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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

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Ethnic leaders across southern Russia have accused the Kremlin of building a new "tsarist" empire that rides roughshod over the rights of its minority peoples. Delegates at the recent Congress of Repressed Peoples concluded the Russian government has failed to honor a 1991 law to protect their rights. And they threatened to appeal to international human rights organizations unless urgent action was taken to implement the legislation.

Held in the Ingush town of Magas, the Congress of Repressed Peoples brought together representatives from the Balkar, Ingush and Chechen peoples as well as leaders of the Meskhetian, Crimean Tartar, Korean and German communities of Russia.

All these groups suffered at the hands of the Stalinist government which, in 1944, accused ethnic minorities from Ukraine and the North Caucasus of collaborating with the Nazis and deported them en masse to Central Asia.

Although the repressed peoples were rehabilitated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957 and allowed to return home, many found their former homes and territories occupied by other ethnic groups. The law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples passed by Boris Yeltsin's government in April 1991 was aimed at redressing the balance.

However, Yeltsin's failure to implement the letter of the law undoubtedly exacerbated the ethnic violence in Dagestan, Chechnya and North Ossetia (which was the first republic to see armed conflict in 1992) that rages out of control to this day.

The congress was opened by Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, who told delegates the event had met with strong opposition not just from Russian authorities but also from local administrations in Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. A Karachai delegation had been detained in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria then sent back to Cherkessk while the Kalmyk delegates had been refused permission to make the trip at all.

"The attitude of the federal authorities to the congress is indicative of their attitude to the problems of repressed peoples as a whole," Aushev said.

The Moscow government was represented at the congress by Ruslan Tatiev, a specialist on the Ingush-Ossetian conflict, and Vitaly Smirnov, head of the Directorate for the Repatriation of Refugees.

The congress was organized around two lectures. The first, titled "The 10th Anniversary of the Federal Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples," was read by Ruslan Pliev, chairman of the Ingush People's Assembly. The second — "From the Russian Empire and the U.S.S.R. to the Russian Federation" — was presented by Svetlana Alieva, an ethnic Balkar and a member of the International Human Rights Assembly.

Pliev described the 1991 law as "a step forward" but the government's failure to implement it as "two steps back." He blamed the failure of the legislation on the "criminal inactivity" of the federal authorities, the resistance of local regimes and the absence of a national policy in the Russian Federation.

Pliev focused on current relations between North Ossetia and Ingushetia where 30,000 Ingush refugees have been waiting for eight years to return to their homes in the Prigorodny region. "The Ingush people will always achieve their goals by peaceful political means," said Pliev. "And they continue to fight for the law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples together with other repressed peoples across the federation."

Alieva said the Kremlin was intent on creating an empire in the tsarist mould — "an empire that became a prison for entire peoples," she added. Alieva called on the delegates to demand the federal authorities implement all the articles of the 1991 law.

These lectures sparked a series of heated representations from the floor. Rasul Djappuev, chairman of the State Council of Balkaria, claimed that not only had the Balkars been refused the right to establish an autonomous republic in the early 1990s, but they had also been unable to reclaim territories appropriated after the deportations of 1944.

Representatives from Meskhetian peoples said they had been prevented from returning to their ethnic homelands in Georgia after the deportations. And the Crimean Tatars who managed to return home after 191,000 were deported to the Urals and Uzbekistan in 1944 complained of constant civil rights abuses by Ukrainian authorities.

Gugo Vormsbekher, vice president of Russia's German community, told delegates that more than 2 million Germans left Russia after the Kremlin refused to grant them an ethnic republic in Povolzhya.

At the end of the congress, delegates voted to make a series of official appeals to President Vladimir Putin, the State Duma and the Russian media. The appeals focused on the need to review the implementation of the 1991 law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples and to arrange meetings between ethnic leaders and government ministers. They also appealed to the federal government to finance the repatriation of the Crimean Tartars and the Meskhetians to their historic homelands and to restore their civil rights as citizens of Ukraine and Georgia, respectively.

An official statement concluded, "Civil accord and the friendship of the Russian peoples are our greatest concern. We believe that the full restoration of the rights and freedoms of the repressed peoples will lay down a solid foundation for this friendship as well as for the development and prosperity of our federal state."

Alexander Dzadziev is an independent journalist based in North Ossetia. Erik Batuev is a Moscow-based expert on post-Soviet conflicts. They contributed this comment to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.