Mass Protest in Alania Square in the Republic of Ingushetia (credit).
► An attempt to demarcate the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia has provoked mass protests in Ingushetia, Russia's smallest region. Unusually for Russia, part of the Ingush elite has joined the protesters. So far, the rallies have been generally peaceful, but organizers and participants alike face a growing threat of harassment and legal prosecution. For the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the risk is that he will personally incur the Kremlin's anger for failing to maintain stability in his republic.
In late September, the leaders of two North Caucasus regions, Chechnya and Ingushetia, signed an agreement on the demarcation of the administrative border between their two territories. In Ingushetia, this caused mass discontent and protest rallies in the Ingush capital, Magas.
On October 16, the rally organizers met with the Russian President’s Envoy and a high-ranking member of the President’s Administration in Pyatigorsk in southern Russia. After hearing from the President’s Envoy that the law on the border had come into force and that the only way to dispute it would be to try to override it in court, the organizers walked out of the meeting. Knowing that an attempt to override in court a decision endorsed at the federal level was doomed to failure, and seeking to prevent escalation, they decided that people should go home and the rally would reconvene on October 31 (a mass demonstration on that day has been sanctioned by the Ingush authorities). On October 30, the activists plan to gather a World Congress of the Ingush People to discuss the current situation.
The demonstrators went home and for a while the capital city of Magas quieted down. Last week, the situation grew turbulent again: on the evening of Friday, October 19, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov paid an unexpected visit to the village of Surkhakhi in Ingushetia. Reportedly accompanied by dozens of armed men, he made his way to the house of Ingush elder Mukhazhir Nalgiev, who had previously, during a rally in Magas made a tough—and arguably offensive—speech critical of Kadyrov and his clan Benoi during the rally in Magas. News of Kadyrov’s arrival spread quickly: according to various reports, within half an hour over 1,000 Ingush men had arrived in Surkhakhi to defend the elder.
Fortunately, Kadyrov abstained from confrontational rhetoric and discussed with the Ingush elder both the latter’s offensive words and Kadyrov’s own threats against the Ingush activists. Subsequently, the men reportedly issued mutual apologies and drank tea together. Kadyrov also prayed in the local mosque and, disclaiming all personal responsibility, blamed the border agreement on Ingush leader Yunus-bek Yevkurov, who reportedly volunteered to give those lands to Chechnya. The situation was very tense, but thus far appears to have been resolved peacefully. The following day, another Ingush elder was allegedly pressured to apologize to Kadyrov for his strong words about the Chechens. This sparked an outpouring of commentary on Ingush social media, and, in the last few days, ethnic tensions have visibly escalated. Maria Lipman discusses with Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya the causes of the protests in Ingushetia and the risks associated with lasting discontent.
Protesters in Magas. The sign reads, “Land, land, and one more time, land!!!”
Maria Lipman: Would you describe this conflict as one between Chechnya and Ingushetia or is this not the right way to think about it?
Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya: There are two aspects to this conflict: the territorial dispute between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and the internal political conflict in Ingushetia between the street protesters in the capital, Magas, and parts of the Ingush elite, on the one hand, and their own government, on the other.
Lipman: What are these grievances?
Sokiryanskaya: They believe that the government, without informing the people, secretly signed a law on the border that cuts off part of Ingush territory and gives it to Chechnya.
Lipman: Do you think these claims are justified?
Sokiryanskaya: The criticism relating to the law being signed in secret and without consulting the people of Ingushetia is absolutely fair. This has been done with an amazing lack of respect for Ingushetia’s citizens. As for the territorial claims, this is an intricate matter.
"The criticism relating to the law being signed in secret and without consulting the people of Ingushetia is absolutely fair. This has been done with an amazing lack of respect for Ingushetia’s citizens.
Two weeks ago, I attended Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s meeting with civil society leaders. Yevkurov displayed maps and explained which territory would be handed over to Chechnya. He insisted that Ingushetia would also gain a territory of equal size—that this is a fair, “meter-by-meter” exchange. Apart from small swaps, the border would run along the line that has evolved over the past 25 years. There is a lot of discussion that the territory is being transferred to Chechnya because it is rich in oil resources. Yevkurov confirmed that there is indeed oil in that territory, but it would require additional prospecting and investment. Moreover, he said, of the 19 functioning wells, 16 would remain in Ingushetia and 3 would be handed over to Chechnya. He sounded pretty convincing.
But the protesters did not trust Yevkurov. They accused him of hiding the truth. Yevkurov then rolled back his “meter-by-meter” claim and began to talk about a “mistake” made back in 2009, when both Chechnya and Ingushetia passed laws on municipalities. According to Yevkurov, as a result of that “mistake” Ingushetia appropriated some Chechen lands, and now it is giving them back. This sounded incoherent and further undermined trust in Yevkurov's words. Meanwhile, Chechen activists and historians claimed that this border was beneficial for the Ingush and, moreover, that Chechens were entitled to more.
It is difficult to make an independent judgment on the nature of the deal, because there is no clarity regarding which territories are being swapped. The agreement itself consists of a short text and a long table with geographical coordinates. It is absolutely unintelligible to a layman. And this lack of clarity has exacerbated concerns and fears.
"Chechen activists and historians claimed that this border was beneficial for the Ingush and, moreover, that Chechens were entitled to more."
Lipman: Why this sudden need to demarcate the border? What lies beneath: the administrative, political interests of the center? Do both leaders want a demarcation? Border issues are always highly sensitive; besides, these two republics have lived with uncertain borders for 26 years, ever since the Soviet Autonomous Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia divided into two republics. So why demarcate the border now?
Sokiryanskaya: Theoretically, demarcating the border is the right thing to do, since Ramzan Kadyrov made his first territorial claims on Ingushetia before he was even officially appointed president in 2007. Since then, mutual claims and skirmishes at the border have been routine. The absence of a border has been a destabilizing factor, particularly because Chechnya is currently headed by a very ambitious and expansionist leader with great lobbying capacity in Moscow. I do not think the federal center would even remember that there was not a clearly demarcated administrative border between these two regions if not for pressure from Chechnya. But unless a clear border is drawn, there will always be the preconditions for speculations about territorial claims.
Lipman: The talks were held between the two leaders and a representative of the center, correct?
Sokiryanskaya: Yes. It is not entirely clear at what level this decision was made, whether the Kremlin was fully aware of what it was doing, and whether it calculated the possible consequences.
When I heard that the process of demarcation had been launched, my first reaction was consternation and amazement: why would the Kremlin want to create such problems for itself now? The administrative borders in the North Caucasus have not been changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a region as complicated as the North Caucasus, with its colonial and Soviet past—when borders were repeatedly and arbitrarily redrawn—if one were to start moving the border now… The consequences could be very grave: the problems would snowball, people would mobilize across the region. In the North Caucasus, nearly all neighboring peoples have mutual territorial claims or land dispute.
Lipman: You seem to say that, on the one hand, it is necessary to demarcate the border because otherwise conflicts and skirmishes will continue. But you also seem to say that an attempt to draw a border will inevitably lead to aggravation and cause problems to snowball. There is evidently a contradiction here. Maybe it would still be better not to make any new moves?
Sokiryanskaya: It probably would be better not to make any moves, were it not for continuous pressure and even outright provocations from Chechnya. Since there are provocations and speculations on this topic, borders should be demarcated no matter how complicated this might be. But this process calls for transparency and meticulous, long-term consultations with citizens.
"It probably would be better not to make any moves, were it not for continuous pressure and even outright provocations from Chechnya."
This is not the first time that borders have been established in the Caucasus despite a conflict. Indeed, this happened in the not-too-distant past: for instance, in the dispute between the Ossetians and the Ingush over the status of the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia.
This territory was previously inhabited by the Ingush, who considered it the cradle of their nation. In 1944, on Stalin’s orders, the Ingush were deported, this territory was handed over to North Ossetia, and Ossetians and Russians were resettled into Ingush homes. In 1956, the Ingush began returning to their homeland, but neither their homes nor the territory itself was returned to them. According to the 1991 Law on Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples, the Ingush were granted the right of “territorial rehabilitation,” which implied that Prigorodny district, where they had lived before the 1944 deportation, had to be returned to them.
The law, however, failed to define a mechanism of regulating the handover, and in late October 1992 an all-out inter-ethnic war broke out in Prigorodny district. Federal troops separated the warring parties and then sided with the Ossetians. As a result, the Ingush were expelled en masse from the disputed territory.
In 1995, in the aftermath of that conflict, Ruslan Aushev, the first president of Ingushetia, signed an agreement with the then-leader of North Ossetia, Akhsarbek Galazov, in which he recognized the territorial integrity of neighboring North Ossetia. Aushev thought this was a prerequisite for returning the displaced Ingush to their villages in Prigorodny district. The agreement was a highly sensitive move, but Aushev had convened a Congress of the Ingush People and held long-term consultations. The agreement caused significant discontent, but Aushev was an elected and legitimate leader who enjoyed the support of a majority, and this enabled him to make this unpopular move.
Lipman: Aushev recently went to Magas to address the Ingush people who gathered in the square. He gave a speech in which he recollected the way in which the conflict with North Ossetia was resolved. He emphasized what you have been talking about—that he had consulted with the people before signing that agreement. Would you agree that Aushev is a unique leader who still enjoys respect and authority in Ingushetia, even though it has been a long time since he was president? Back then, there was not such a disparity in political weight between the leaders of Chechnya and Ingushetia. Do you agree with my description of Aushev and would you say a few words about the current disparity between the leaders of the two regions?
Ruslan Aushev, former leader of Ingushetia, addresses the rally in Magas.
Sokiryanskaya: Ruslan Aushev is definitely special. This time, he probably came to Ingushetia on his own initiative; he always does this whenever serious problems emerge in his republic. As for the respective political weights of Chechnya and Ingushetia, the situation is clearly very different today from what it was at the time of Aushev's presidency. Back then, the Chechen republic was first in a state of de facto independence and dealing with acute internal challenges and grave antagonism with Moscow, and subsequently in a state of war.
But if we compare Ingushetia and North Ossetia of the 1990s, when the abovementioned agreement was signed, the latter's position vis-a-vis the federal center has always been stronger. North Ossetia is Russia’s “stronghold” in the North Caucasus; it is the only Christian Orthodox ethnic republic in the region. This is why the Ossetian narrative on the conflict with Ingushetia appeared more persuasive to the Kremlin and was accepted as the official one.
"North Ossetia is Russia’s “stronghold” in the North Caucasus; it is the only Christian Orthodox ethnic republic in the region."
Lipman: How would you describe the current disparity between Chechnya and Ingushetia, economically and vis-a-vis the center?
Sokiryanskaya: To begin with, Chechnya is much larger—its population is over one million people. The population of Ingushetia is half the size; it is the smallest republic of the North Caucasus and the smallest of the Russian regions. And of course, in political weight Ramzan Kadyrov surpasses any other leader in the North Caucasus.
No other region has its own security forces de facto subordinated to the head of the republic rather than to the federal Interior forces. Nowhere else is there de facto dual taxation: the leadership of the republic either collects a percentage of incomes or levies an informal “tax” on the Chechen people that replenishes its own informal budget. Chechnya is a state within the state. Ramzan Kadyrov has very close relations with Vladimir Putin; he has carte blanche from the Kremlin and enjoys full impunity. No other regional leader in Russia has anything of the sort.
Meanwhile, Ingushetia is one of the poorest Russian regions. It has a high birthrate and it is a divided nation: part of its population lives in North Ossetia, where the Ingush are treated as second-rate citizens and therefore have to draw on health care, education, and employment in Ingushetia. The Ingush people have lost their shared capital cities twice since the collapse of the USSR, first Vladikavkaz in 1992 and then Grozny after the Chechen wars. Both cities used to be urban centers for the Ingush. Today they cannot live in Vladikavkaz because of the residual hostility of the Ossetians. They have likewise moved out of Grozny, mostly fleeing the two consecutive wars, but also feeling uncomfortable in this territory, which has evolved into a mostly monoethnic republic.
Yunusbek Yevkurov, the head of Ingushetia.
For about ten years, Kadyrov has sought—not entirely successfully—to impose his will on Yevkurov. They had differences on all kinds of issues, first and foremost on counter-insurgency and religious policy. Yevkurov takes much subtler and softer approaches. Kadyrov says openly on Chechen TV that he will not tolerate even a shadow of fundamentalism in his land. He refers to Salafis as “shaitans” (devils) and says they must be killed. Meanwhile, Yevkurov demands that the government treat all strains of Islam equally. He has called for bringing Salafi mosques under the auspices of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Ingushetia and maintaining a dialog with their leaders.
"In Ingushetia, nobody is persecuted for sporting a beard or short pants, whereas in Chechnya raids against people with these apparent features of Salafism are common."
In Ingushetia, nobody is persecuted for sporting a beard or short pants, whereas in Chechnya raids against people with these apparent features of Salafism are common. In Chechnya, the policy against local insurgents is either extermination or long-term incarceration. Meanwhile, in Ingushetia a special commission has been established to rehabilitate fighters; individuals who wish to cease their violent activity may turn to this commission, asking for lenient treatment or exemption from the criminal liability stipulated by law for repentant fighters. After a special procedure in which the commission evaluates all the circumstances of the ex-fighter's case, he is usually granted leniency. Yevkurov has encouraged voluntary surrender: he once entered a house blocked by the special forces and persuaded the young insurgent inside the surrounded building to walk out. Yevkurov then handed him over to his mother. His approaches and leadership style are very different from Kadyrov’s, and this has annoyed Kadyrov a great deal.
Yevkurov and Kadyrov meet to discuss the border dispute (credit).
Lipman: Talking about Yevkurov’s “soft approach,” it is noteworthy that in Magas people have taken to the streets protesting against their leadership’s decision to demarcate the border, and yet they have not been roughed up by the police nor dissolved. They are allowed to stay in the square day after day, and so far this protest has been peaceful. I saw a video from the square that shows mass solidarity, with people bringing food to the protesters and otherwise supporting them, which is pretty unusual for any Russian region. It seems that in this respect, Ingushetia looks better than not only Chechnya, but almost any region of the Russian Federation.
Sokiryanskaya: I fully agree. It is quite unprecedented. I think there has not been any other rally during Putin’s presidency in which part of the elite—I’m talking about the Constitutional court and many MPs—has sided with the protesters. Some reports state that Ingush special forces refused to dissolve the rally. Moreover, they allegedly blocked their colleagues from other regions brought over to Ingushetia and said they would ensure security themselves. This may or may not be true, but we saw amazing footage in which law-enforcers and protesters prayed together and protesters treated servicemen to homemade food.
I spoke with participants of the very first protest rally the same day the agreement was signed. There were just a few dozen young people who came to demand that they be told what exactly had been agreed. They were blocked by security forces. One of the protesters told me that at some point special forces began to push the crowd, and one of the demonstrators shouted, ”Go ahead, shoot!” And a special force officer blinked behind his mask and ran away. Others allegedly had tears in their eyes. At the same time, it is quite clear that there was no order to disperse the rally by force. Had there been such an order, the authorities would have found a way to implement it.
Lipman: Initially, the decision on demarcation was made just by the two leaders and mediated by Putin’s plenipotentiary representative in the North Caucasus, correct? Has the Ingush parliament also made its own decision?
Sokiryanskaya: The parliament was to vote on the draft law on October 4. Yevkurov announced that the parliament had ratified it. However, after the session, some of the MPs came out and told the protesters that 17 out of 24 deputies had voted against and that the results had been falsified. The attempt to hold another vote failed: there was no quorum because some of the deputies did not come.
Lipman: My two final questions are about the risks. How do you expect this situation to evolve? You have briefly mentioned the risk of political destabilization—there seems to be a risk for Yevkurov personally, even though so far he has acted wisely and cautiously. My second question is about another risk—that this conflict might evolve into an inter-ethnic one. I noticed that in his address to the people Aushev uses the word Vainakh, a term that applies to both Chechens and Ingush, maybe as an attempt to emphasize that these two nations are united, not divided? Is there a risk that the current discontent with the leader of Ingushetia for having secretly agreed to demarcate the border might escalate into a full-fledged ethnic conflict between the Chechens and the Ingush?
"The Kremlin may take a pause and then replace Yevkurov in a few months. He is also facing risks from his own society: a sizable proportion of Ingush citizens share negative sentiments toward him."
Sokiryanskaya: There is a serious risk for Yevkurov. The Kremlin does not like mass protests, especially when government institutions that seemed completely loyal take the side of the protesters. The Kremlin may take a pause and then replace Yevkurov in a few months. He is also facing risks from his own society: a sizable proportion of Ingush citizens share negative sentiments toward him.
We cannot rule out that force will eventually be used to disperse the protesters. If this happens, it would most likely involve police units from outside Ingushetia. This means high risks for all the protesters: the organizers, participants, law enforcement, and civil servants. They are already being threatened with losing their jobs. The organizers are likely to be harassed and even legally prosecuted. I saw photos of buses without license plates parked at the rally; those inside the buses were filming everything that was going on, to be thoroughly analyzed afterward. Repressions will follow.
I also do not rule out that there may be extrajudicial measures taken by the Chechen side—the authorities in Grozny are watching the developments in Magas very carefully. The conflict started as one between the Ingush people and the Ingush government. But the Chechen government has been constantly looming in the background. Kadyrov already made public threats to the activists and we witnessed his surprise visit to Surkhakhi, which resulted in the mobilization of the Ingush youth, so I believe the risk of pressure from Chechnya is fairly high.
"The Ingush feel deeply insulted because the disputed lands—which they vehemently believe are theirs—have been taken from them using Kadyrov’s unprecedented political weight."
As for the risk of an inter-ethnic conflict, the current tensions have of course had a deleterious effect on relations between Chechens and Ingush. Instances of mutual offenses and provocations are growing. Many Chechens believe that the rally in Magas is an anti-Chechen one, that the Ingush could only come together on anti-Chechen grounds, and that the Ingush have taken advantage of the current situation, in which Chechens find themselves severely suppressed by their government and unable to stand up for their interests. Meanwhile, the Ingush feel deeply insulted because the disputed lands—which they vehemently believe are theirs—have been taken from them using Kadyrov’s unprecedented political weight.
At this point, however, this is not a very deep or intractable conflict; the Chechens and Ingush are still very close ethnic groups. However, unless rapid and constructive measures are taken to resolve this dispute, inter-ethnic tensions will continue to grow. On social media, the number of references to possible “bloodshed,” “enmity,” and “treason” is growing rapidly. Kadyrov’s visit to the Ingush village of Surkhakhi last week has shown that young people are willing to engage in massive mobilization. Still, traditional conciliatory institutions are strong—everyone understands their personal responsibility for potential consequences and most people believe that the current conflict has been provoked by the authorities, who have grossly mishandled the situation.
Dr. Ekaterina Sokirianskaia is the founder and director at Conflict Analysis and prevention center which provides analysis of violent conflicts in Russia and the post-Soviet space. She has 18 years of experience working on human rights and conflict resolution in the North Caucasus. From 2011 to 2017, she served as International Crisis Group’s Russia/North Caucasus Project Director, supervising the organization’s research and advocacy in the region.