A Border Dispute Threatens the Delicate Balance in the North Caucasus
Chechen interference in Ingushetia’s domestic affairs has steadily increased in recent years.
Numerous ongoing security issues resulted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Territorial integrity is the most dynamic challenge that continues to thwart uncomplicated resolutions. While Russia has established external land claims with diverse sovereign states, Moscow must contend with the issue internally as well. The North Caucasus, with its diverse indigenous ethnicities and unresolved post-Soviet borders, faces especially difficult circumstances in regard to border politics.
On September 26, Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his Ingush counterpart, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, signed a bill establishing a border between the Republic of Ingushetia and the Chechen Republic. The measure was sanctioned by authorities in Moscow, witnessed by Vladimir Putin’s presidential envoy to the North Caucasian federal district, Alexander Matovnikov.
This agreement sought to resolve the simmering border dispute between the two republics by way of an exchange of territory. In the deal, Ingushetia agreed to transfer land in the Malgobeksky district to Chechnya and, in return, Grozny turned over 1,290 hectares of northwestern Nadterechny region to Ingushetia. After the agreement received approval on October 4, unprecedented demonstrations broke out in the Ingush capital of Magas.
Several Ingushetian representatives of the people’s assembly purport the decisive vote was conducted in secret and allege voting fraud. Further, the constitutional court asserts that the bill was a violation of constitutional law and any changes to territorial integrity must be decided by a referendum. Protestors echoed demands for a referendum to ultimately decide their republic’s borders. However, their ultimatums shifted toward calls for a new government and elections.
These demonstrations and complaints by parliamentarians in the people’s assembly resulted in the Yevkurov administration reconsidering the agreement with Chechnya. After three days of protests, authorities in Magas made numerous concessions. First, an eight-day period of demonstrations over the border deal with Chechnya would be permitted. Secondly, it was agreed that the use force would be impermissible against the demonstrators. Due to the hundreds of police and security forces observing the current protests, international organizations voiced concerns that a violent crackdown is possible. It was reported that on October 4 Russian police fired shots into the air to disperse a crowd of 2,000 protesters. Thirdly, parliamentarian Set-Salim Akhilgov announced that the people’s assembly would re-examine the treaty with Chechnya once it reconvened its session.
The North Caucasus provides an important chronicle on how historical decisions continue to influence contemporary sentiments. In 1944, while men were conscripted to fight in the Great Patriotic War — as World War II is known in the (post-)Soviet space — women, children and elderly residents of Chechen and Ingush villages were deported to Central Asia. After a gradual return to their homelands beginning in 1957, indigenous populations faced numerous obstacles linked to the deportation and resettlement. Decades later, in the 1980s and in the waning years of the Soviet Union, nationalist movements of various peoples of the North Caucasus emerged and staked claims to regions of their ancestral homelands.
Territorial claims by other North Caucasian neighbors are especially upsetting to the Ingush people. During a complicated Russian imperial and Soviet rule, the district of Prigorodny was transferred to present-day North Ossetia-Alania, and Soviet authorities placed impediments to resettlement for Ingush families. In 1991, during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Ingush stated their territorial rights to their former district. In 1991, these events have led to the Ossetian-Ingush conflict and the permanent loss of Prigorodny to North Ossetia. To average Ingush citizens, the current situation elicits similar frustrations.
Further, during Soviet times, Chechnya and Ingushetia were linked together as the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. However, its division in 1991 invigorated and provided grounds for subsequent territorial disputes.
The first president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, and the leader of the then-Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Dzokhar Dudayev signed a basic agreement over border demarcations in 1993. Though it was not ratified, it set an important precedent: It acknowledged that the Sunzhensky district, a region at the center of contemporary border disputes, would remain under Ingush jurisdiction. Both men were former Soviet army generals who aligned with nationalist movements and understood the political capital these sentiments offered. While territorial issues were not completely resolved, in the late 1990s conflicts over the territorial separation rarely rose above the level of skirmishes.
In March 2003, then-President of Chechnya Akhmad Kadyrov and Ingush leader Murad Zyazykov agreed to a border settlement very similar to the Aushev-Dudayev arrangement. Although the Chechen Constitution states entitlement to the Sunzhensky district, it was understood that only two settlements, Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk, were the focus of that legislation. Ingushetia would retain overall dominion over Sunzhensky.
Obvious disagreements remain between Chechnya and Ingushetia over the state of their boundaries. Delineations of borders between the two republics were established under the guidance of a bygone political empire or during periods of upheaval in the unpredictable formation of the modern Russian Federation. It is certain that complicated histories, unresolved conflicts and an uneven balance of regional power would result in questions over a territorial swap.
The Kadyrov Factor
Under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya emerged an important political actor in the Northern Caucasus. Kadyrov is sanctioned by Putin to govern according to his own strongman style, and his singular voice directs legislation. The ability to govern independently is provided in exchange for ensuring security within Chechen boundaries and allegiance to Moscow. Kadyrov has a close inner circle and loyal security forces, known colloquially as kadyrovtsy. With palpable regional power, a desire to expand territory is a logical next step, and Kadyrov has previously expressed interest in territorial expansion.
It would be a complication in the current political arrangements if the man selected to ensure Chechen security initiated political insecurity in Ingushetia indirectly. While it may be a bilateral deal between the two republics, protests in Magas present a situation that could become unmanageable at local levels of governance.
Chechen interference in Ingushetian domestic affairs has steadily increased in recent years. Consequently, the current territorial exchange and resultant displeasure contribute to larger ongoing developments. In 2012, the death of three Chechen militants in the village of Galashki in Ingushetia brought different narratives of the event and a serious breakdown of relations between the two republics. During this dispute, Kadyrov revived claims over swatches of Ingush territory and sovereignty of the small republic.
The fragile balance of power in the North Caucasus can be easily disturbed by political arrangements steeped in culture and history. In the case that one state steadily increases its power and flexes its muscles, regional destabilization or conflict is conceivable.
Another dramatic incident occurred on April 18, 2013. Several Chechen security forces entered into the village of Arshty in the borderlands between Chechnya and Ingushetia. Yet again, accounts of the episode differed according to each side; however, six Ingush police officers perished. While Magas challenged the events, starting with a pre-planned rally in support of Chechen presence in the area, Grozny asserted its forces sought to neutralize militants.
Again in 2013, Kadyrov quietly and without restraint pushed through an amendment to the constitution that addressed Chechnya’s claims to the Sunzhensky district. The amendment stated Chechen claims to six further settlements — Voznesenskoye, Karabulak, Nesterovskoye, Sleptsovskoye, Troitskoye and Chemulga — alongside the previous two. These incidents caused a serious disintegration of communication between the two republics, and Moscow had to step in as mediator. A 2015 “resolution meeting” was arranged by the Kremlin.
Chechen influence is apparent in religious institutions of Ingushetia too. Kadyrov formed relationships with Islamic leaders in Ingushetia based upon a common defense of the particular form of Sufism practiced in the region. Consequently, Chechen religious figures, alongside the Chechen president, have been able to influence their Ingush counterparts. This arrangement has been detrimental for Yevkurov. His disagreements with local Muslim leaders over more acceptable tones toward Salafists led to his May 27 excommunication by the Ingush Muftiate.
Invasions, Protests and Scandals
In an atmosphere of constant border incursions and threats of territorial expropriation, mundane events easily become dynamic triggers. In this case, the construction of a road in the mountainous Chechen area of Galanchozh that traversed into disputed Ingushetia’s territory elicited concerns of an invasion. In the shadow of the new territorial recuperation law, it seems as though construction of infrastructure has been weaponized in this case. A roadway was constructed with full knowledge that it would be used in a larger plan to extend a disputed boundary.
Ingush civilians are the driving force behind the large protests in Magas. Yevkurov is an unpopular president, however, wider government actions are fueling the discontent. A lack of consultation with citizens over a significant constitutional change foments political mistrust. It is unlike the situation in Grozny where strongman rule does not require discussions conducive to stability. A shift in political planning toward one that acknowledges the concerns of the demonstrators reveals the different political culture of Ingushetia.
Subsequently, disapproval voiced by members of the people’s assembly and the courts over the procedural irregularities that permitted the new territorial agreement aligned with those in the streets. The conundrum that resulted from a lack of public deliberation and rushing a major constitutional development elicited a political security crisis solely in the hands of the Yevkurov administration.
The events in Magas reveal the lack of unified political messaging and using communiqués that seem only briefly relevant. For instance, prior to submitting to new discussions over the border deal with Chechnya, Yevkurov contended that the lands in question were mistakenly annexed by Ingushetia in the past. Russia’s federal council member Andrey Klimov suspected that foreign provocateurs instigated the direct political actions in the Ingush capital. Nevertheless, the concessions made by the Yevkurov administration demonstrate the domestic nature of the protests.
Russia cannot afford a federalist crisis in the North Caucasus, especially with Chechnya at the center of it. After Russification projects in the region and Kadyrov’s unique format of leadership, any critical situation reflects badly on the current Russian political arrangement. It is vital that the dispute over the Ingush-Chechen territory exchange deal is solved reasonably, and that the Ingush people consider their leadership legitimate after such a scandal.
The North Caucasus presents a variety of domestic security problems for Russia, and retaining the status quo is vital for overall regional security. Events in Ingushetia are dynamic and constantly changing. However, the key points of territorial integrity and sovereignty under a federalist system remain at the core of the ongoing circumstances. The fragile balance of power in the North Caucasus can be easily disturbed by political arrangements steeped in culture and history. In the case that one state steadily increases its power and flexes its muscles, regional destabilization or conflict is conceivable. It is for these reasons that the territory exchange between Chechnya and Ingushetia is not simply about land, but, rather is a case of an encroaching power and unresolved issues left over from prior geopolitical conquest.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.