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North Caucasus Border Frustration
Expanded border zone in the North Caucasus harms local economy.
By Zurab Markhiev in Jeirakh and Bella Ksalova in Arkhyz (CRS No. 380 23-Feb-07)
Local people are furious about new restrictions on the movement of people in the mountainous border zone of the North Caucasus.
As part of an overall tightening of border controls across Russia, the government is making it harder to gain access to large areas of the country’s southern border in the Caucasus.
The director of Russia’s FSB counterintelligence service Nikolai Patrushev issued an order in March 2006 officially making the Jeirakh Gorge in the mountains of Ingushetia part of Russia’s frontier zone. It is a very sensitive issue for the small autonomous republic - the district comprises one quarter of its territory and all Ingush families originate from the area that has now been declared a border zone in the mountains. Access is now restricted to the area with its historic towers.
The FSB said this decision was made so as to improve security in border areas. However, human rights activists have expressed concern that the move marks a step backwards to Soviet times.
Lack of information has deepened anxiety about the changes. In Ingushetia, there was an angry reaction to a report published last month on the only independent Ingush website, ingushetiya.ru, saying that most of the border guards in the Jeirakh gorge are ethnic Ossetians.
People in Ingushetia started speculating that Jeirakh district might be transferred to neighbouring North Ossetia. Ingushetia and North Ossetia are already in dispute over the Prigorodny District and relations between the two peoples are uneasy.
However, Yury Stredinin, head of the border guards for Ingushetia, told IWPR that the information was inaccurate and that only four of the guards were Ossetians, while more than 60 were Ingush.
It took this IWPR correspondent, who was not officially registered in the district, a week to obtain permission to travel to Jeirakh district. Border guard chief Stredinin said that permits are issued within seven to ten days after an application is submitted.
A week later, IWPR was allowed to enter the special zone accompanied by a border department official and a press officer. They said their presence was necessary, as otherwise border guards and post commanders would not tell IWPR anything.
Little more than 2,500 people live in Jeirakh district. The local residents mostly earn a living from breeding cattle. Hunting also used to be very popular here, but both activities have been limited by all kinds of restrictions on cattle-pasturing and movement
Beslan Lyanov, deputy head of Jeirakh administration, told IWPR that he had good relations with the border guards, but had had constant problems with the federal 58th army, who had vandalised monuments and dumped dead bodies outside a mosque, saying they belonged to dead foreign mercenaries.
The district has another persistent problem - the landmines, which still occasionally kill straying cattle. There is confusion about the location of many mines, which have been planted over the last decade of conflict in neighbouring Chechnya. The military say that they are trying to deal with the problem, but there is little evidence of progress.
To the west of Ingushetia, in the autonomous republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, the population is bigger and the new border restrictions are badly hurting the local economy. The Dombai-Arkhyz tourist and recreation zone in areas of spectacular mountain scenery is now only accessible to tourists who have FSB permits.
Arkhyz is located in a basis at the foot of the Abishira-Akhuba ridge and is surrounded by a centuries-old pine forest. It has long been famous for its therapeutic air, blue mountain lakes, forests, peaks and the silver Sophia waterfalls. Lovers of active sports have come here to do mountaineering, rock-climbing, rafting, and horseback riding. Nowadays, however, you can only see all these beautiful sights if you have a special permit to visit the border zone.
"Of course, this has had an impact on the number of tourists coming here," complained Polina Pilyarova, deputy head of the Arkhyz village administration. "You can now move without permission only within the boundaries of Arkhyz municipality, and outside it you need a permit that you can receive only in [the capital of Karachai-Cherkessia] Cherkessk."
Rafting instructor Amin Chochuyev, 32, told IWPR that the tourist business in Arkhyz was “nothing” compared to previous years. “More than a hundred tourists a week came here in the middle of the season to devote themselves to rafting in 2005, and this figure went down two and a half times in the same period of 2006,” he said.
"People like to come here to relax after the bustle and work in cities but they won't let them in now,” said Bakhmut Khachirov, 46, who has spent all his life in the village of Arkhyz. “But we live off serving these people. Our women sell them knitted products and conserved mushrooms or pine cones. There is no other work here.
“And that’s not the end of it. I have spent my whole life here but now I have to carry my passport with me everywhere. It means that I can’t walk around my native village without my passport."
Rashid Bairamukov, a spokesman for the border guards in Karachai-Cherkessia, said that the new restrictions in no way infringed Russian citizens’ constitutional rights or freedom of movement.
Bairamukov told IWPR, “The procedure of issuing a permit takes from three hours to three days, depending on the number of applications submitted. This means that we are issuing them in accordance with the law. You just have to get down to planning your permit and holidays in general in advance and to submit an application. Then you can enjoy your holiday.”
Mukhadin Aubekov, an official with the local ministry of tourism, insisted to IWPR that the reforms were “not a disaster”.
“Of course you can understand the local residents, but the rules of the border regime are being established first and foremost according to the federal law,” he said. “There are, of course, negative repercussions but we have already attracted some investment companies and tourist firms. We are trying to tell visiting tourists about the new rules and publicize them."
However, a local resident of Karachai-Cherkessia, Svetlana Danilenko, 26, said she could no longer be bothered to go to the mountains, as she used to with her friends and they had changed their holiday plans this year.
"You have to spend several days rushing around, so we gave up on the idea. We need a holiday to have some rest, not to rush around chasing after documents and getting stressed. So we decided to go to Sochi instead," she said.
Zurab Makhriev is a correspondent with REGNUM news agency in Ingushetia; Bella Ksalova is a correspondent with Abazashta and Vesti Gor newspapers in Karachai-Cherkessia.