Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Municipal Reform Destabilizing North Caucasus Republics

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 30 – A Russian law designed to give local governments more powers is exacerbating inter-ethnic tensions in the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus but also and threatens to trigger new conflicts among them, including some that may be as serious as the 1992 clash in North Ossetia’s Prigorodny district.
In an article on the CaucasusTimes.com portal over the weekend, Timur Mal’sagov explains why that is happening. The new federal law, he points out, introduces two levels of local administration -- one for village and urban settlements and a second for larger municipal or urban districts – all of which require precisely defined boundaries.
In many parts of the Russian Federation, the demarcation of such lines has not caused any difficulty even where they did not exist in the past, but in the northern Caucasus, Mal’sagov notes, the requirement for marking these borders creates a serious problem which Moscow did not take into consideration when it drafted Federal Law N131.
Because the North Caucasus is one of the most ethnically mixed regions in the world, any effort to draw new borders entails the risk that there will be a shift in the balance of power among ethnic communities, a risk that officials in the past have sought to reduce by blurring the issues of borders rather than defining them with precision as the new legislation requires.
Indeed, it was precisely the question of borders that was the cause of the 1992 clash between the Ingush and the Ossetians in the Prigorodny district, a clash that not only cost many lives but led to the flight of 75,000 Ingush from their homes, to which they have not been able to return (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=18504).
Now, if the new law is applied consistently, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia will have to define their borders, something they have not done up to now and a prospect which has prompted activists and officials in all three to issue the most “dire warnings” to Moscow, the essence of which is that the three will not give up any land they believe belongs to them.
Given the 1992 events, the back-and-forth between Ingush and Ossetian commentators is nothing all that new, but comments by Chechens and Ingush are. If they are forced to draw a border, the Chechens want to use the lines Stalin drew in 1934 which give them more land, while the Ingush want to use the earlier demarcation of 1922 which gave them additional space.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, the new law’s demarcation requirement is increasing tensions between the two titular nationalities, the Kabardinians and the Balkars. The conflict there, Mal’sagov says, began when local governments controlled by the Balkars were folded into larger units controlled by the Kabardinians.
Not surprisingly, the Balkars views this outcome as an intentional power grab by the Kabardinians and turned to the Russian Constitutional Court. That body ordered the local officials to return to the status quo ante but did not specify how that status could be maintained if the new law on municipalities is ultimately implemented.
Five days ago, several Balkars in the Russian Duma deputies sent a letter to the prosecutor general and the Supreme Court complaining about what they say is the violation of the constitutional rights of the Balkars by the Kabardinians and asking for Moscow to intervene on their behalf.
Among other things, the letter said that “the stability of regions with multi-ethnic populations can be guaranteed only by the strict fulfillment of the Russian law. Any departure from it or even any arbitrary interpretation will push the south of Russia to the brink of war, all the more so since the North Caucasus is an object of active attention of those international forces whose interests are directly opposed to the interests of the Russian Federation.”
That threat, Mal’sagov says, is all too “real,” and “today the Chegem district in Kabardino-Balkaria or the Soviet district in Chechnya could [quite easily] become the second Prigorodny district,” with at least as much violence, deaths, and refugee flows as that earlier conflict.
And what is the worst aspect of all this, the “Caucasus Times” writer says, is that the introduction of these new entities with new borders “will not solve even one of the problems which now stand out so sharply in front of the North Caucasus republics.” Indeed, they may make the situation there worse in yet another way.
According to Mal’sagov, the new law, which makes municipal entities more responsible for addressing social problems, will allow the republic authorities the chance “to shift responsibility from themselves for the standard of living of their citizens,” something that could mean that even more people in that troubled region will fall through the cracks.

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