The republic of broken promises: how Ingushetia’s trust was won – and then lost

Car horns, people on the streets, shooting into the air – this is how the Ingush public celebrated the departure of the republic’s third leader in the past 25 years.

In recent months, the Ingushetian public had begun awaiting this decision with baited breath. The reason? Evkurov’s decision to sign a border agreement with neighbouring Chechnya in September 2018. Given this document rewrote the borders between the two republics in favour of Chechnya, it provoked a series of protests in Ingushetia, and landing over 30 people in jail on serious charges.

Initially, these protests were directed against the new border arrangements, but when Yunus-bek Evkurov and Moscow both failed to account for Ingush public opinion, there were calls for the republic’s leader to resign – at protests, open letters and resolutions, signed by more than 50,000 residents.

Resident of Ingushetia reacts to the news of Evkurov's resignation, June 2019. Source: BAZA.

Kadyrov’s opposite

Yunus-bek Evkurov replaced Ingushetian president Murat Zyazikov back in autumn 2008. Indeed, Zyazikov also resigned amid protests in Nazran, the republic’s largest city, and the FSB general was soon replaced by ex-colonel Evkurov, a hero of the Russian Federation. The Kremlin and Ingush public had high hopes for the former military man, whose main aim was to reduce crime in the republic. At the time, terrorist attacks, murders of the civilian population and the criminal activities of the security forces themselves were tearing this small republic apart.

There were more than a few reasons for this situation. In particular, the “stabilisation” agenda in Chechnya, which aimed to kill and push militants out – as a result, spreading them across the entire North Caucasus. Many of them found their way to Ingushetia, which had no real borders with Chechnya.

Evkurov partially fulfilled this hopes: the new head of the republic started negotiations with illegal armed groups and their families – the direct opposite of the tactics used by Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. Indeed, this contrast with Kadyrov came to play an important part in Evkurov’s public image.

But first, there were the terrorist attacks themselves to deal with. Right at the beginning of Evkurov’s 10-year rule, a suicide bomber tried to ram his car into Evkurov’s vehicle, killing his driver and bodyguard. Miraculously, Evkurov received major injuries, but survived. People started queuing up outside the republic’s main hospital to give blood, and the hospital’s courtyard was filled with locals who came to express their support for Evkurov. Worshippers at the republic’s mosques prayed for Evkurov’s survival.

Under Evkurov, crime did go down in the republic, but this was part of a wider trend across the North Caucasus. Later, events in Ukraine and the war in Syria also bolstered this: the republic had been full to the brim of security forces, and many went to Ukraine; and a significant number of radical youths left for Syria.

The first five years of Evkurov’s rule were calm, and gave hope to the republic’s residents. People were loyal to him, and the opposition, led by Idris Abadiyev (Mekhk-Khkel), Magomed Khazbiyev and others, was not particularly popular. Khazbiyev supported Evkurov, but eventually their political paths diverted, with Evkurov even taking the opposition politician to court on a defamation charge (he won, and security forces later seearched Khazbiyev’s apartment, only to find a grenade).

The land issue

Evkurov’s second term as head of the republic was a period of unfulfilled promise and rampant corruption. The killings continued, albeit at a lesser rate – to this day, young men in Ingushetia are liable to be detained, abducted or simply shot by the security forces, who then declare them militants. There are never any trials, investigations or evidence. For example, on 26 May 2016, the security forces shot five men dead in different locations across the republic. Their involvement in terrorist activity was never proven. Evkurov would often make statements that he was taking investigations “under personal control”, but the murder cases never went anywhere.

Meanwhile, Ingushetia’s social and infrastructure problems remained unaddressed. Reports were made on the creation of new enterprises that would contribute to the republic’s budget, but in practice these companies never worked. One scandalous case involved the practice of registering false employees at state enterprises. Between 2017 and 2018, over 60,000 people found that they had been registered as workers at various agricultural companies. The public believed that this was an attempt to bring down the unemployment figures. Evkurov called it a computing error.

It was just before Evkurov was elected to a second term that his relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, began to break down. And the reason was one that would haunt Evkurov – the disputed territories with Chechnya. In August 2013, Kadyrov declared his intention to bring the land issue to the national level. Evkurov noted that the Ingushetia-Chechen border should run through existing and agreed territory. But a few days after, Kadyrov revealed that the Chechen authorities had documents confirming that two districts were, in fact, Chechen territory.

But it wasn’t only Ingushetia’s powerful neighbour Ramzan Kadyrov that Evkurov came to quarrel with, there were scandals closer to home: his dispute with the republic’s chief mufti Isa Khamkhoyev, which divided public opinion into supporters and opponents of both sides.

During Evkurov’s second term, Mufti Khamkhoyev began looking for support from Kadyrov, who, being a political opponent of the Ingush leader and a follower of the Sufi Qadiri order, supported the mufti anyway he could. Many residents of Ingushetia didn’t share Khamkhoyev’s attempts to find support from Kadyrov – the latter wasn’t popular in Ingushetia, particularly in the wake of the border dispute.

Evkurov’s attempts to push Khamkhoyev out only brought more problems – the peak of their conflict came just as Evkurov and Kadyrov signed an agreement on land transfers.

September 2018: Evkurov and Kadyrov sign a new border agreement.

Despite the anger of the public and Evkurov, Kadyrov signed a law that put the whole of Ingushetia’s Sunzhen district under Chechen control. Evkurov called Kadyrov’s actions disrespectful to the Ingush people and called for dialogue.

It was Alexander Khlopinin, the Russian president’s envoy in the North Caucasus, who put an end to this dispute, but it signalled to everyone that the relationship between these two “brotherly” republics was in crisis. Evkurov’s words four years earlier that he would have never permitted Chechen refugees to enter Ingushetia for fear of “prostitution, drug addiction and armed robbery” had already laid the groundwork for conflict.

But it wasn’t only Ingushetia’s powerful neighbour Ramzan Kadyrov that Evkurov came to quarrel with, there were scandals closer to home: his dispute with the republic’s chief mufti Isa Khamkhoyev, which divided public opinion into supporters and opponents of both sides.

During Evkurov’s second term, Mufti Khamkhoyev began looking for support from Kadyrov, who, being a political opponent of the Ingush leader and a follower of the Sufi Qadiri order, supported the mufti anyway he could. Many residents of Ingushetia didn’t share Khamkhoyev’s attempts to find support from Kadyrov – the latter wasn’t popular in Ingushetia, particularly in the wake of the border dispute.

Evkurov’s attempts to push Khamkhoyev out only brought more problems – the peak of their conflict came just as Evkurov and Kadyrov signed an agreement on land transfers.

The idea that Ingushetia’s borders were going to be changed first came as rumour. Kadyrov’s territorial claims were nothing new, and few people believed they would come to pass.

Photographs of a bulldozer and other equipment from Chechnya, accompanied by men in camouflage, building a road on Ingush territory was the trigger. Evkurov had to break silence at his own inauguration when a regional deputy asked a question that hadn’t been agreed: what is happening at the border? Evkurov claimed that everything was, in fact, fine at the border, and that it was all a manipulation of bloggers online.

The reality was, in fact, much more serious, and public fears were confirmed when Kadyrov and other dignitaries visited Ingushetia to sign a new border agreement. People gathered in Magas, the capital, to express their dismay.

On the day the border agreement was ratified in late September 2018, the streets of Magas were filled with tens of thousands of people who came to support a new agreement. Deputies in Ingushetia’s National Assembly walked out to the city square and said that the agreement with Chechnya had not passed the vote, but a few minutes later Russia’s state news agency reported that the law had been passed anyway. Deputies attempted to revoke this decision in court, but the judge refused. Shortly after, the son of a deputy heavily involved in the land dispute was arrested on extremism charges.

Today, 30 people are facing police violence charges in connection with Ingushetia's land dispute in what is the biggest protest investigation since the 2012 Bolotnaya Square case in Moscow – when over 30 people were charged on riot offences in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration as president. The arrests began in March 2019, when protesters in Magas stated they no longer had confidence in Evkurov and that the agreement with Chechnya should be revoked. When National Guard troops were ordered to disperse protesters early on the morning of 2 March, many were sleeping.

After three attempts at clearing the square, protesters left on the condition that they would be permitted to hold another rally in five days time. But this agreement, announced by Ingush elder Akhmed Barakhoyev and police chief Sergey Bachurin, never went ahead. Barakhoyev, 65, was arrested on police violence charges.

Ingush society had publicly criticised Evkurov for his handling of the protests way before the March 2019 events, and the republic’s muftiate cast him out of Ingushetia’s Muslim community in May this year. And this is unsurprising.

The past year has also seen sentences handed down to members of the republic’s Centre for Combating Extremism, who were seemingly free to torture and terrorise local residents until they tried extorting money from an Azerbaijani citizen – and he brought his connections to bear on them. As a result, six counter-extremism officers ended up behind bars. But this didn’t stop the security forces from abducting and beating Oleg Kozlovsky, a researcher for Amnesty International, in October this year.

The protests taking place in Ingushetia over the past year have been accompanied by total mobile internet blackouts. The FSB has not even hidden the fact that it has given orders to this effect to the major service providers.

Evkurov spent the last months before his resignation in a fierce conflict with the republic’s opposition, which included practically Ingushetia’s entire population. Up to 300 people faced administrative and criminal charges as a result of the protests. For a republic with a population just shy of 500,000, that’s a significant number.

In the end, residents of Ingushetia – who came to Evkurov’s aid so movingly after the attempt on his life in 2009 – celebrated his departure with aplomb ten years later.

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