On April 18, against the backdrop of the ongoing territorial dispute between Chechnya and Ingushetia, about 300 law enforcement agents from the Chechen Republic entered the village of Arshty in Ingushetia’s Sunzha district. The incursion took the tensions between Ingushetia and Chechnya to a whole new level. The Chechen side insisted that the police were only chasing the militants. The Ingush authorities, however, said that several Chechen civilian officials, along with the residents of nearby Chechen villages, arrived in Arshty and Chechen TV filmed the event as an impromptu “rally” of the Chechens of Arshty. Upon entering Ingush territory, the Chechen police clashed with Ingush police, and six Ingush officers were injured (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/223084/).
Arshty is a small village in Ingushetia, with a population under 2,000, in the border area between Ingushetia and Chechnya. Over 90 percent of its residents are ethnic Chechens. Arshty was included on the list of villages that Chechen authorities claimed as Chechen territory after Ramzan Kadyrov and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov had a falling out in the summer of 2012. In February 2013, legislation establishing de jure Chechen control over the disputed settlements formally came into force. The incursion by Chechen government agents into Arshty indicate that Ramzan Kadyrov is determined to act on the territorial claims.
The first attempt to organize a public protest in Arshty apparently did not go well. “The local population refused to participate in this farce, so they [the Chechen authorities] brought about 30 residents of Assinovskaya and Sernovodskaya with them,” Timur Bokov, an aide to the secretary of Ingushetia’s Security Council, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website. “These people were supposed to speak at the gathering and state that they would like to join the Chechen Republic. Three Chechen cameramen filmed the whole event” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/223084/).
Territorial issues are particularly painful for Ingushetia, the smallest republic in the Russian Federation. In the short but brutal conflict between Ingushetia and North Ossetia in 1992, tens of thousands of ethnic Ingush were deported from North Ossetia to Ingushetia. Now territorial conflict between ethnic cousins, the Ingush and the Chechens, appears to be taking shape.
The current head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, has made good use of the simmering territorial dispute with Chechnya and the incident in Arshty. A rather unpopular figure, Yevkurov summoned an “Ingush people’s rally” with the aim of improving his credentials as the defender of Ingushetia. On April 20, the gathering took place in Nesterovskaya in the disputed Sunzha district of Ingushetia, where 210 delegates unanimously agreed on the least contentious issue of territorial dispute with Chechnya, saying that the administrative borders between the two republics should remain untouched.
The other important question—whether to elect Ingushetia’s governor via direct vote or via the parliament—caused some divisions among delegates. “In Ingushetia we can have free elections through the parliament,” said the head of the council of clans of Ingushetia, Ibragim Merzhoev. “We have not learned, yet, how to hold honest [direct] elections.” The well-known Ingush human rights activist Magomed Mutsolgov vehemently responded: “Ninety percent of the Ingush want [direct] elections! We have never had slaves and always had a rule: one man–one vote.”
The popular first president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, also was at the gathering and favored direct elections of the head of the republic. Speaking of Chechnya, Aushev stated: “Our neighbors are having elections soon. Heads of republics that are elected by the parliament and by the people will have different [political] weight.” The secretary of the United Russia party in Ingushetia, Zelimkhan Yevloev, asserted that Chechnya would also opt for elections via the parliament (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2176145). Earlier on April 18, Ramzan Kadyrov said that he preferred to have direct elections in Chechnya (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1077126). On April 2, President Vladimir Putin signed into law amendments that allow regional parliaments to choose the form of elections of the governors, either through direct vote or through a vote in the parliament (https://kremlin.ru/news/17786). Since it easier for Moscow and the regional governors to control the parliaments, the amendments are thought to curb people’s rights to elect their local government significantly.
The territorial dispute between Ingushetia and Chechnya is not subsiding, but instead of forcing the Ingush people to submit to the stronger neighbor, it appears to be producing a nationalist backlash among the Ingush. The “external threat” comes in handy for Yevkurov, who has increasingly better chances of staying in office after the September 2013 elections. The external threat alone was unlikely to save Yevkurov from electoral defeat, so he reverted to abolishing direct elections in Ingushetia. In the short run, however, this victory by the republic’s current leader is likely to create long-term problems for Ingushetia. Direct elections could have revamped the political landscape of the republic and resolved some internal conflicts. With an unpopular leader that the people cannot replace in a legal way, Ingushetia is likely to be in for another tumultuous period.