Ongoing Protests in Ingushetia Mean More Political Problems for Moscow
Ingush leader Yunus-bek Yevkurov has lost his political legitimacy, and all he can do now is consolidate control until the Kremlin appoints a successor.
In the autumn of 2018, Chechnya and Ingushetia signed a controversial land deal that established a new border between the two republics. The primary complaint against this legislation was that Chechnya gained more territory than its neighbor. Added political variables prolonged organized dissent in this case. Secretive ballots in the people’s assembly, allegations of vote fraud and disregard for the Ingush Constitution motivated public anger against the land swap. Protests garnered attention in the capital Magas and the city of Nazran.
On December 6, 2018, Ingush appeals reached their legal apex when Russia’s constitutional court ruled that the agreement between the North Caucasian republics was legitimate. However, Moscow’s ruling did not quell political dissent in Ingushetia. It escalated to a point where it now encompasses numerous grievances against the leadership of Yunus-bek Yevkurov.
All of these destabilizing factors are ongoing as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov remains in talks with Dagestan’s representatives to finalize another border deal. The Kremlin continues to be a silent partner to Kadyrov and stands behind the ruling of its constitutional court that such territorial matters are to be decided between its republics. This is an exceptionally difficult scenario for Moscow to manage as neither side seems willing to cede demands. The situation in Russia’s so-called inner abroad simmers as Moscow observes it as if it were happening in a foreign state controlled by a foreign leader.
Renewed large-scale protests erupted in Ingushetia in late March 2019. Legislation conducted in secrecy has once again initiated public anger. Yevkurov tabled a bill in the national assembly that specifically limited the use of referendums on topics concerning the republic’s territorial integrity. Opponents allege that the proposed law would strip any right to public consultation or vote on matters such as altering borders (as already completed sans referendum), changes in official name, its status as a Russian federal entity and its existence as an individual republic. It passed a first reading and was set for a second on March 28. Faced with widespread discontent, Yevkurov withdrew the bill.
Yevkurov clarified this move as a chance to get input from public consultations. These voices included representatives from the council of teips (clan leaders), politicians at various levels and youth organizations. The Ingush leader contends that the draft bill will be revived in three months, once it includes the suggested revisions. It is apparent that this is an act of political hesitation in which a pathway is sought to present the same bill but within the frame of positive political messaging. This was a weak attempt to quell flames of discontent simmering within the Ingush opposition rather than make bold political moves that directly address concerns over territorial integrity.
The current round of protests is bolder than the previous events last autumn. The opposition blocked a federal highway entrance to Nazran. In Magas, it was estimated that as many as 10,000 demonstrators gathered to voice their continued disapproval over the agreement with Chechnya. This is an impressive number considering that Ingushetia is Russia’s smallest republic. For the most part, the sanctioned rally on March 26 was peaceful as it was strongly guarded by police and the increased presence of security forces.
However, small-scale violence broke out when a large number of activists defied the government’s curfew. Small groups chose to remain in the center of Magas throughout the evening and into the early morning hours of March 27. Demonstrators tossed chairs and metal fencing at security forces after numerous attempts by the authorities to disperse the continued gathering.
The reaction by the authorities in Magas was also stronger than the last round of major protests. Criminal investigations were opened against identified demonstrators who injured members of the security forces during the confrontation. During this same protest, 17 members of the Ingush Ministry of Internal Affairs intervened in the crackdown despite orders to remain neutral. It is alleged that law enforcement officers from nearby regions were at the center of the commotion, and their Ingush colleagues sought to protect them from the angry crowd. Other sources contend they sided with the opposition. The police officers were consequently fired and the unit disbanded. Ingush Interior Minister Dmitry Kava submitted his resignation.
Low-scale physical manifestations of frustration against security forces are unsurprising given the highly divisive political atmosphere, but these can be used to justify heavy-handedness against the protesters. A more forceful approach will instill fear and lead the opposition to second guess participation in public demonstrations. Fear appears to be the Yevkurov administration’s preferred method of management. Numerous reports from civilians note an increase of military equipment and personnel in Magas.
It would be optimistic to suggest that skirmishes between security forces and Ingush protesters will remain at this subdued level. Protest organizers and politicians foresee various forms of intimidation, such as detention and fines, as the next plausible steps in this melee. However, amplified exhibitions of force often negatively shift the delicate balance between public rallies and governmental patience. Prior advice from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Yekurov on managing the protests through dialogue rather than by force remains just as relevant now as it did in October 2018.
Political Demands and Complications
The Kremlin is in a very difficult position. Moscow knows the situation requires attention. As part of their demands, the Ingush opposition and the respected council of teips request the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections. Elections of regional heads have been intermittent endeavors in the Russian Federation, but Putin put the final stamp on the issue in 2013.
In Ingushetia, the demand for regional elections has been a mainstay and often resurfaces in times of political turmoil. Putin argues that hand-picked regional governors are particularly important in the North Caucasus to ensure loyalty to Moscow over divisive nationalist agendas. That is an understandable political move in a region where people identify along ethnic or tribal lines rather than their Russian citizenship. However, the ongoing issues in Ingushetia demonstrate that these decisions can easily sour when local leaders side with outside interests rather than those of their own people. It is a difficult task to defend the interests of Russia’s smallest republic against the strength of Kadyrov and Chechnya’s expansionism in the North Caucasus.
Yevkurov was unpopular prior to his reappointment by Putin in 2013. It was challenged that the Ingush leader — a decorated military intelligence officer, recipient of the Hero of Russia medal, survivor of an assassination attempt and a Kremlin loyalist — provided a counterweight to Kadyrov’s strength. The second hypothesis offers that unpopular Yevkurov played the role of a pawn in the Chechen president’s larger strategy to annex Ingushetia. Current events suggest that this latter scenario may be more likely. The inner abroad is left for Kadyrov to maintain power and security while Moscow watches on.
From an external and dispassionate perspective, it makes sense to absorb a smaller republic into its more powerful neighbor. Governing the ethnic republics of the North Caucasus region becomes administratively easier with fewer regional heads to hand-pick and less internal politics to consider. A strongman at the helm would easily consolidate power and exhibit loyalty to the Kremlin.
Moscow cannot afford to lose political capital in another inter-ethnic conflict within its own borders. While squabbles between ethnic groups divert attention away from other regional problems such a poverty, underdevelopment and radicalism, an escalation to a real insurgent confrontation would be extremely costly.
However, there are serious issues with any such arrangement. As the protests demonstrate, Ingush opposition activists will strongly defend their republic’s interests. Current events revive memories of a troubled history marked by Stalinist-era deportations, obstacles to resettling of the indigenous populations upon their return, loss of territorial rights to other regions, and the conflicts that came as a result. Adherence to their ethnic principles and invigorated nationalist movements compel Ingush protesters to defend their goals of self-determination and territorial integrity.
This bout of public protests specifically identifies fears of losing Ingushetia’s status as a republic and any future lack of consultation over territorial integrity. If the 2018 land swap is a barometer of how far the Ingush opposition can be pushed, any further incursions would definitely meet resistance. The protracted intensity of the protests was miscalculated.
What Can Be Done?
It must be understood that the land exchange between Chechnya and Ingushetia is a done deal. Kadyrov is too strong a political figure to suddenly renege on a border deal that plays into his philosophy of Chechen expansionism. Accordingly, the Kremlin has close links with the Chechen leader when it comes to suppressing extremism in the region and will be reluctant to exert pressure on him to amend an already instituted border. Thus, subsequent actions must focus on resolutions of the current instability and composure going forward.
Moscow cannot afford to lose political capital in another interethnic conflict within its own borders. While squabbles between ethnic groups divert attention away from other regional problems such as poverty, underdevelopment and radicalism, an escalation to a real insurgent confrontation would be extremely costly. The Kremlin would squander its title of the guarantor of security of the North Caucasus and instability could easily spread to other regions with territorial claims. The question remains at what point and how smoothly can Moscow intervene in the Ingush protest movement without causing further intensification.
Timing is everything in politics. This is especially important in political frameworks where the leadership refuses to signal possible concessions to public opposition. Yevkurov could easily admit defeat and acknowledge that he lost the political trust of his people. One must question if such a move would placate the opposition to a certain extent or, on the contrary, energize the movement. It is up to Moscow to determine whether the Ingush leader had failed in his management of the current political turmoil and when to demand his resignation.
Opposition demands for gubernatorial elections and future referendums must be negotiated separately. The return of regional elections is far-fetched while Putin remains in control and needs reliable henchmen to conduct governmental business. Although candidates in (theoretical) gubernatorial elections would be approved by the Kremlin, the vote would be yet another concession to ease public anger rather than skillful management of a political setback. It could further be argued that the ethno-nationalist inclination of the protest movement technically validates Putin’s concerns over prospective contenders’ loyalty to Moscow: A better job must be done in hand-picking regional governors where specific discontents are tangible.
As for ultimatums in regard to future referendums and territorial integrity, it is best to leave any potential legislation untouched. These is no need to re-examine these topics unless there is a future plan, approved by Moscow, to strip Ingushetia of its status as a republic, in which case another political crisis would surely erupt. Yevkurov’s proposed bill should be shelved entirely, and the Republic of Ingushetia’s Constitution should remain as the key source document when matters of governance and territorial jurisdiction are concerned.
Lessons Not Learned
Protracted public frustration in Magas and Nazran reveals the deep discontent Ingush citizens continue to feel over the 2018 Chechen-Ingush land swap. The Yevkurov administration did not appreciate the lessons offered by the autumn protests that legislation impacting territorial integrity cannot be conducted in the shadows. It is undeniable that Yevkurov lost his political legitimacy, and all he now can do is consolidate control until the Kremlin appoints a successor under the most advantageous political framing.
Moscow is watching the developments in Ingushetia with a keen eye. The Kremlin’s sustained wait-and-see approach has been employed for months and continues to condone Kadyrov’s role as the authority figure in the region. His strongman style of governance disregards public protests and demands for his resignation. Thus, he has time to think of a political sphere extending beyond a command of Grozny. This political arrangement has little concern for internal disagreements and destabilizing forces within smaller republics. Nevertheless, it is unrest in the less-powerful republics that has the potential to materialize into larger security problems.
A viable solution to the ongoing protests in Ingushetia seems elusive. Minus Yevkurov’s resignation, the opposition’s demands seem unreachable. Actual identifiable goals are apparent in the protesters’ message that the Ingush are an independent people, within a distinguishable territory, who want a leader to defend their legitimacy. The question remains whether this is achievable in a political system of appointed leadership and strongmen exerting unchallenged power. A truly attentive form of diplomacy and negotiation must be produced to resolve the months-long political stalemate in Ingushetia. Who will do this? Neither Moscow nor its North Caucasian regional heads are willing to engage in such an endeavor.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.