Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 5

The New Year has brought a new crisis to Ingushetia. The North Caucasus republic unexpectedly entered 2002 with an acting president. On December 29, Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, one of Russia’s most influential regional leaders, signed a decree declaring his pre-term resignation. The chairman of Ingushetia’s government has taken over as president until a presidential election is held in the republic (Russian agencies, December 29, 2001).

It remains unclear how final Aushev’s decision is, though he calls it “irrevocable” and insists that he had no intention of either putting pressure on Ingushetia’s population or playing games with the electorate (NTV, December 27, 2001).

Several events that preceded Aushev’s resignation suggest that it was a serious move on his part. On December 25, Aushev told a Congress of the Peoples of Ingushetia that he would not take part in the republic’s next presidential election. That election had already, on Aushev’s insistence, been brought forward by one year–to March 1 of this year, instead of 2003 (Russian agencies, December 25, 2001). This aroused the opposition of the republic’s Supreme Court, which supported the argument of the republic’s prosecutor, Magomed Belkhoroev, that “The incumbent [Aushev] was elected in 1998 for five years, and his term will not expire until 2003.” The court ruled that a recent amendment to Ingushetia’s constitution, shortening the term of office of the republic’s president by one year, could not be invoked retroactively and could not, therefore, be used to truncate Aushev’s term in office (, December 26, 2001). Seemingly determined to step down early, however, Aushev sought and has apparently found an alternative solution (Vremya Novostei, December 27, 2001).

Many observers doubt that a figure as powerful as Aushev has really left Ingushetia’s political stage. They note that Moscow has no other candidate capable of guaranteeing Ingushetia’s stability and of keeping the peace with the neighboring republic of North Ossetia. Ingushetia and North Ossetia are embroiled in a territorial dispute that has its roots in Stalin’s wartime deportations of the Ingush and other indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus. In October 1992, tensions boiled over into the first case of armed interethnic conflict in the Russian Federation since independence, and it was Aushev who brought the violence to a halt (Kommersant, December 25, 2001).

Aushev’s popularity among the people of Ingushetia is virtually unprecedented. News of his resignation was greeted by demonstrations at which thousands of the republic’s residents demanded that he remain president at least until 2003 (, December 29, 2001). Deputies to Ingushetia’s Popular Assembly said they would dissolve the legislative assembly rather than ratify Aushev’s decree (Kommersant, December 28, 2001).

Aushev, a former paratroop general and veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, claimed he had never wanted to be president. He was, he said, “dragged in from Moscow” in 1993, at the height of the territorial dispute with North Ossetia. “When I was elected, I said that it would be for one term only, just to help the people survive the tragedy.” He claimed that he tried to stand down in 1997 but was prevented: “I was surrounded, blockaded inside the palace…. Again I gave my assent, but I said, ‘OK, remember this is the last time'” (Vremya Novostei, December 27, 2001). This time, Aushev added, his determination to take early retirement was motivated by the need to separate the republic’s presidential and parliamentary elections, both of which will otherwise fall in 2003. The president should be elected first, Aushev argued, so that he could get up to speed in his post prior to the parliamentary elections (, December 28, 2001).

Many observers have not, however, been convinced by Aushev’s explanations. They put forward various alternative explanations. Some believe he is trying to promote a hand-picked successor–State Duma Deputy Alikhan Amirkhanov. Aushev is keen to do this now, these observers argue, while he is still able to control the succession process, rather than leave it for a further year, after which the situation may be more complicated. The second explanation involves Ingushetia’s territorial conflict with North Ossetia. Viktor Kazantsev, the presidential representative to the Southern federal district, of which Ingushetia and North Ossetia are component parts, has reportedly taken North Ossetia’s side in the conflict, and Aushev has supposedly lost the influence he used to have with Moscow. According to yet another version, Aushev’s departure is the result of a redistribution of regional power in favor of Ingushetian clans that are now determined to enjoy their place in the sun (, January 4). A fourth explanation sees Aushev’s resignation as linked with the coming to power in neighboring Chechnya of new leaders among whom Aushev enjoys no authority (Izvestia, December 27, 2001). The Ingush and the Chechens are ethnically closely related.

A fifth explanation looks to the change of leadership that has taken place in Moscow over the past two years. During the Yeltsin years, some observers have noted, Aushev faced the prime minister of the day, Viktor Chernomyrdin, with a stark choice: “Allow Ingushetia to leave the Russian Federation, or pay us enough subsidies to keep us inside.” Now times have changed. Such “cavalry charge” tactics cut little ice with President Putin and his government. According to proponents of this explanation, Aushev sees that the political environment has changed, but is incapable of adjusting to it (Vremya Novostei, December 27, 2001).

There is however a further possible explanation. Perhaps Aushev’s demarche will turn out to have been an effort to prove to the Kremlin that he’s boss in Ingushetia and that there is simply no alternative to him.