Moscow’s wait-and-see tactics in the North Caucasus have shifted the trajectory of regional politics in favor of the most powerful.
There is an ongoing political impasse between the Russian federal republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia. Dissatisfaction among the Ingush over hasty land-swap legislation provoked some of the most prolonged public protests in recent history. The deal established a formal border between Chechnya and Ingushetia where Magas transferred authority of Malgobeksky district to Chechnya, while Grozny released a smaller portion of Nadterechny region to Ingushetia. The situation demonstrates a lack of cohesive messaging by important Ingush political actors, and the fact that the Kremlin’s wait-and-see approach permits stronger voices to overpower others in regional leadership positions.
During this period, political authorities in Ingushetia applied pressure tactics on members of parliament who voiced their dissatisfaction with the new Chechen-Ingush border law. They experienced suspension of utilities such as gas and electricity, while bureaucrats who participated in the protests were coerced to resign their posts. These are obvious attempts to stifle dissent and recuperate authority in favor of the Ingush leadership.
On the last day of sanctioned rallies, October 17, protest leader Akhmet Barakhoyev announced that further public demonstrations would be placed on hold until they regrouped and decided upon subsequent steps. Voices in the streets may have been quiet, and internet services may have been restored, but significant interactions between key regional personalities took the spotlight.
In weeks following the pause in protests, Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov connected with notable Ingush critics through a peculiar sort of apology tour, seeking to receive apologies from opposition voices rather than offering some himself. First, accompanied by a convoy of his loyal private army, known as kadyrovtsy, he traveled to the village of Surkhakhi to engage with Ingush elder Mukhazhir Nalgiev in the setting of the man’s home. Nalgiev has made highly critical statements about Kadyrov, and so the Chechen president wanted a direct apology. It was during this meeting that Kadyrov placed the blame for the ongoing border crisis on his Ingush counterpart, President Yunus-bek Yevkurov. After creating a spectacle among this small community, the two agreed to a publicly observed atonement.
Secondly, the Chechen president requested a tête-à-tête with former head of the Ingush Ministry of Internal Affairs, Akhmed Pogorov. At an opposition rally, Pogorov made disparaging remarks in regards to Kadyrov, and the tone of his criticism compelled the Chechen leader to address him personally, retaliating with threats. Here too, the Chechen entourage arrived in the Ingush town of Karabulak and left with mutual reconciliation.
In a last major encounter with Ingush protest leaders, Kadyrov sent the speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, to Novy Redant to serve notice to Barakhoyev. At one of the rallies in Magas, Barakhoyev labeled Kadyrov as “powerless” in his threats to Pogorov, who is a relative. Subsequently, the Chechen president demanded Barakhoyev face a sharia court in Chechnya for an examination of his transgressions. Nevertheless, the two later made amends during a meeting with Pogorov on the condition that their target of Yevkurov’s resignation be respected.
Protests in the Russian republic of Ingushetia have not died down for two weeks, as many locals are furious about a border deal between Ingushetia and neighboring Chechnya. They say it gives away land with deep significance to the Ingush people. pic.twitter.com/npJy66NVJH
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) October 17, 2018
The decision to seek apologies and ensuing reconciliation with protest organizers differs greatly from the earlier tone established by Kadyrov. Previously, he challenged the demonstrators in Magas to organize a rally in Chechnya, insinuating they would never leave alive. The border legislation and development may already be underway, but Kadyrov acknowledges that in order to stop the protests, he must reconcile with the grassroots leadership. Such relationships enable further Chechen intrusion into Ingush political life. Nevertheless, the public display of softer alternatives expresses two important variables.
Kadyrov does not believe that Yevkurov is the central figure in solving the Chechen-Ingush border crisis. The Ingush leader has been steadfast in his support for the territorial swap, which is good for Grozny; however, this has only further incensed the protesters in Magas. While Yevkurov presents various scenarios that offer legitimacy for his political deal with Kadyrov, they have fallen on deaf ears of the Ingush public. Outrage over the concessions on Ingushetian land have not been subdued.
As a result, Yevkurov represents a leader who cares little for the voices of his constituency and a loss of political legitimacy. It is no wonder opposition voices shifted the focus from the territorial issue to calling for the Ingush leader’s resignation. Further, a focus on meetings and compromises after heated exchanges aligns with the Kremlin’s wishes to manage this internal situation peacefully. Yevkurov notes that he was advised by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to handle the large-scale protests peacefully and without the use of force, though this doesn’t account for the arrested or jailed protest organizers. We can rest assured that a similar admonition went out to Grozny to cool the rhetoric. One can only hope that level heads prevail with the associated elements of political instability, large numbers of security forces and kadyrovtsy.
There is an accompanying complication to the Chechen-Ingush border disagreement that escapes those with a singular understanding of boundaries founded in the context of the modern nation-state. In the North Caucasus, opinions of the teips — Chechen and Ingush tribal organizations or clans arranged by ancestry or a connection to respective lands — are respected and must be considered. In this particular case, many citizens in the disputed regions are members of the Orstkhoi clan, a Chechen sub-ethnicity that claims it is “Chechen when in Chechnya and Ingush when in Ingushetia” because its people live alongside the disputed territory. This fluidity, entwined with territory, offers an advantageous voice to whichever party can best use their argument.
Orstkhoi representatives released a statement where they considered the territorial legislation as a “blessing for present and future generations” and badly needed to stifle disputes between the two fraternal nations. Concurrently, the Orstkhoi requested that the constitutional court of Ingushetia use the expertise of historians, cartographers and scholars in its investigation of the disputed land to objectively bolster support for the border deal.
Various strata of Ingush society demonstrate a series of divided opinions over the ongoing Chechen-Ingush dispute. Teips argue along the lines of historical ancestry, while opposition forces embrace strengthened Ingush nationalism. One must ask what the difference is and what has contributed to such a variance of judgment? While the Orstkhoi argue in favor of the deal, other clans throughout Ingushetia reject it. The political class is disgruntled over the mismanagement of the primary vote. Yevkurov also seems beholden to Kadyrov, aware that capitulation in favor of Grozny’s interests is the one way to manage Chechnya’s persistent coercive threats of military conflict. The original issue of territorial integrity morphed into one addressing political legitimacy. With so much discord over a pivotal issue in Russia’s smallest republic, it is hardly surprising.
A supplementary judgment by another instrument of governance amplified the divisions and questionable accountability inherent in the Yevkurov administration. On October 30, Ingushetia’s constitutional court agreed with an appellant case that the Ingush parliament abused its authority in approving the Chechen-Ingush land exchange. Moreover, in its statement, the court noted that a decision of such magnitude must be arbitrated through a referendum. Yevkurov quickly dismissed the decision as he stated that the legislation would go through unhampered regardless. Sentiments such as these echo Kadyrov’s position that the border deal is done and is not up for future reinterpretations. Nevertheless, the ruling aligned perfectly with the new round of protests in Magas that were sanctioned to take place between October 31 and November 2.
Throughout this regional crisis, the Kremlin preferred to remain neutral and adopt an extremely cautious approach in its inner abroad. This reflects the preference for managed stability in regions where conflict could easily be reignited. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, contended that the Chechen-Ingush dispute is a legal issue. Accordingly, the actions of the two federal republics must comply with the Russian Constitution and remain in bounds with established legal code. For instance, Article 76 of the constitution manifests that federal laws in republics must not conflict with federal constitutional laws.
Further, Article 131 (2) states that “changes in borders of the areas in which self-government is administered shall be made with the consideration of the opinion of the population of the corresponding areas.” When placed in the context of republic governance, it makes simple sense to consult citizens rather than force proposals through. As a result, this wait-and-see tactic has shifted the trajectory of North Caucasian politics toward the most powerful rather than any thoughtful legal solutions.
Ramzan Kadyrov categorized attempts to agitate relations over the Chechen and Ingush border deal as inadmissible and futile. The word “futile” takes on a double meaning coming from the Chechen president who is fully aware that regional political power rests in his hands and that he alone controls the outcome. He knows how to engage with religious and traditional leaders for his political benefit. In Chechnya, he is not required to consult his citizens over important territorial deals as his strongman rule permits such arrangements.
Political culture differs in Ingushetia. Yevkurov delegitimized his political office by hastily pushing through legislation shrouded in suspicion and continually disregarding the concerns of his constituents. Since the beginning of protests in early October, he had adequate time to hear their concerns and offer better solutions. His political capital has dwindled as protest leaders are now more concerned with his resignation. Despite being an ethnic Ingush, Yevkurov seems to have forgotten the nationalism and cultural integrity that brought protesters to the streets of Magas in the first place. For instance, the first president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, aligned with nationalist movements and, in turn, supports the protests.
Moscow is astute for promoting cautiousness rather than a hardline solution against the rallies. Nevertheless, this wait-and-see approach permitted a strongman and blinkered leader to decide a matter that should have been resolved under constitutional law. Ingushetia and Chechnya may be fraternal nations, but many Ingush remain remain wary of matters concerning territorial integrity because of their history. Soviet deportations in 1944, obstacles to subsequent resettlement, flawed border divisions, the loss of Prigorodny district to North Ossetia-Alania, post-Soviet ethnic conflicts and heated relations with Chechnya over the Sunzhensky district, as well as other territorial claims, remind Ingush people of the dangers they faced in the past. As a result, this crisis will remain dynamic, and Russian leadership will need to watch closely in order to avoid an unwanted flare-up.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.