In 15-19 centuries the political system in Ossetia had a lot of democratic elements. Originating from Greek roots, “democracy” translates as “people’s rule” or “power of people”. Power in every civil entity and in a whole society belonged to people. A person having his own land and private household, “uazdan” (individual, citizen – in Ossetian) was independent and took an active part in politics. His civil right was protected by the people’s court and national meetings.
Nyhas (national meeting – in Ossetian) was the highest body of administration in Ossetia. The word “Nyhas” was very closely related to the ancient Russian “Sobor“ and “Veche” and also has another translation in Ossetian which is “conversation”. Originated from verb nyhashyn (connect, join – in Ossetian), Nyhas brought people together and symbolized unity.
Ossetian Nyhas is a multilevel system of self-governing bodies. Every man could attend a family and village Nyhas, and sometimes women, being known for their wisdom and life experience, were also allowed. In general, the right of the vote belonged to the head of the family. The age of the head wasn’t very critical, even a youth was able to represent the interests of the family if his elders were absent or became decrepit. Family Nyhas usually had preliminarily discussed questions that were supposed to be brought up by village Nyhas.
Chosen representatives participated in national meetings of higher levels. Village Nyhases promoted candidates for the united Nyhas of their kin. Three united kin Nyhases elected deputies for the Nyhas of civil commune. Finally the Nyhas of civil communities sent deputies for the supreme Nyhas of a whole society, which was named Styr Nyhas – the great national meeting.
With an agreement between societies, the Styr Nyhas could have gathered all of Ossetia, but this rarely happened – usually in the case of war or necessary international discussions.
Not everyone was entrusted to represent the interests of the nation. The honor of a deputy’s village and family depended upon his nobility and responsibility. That is why only the wisest and most worthy people, who passed through the democratic elections many times, reached the high levels of the national meeting.
Nyhas of the whole society considered cases of special importance: joining the coalitions, declaration of war and conclusion of peace. Moreover, Nyhas was a legislative body, which affirmed general rules of common law. During the war, they designated commanders; in the time of peace, they appointed administrators to execute accepted decisions.
Some of the civil communities had sole elected leaders. For example, Digor’s commune had such a leader named “Uoli”. Duties that the Nyhas assigned to Uoli were executed for free and on a voluntary basis. Military and political power was transferred to elected persons for a limited period of time. Strictly supervised by the Nyhas, authorities had to report back for their actions. In some cases, when the Nyhas engaged to serve external people, they were paid.
The Village Nyhas was mostly concerned with the current questions of the village community: the order of using the forest or pasture and the terms of fieldwork. The executives for carrying out traditional holidays in common sanctuary and group leaders for public work (for example, building a bridge or road maintenance) were also appointed by the village Nyhas. Other tasks accomplished by the national meeting of a village included guarding the village and its land plots, sharing the common expenses of the households, considering requests of residence by strangers, etc. For any violation of its decisions Nyhas could banish the guilty or declare a boycott against them.
Ossetians did not only name the national meeting Nyhas, but also the place where this meeting was actually held. For example, the place where Alagirians (Alagir- city in Ossetia) gathered in a national meeting was still named the Nyhas. In every village there was a special place for the Nyhas; some communes built spacious rooms, others created wide sheds, but generally the meeting was held under the open sky. Elders usually sat on stone-made benches arranged in the form of an amphitheatre while youth stood surrounding them.
Meetings were summoned by heralds and in the same way decisions were announced. An obligatory norm of behavior on the Nyhas was a restraint, so even conflict questions were discussed in a quiet manner. Every deputy had the right to speak; however, at first the members of the meeting listened to the authoritative elders. Following this, a beforehand discussion took place: deputies spoke amongst each other, shared their point of view and tried to get a common opinion. When this could not be achieved, the deputies were divided into groups and a debate followed. A vote was taken after everyone had a say. Those members who were against the decision, stood on the opposite side to the members who were for the matter and a count was made.
The national meeting was not only the administrative body, but also an irreplaceable school of morale, oratory, well-mannered, economic and political experience. Village men came to the Nyhas every evening. They told their stories about hunting, journeys and everyday life; shared their problems with each other to get advice from villagers. A life of an Ossetian man was public; everybody knew his honor and shame, achievements and losses. Agreeing or reproaching the actions of his members, the Nyhas built an opinion of the community. Because the general rule of the meeting was absolute publicity, even a little suspicion in dishonest affairs was right away heard by the public and judged. Such open discussions made gossip and intrigues impossible. Nobody had the right to enter into the private life of an Ossetian and his relationships with his family.
Performing many functions in the life of Ossetians, the Nyhas was also an information center for the villagers. All news was delivered here, as well as messengers from nearest and farthest neighbors. Those who arrived from traveling told about the things they saw and heard in other countries.
Different kinds of national culture were widely represented in the Nyhas. Remembering the past, elders transferred the spoken national history to the youth. Young men demonstrated the art of a warrior to the people at the meeting– horse riding and sword mastering skills. At times, sport games and competitions took place. Moreover, the best singers and speakers performed on the meeting. The Nyhas gave them a task to write a song in honor of a national hero and then listened when it was completed.
Ossetians also had a court named “Tarhon” and worked under the rules and regulations created by the Nyhas.
In certain cases, such as an offence against the commune or violation of common moral, the national meeting was judging by itself, but for the investigation of private disputes and crimes Ossetians used the intermediary court.
Suspects, as well as victims, usually came out against each other on the court with their relatives. They chose the committee of judges from the wise and experienced masters of law with agreement between both sides. As an obligation, the judge must have been a wazhdan from a strong and respected family. It was a dangerous occupation because, people who disagreed with the decision could get avenged.
By the ancient rule, Ossetians elected 3 to 9 judges – an equal number from each kin of social commune. The same as at the Nyhas, only the decision supported by representatives of all 3 kinds was legal. After that, the final word was given to the court members who by birth belonged to the kin of judges and priests, and were able to confirm or refuse the decision of the judges.
Explaining his complaint, the plaintiff had spoken first, and then the court listened to the defendant. After they finished, the relatives attending from both sides also got into debates. Ossetian court mainly concentrated on the facts of a crime and material evidences and less attention were paid to the witness’ statements. For example, in case of injury, an expertise was made with a doctors’ participation. When circumstances of a case became clear, judges tried to reconcile the opponents; it was the most important objective of an intermediate court. However, if reconciliation was impossible, the judges announced their decision. Loss compensation, penalty fee, and two conditions were always included in the verdict.
The first condition was sworn. The one who won the case together with guarantors from his family were held responsible to swear in a sanctuary or at the grave of their ancestors. Because, Ossetians considered perjury as great sin, refusal to swear was a true sign of guilt. For example, if the plaintiff and his family refused to swear, the defendant became free of punishment.
Another obligatory condition was a reconciliation fare made by the family of the guilty. Sitting together by one table, opponents prayed to God and ended their conflict.
Sometimes, in order to prove that the defendant is not guilty, the court tested him in water or in fire. The people who didn’t get burned when going through the fire, and didn’t sink when thrown into a rapid river were justified. Also, there was a known magic test. The suspect must have stepped over the burning wolf’s tendons – Ossetians believed that the liar would become ill thereafter.
In certain cases, when somebody was killed and if his relatives demanded, one of them could have been appointed by the court to a duel with the guilty. There were two kinds of duels. In the first one, the killer was standing at a point of a gunshot, and the shooter was chosen by fate. In the second one – duel with knifes; the opponents fought blindfolded.
Special places for court sessions were located near sanctuaries. There were law experts in every commune. These people could also be invited to other communes. Judges from Nar’s civil commune (Nar –a village in Ossetia) of the Tuallag community were well known in all parts of Ossetia for their wisdom and justice. But, the most respected were judges from Dagom (Dagom – a village in Ossetia). The Supreme Court of Ossetia was located in the village of Alagir commune Dagom. People from the farthest canyons went there to resolve their hopelessly complicated cases or to cancel unfair decisions. Even outlanders, who lost hope in justice at home, asked for Dagoms’ help.
Source: "Ossetia and Ossetians" by K.Chelakhsaty
Translated from Russian by Soslan Cheldiev