia and the Central Government of Georgia, and that they may result in a reunification of South Ossetia with Georgia, but we have still to wait for the results of these negotiations.

Southern Ossetia is a place where there was no Russification (and little Georgianization), where the traditional Ossetian ways of life, their spoken language, their ancient customs are preserved in a more complete and unspoiled form than in the North. Now, when there is no more violence and the traditional agricultural and cattle-breeding economy has revived after the disasters of a separatist war with Georgia, it is poor but self-supporting. It also benefits to some extent from small-scale transit transportation of some goods, particularly early and high quality vegetables and fruits from the Central Georgia to the markets of the Southern Russia, which became possible with the stabilization of the armistice. North Ossetia (Alania) is, on the contrary, highly industrialized, urbanized, very significantly Russified, and largely maintains the Soviet-time methods of organization in the rural economy. True, in the North, too, there are some rural pockets where the traditional pastoral economy and many traits and features of the pre-Christian, "pagan" cults and rituals are thoroughly preserved, but they are relatively few. Theoretically Ossetians dream of a reunification, but culturally Northerners and Southerners are very different, are not free from many mutual prejudices and generally are not getting along well. Northerners, particularly, often complain about the presence in the North of many thousands of Southern Ossetian refugees from Georgia.

Ingushes and Chechenians of all other nations and ethnic groups of the Caucasus, probably have the most victimized image of themselves, since they have suffered so many times, beginning from the 18-th century and ending with the expulsion in the Stalin era and the atrocities of war in post-Soviet Russia. They have a common self-denomination as Wainakh (our people) and though there are some unresolved territorial claims between them, generally they feel sympathetic towards each other.

The high prestige enjoyed by local village elders helped to prevent mass participation of young Ingushes in the fighting in the Chechenian war to support Chechenians, as well as attempts at retaliation on Ossetians. Indirect support was always rendered by Ingushes to Chechenians; the commanders of Russian troops in Chechenia complained that when they were passing Ingush villages they had to expect shooting at their backs, and some Ingush villages have been bombed alongside with the adjacent Chechen villages.

Nevertheless Ruslan Aushev, the highly respected president of Ingushetia, a retired general, managed to maintain rather loyal relations with the Federal government of Russia, and Ingushetia has been declared a free economic zone. This helps it economically to some extent, but generally the Republic is in a difficult situation: its population has recently doubled because of so many refugees both from Ossetia-Alania and from Chechenia, the local economy can provide very few jobs apart from agriculture, and it not very urbanized.

Although some Ingush villages had been converted to Islam only in the early 19-th century, the influence of Islam is strongly felt, partly due to a confrontation with predominantly Christian Ossetes, partly as a repercussion of Islamic Fundamentalism gaining momentum in Chechenia.

It is still difficult today to predict what the future development of the Chechenian society and economy will look like when Russain-Chechenian relations are normalized and the process of restoration after the damage caused by the war begins. Consequently one may only guess at the basic pattern of future economic development in Ingushetia and Chechenia and its impact on the cultural tradition of these peoples.

But there is great reason to believe that this future will be dual. On one hand, cities will be built and restored, and in Chechenia pipeline and road maintenance, the restoration and reconstruction of oil drills, refineries, factories and other industrial objects will require a lot of manpower, both Chechenian and Russian.

On the other hand, a good deal of the rural population, especially in the highland areas, will be oriented towards a traditional style of economy, i. e. towards agriculture, cattle breeding, production of honey, and other similar occupations, completely based on individual farming, with no relics of the Soviet collective system. Combined with the increasing influence of Islam, this will create a serious split between the urban-oriented, modern industrial way of life in large cities and the northern lowlands, and the tradition -oriented rural life in the southern highlands.

This split will largely coincide with the 'teip' (clan) differences and confrontations which so far have never ceased to play an important role in the structuring of relations between different segments of Wainakh society. Traditionally the Southern (highland) clans are considered to be more aristocratic and prestigeous compared to those which are younger and less distinguished in their origins, although the Nothern (lowland) clans are more urbanized and sophisticated. This dichotomy, which is already clear in the struggle for power, and has already started among various factions of the Chechenian ruling establishment, may in the future become even more aggravated.

There can hardly be any doubt, that the overwhelming majority of younger people, (and these societies with their high birth rate become demographically young indeed), would prefer, in spite of the rise of traditionalism and Islamism, to reside in the lowlands and in the larger cities, with all their comforts and advantages. But it would be very difficult, even under much better conditions, than those in the modern Russia, to provide jobs for all of them. This, combined with the demoralizing effects of the recent war, may lead to a further increase in criminal activity in Chechenia and partly also in Ingushetia. On the other hand, the resources in the mountainous part of these republics have not yet been exploited to their full extent, and until recently, many valleys, which used to be densely populated, lay quite abandoned. It is possible that, with the reclamation of these highland pastures and woods, new pockets of relatively tradition-oriented economy and social life may emerge, as an asylum for people who are discontent with the life styles of modern cities.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in practically all areas of the Northern Caucasus, and in many places in the Southern Caucasus as well, in spite of the mosaic and complexity of the ethno-social picture, a certain dual pattern can almost aways be observed in the difference of values of two Key and confrontational ethnic groups. Between these groups there is always a similar pattern of cultural differences, i.e. one is invariably more highly socially developed, more urbanized, more educated, than the other. Such is the correlation between Georgians and Abkhazes, between Armenians and Azetis, between Cherkessians and Karachais, between Kabardins and Balkars, between Ossetes and Ingushes. In Chechenia this is the relationship between Lowlander and Highlander clans. The same can also be said about the relationship between Russians and non-Russians.

In a situation where ethnic conflicts were not allowed to develop openly, the more sophisticated group would normally dominate over the 'backward' one. However, its birth rate being lower and its urban-oriented mobility being higher, this group would inevitably tend to constitute a smaller and smaller percentage in the rural areas and in the agricultural section of economy, and would gradually replaced there by the less sophisticated group. Thus, the second group tended to become a majority in the areas where it used to be only a minority.

When the political situation changed, and ethnic conflicts and tensions could be expressed in the demands of political organizations, this pattern resulted in fears among 'first' groups about losing their influence and their lands to 'second' groups, and in attempts to stop their expansion, to continue to keep them subordinated. The leaders and organizations of 'second' groups, on the contrary, nurtured plans to squeeze out or to evict the 'first' group and to establish their own ethnic power on the lands to which they moved.

In some cased dual confrontation was very grave, as in Georgian-Abkhaz and Armenian-Azeri in Karabagh, Ossetian-Ingush. In others, like Cherkess-Karachai, or Kabardin-Balkar, there has so far not been such acute tension, and there are hopes for the prevalence of good will. However, it seems indispensable, that in each case a certain body or supreme power, be it an international peace-making mechanism, or the Federal Center of Russia, or even somebody else, implement a more or less unbiased and principal policy of peaceful coexistence and defense of the rights of all groups in question. Otherwise the danger of ethnic cleansings, of artificial ethnic homogenization at the expense of evictions of minorities, will always remain.