Chechnya: Ingushetia struggles with refugee burden

Ingush authorities face financial ruin over locals' compensation demands for housing Chechen refugees.
By Yakub Sultygov in Nazran (CRS No.166, 13-Feb-03)

Local people in Ingushetia are flooding the courts in Ingushetia, demanding overdue compensation for housing refugees from neighbouring Chechnya.

The dispute is threatening the republic with financial ruin and putting the relations between Ingush and Chechens under strain.

Since the second Chechen war began in 1999, thousands of Ingush have put up Chechen refugees in private accommodation, signing contracts with Russia's ministry for migration.

But the latter has been disbanded and absorbed by the overstretched Ingush interior ministry - becoming its migration agency - that hasn't the funds to even begin paying off the debts owed to landlords.

According to official figures, of 64,000 Chechen refugees still in Ingushetia, just under half have found accommodation independently, and a third rent housing from locals.

Isa Imagozhev has been housing refugees in his car market and repair shop near the village of Ekazhevo. Conditions are better than in most other places. The Chechens are accommodated in some twenty rooms in clapboard cabins, each of which fit for four people, as well as former car repair stalls.

"The migration service promised me 40 roubles a day per tenant, including cleaning, utilities and wages for watchmen and the superintendent," said Imagozhev.

But so far he hasn't received anything from the government and he is one of those suing the local authorities.

"Unless the state makes good on its debt, I will no longer be able to accommodate the refugees," he complained. "I have been paying utilities bills and rent on the land out of my own pocket."

Ingushetia's deputy prime minister Magomed Markhiev does not expect a quick resolution. "This has been going on for more than three years," he told journalists. "If the local authority were to settle all the claims Ingushetia would lose its budget." The lawsuits currently in court add up to 464 million roubles, or a just under 15 million US dollars. The Ingush government's budget anticipates spending 3.5 billion roubles this year, most of which comes out of federal subsidies.

Ingushetia is one of Russia's poorest regions. It has an unemployment rate of 85 per cent and the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Speaking to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last month, Ingush leader Murat Zyazikov said, "Ingushetia is largely an agricultural republic and specialists say if that sector develops it can provide new jobs. But there still won't be enough jobs for Ingushetia where the number of people who cannot find work is growing all the time."

Ingush prime minister Viktor Aleksentsev pointed out recently that the republic is so economically weak that it could not deal properly with the damage caused by last summer's floods. The government agencies charged with tackling the disaster, including the emergencies ministry, failed to come up with a single tractor.

The latest war in Chechnya has also hit Ingushetia hard, straining the traditionally good relations between Chechens and Ingush, who are closely related ethnically and were part of one autonomous republic, Chechen-Ingushetia, until 1992. Experts at Ingushetia's employment ministry say thousands of incoming Chechens are supporting themselves by trade and hired work. This has actually improved Ingushetia's service and small business sector, the analysts say, but it has increased competition for local jobs and raised unemployment.

Ingushetia's interior ministry reports that Ingush policemen are regularly being killed or wounded in clashes with Chechen militants. The last such incident happened on February 7, when one policeman was killed and another wounded in the town of Malgobek on the border with Chechnya.

All this means that many Ingush back plans for Chechen refugees to go back to their republic in 2003 - although, the Ingush government still insists that they should only return on a voluntary basis.

Faced with the discontent of locals and intense pressure from the federal authorities to leave, many Chechen refugees feel they are increasingly unwelcome in Ingushetia.

"It's obvious that Ingushetia is too small and poor to solve our problems," said Lom-Ali Arsakhanov from Grozny. "Now that humanitarian aid flows have been redirected to Chechnya, we'd better go home. Some of us have not seen any aid here for months. I would be lying though if I told you I'm not scared of taking my family back there."

Some international aid donors, such as the World Food Programme, have also begun to retarget their funds to Chechnya itself.

Elianne Dutoit, the UN's assistant coordinator for humanitarian aid, told journalists in Ingushetia on February 6 that the UN has pledged more than 33 million US dollars to carry out various humanitarian programmes in Chechnya and neighbouring republics. She said only 40 per cent of these funds would go to Ingushetia.

Yet Chechen migrants say that the people of Ingushetia have cause to be grateful for their presence.

"When we first came to Ingushetia we had to live in a pigsty with no facilities at all, and pay 500 roubles a month for it," said Malika Yakhyaeva from the village of Tangi-Chu.

"With immense difficulty we found a flat for 100 dollars a month. Our landlord forged some papers saying he was housing us free of charge, and twice claimed financial aid from a Swiss development agency."

Baudi Dudayev, head of the Council of Forced Migrants, argues that the refugee crisis has in many ways been useful to Ingushetia.

"Humanitarian aid, federal subsidies and private investment by Chechens has transformed Ingushetia over the last three years. Living standards have gone up in Ingushetia has a lot do with the Chechens and I think we should get some thanks for that," said Dudayev.

Yakub Sultygov is deputy editor of Serdalo newspaper in Ingushetia. Freelance journalist Timur Aliev, based in Ingushetia, contributed to this article.