Ezri National Park, Ingushetia. Photo Credit: Fair Observer
By: Kristina Drye, Columnist
Russia seems to have chosen to distance itself from disturbances in its ‘inner abroad,’ such as the recent border dispute in Ingushetia, but it cannot afford to ignore signs of discontent in the long term. By ignoring popular discontent, by letting local leaders and strongmen disavow court decisions, and by allowing Ramzan Kadyrov to assert dominance in a region rife with grievance, Russia is paying too little attention to simmering frustrations that would be best dealt with sooner rather than later. To discuss Russia’s ‘near abroad,’ the former Soviet Republics that now surround its borders, is fashionable in ongoing discourse regarding Russian strategy, but paying attention to Russia’s inner abroad might be just as useful for analysis of the region’s stability.
During October sizable protests in Ingushetia, the small north Caucasus republic east of Chechnya and part of the Russian Federation, went largely unnoticed in Western news coverage. Thousands of protesters massed in Magas, the republic’s capital, to challenge border changes made without citizen input. The demonstrations came in direct response to the announcement on October 4 of a land swap between Chechnya and Ingushetia that ceded control of Malgobeksky district to Chechnya in return for control of the Nadterechny region to Ingushetia.[i] Previously, on September 26, Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Chechen President Kadyrov signed a land-swap deal ceding Ingush territory to Chechnya.[ii] The Moscow Times reports that the agreement was approved by Ingushetia’s Parliament in an anonymous vote.[iii] On October 30, the Ingush courts ruled the swap unconstitutional without a referendum, though Yevkurov dismissed the decision, noting that only the Russian Constitutional Court has the authority to render the decision unconstitutional.[iv]
Chechnya and Ingushetia have wrangled over borders since their separation in 1992, with resolution to the dispute attempted in both 1993 and the early 2000s, though neither was successful. In the recent swap that triggered protests, Chechnya acquired 28,600 hectares of Ingush territory while Ingushetia received about 1/26th that amount, only 1,000 hectares of land.[v] Historically, the Ingush have significant territorial grievances with Moscow. In 1944 Joseph Stalin disbanded Ingushetia and deported the Ingush to Central Asia. After restoration over a decade later, the Ingush lost 20 percent of their original territory to bordering republics.[vi] Consequently any land deal draws understandable Ingush suspicion, and the most recent one has smacks of illegitimacy. Both Radio Free Europe and The Moscow Times report that the October 4 vote was fraudulent.[vii] Local Ingush residents did not recognize the validity of the decision. While the closed parliamentary vote indicated only three dissents, at least 10 lawmakers testify that they voted against the deal.[viii] Since the vote, 15 deputies have signed a document attesting that they voted against ratification.[ix] The perceived illegitimacy of the vote was a key driver to the prolonged protests in Magas, in which citizens demanded that the proposed land swap be settled by referendum, a concession they ultimately won, though Yevkurov has refused to recognize the motion.
Moscow’s approach, at least superficially, has been surprisingly hands-off. President Vladimir Putin ordered that no violence be used in disbanding the protests, and Ingush authorities authorized permit extensions to demonstrate in Magas. Forcible dispersion of the demonstrators would have been an unnecessary escalation by Russia. Because the dispute is internal to Russia, Moscow likely does not expect the threat of an international response. Though Russia typically responds to color revolutions outside its borders, a nonviolent internal dispute such as the Ingush demonstration will not, in the Kremlin’s calculus, draw unwanted scrutiny from the international community. Moreover, if the protests had indeed become violent, it is unlikely that the same world that failed to intervene in Georgia, Ukraine, or Chechnya would intervene in Ingushetia, regardless of the level of violence. The international community has repeatedly demonstrated that it will not risk an international conflict with a major power to fulfill its stated responsibility to protect civilians. Russia’s calculus here is strong.
In order to avoid inflaming a conflict-prone region, the Kremlin wisely refrained from overt and violent repression, essentially giving protesters three options: 1) they could continue peaceful demonstrations, 2) they could dissolve the movement after a time, or 3) they could violently escalate demonstrations, warranting a direct reaction from Moscow. Abstaining from direct involvement was a pragmatic move on the part of Russian leadership, though decidedly irresponsible in turning a blind eye to the plight of constituents. By not responding to the dispute directly, Russia has placed the onus of escalation firmly on the shoulders of the demonstrators.
The Kremlin appeared largely uninterested in the protests themselves once it ascertained that it did not pose a threat vis-à-vis the international community, but there are have been worrying signs of interference in Ingushetia’s integral political processes, beyond the dubious circumstances of the parliamentary vote. During the first stages of protests, authorities blocked internet and power services, and some Ingush activists in state structures were pressured to resign.[x] Authorities also detained opposition leaders.[xi] Kadyrov threatened violence against Ingush protesters[xii], and in the weeks after the protests, he traveled to Ingushetia demanding apologies from prominent Ingush opposition figures, rather than offering apologies himself.[xiii]
Resolving the crisis will require deft handling of the parties at odds, including Ingush, Chechen, and Russian stakeholders. Despite their fraternal history, vast differences in political culture separate Ingushetia and Chechnya, a difficult divide to bridge at the best of times. Most of the tribal concerns in the swap territory oppose transition, except for one, the Orstkhoi, who stand in favor. The Orstkhoi are a tribe with incredible fluidity located directly on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, claiming identity with whichever entity they happen to reside in at the time. Winning this group’s support could prove significant in the balance of discourse. The politically active class of Ingush, on the other hand, is angry at the political mismanagement of the situation. Kadyrov specifically has threatened the safety of the protesters, and Yevkurov must weigh these threats against his own claim on power. His support for the swap has distanced him from his constituents, a dangerous game that pits his allegiance to Kadyrov against his own political base. Kadyrov himself is incredibly important both to President Putin and to Russia.
As far as Russia is concerned, it should be wary. Article 131(2) of the Russian Constitution notes that “changes in borders of areas in which self-government is administered shall be made with the consideration of the opinion of the population of the corresponding areas.”[xiv] Russia has clearly signaled its own ability to renege on its constitution, but its lack of response to the demonstrations in its inner abroad begs the question of its ability to manage stability in the North Caucasus.
[i] Evan Gershkovich, “In Ingushetia, Russia’s Smallest Region, Protests are Reaching a Boiling Point,” The Moscow Times, Oct. 16, 2018. https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/in-ingushetia-russia-smallest-region-protests-are-reaching-a-boiling-point-63210; Rejeannne Lacrois, “A Border Dispute Threatens the Delicate Balance in the North Caucasus,” Fair Observer, Oct. 8, 2018. https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/chechnya-ingushetia-border-dispute-protests-north-caucasus-russia-europe-news-17261/
[ii] Tony Wesolowsky, “Land Grab? Why the Ingush are Furious with Chechnya,” Radio Free Europe, Oct. 10, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/explainer-ingush-chechen-land-swap/29536507.html
[iii] Evan Gershkovich, “In Ingushetia, Russia’s Smallest Region, Protests are Reaching a Boiling Point”
[iv] Yelena Afonina, “Ingushetia’s Constitutional Court Rules Against Divisive Land Swap Deal,” The Moscow Times, Oct. 30, 2018. https://themoscowtimes.com/news/ingushetias-constitutional-court-rules-against-divisive-land-swap-deal-63348
[vi] Neil Hauer, “Putin’s Bubbling Crisis in the Northern Caucasus (Op-Ed),” The Moscow Times, Oct. 5, 2018. https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/putin-bubbling-crisis-in-the-north-caucasus-opinion-63103
[vii] Evan Gershkovich, “In Ingushetia, Russia’s Smallest Region, Protests are Reaching a Boiling Point”; “Ingushetia Activist Says Protest Against Chechnya Border Deal Will Continue,” Radio Free Europe, Oct. 17, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/ingushetia-activist-says-protest-against-chechnya-border-deal-will-continue/29548295.html
[viii] Evan Gershkovich, “In Ingushetia, Russia’s Smallest Region, Protests are Reaching a Boiling Point”
[x] “Protests in Ingushetia ‘on pause’,” OC Media, Oct. 19, 2018. http://oc-media.org/protests-in-ingushetia-on-pause/
[xi] Vladimir Smirnov, “Ingushetia Protest Leaders Face Criminal Charges, Activist Says,” The Moscow Times, Oct. 12, 2018. https://themoscowtimes.com/news/ingushetia-protest-leaders-face-criminal-charges-activist-says-63167
[xiii] Rejeanne LaCroix, “Kadyrov’s Power Is on Display in Chechnya’s Border Dispute with Ingushetia,” Fair Observer, Nov. 8, 2018. https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/chechnya-ingushetia-border-dispute-protests-caucasus-russia-geopolitics-news-01854/