It was Friday night at the Assa. That’s the top hotel in Ingushetia, a republic in Russia’s heavily Islamic Caucasus region.
There were two tables of visiting journalists. And in one corner, at a third table: six ethnic Russian men, eating dinner and quietly nursing their vodkas. Something did not add up. Russian men, Friday night, vodka — and quiet?
Suddenly, three Ingush men in full camouflage and carrying automatic weapons swaggered through the restaurant door.
One man’s face was fully masked with a black wool balaclava. Russians call this hat a “racketyorka,” because they are favored by racketeers.
Our armed guards sprung into action.
Tense negotiations in Ingush ensued.
The restaurant is being closed, we were told, for serving alcohol.
There are bad men who cruise the city at night, we were told. The hotel could be shot up for serving alcohol. It is haram, forbidden.
I made sympathetic noises, and deftly moved my table’s bottle of Moldovan red wine to the floor.
The Russians, who as locals knew the rules better than we out-of-towners, sheepishly got up, paid their bill, put on their fur hats and overcoats, and disappeared into the winter night.
Once they were gone, the waitress hurried over to explain that the restaurant was not really closing. Local rules dictate that the hotel can only serve alcohol to registered guests, not to locals who came in off the street.
In this corner of Russia, and in neighboring Chechnya and Dagestan, Russian law is stepping aside in face of an Islamic revival.
In Ingushetia, a bombing campaign has restricted alcohol sales to a handful of stores that operate behind bomb barriers.
Diana Markosian, the VOA Moscow producer, attended a wedding Saturday night in Ingushetia where the dancing went on until 3 am. But the refreshments would have been appropriate for a Cub Scout meeting in suburban America.
Thursday night, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the republic’s president, offered a dinner for visiting foreign correspondents. The banquet table was dominated by large boxes of fruit juice.
Although a few underground speakeasies exist in Ingushetia, locals who want to drink safely drive half an hour to the west, to Vladikavkaz, capital of Northern Ossetia, a predominantly Christian republic.
In face of this rapid Islamisation of the three ‘Green Republics’ of the Caucasus – Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan – the ethnic Russian population has dropped to less than one percent.
The Russians have retreated to two historically Christian strongholds in the southern Caucasus – Stavropol and Northern Ossetia.
Many have settled in Vladikavkaz, which means Ruler of the Caucasus. Founded in 1784, this fortress city garrisoned czarist troops who ultimately imposed Russian rule over the Islamic populations of the Caucasus.
Now, as evidenced by the alcohol divide, the cultural and religious fault lines in the Caucasus are reverting to where they were in the days of Catherine the Great.