Despite the efforts of the Russian government and the international community, more than 150,000 people remain displaced in Russia more than a decade after the beginning of armed conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes as a result of an inter-ethnic conflict in North Ossetia in 1992 and separatist conflicts in Chechnya which started in 1994 and again in 1999. While large-scale warfare has ended, hostilities continue between government forces and separatist rebels in Chechnya, and an air of mistrust between Ingush and Ossetians prevails in North Ossetia. In the absence of political resolutions to the conflicts, the security situation has deteriorated in other parts of the North Caucasus and human rights abuses including abductions and enforced disappearances persist in the region.

The permanent settlement of internally displaced people (IDPs) has become a priority for the governments in Chechnya and North Ossetia. The Chechen government has been campaigning for the return of displaced people to the republic for some time, and in mid-2007 is also in the process of closing collective accommodation centres where many returnees had been housed. People leaving the centres have been either offered permanent shelter or asked to return to their original areas of residence. However, according to some IDPs, their wishes have not always been considered and in some instances, government officials have threatened to use force to evacuate residents of the centres.

In North Ossetia, many IDPs have been able to return home, but some of the 10,000 people still displaced have been blocked from moving back to their villages by district court decisions defining the areas as “water conservation zones”. Many IDPs from North Ossetia who could not return moved to a new government-established village where the government allocated land plots and humanitarian agencies provided temporary housing. Some of the displaced who refused to resettle and insisted on returning to their former place of residence were forcibly resettled to this new village.

Government land and housing allocation, as well as housing construction by humanitarian organisations and by IDPs themselves, are having an impact on internal displacement in Russia, but compensation schemes have failed to resolve the housing crisis. More time is needed to evaluate whether these initiatives will be sufficient to meet the needs of returnees and resettlers from Chechnya and North Ossetia.

Background to displacement

Internal displacement in Russia has largely resulted from armed violence and conflicts in two south-western republics, Chechnya and North Ossetia. Over ten years after the beginning of these conflicts, more than 150,000 people remain internally displaced (UNHCR, 20 June 2007).

In Chechnya, two rounds of armed conflict between rebels and government troops caused more than 600,000 people to flee their homes (IDMC / Memorial, 10 October 2006). Federal troops first entered Chechnya in 1994 to quash the republic’s independence movement, and withdrew in 1996 after President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov signed a ceasefire agreement. However, in 1999, armed separatists from Chechnya went to the neighbouring republic of Dagestan to support a call to create an independent Islamic state. In response to this and other destabilising events, the federal government sent troops back to Chechnya and fullscale war ensued. This second conflict in Chechnya was especially brutal, with both government and rebel forces guilty of indiscriminate attacks, arbitrary arrest, torture and inhumane treatment of suspected combatants and civilians alike (Grouping of Russian NGOs, November 2006). Despite Russian claims that the situation in the North Caucasus has normalised, and statements by the Chechen resistance of readiness for talks, the conflict is still not resolved and hostilities continue (Grouping of Russian NGOs, November 2006; RFE / RL, 14 July 2006; Memorial, 31 July 2006).

A briefer conflict in North Ossetia also caused significant internal displacement in 1992, when a territorial dispute over the status of Prigorodny district escalated into armed inter-ethnic confrontation between the Ingush and Ossetians. The eastern part of Prigorodny district had been within Ingushetia until 1944, when the Ingush and other ethnic groups were deported to Central Asia. The district was soon thereafter ceded to North Ossetia and has remained within North Ossetia ever since. Nevertheless, the Ingush continued to demand that the territory be returned to them, and a 1991 federal law allowing for the return of territory to peoples repressed under Stalin provided a catalyst for the conflict. Although the conflict only lasted a week, about 500 people were killed and up to 64,000 ethnic Ingush and Ossetians were displaced (HRW, May 1996). Many Ingush have since returned to their original place of residence in Prigorodny district and are living side by side with returned Ossetians, but the return process has met a number of obstacles (Open Democracy, 7 September 2004). The conflict remains unresolved and a climate of mistrust between the two groups prevails.

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