In the 20 years that have passed since the tiny republic of Ingushetia in Russia’s North Caucasus was noticed by the international media, much has changed in the region. In the late 1990s, Ingushetia was mostly known as the unstable and smaller western neighbour of war-torn Chechnya.
The two volatile Muslim neighbours had once been a unified autonomous republic in the Soviet Union known as the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. When Chechnya’s first post-Soviet leader, former air force general, Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared independence from Moscow as the Soviet state began to collapse towards the end of 1991, Ingushetia opted to remain loyal to the Kremlin while Chechnya engaged in a decade of horrific conflict that ended with the independence-seeking rebel movement ultimately being defeated by Russia’s far more powerful military and its pro-Moscow Chechen allies led by the still-in-power Kadyrov clan.
No administrative border had ever been established between Ingushetia and Chechnya following the Soviet Union’s collapse, despite two previous attempts in 1993 when Dudayev and then-Ingush leader Ruslan Aushev attempted to set their differences aside only to be interrupted by Russia’s invasion of Chechnya a year later.
Moscow has wanted to remedy the situation after a second attempt to settle on a finalised border failed shortly after the conclusion of the Second Chechen War in 2002. In recent months, the Kremlin successfully cajoled Ramzan Kadyrov, the iron-fisted ruler of Chechnya who has been accused of countless human rights abuses by both Russian and European watchdogs, and Ingushetia’s leader Yunus-bek Yevkurov into settling on an officially recognised, though not necessarily equally demarcated, dividing line between the two.
In the secret agreement, which was concluded behind closed doors and without the public’s knowledge, Kadyrov received 26 times more territory than his Ingush counterpart, an area – nearly 27,000 hectares of uninhabited Ingush territory – that some believe contain lucrative energy resources.
The move infuriated local Ingushetians, most of whom have a particular fear of losing additional territory after the tiny republic lost control of the mountainous Prigorodny District to its western neighbour, North Ossetia, following a brief conflict in 1992 that left mostly Ingushetians as the war’s victims.
Moscow’s heavy-handed administrative boundary agreement, which was designed to curry favour with Kadyrov as a result of the Kremlin’s need to placate and temper Kadyrov’s ambitions. Moscow feels obliged to keep Kadyrov happy and guarantee his loyalty, particularly after his heavily armed and well-trained turncoat forces helped Russia’s military bring Chechnya to heel in the early 2000s. Despite his success as a pro-Kremlin regional leader, many in the security services have for years worried about the power wielded by Kadyrov and his several thousand strong FSB-trained personal army that acts as a devoted praetorian guard for the temperamental Chechen leader.
The Kremlin’s eagerness to remain on good terms with Kadyrov, however, sparked mass protests in Magas, led by civil activists as well as local police officers and Ingush administrative officials – acts utterly unheard of in Putin’s Russia, much less than in the North Caucasus.
The demonstrations caught the Kremlin off-guard as it watched the situation in Ingushetia unfold, only to look on in further dismay after the local Constitutional Court ruled that the law designed to support the controversial border agreement was illegal, which through the final outcome of the land swap into question.
The events in Magas, which is located just south of Ingushetia’s former historical capital Nazran, were the biggest and most persistent in the North Caucasus since the dying days of the Soviet Union when citizens from across the mostly Muslim republics on Russia’s strategic southern borders, between the Black and Caspian seas, called for an end of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and, in the case of Chechnya under Dudayev, full independence from Moscow after nearly three centuries of Russian domination.
What’s paramount regarding what has happened in Ingushetia is that the public’s response to the Kremlin’s poor handling of the situation has raised the spectre of a possible wider regional conflict on Russia’s southern flank.
For the first time since the last remnants of the self-declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s forces were hunted down by Russia’s security services and Kadyrov’s death squads while hiding out in the high mountains of the Greater Caucasus nearly a generation ago, Moscow is now having to consider the possibility that the dozens of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups within the Russian Federation’s vast territorial borders may not be as subservient as the Kremlin has long believed that they were.
The pushback by both Ingushetia’s authorities and its courts is unprecedented. The events have revealed cracks in what has been until now an area that the Kremlin, at least on the surface, had counted on to dutifully toe the line of President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party.
With the protestors openly defying Moscow and calling for Yevkurov’s resignation and a referendum on the deal, as well as open threats by Kadyrov to use force against those in Ingushetia who oppose the agreement, the Kremlin is likely growing increasingly concerned about the wider outcome of a border conflict between two of the most restive republics in its most historically unstable and rebellious region.