Chechen officials and Ingush activists reached an agreement to hold negotiations on the contentious administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. On April 25, the Ingush Mehk-Khel movement (a.k.a. Council of Elders of Ingushetia) publicly appealed to the speaker of the Chechen Parliament, Magomed Daudov, via its YouTube channel. The two co-chairs of the Ingush organization, Sirazhdin Sultygov and Musa Albogachiev, asked Daudov to meet and discuss the issues pertaining to the disputed border between the two North Caucasus republics. Surprisingly, Daudov responded positively to the request and offered to meet on neutral territory—in the city of Pyatigorsk, Stavropol Krai. The Chechen parliament’s speaker said that he had long desired an open conversation with Ingushetian counterparts: “We had to sit down and discuss everything, just like our ancestors did. Sirazhdin and Musa say they are ready to negotiate. I asked Akhmat-Khadji’s son Ramzan [Ramzan Kadyrov] for permission for these talks. He gave his permission,” Daudov stated (Kavkazsky Uzel, YouTube, April 26).
In September 2018, the leaders of Chechnya and Ingushetia, Ramzan Kadyrov and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, signed a border agreement that envisaged land exchanges between the two republics. The document sparked mass protests in Ingushetia, which lasted for weeks. Ingushetians were dissatisfied with the loss of what they called their ancestral lands. The republican authorities initially tolerated protests, but in March 2019, demonstrators and security forces clashed at a rally in Magas (YouTube, March 27, 2019). After the violent encounter, the authorities launched a massive crackdown on Ingush activists. Dozens were arrested and, by April 16, 2021, 34 activists had been convicted. The case of seven Ingush protest leaders, accused of creating an extremist community, has been pending in Stavropol since November 2020 (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 28). Tensions in Ingushetia ran so high at the time that Yevkurov stepped down in June 2019—less than a year after the parliament of Ingushetia confirmed him for his third term as the governor of the republic in September 2018. Stepping down from the governorship after mass protests is an extraordinary step in contemporary Russia, as the Kremlin wants to maintain the impression that it does not bow to popular pressure. All governors in the North Caucasus are de facto appointed by Moscow.
The recent agreement of a top Chechen official to meet with Ingush activists contradicts the official positions of both Grozny and the Kremlin, that all border issues between Chechnya and Ingushetia have been resolved. In fact, Chechens and Ingush have been at odds with each other for the past three years. And for many Ingush people, the border dispute has become vital to their ethnic identity (see EDM, September 27, 2018 and October 26, 2020; see Commentaries, October 23, 2018).
Some experts are supportive of the negotiations, hoping that they will facilitate a peaceful settlement. Others are skeptical of Mehk-Khel’s initiative. One of the leaders of the organization, Sirazhdin Sultygov, belongs to the Ingush Timurziev-Sultygov clan. Members of the clan criticized Chechen authorities for their refusal to return the bodies of a pair of killed Ingushetians (and members of the clan) in December 2020, after their attack on the Chechen police in Grozny. After a few heated exchanges, the Timurziev-Sultygov clan elders visited Grozny and made peace with the Chechen authorities. So now, some observers suspect that the negotiations with Chechnya might be a trick to appease the Ingush. Sirazhdin Sultygov, however, insists that the entire Mehk-Khel organization, which is made up of many Ingush clans, is behind the initiative (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 28). On December 28, 2020, two brothers from the Timurziev family, natives of Ingushetia, attacked a couple of police officers in Grozny. One of the police officers was killed, the other was seriously injured. Both of the attackers were also killed. On December 30, representatives of the related Timurziev and Sultygov families demanded, in a video address to Kadyrov, to prove that the killed men were “terrorists.” They also demanded that the bodies of the murdered brothers be returned to their relatives. On January 13, 2021, the Chechen head stated that if the Timurzievs were to be investigated for terrorism, their bodies would not be returned to their families; and he instructed his close associate and Russian State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov to look into the matter. Eventually, the Timurzievs’ relatives—detained in the aftermath of the deadly December incident in Grozny—were released at Kadyrov’s request, according to Delimkhanov (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 15).
Chechens and Ingush are closely related peoples. Their respective languages are mutually intelligible. Both nationalities were sent into exile by Joseph Stalin’s regime in 1944. Chechens and Ingush were allowed to return to their homeland in the 1950s, under then–Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev. And prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chechens and Ingush were united into a single Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic within Russia. The divisions between Chechens and Ingush reemerged and grew more pronounced after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Chechens chose to pursue independence from the Russian Federation, while the Ingush expressly stayed within the existing political framework of the new country. In the process of the two Russian-Chechen wars that ravished the area, no efforts were made by the central government to coordinate an orderly divorce of the two adjacent territories. Since Chechens and Ingush are so closely intertwined, the division lines between them are naturally highly contentious and difficult to draw without sparking conflict or tensions. Territorial disputes in the area have been developing for years (Kommersant, September 5, 2012).
The delimitation of the administrative border is likely to remain a thorny issue between the two republics regardless of the planned talks. As the Kremlin practically eliminated participatory politics in the Russian regions and especially so in the North Caucasus, disputed issues are resolved by sheer administrative force. The top-down approach may provide short-term solutions, but it does not guarantee those will hold.